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Thoughtful analyses of the arts and workplace issues, with some poop jokes

Snowy wrestles with his conscience

From Tintin in Tibet by Hergé

Blistering barnacles! Snowy taps into the Captain's whiskey supply

Blistering barnacles! Snowy taps into the Captain’s whiskey supply

Captain Haddock’s nightmare

What substance was Hergé smoking in his pipe when he drew this passage in Tintin in Tibet?

haddock dream

Queenie Pie, Duke Ellington’s neglected “opera”

I had no idea that Duke Ellington had ever composed an opera until I saw Long Beach Opera’s 2014 season.  Turns out it’s not truly what could be called an opera, but it’s definitely the closest Ellington ever came to writing one. You can read about in the latest issue of LA Weekly, or you can click here.

I thought my story would be an online article, so it had a high word count when I turned it in (you don’t need to worry about column space in cyberspace). A few things wound up cut, so I’m including them here if you don’t know much about Ellington’s music.

At the top of this post: a composition Duke Ellington wrote to showcase Cootie Williams’ unique trumpet playing. One of the biggest challenges facing modern bands playing Ellington’s arrangements is that so much of his band’s sound was inextricably linked to his soloists. When Ellington wrote an alto saxophone part, he wasn’t just writing for any old alto saxophone. He wrote specifically for Johnny Hodges. In an interview, I asked music director Jeffrey Lindberg about this issue, and he replied

“If players are able to get that Ellington soloist’s sound, they will; if not, they’ll do it their own way. It depends on the specific number. Cootie Williams’ trumpet sound has to be authentic, or else it doesn’t sound right.”

In “Concerto for Cootie,” an Ellington composition, Williams uses  two different trumpet mutes, as well as playing open trumpet. You can also hear him “growling,” which was a classic sound that Ellington frequently required from his trumpet soloists. Growl technique went all the way back to Ellington’s Cotton Club band and the trumpeter therein who popularized that sound, Bubber Miley.

There are several numbers interpolated into Queenie Pie that weren’t in Ellington’s original score. One of these is “Creole Love Call,” which was mainly composed by Bubber Miley. Not only can you hear Bubber Miley himself, but immediately before his solo (and in the final chorus), Adelaide Hall imitates Miley with her voice. A vocalist imitating a trumpeter imitating a vocalist!

“Hey Liszt! Check out those mazurkas!”

The Asiatic languor of Liszt’s squeeze, handing down to her daughter a secret of the burning love potions possessed in the seraglios

The Asiatic languor of Liszt’s shawty, handing down to her daughter the secret of the burning love potions possessed in the seraglios

Leave it to Franz Liszt to write a book commemorating Chopin and spend half a chapter (out of eight) rhapsodizing over red hot Polish mamas and their—mazurkas. A partial excerpt:

What mingling emotions are concentrated in the accidental meetings of the Mazourka! It can surround, with its own enchantment, the lightest emotion of the heart, while, through its magic, the most reserved, transitory, and trivial rencounter appeals to the imagination. Could it be otherwise in the presence of the women who give to this dance that inimitable grace and suavity, for which, in less happy countries, they struggle in vain? In very truth are not the Slavic women utterly incomparable? There are to be found among them those whose qualities and virtues are so incontestable, so absolute, that they are acknowledged by all ages, and by all countries. Such apparitions are always and everywhere rare. The women of Poland are generally distinguished by an originality full of fire. Parisians in their grace and culture, Eastern dancing girls in their languid fire, they have perhaps preserved among them, handed down from mother to daughter, the secret of the burning love potions possessed in the seraglios. Their charms possess the strange spell of Asiatic languor. With the flames of spiritual and intellectual Houris in their lustrous eyes, we find the luxurious indolence of the Sultana. Their manners caress without emboldening; the grace of their languid movements is intoxicating; they allure by a flexibility of form, which knows no restraint, save that of perfect modesty, and which etiquette has never succeeded in robbing of its willowy grace. They win upon us by those intonations of voice which touch the heart, and fill the eye with tender tears; by those sudden and graceful impulses which recall the spontaneity and beautiful timidity of the gazelle. Intelligent, cultivated, comprehending every thing with rapidity, skillful in the use of all they have acquired; they are nevertheless as superstitious and fastidious as the lovely yet ignorant creatures adored by the Arabian prophet. Generous, devout, loving danger and loving love, from which they demand much, and to which they grant little; beyond every thing they prize renown and glory. All heroism is dear to them. Perhaps there is no one among them who would think it possible to pay too dearly for a brilliant action; and yet, let us say it with reverence, many of them devote to obscurity their most holy sacrifices, their most sublime virtues. But however exemplary these quiet virtues of the home life may be, neither the miseries of private life, nor the secret sorrows which must prey upon souls too ardent not to be frequently wounded, can diminish the wonderful vivacity of their emotions, which they know how to communicate with the infallible rapidity and certainty of an electric spark. Discreet by nature and position, they manage the great weapon of dissimulation with incredible dexterity, skillfully reading the souls of others with out revealing the secrets of their own. With that strange pride which disdains to exhibit characteristic or individual qualities, it is frequently the most noble virtues which are thus concealed. The internal contempt they feel for those who cannot divine them, gives them that superiority which enables them to reign so absolutely over those whom they have enthralled, flattered, subjugated, charmed; until the moment arrives when—loving with the whole force of their ardent souls, they are willing to brave and share the most bitter suffering, prison, exile, even death itself, with the object of their love! Ever faithful, ever consoling, ever tender, ever unchangeable in the intensity of their generous devotion! Irresistible beings, who in fascinating and charming, yet demand an earnest and devout esteem! In that precious incense of praise burned by M. de Balzac, “in honor of that daughter of a foreign soil,” he has thus sketched the Polish woman in hues composed entirely of antitheses: “Angel through love, demon through fantasy; child through faith, sage through experience; man through the brain, woman through the heart; giant through hope, mother through sorrow; and poet through dreams.”

The homage inspired by the Polish women is always fervent. They all possess the poetic conception of an ideal, which gleams through their intercourse like an image constantly passing before a mirror, the comprehension and seizure of which they impose as a task. Despising the insipid and common pleasure of merely being able to please, they demand that the being whom they love shall be capable of exacting their esteem.

It’s a good thing Liszt was an excellent pianist and composer, because he never would have gotten a job writing for FHM or Maxim.

If one elect to live with barbarians, one must endure the barbarous noises of their barbarous superstitions…

I'm Ambrose Bierce. Who the fuck are you?

Another wretched year departed!

Part 2 of Ambrose Bierce’s 1877 essay on “Christmas and the New Year,” just in time for the foolishness marking the end of 2013 (which was also the centennial of Bierce’s disappearance), and the beginning of 2014.

When the earth in its eternal circumgression arrives at the point where it was at the same time the year before, the sentimentalist whom Christmas has not exhausted of his essence squeezes out his pitiful dreg of emotion to baptize the New Year withal. He dusts and polishes his aspirations, and re-erects his resolve, extracting these well-worn properties from the cobwebby corners of his moral lumber-room, whither they were relegated three hundred and sixty-four days before. He “swears off.” In short, he sets the centuries at defiance, breaks the sequence of cause and effect, repeals the laws of nature and makes himself a new disposition from a bit of nothing left over at the creation of the universe. He can not add an inch to his stature, but thinks he can add a virtue to his character. He can not shed his nails, but believes he can renounce his vices. Unable to eradicate a freckle from his skin, he is confident he can decree a habit out of his conduct. An improvident friend of mine writes upon his mirror with a bit of soap the cabalistic word, AFAHMASP. This is the fiat lux to create the shining virtue of thrift, for it means, A Fool And His Money Are Soon Parted. What need have we of morality’s countless ministries; the complicated machinery of the church; recurrent suasions of precept and unceasing counsel of example; pursuing din of homily; still, small voice of solicitude and inaudible argument of surroundings–if one may make of himself what he will with a mirror and a bit of soap? But (it may be urged) if one can not reform himself, how can he reform others? Dear reader, let us have a frank understanding. He can not.

The practice of inflating the midnight steam-shrieker and belaboring the nocturnal ding-dong to frighten the encroaching New Year is obviously ineffectual, and might profitably be discontinued. It is no whit more sensible and dignified than the custom of savages who beat their sounding dogs to scare away an eclipse. If one elect to live with barbarians, one must endure the barbarous noises of their barbarous superstitions, but the disagreeable simpleton who sits up till midnight to ring a bell or fire a gun because the earth has arrived at a given point in its orbit should nevertheless be deprecated as an enemy to his race. He is a sore trial to the feelings, an affliction almost too sharp for endurance. If he and his sentimental abettors might be melted and cast into a great bell, every right-minded man would derive an innocent delight from pounding it, not only on January first but all the year long.

Find Part 1 of the essay (regarding Christmas) here.

Ambrose Bierce on Christmas

“It is unknown to me why a Christmas should be always merry but never happy, and why the happiness appropriate to the New Year should not be expressed in merriment. These be mysteries in whose penetration abundance of human stupidity might be disclosed.”

A curmudgeonly essay from the great American writer, Ambrose Bierce, first published in 1877, about our annual celebration of the birth of Jesus. Many of his observations and conclusions are still valid in 2013.

In our manner of observing Christmas there is much, no doubt, that is absurd. Christmas is to some extent a day of meaningless ceremonies, false sentiment and hollow compliments endlessly iterated and misapplied. The observances “appropriate to the day” had, many of them, their origin in an age with which our own has little in common and in countries whose social and religious characteristics were unlike those obtaining here. As in so many other matters, America has in this been content to take her heritage without inquiry and without alteration, sacredly preserving much that once had a meaning now lost, much that is now an anachronism, a mere “survival.” Even to the Christmas vocabulary we have added little. St. Nicholas himself, the patron saint of deceived children, still masquerades under the Spanish feminine title of “Santa” and the German nickname of “Claus.” The back of our American coal grate is still idealized as a “yule log,” and the English “holly” is supposed in most cases fitly to be shadowed forth by a cedar bough, while a comparatively innocuous but equally inedible indigenous comestible figures as the fatal English “plum pudding.” Nearly all our Christmas literature is, longo intervallo, European in spirit and Dickensish in form. In short, we have Christmas merely because we were in the line of succession. We have taken it as it was transmitted, and we try to make the worst of it.

The approach of the season is apparent in the manner of the friend or relative whose orbs furtively explore your own, seeking a sign of what you are going to give him; in the irrepressible solicitations of babes and cloutlings; in wild cascades of such literature as Greenleaf on Evidence, for Boys (“Boot-Leg” series), The Little Girls’ Illustrated Differential Calculus and Aunt Hetty’s Rabelais, in words of one syllable. Most clearly is the advent of the blessed anniversary manifest in maddening iteration of the greeting wherein, with a precision that never by any chance mistakes its adjective, you are wished a “merry” Christmas by the same person who a week later will be making ninety-nine “happies” out of a possible hundred in New Year greetings similarly insincere and similarly insufferable. It is unknown to me why a Christmas should be always merry but never happy, and why the happiness appropriate to the New Year should not be expressed in merriment. These be mysteries in whose penetration abundance of human stupidity might be disclosed. By the time that one has been wished a “merry Christmas” or a “happy New Year” some scores of times in the course of a morning walk, by persons who he knows care nothing about either his merriment or his happiness, he is disposed, if he is a person of right feeling, to take a pessimist view of the “compliments of the season” and of the season of compliments. He cherishes, according to disposition, a bitter animosity or a tolerant contempt toward his race. He relinquishes for another year his hope of meeting some day a brilliant genius or inspired idiot who will have the intrepidity to vary the adjective and wish him a “happy Christmas” or a “merry New Year”; or with an even more captivating originality, keep his mouth shut.

As to the sum of sincerity and genuine good will that utters itself in making and accepting gifts (the other distinctive feature of holiday time) statistics, unhappily, are wanting and estimates untrustworthy. It may reasonably be assumed that the custom, though largely a survival–gifts having originally been given in a propitiatory way by the weak to the powerful–is something more; the present of a goggle-eyed doll from a man six feet high to a baby twenty-nine inches long not being lucidly explainable by assumption of an interested motive.

To the children the day is delightful and instructive. It enables them to see their elders in all the various stages of interesting idiocy, and teaches them by means of the Santa Claus deception that exceedingly hard liars may be good mothers and fathers and miscellaneous relatives–thus habituating the infant mind to charitable judgment and establishing an elastic standard of truth that will be useful in their later life.

The annual recurrence of the “carnival of crime” at Christmas has been variously accounted for by different authorities. By some it is supposed to be a providential dispensation intended to heighten the holiday joys of those who are fortunate enough to escape with their lives. Others attribute it to the lax morality consequent upon the demand for presents, and still others to the remorse inspired by consciousness of ruinous purchases. It is affirmed by some that persons deliberately and with malice aforethought put themselves in the way of being killed, in order to avert the tiresome iteration of Christmas greetings. If this is correct, the annual Christmas “holocaust” is not an evil demanding abatement, but a blessing to be received in a spirit of devout and pious gratitude.

To read another diatribe by “Bitter” Bierce on Christmas, click here.

Philip K. Dick on Wagner’s opera, Parsifal

valis

From Philip K. Dick’s novel, Valis:

‘Pity’s highest power’ is just bullshit. Pity has no power … Everyone knows this, everyone who has gazed down helplessly at a sick or dying human or a sick or dying animal, felt terrible pity, overpowering pity, and realized that this pity, however great it might be, is totally useless.

Parsifal is one of those corkscrew artifacts of culture in which you get the subjective sense that you’ve learned something from it, something valuable or even priceless; but on closer inspection you suddenly begin to scratch your head and say, ‘Wait a minute. This makes no sense’

I can see Richard Wagner standing at the gates of heaven. ‘You have to let me in,’ he says. ‘I wrote Parsifal. It has to do with the Grail, Christ, suffering, pity and healing. Right?’

And they answer, ‘Well, we read it and it makes no sense.’ SLAM. Wagner is right and so are they. It’s another Chinese finger-trap.

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