Wednesday, February 25, 2004

You are Merino Wool.
You are Merino Wool.
You are very easygoing and sweet. People like to
keep you close because you are so softhearted.
You love to be comfortable and warm from your
head to your toes.

What kind of yarn are you?
brought to you by Quizilla
Brian Micklethwait has been quite a fountain of insights into classical music lately. Among other things, he has an absolutely scathing review of Thomas Adès' The Tempest; and unlike me, he's actually heard the thing.

He also has some very interesting speculations about what might happen if the modern practice of enhancing old recordings through computer technology is taken to its extreme:

[O]ne can foresee the day when you will be able to put an ancient recording into a super-computer, and a modern recording made by a similar or even identical group of musicians in the same place (say), and give the computer the general instruction to make that sound like that. This is bound to cause rows, but personally, if I could listen to that old Dvorak symphonies recording, but in up-to-date sound, I'd be very happy.

If and when such modern recreation of ancient recordings becomes possible, it will cause particularly ferocious rows in the world of opera recordings. "Make it sound like she's doing the phrasing and the intonation and the 'interpretation', but have her do it with her voice, and with him conducting." The logical end point would be something like a Wagner Ring Cycle, with a dream caste, cherry picked from the entire back catalogue of all recordings, of everyone, done anywhere. Musical purists will go berserk, but why not?

I have strong doubts whether such procedures would produce quality artistic results, but it would be very interesting to hear the experiment attempted. I think the musical and dramaturgical interactions between singers, conductor and orchestra would be thrown all out of balance, and the result would be almost unimaginably peculiar. Take a moment to think how Act I of Walküre would sound with oh, say, Jessye Norman's phrasing with Gundula Janowitz's timbre, opposite James King, under Furtwängler's baton with Karajan's dynamic balances. I grow operatically seasick just contemplating it. A Siegmund will act and react differently to a Sieglinde who is ardently lovelorn than he would to one who is lividly angry or poignantly broken, and the conductor and orchestra will (or at least should) be similarly influenced. I think a recording which lacked such chemistry and spontaneity among its performers would sound cold at best, perhaps utterly alien.

Micklethwait continues his discussion of historical recordings here, and links to a fascinating article on the subject by Peter Gutmann; if you're sufficiently interested in these matters to have read this far, it's a must read. Gutmann gives a detailed overview of which historical recordings are really worth hearing, the goal being to find the ones which give us the most insight into how classical music was performed in the heart of the romantic era. To take one of many examples:

[Fanny] Davies was one of the last pupils of Clara Schumann, who was not only a famous virtuoso in her own right but also the widow of the great composer. For forty years following Robert's death in 1856, Clara devoted herself to perpetuating her husband's way of performing his music (much of which she had inspired), insisting that her pupils observe her detailed instructions exactly, just as she had absorbed them from Robert in the 1830s. Thus Davies's earnest but relaxed elegance and unusual phrasing are presumably those of the composer himself and transport us back nearly a full century before her records were made.
Gutmann also points us toward the recorded artists who had the most direct connections to Chopin and Liszt, and to the tenor in the first performance of Verdi's Otello. There are lots of fascinating tidbits here:
[Soprano Adelina] Patti's contributions to the recording industry were not wholly aesthetic. The most flaming egos of our age pale in comparison to hers. She commanded up to $5,000 per performance, more than the President of the United States made in a year; when chided about this, she reportedly challenged the President to sing as well as she did! She refused to set foot in a studio and made engineers come to her home; she insisted that her records bear a distinctive pink "Patti" label; and she set their price at 21 shillings. (That's right – about 3 minutes of music for the modern-day equivalent of $50. And we complain about CD prices?)
No wonder classical music is still perceived as elitist.

Gutmann finally argues that the most interesting historical recording out there is one of the violinist Joseph Joachim (friend of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms, and by general consensus one of the greatest musicians of his century) playing Brahms' Hungarian Dance #2:

Here is a style of playing absolutely unknown in our time. Every note bursts with passion. Every gesture throbs with meaning.

Joachim doesn't sharpen or flatten certain notes because he can't reach them, but rather to emphasize the force of a melodic progression or to shade the impact of a chord; indeed, his fingering is so fluid that the individual notes of his passagework are barely apparent. His rhythm is so constantly dynamic and alive that it belies the very notion of tempo. And his bowing– the first downbeats slash with splintering force and soon subside into a whisper.

Joachim tears the notes right off the page. After hearing this astounding performance, no classical artist should ever feel embarrassed to play the romantic repertoire with the same unfettered passion as a hard rocker.

Gutmann argues that improvisation and performers' impulses were once as central to western classical music as they are to almost every other musical genre, and that only in the twentieth century have they been forgotten and frowned upon.

I have doubts as to how much I'd enjoy the application of this stance to the nineteenth century repetoire. There are many passages in romantic concertos which I think come off better if the soloist blends into the orchestral textures rather than constantly wringing every possible drop of passion from her instrument. But Gutmann's point about improvisation certainly resonates with my love of the obscure seventeenth century violin repetoire. All performers and most fans of pre-Baroque music are well aware that, given the paucity of interpretive guidelines in such old scores, the performer must be trusted to give shape to and half invent the performance. When I listen to the works of Biber (whom Micklethwait has recently discovered) or Paolo Pandolfi, I have no doubt that what I am hearing are solidified improvisations congealed from the spontaneous experiments of master violinists. This is especially palpable in Pandolfi's music, where not only melodic motives, but also flourishes and ornaments are repeated Baroque fashion in different positions throughout the scale*. Modern composers in search of inspiration and new sounds would do well to heed Gutmann's and Micklethwait's advice, and spend less time pretentiously composing and more time passionately playing. Micklethwait puts it very well:

What is needed in the classical world is not a steady trickle of Fake Great Composers, but a healthy flow of genuine lesser ones (from which posterity can be left to pick the great ones at its leisure), who can make use of all those violin and cello skills by writing entertaining music that will pay the rent.
*Pandolfi's music is so oddly creative that, though all of it which survives dates from 1660, it often reminds me of the Brahms symphonies. Like Brahms, he frequently transforms his primary melodic material into shimmering textures which can sound very orchestral; and both composers' most beautiful passages often develope out of harsh and somewhat exasperating beginnings.
Thank you, Terry Teachout, for pointing out this splendid gallery of old Edward Gorey cover illustrations.
I posted some time back about how the words for owl are similarly onomatopoeic in widely divergent languages. Well, here's another one: owl in Chumash is muhu (stress on the ultimate).

May we please have many more sites like the Inezeño Chumash Language Tutorial? It's a very well done, fast site, and though it probably won't lead anyone to fluency in Chumash, it's quite fascinating to a browser like myself. Language tutorials which would be particularly useful to me would be Kabardian Circassian, Latvian, Lappish, and especially Kazakh.

(Thanks again, Languagehat!)

Monday, February 23, 2004

This is what happens when your only artistic concern is that the characters depicted meet certain quotas for race and gender. You start preferring The Matrix to Lord of the Rings. We should probably stop reading the Iliad, too. And Newton, of course. Yech.

Via Andrew Sullivan.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

If Kim Jong-Il is going to declare himself "Guardian Deity of the Planet", I have certain objections, which may only be solved in single combat. Mr. Kim, I await your response.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Take heed, neer-do-wells, and grovel in fear of us opera enthusiasts:
MIAMI, Feb 09, 2004 (United Press International via COMTEX) — A Miami judge has devised a plan to punish offenders who play their car stereos too loudly by insisting they join him in his chambers and listen to opera.
Verdi seems pretty clement for a first offence, and second time offenders ought to be scared straight by Tristan. But three strikes and it's Wozzeck for you!

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

And here's a site worthy of the sidebar, the Aberdeen Bestiary Project. It loads a bit slowly for me, but it has excellent quality images of the original bestiary, with a translation of the latin adjacent; and further down each page are the Latin and translation side by side. And we learn things such as this:
There is an animal called the hyena, which inhabits the tombs of the dead and feeds on their bodies. Its nature is that it is sometimes male, sometimes female, and it is therefore an unclean animal. Since its spine is rigid, all in one piece, it cannot turn round except by turning its body right around.
And this piece of lore should come as no surprise to Buffy fans:
[I]t stalks the sheepfolds of shepherds and circles their houses by night, and by listening carefully learns their speech, so that it can imitate the human voice, in order to fall on any man whom it has lured out at night.
Some good classical music related articles: Andante has an interesting review of the new opera The Tempest by Thomas Adès. You may remember Adès from his previous opera Powder Her Face, about the sexual promiscuity of the Duchess of Argyll, which contained the notorious "fellatio aria". The Tempest sounds more promising, but in need of some revision. (Update: The Tempest no longer sounds promising.)

And here is an interesting article about recovered and reconstructed musical works. It discusses the recent performance of Grieg's juvenile symphony, which he had explicitly instructed "must never be performed." The article goes on to defend the practice of resurrecting buried compositions on the grounds that it has unearthed some very worthwhile material.

Without that practice, we wouldn't have the 10th Symphonies of Mahler, Schubert, or Beethoven — even if the Beethoven has not caught the public's imagination, the Schubert is underperformed, and the Mahler for many years suffered the wilful dismissal of numerous conductors...

We certainly would not have all of the formidable body of work by Sibelius the Destroyer, who made a bonfire of his aspirations and insecurities, including his Eighth Symphony, of which nothing survives, at least one version of his Fifth Symphony (though, mercifully, he either didn't have in his possession, or failed to burn, the orchestral parts for the amazingly original and innovative first version, which has been meticulously re-assembled and is available on CD for all to hear and marvel at). Nor would we have his complete scenic music for Karelia — not merely the famous three-movement flagship concert-opener of the Suite, but a 50-minute work of endless revelations into the thinking and working processes of Finland's greatest composer.

The only such work in my collection (revivals of forgotten Baroque repetoire aren't the same thing) is Schubert's Unfinished (MacKerras conducting) with a scherzo completed by Brian Newbould, and some entr'acte music from Rosamunde for the finale. I rather like the scherzo in and of itself; it does sound like Schubert to me, and is full of the sudden shifts to the major which lend the Unfinished much of its beauty. But frankly, I love the completed movements of the Unfinished for their shortness, their focus, the way they leave you feeling that not a note too many was played. But the Rosamunde finale ruins these proportions, and the piece itself has nowhere near the concentration of the first two movements. So a hit and a miss for musical forensics. Given the potential pay-off, I'll take those odds; I can't wait to hear the 50-minute Karelia.

And here (via Instapundit) is an excellent article on synaesthesia, an experience which I think many classical music fans can well imagine, if not undergo for themselves. Recent tests seem to confirm that synaesthesia is a real phenomenon, at least inasmuch as it works with enough consistancy to be meaningfully studied.

I now probably qualify for card-carrying membership in a whole 'nother order of loonies: yesterday, I heard the Taos Hum (summary, more thorough site). Or something fitting its description, at any rate. I rode up to the top of the Santa Fe ski area's triple lift, at 12,000 feet, and discarded my skis to continue uphill on foot. Fortunately, it's been sunny and windy up there on the crest of the Sangre de Cristos, and I was able, sans snowshoes, to walk on the hardened surfaces of snowdrifts too deep for my ski pole to find a bottom. The constant wind had sculpted the snow quite beautifully, like polished white wood with graceful curving grain. After thrashing through one final, particularly unfriendly drift, I left treeline behind. The upper slopes of Deception Peak usually stay free of snow; there's just rock and sky up there, and the curling orange fronds of the alpine grasses, covered in traceries of ice.

I climbed out some distance on the craggy ridge between Deception and Lake Peaks, and was enjoying the views; giant avalanche bowls on either side of me, the Truchas peaks towering to the North, and the huge mountains of Colorado hulking white on the far horizon. And then I started hearing the Hum, a deep hollow whistle somewhat like the lowest notes on a bass flute, frequently augmented by a rumbling pulsation which is indeed (as so many Hum hearers claim) like a distant diesel engine. The sound was quite distinct and steady and kept going for several minutes at a time. It would go away when I moved and return again, when I found another favourable spot, I suppose. Given the nature of the noise and the context, I have no doubt that I was hearing low frequency sound generated by the constant wind on the knife-edged ridge. Nambé Basin, right below me, is more or less a half-mile-wide, thousand-foot-high parabola, and I wonder if it mightn't have added some resonance. The diesel-engine pulsations seemed to me like the throbbing sounds you get from two slightly different pitches sounding together, like when two guitar strings are not quite in tune.

The West wind is very constant in the spring in New Mexico, and the crest of the Sangres is the highest thing around by a wide margin. From the ski area, we often see the clouds above the ridge spreading vertically into the upper atmosphere as the wind shoots up off the mountains, as though it's hit a ski jump; it's like looking at five-thousand-foot columns of boiling water from below. It would therefore not surprise me if sounds like what I heard sometimes go on for some time, and resonate into odd spots in the mountain valleys. This certainly does not explain all aspects of the Hum reported by chronic sufferers, but it's the only explanation I know of which Occam's Razor leaves intact.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Andrew Stuttaford should know better. To say that all Medieval philosophy "mixed ignorance with magical thinking, obscurantism, economic illiteracy and absurd and obsessive dogmatism" is as absurd as deciding that since Popper and Wittgenstein were both from Vienna, their views are identical.

What of St. Thomas Aquinas? Boethius? Ascham, mentioned below? Roger Bacon and his gunpowder? St. Teresa of Avila? Dante? Hildegarde von Bingen? The unknown author of Gawain, and The Pearl? Andrea Marini? For too long the Middle Ages have been viewed as ignorance mingled with fanaticism, filth, and malice. Any honest reader of the works from that vast period (and one so heterogenous! "Medieval" means nothing but the time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, a nearly useless division) will come to the conclusion that men of the time were as clear-minded as modern ones, and often more so.

Moreover, to identify Medieval Philosophy with Leftist leaning is absurd, as Natalie Solent mentioned some time ago. "Economic illiteracy", quotha!

As for absurd and obsessive dogmatism, St. Thomas was, in his mild, scholarly way, at war. He was warring against the encroachment of Islam, and the Islamic use of Aristotelian philosophy. He was, indeed, not reconciling Christianity to Aristotle, but bringing Aristotle, as far as was possible, into the Christian fold. He had to confront subtle and brilliant minds, and to do so needed subtlety, brilliance, and not a few pages.

Magical thinking? Maybe, but to the Medieval mind the world was full of marvels. I wonder if their overestimation of its wonderfulness is not less culpable than our current underestimation. And obscurantism is a product of mankind, no less than shit. It will be with us as long as we are men, and is not restricted to one period of history. We just have better-defined channels for it nowadays.

Via Cronaca, a sinister look at the Ice Age.

Left-handedness does indeed confer benefits, as any fencer can tell you. Lefty gladiators in the Roman Arenas were universally feared, though that was, at least in part, due to the tactics of the time.

But the advantage disappears when lefties are as common as righties, since it depends on the habits of the opponent. Which may explain why lefties are a constant minority, since, if they got too common, their tricks were less useful. As their numbers diminished, they became more successful, and more numerous, until that upper limit was reached. Eventually, some balance would be achieved.

I'm not sure that lefties have such compensations today, what with corkscrews and gravy-boats replacing the sword and buckler. Perhaps we'll see them disappear. They might die sooner, anyway. And after all, "sinistrality is thus nothing more than an expression of infantile negativism and falls into the same category as contrariness in feeding and elimination, retardation in speech, and general perverseness in so far as the infant with meager outlets can express it", as Abram Blau would have it.

I was searching for an online version of Ascham's Toxophilus, a minutely detailed text on the use of the bow, and the spiritual benefits thereby obtained, when I came across a full text of The Scholemaster, his guide to teaching children Latin. His feelings towards punishment are what we would now call "enlightened":

If your scholer do misse sometimes, in marking rightlie these foresaid sixe thinges, chide not hastelie: for that shall, both dull his witte, and discorage his diligence: but monish him gentelie: which shall make
him, both willing to amende, and glad to go forward in loue and hope of learning.

And further along he discourages beating! Of course, when one is tutor to Princess Elizabeth, such reprimands are impolitic, and in any case unnecessary.

The middle of The Scholemaster has as xenophobic a rant about Italy as anything found in George Silver (link via AEMMA) in his Paradoxes of Defense. Silver hates the Italians for introducing the dishonest and unmanly rapier, which he derides. He has deeds on his side to back this opinion: his challenge to one Italian master went unanswered, and he himself discusses the occasion on which he did meet such a school.

Ascham, it seems, agrees; his Toxophilus was a reaction to the English adopting Continental swordplay, and abandoning the longbow. Agincourt speaks loudly on his behalf.

If anyone has a link to Toxophilus which does not require registration, that would be lovely.

By the way, toxon means bow, not poison (toxikos, from a bow. Just like that for which Odysseus was looking, when events overtook him). The other word for bow is bios, which is exactly the sort of coincidence that sent Medieval alchemists on allegorical journeys almost as rambling as this post.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Apparently, the recently-discovered mask has in fact done few favours for the decipherment of Isthmian Script. The proposed decipherment has not produced a credible text out of the writing on the mask, and the whole attempt is drawing some serious criticism from other experts.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

And while I'm on the subject of those unmentionable things of which the very thought destroys our sanity, here's a cute little plush one. Who's a cute little Old One? Yes you is!

Nit-pickery: this fellow seems to me much more of an Elder One (as opposed to an "Old One", or "Great One", or "Great Old One"), per Mountains of Madness. Radial symmetry, tentacles, sails with which to catch "the aetheric winds".

Back from my exceeding relaxing honeymoon, during which I saw some really excellent critters (though, sadly, no Happyface Spiders. Wrong island). On the same site, check out these carnivorous caterpillars. Especially Fig. 2. Iä! Iä! Taste the wrath of Nyarlathotep, Drosophila conspicua!

Sunday, February 08, 2004

My good friends at Boojum Expeditions have recently brought some Mongolian cowboys to the 20th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.
The Mongolians impressed not only with their music but with their colorful national dress, their culinary skills and their epic poetry.  They also caught on fast to traditional American Cowboy fun like dancing and drinking.

Making the link between cowboys around the world is an important part of the Elko celebration, which in its 20 years has invited cowboys from various other countries to participate and share their love of horses, livestock and wide open spaces.

Mongolia certainly has stunning amounts of those last three, as does Nevada, but my personal experience has lead me to doubt the impressiveness of Mongol culinary skills.
Don't miss this recent Hubble image of the M64 galaxy. I recommend the full size image.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Science has recently become aware that pigeons navigate not only by magnetic means but also by landmarks. The birds have been clearly tracked following roadways and turning at particular intersections. But pigeon keepers in my acquaintance have been aware of this behavior for some time. One who flies birds in New Mexico has observed:
Here in the desert Southwest, racing homers will go around any of the "Sky Islands" they encounter, always. Landmarks like I-10 and I-25 are used here as well; birds I trained west or north virtually followed the interstates as far as they could before breaking off at key points.
Underrated birds, pigeons.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Speaking of music, a British harp enthusiast has undertaken the laudable project of reconstructing the Harp of Ur, which was a casualty in the looting of the Iraqi museum. He's receiving help not only from an Iraqi calligrapher and an Iraqi harpist, but also from the RAF, who have procured Mesopotamian cedar wood, that the reconstruction may be as authentic as possible. Despite this, the ignorant will doubtless persist in claiming that Western civilization has no respect for other cultures. I mostly wonder if the reconstructed harp will ever be used to accompany the Sumerian version of Blue Suede Shoes.