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


Proud Klingers

Proud Klingers

Monkey see, monkey do

Monkey see

It seemed a good idea at the time

Monkey do

The more you drink, the better you are able to assess risk

Some Like It Cold

My thoughts on the U.S. premiere (and second production of) Marilyn Forever by Gavin Bryars. I am disappointed that my description of an obscene phone caller “twanging his telephone wire” was edited out.

"This opera isn't working. Hey, I know! Let's have two Marilyn Monroes instead of just one!"

Jamie Chamberlin as Marilyn Monroe; Lee Gregory (left, in chair) as the Rehearsal Director; Gavin Bryars in the band on bass. Credit: Keith Ian Polakoff

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!

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

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.

Stravinsky recalls the premiere of The Rite of Spring

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the premiere of one of the essential musical compositions of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Below, from Stravinsky’s autobiography (Chroniques de ma vie, 1936), is a description of that notorious evening (the date of which Stravinsky misremembered). Historians warn us that Stravinsky’s remembrance of his appraisal of Nijinsky’s choreography 25 years after the event, and nearly 2 decades after Nijinsky went insane, might be unreliable.

I have now come to the spring season of 1913 in Paris, when the Russian Ballet inaugurated the opening of the Théatre des Champs-Elysees. It began with a revival of L’Oiseau de Feu, and the Sacre du Printemps was given on May 28 at the evening performance. The complexity of my score had demanded a great number of rehearsals, which Monteux had conducted with his usual skill and attention. As for the actual performance, I am not in a position to judge, as I left the auditorium at the first bars of the prelude, which had at once evoked derisive laughter. I was disgusted. These demonstrations, at first isolated, soon became general, provoking counter-demonstrations and very quickly developing into a terrific uproar. During the whole performance I was at Nijinsky’s side in the wings. He was standing on a chair, screaming “sixteen, seventeen, eighteen”—they had their own method of counting to keep time. Naturally the poor dancers could hear nothing by reason of the row in the auditorium and the sound of their own dance steps. I had to hold Nijinsky by his clothes, for he was furious, and ready to dash on to the stage at any moment and create a scandal. Diaghileff kept ordering the electricians to turn the lights on or off, hoping in that way to put a stop to the noise. That is all I can remember about that first performance. Oddly enough, at the dress rehearsal, to which we had, as usual, invited a number of actors, painters, musicians, writers, and the most cultured representatives of society, everything had gone off peacefully, and I was very far from expecting such an outburst.

Now, after the lapse of more than twenty years, it is naturally difficult for me to recall in any detail the choreography of the Sacre without being influenced by the admiration with which it met in the set known as the avant-garde —ready, as always, to welcome as a new discovery anything that differs, be it ever so little, from the déjà vu. But what struck me then, and still strikes me most, about the choreography, was and is Nijinsky’s lack of consciousness of what he was doing in creating it. He showed therein his complete inability to accept and assimilate those revolutionary ideas which Diaghileff had made his creed, and obstinately and industriously strove to inculcate. What the choreography expressed was a very labored and barren effort rather than a plastic realization flowing simply and naturally from what the music demanded. How far it all was from what I had desired!

In composing the Sacre I had imagined the spectacular part of the performance as a series of rhythmic mass movements of the greatest simplicity which would have an instantaneous effect on the audience, with no superfluous details or complications such as would suggest effort. The only solo was to be the sacrificial dance at the end of the piece. The music of that dance, clear and well defined, demanded a corresponding choreography — simple and easy to understand. But there again, although he had grasped the dramatic significance of the dance, Nijinsky was incapable of giving intelligible form to its essence, and complicated it either by clumsiness or lack of understanding. For it is undeniably clumsy to slow down the tempo of the music in order to compose complicated steps which cannot be danced in the tempo prescribed. Many choreographers have that fault, but I have never known any who erred in that respect to the same degree as Nijinsky.