Sunday Salon 10-30-16

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 8:20 Sunday morning, at my main computer at home.

Viewing: It has been only five days since the last Sunday Salon, as the last one was a special Tuesday edition due to the intrusion of my birthday (basically, I wanted to celebrate by being utterly lazy for two or three days). Therefore, there isn’t much new to report. However, I did watch one fairly adventuresome film, philosophically and visually interesting, You Are Here (2010) by Canadian visual artist Daniel Cockburn.

Listening: For the next couple of weeks, my music listening is going to be largely limited to works to be played at the 2016 Nevada Chamber Music Festival, coming up at the end of December, for which I am in the process of writing program notes. That isn’t such a bad thing, however, as it has already led me to Bach’s Violin and Oboe Concerto and Schubert’s Octet, among other very fine pieces.

Reading: I have finished Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, and will be writing about it here in the coming week. Thupten Jinpa’s A Fearless Heart and Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write are still in progress.

Blogging: With the birthday laziness, I wasn’t very productive this week, having posted only…

* A couple of pictures of Danish bookstores taken in 1899.
* A program note I wrote for Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, which is going to be performed today and Tuesday by the Reno Philharmonic, one of the other organizations for which I write.

Pondering: Tomorrow I will be attending a Halloween party dressed as a monk. I wore the same costume last year, and at that point the costume was meant to be vaguely humorous, while also pointing toward the kind of life I was aspiring to lead. This year, especially the last few months, I have given up the frantic pace of 2015 and have been leading something like that monk’s existence. As I might as well be wearing the monk’s robe at home how, perhaps this year’s Halloween costume should be ordinary clothes?

Anticipating: Cranking out program notes for eleven Nevada Chamber Music Festival concerts in the next two weeks is going to be a challenge, especially if I want to continue blogging on a regular basis during that time. However, I’m kind of excited to take this on as a personal challenge.

Gratuitous Moby Video: I am really taken with Moby’s new song, “Are You Lost In The World Like Me?” from These Systems Are Failing, his new album with the Void Pacific Choir. I’m equally taken with the video for the song by Steve Cutts, which seems to pay homage to animators from the 1920s and 1930s.

Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony

tchaikovskyThe following is the program note I wrote for the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra‘s upcoming performance of Tchaikovsky’s famous “Pathétique” Symphony. If you’re in the Reno area, you can hear the Reno Philharmonic perform this work along with Gabriela Lena Frank’s Concertino Cusqueño and Kodály’s Dances of Galánta on Sunday, October 30 at 4:00 p.m. and Tuesday, November 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Pioneer Center. Read more and purchase tickets here.

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 “Pathétique”

Composed: 1893
Duration: 45 minutes
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, strings

“His musical utterance comes directly from the heart and is a spontaneous expression of his innermost feeling. It is as sincere as if it were written with his blood.” In speaking generally of Tchaikovsky’s music, conductor Leopold Stokowski summed up the essence of the Symphony No. 6, known to posterity as the “Pathétique.”

Three years after the completion of his Fifth Symphony in 1888, Tchaikovsky started thinking about a Sixth. He made some initial sketches in the spring of 1891 while in the United States on a concert tour. But he became disillusioned with what he was creating, writing to his nephew Vladimir Davidov (whom Tchaikovsky called “Bobyk”) that the new symphony “contains nothing that is interesting or sympathetic … it should be cast aside and forgotten” (later, some of those sketches were recast into the single movement Piano Concerto No. 3). This led to a brief period of despair. Tchaikovsky wrote again to Bobyk, “I think and I think, and I know not what to do.” But soon afterwards he found his way out, as he quickly completed his famous ballet The Nutcracker. By 1893, Tchaikovsky had started on another new symphony, about which he wrote to his brother Modest, “I am now wholly occupied with the new work … I believe it comes into being as the best of my works.”

Composed between February and August of 1893 and dedicated to Bobyk, the Symphony No. 6 was given its premiere under Tchaikovsky’s direction on October 28 of that year in St. Petersburg. At that point the Symphony didn’t have a title. The day after the premiere, Modest suggested the nickname “patetichesky,” which, rather than the English “pathetic” or “pitiable,” in Russian connotes something more like “passionate” or “emotional.” Four days later, Tchaikovsky contracted cholera by drinking a glass of unboiled water – whether intentionally or accidentally is still a matter for debate. He died four days after that, only nine days after the premiere of his symphony.

Eventually the work was published with the French title “Symphonie pathétique.” With that title, and given the fact that at one point Tchaikovsky had considered calling it a “Program Symphony,” many have suggested over the years that some story or program underlies the Symphony No. 6. Since the work came so close to Tchaikovsky’s death, some have considered the idea of a “symphony as suicide note,” citing the lengthy, mournful Finale and a brief quotation from the Russian Orthodox requiem service by the trombones in the first movement. This kind of speculation arose soon after Tchaikovsky’s death and has persisted, very often associated with Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality (and with a rumored threat to make one of his affairs public). For the most part, though, that sort of tabloid speculation has been discounted.

A doleful bassoon solo over the basses opens the Adagio introduction of the first movement. Another short motif becomes important when the main body of the music speeds to Allegro ma non troppo. That motif, now sounding boldly, and another famous, soaring theme – which Tchaikovsky directs should be played “tenderly, very songfully, and elastically” – become the focuses of the movement, including the agitated, fast-paced central development section. The music ranges from the quietest possible sounds (marked by the composer pppppp) to loud, brass-drenched climaxes. After the main themes return in the closing recapitulation, the movement ends quietly.

Rather than the typical slow second movement, Tchaikovsky gives us what he called a “limping waltz” in the unusual time signature of 5/4. Despite this odd rhythm, the movement can’t help but call to mind Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet music. The graceful opening and closing sections frame a central trio of a more wistful character.

Both of the remaining two movements are in what is sometimes called “sonatina” form – like a sonata-allegro movement, with exposition and recapitulation of the main melodies, but without the central development of those themes. In a forceful march tempo, the exciting third movement has moments of playfulness, but for the most part barely contains its energy. So powerful is this music that it rarely fails to win applause. Composer Arnold Schoenberg wrote that the anguished final movement “starts with a cry and ends with a moan.” Only occasionally does the music stray from the minor key into the major, including a consoling theme in the violins over a repeating figure in the French horn. At the end, the music returns to the sonic and emotional depths of the first movement’s opening, as the cellos and basses fade to silence.

Sunday Salon 10-25-16

happy-tuesdayTime and Place: 7:00 a.m. Tuesday, at my main computer. I’m about 48 hours late for my usual Sunday Salon, having taken a couple of days off to celebrate my birthday. But now I’m back with a special Tuesday edition of the Salon.

Viewing: For a change, I’ve been indulging myself a bit on the movie front, largely thanks to Turner Classic Movies. Hammer Studios horror films are a big part of TCM’s Halloween celebration this month, so I’ve been watching fine, atmospheric films like Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein. Also in the horror vein, thanks to my friend Jessica, I saw Stephen King’s It at her combination birthday-dinner-Halloween movie party. On the non-horror front, thanks to MUBI, I also saw a relative rarity by Luis Buñuel, La mort en ce jardin (Death in the Garden).

Reading: I’m currently continuing with the same three books that I had underway last week: Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, Thupten Jinpa’s A Fearless Heart, and Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write.

Listening: While I haven’t been listening to much music, I’ve been enjoying a couple of podcasts that I am happy to recommend: Myths and Legends, featuring modern re-tellings of mythological tales from around the world, and my current favorite, You Must Remember This, “the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century.”

Blogging: I was reasonably active last week, posting…

* An article on the Tripitaka Koreana, a set of 13th century woodblocks containing some of the world’s oldest Buddhist texts
* A look at Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s film Cemetery of Splendor
* Norman Mailer’s Lego City
* Shinji Tsuchimochi’s wonderful 100 Views of Tokyo
* A cool photo of Harry Partch and his instruments

Pondering: Yesterday I embarked on the second half of my sixth decade on the planet. In other words, I turned 56. I don’t know that this is a particularly noteworthy achievement, but that I have managed to avoid major health problems and actually feel fairly decent at such an advanced age is a positive. I don’t think I’ve wasted my life thus far, either, and I hope to continue that trend. As it happens, I share my birthday with George Crumb, who turned 87 yesterday – Happy Birthday to the great composer! (Fun fact – George Crum, minus the “b,” a nineteenth century New York-based chef and travel guide, was the inventor of the potato chip.)

Anticipating: The World Series is about to get underway, leading me to post the following on Facebook a few days ago: “The Chicago Cubs came into being in 1870 as the Chicago White Stockings, and were one of the original eight National League teams when the League formed in 1876 (they officially became the Cubs in 1906). The Cleveland Indians started life as the Grand Rapids Rustlers in 1894, and as the Cleveland Bluebirds became one of the original eight American League teams in 1901 (the Indians nickname was adopted in 1915). I love baseball history! Two of the oldest of all baseball franchises go to the World Series!”

Gratuitous Van Lingle Mungo Reference: Thinking of baseball history leads me, inevitably, to Van Lingle Mungo. Along with a pretty decent career that included three All Star Team selections, 120 career wins, and leading the National League in strikeouts (with 238) in 1936, Mungo has been immortalized by Dave Frishberg in a classic song, the lyrics of which are entirely made up of the names of baseball players from the past. Few of those names, however, are as sonorous as Van Lingle Mungo.

Shinji Tsuchimochi’s 100 Views of Tokyo

View 39 - Zojo Temple

View 39 – Zojo Temple

About three years ago, illustrator Shinji Tsuchimochi decided to carry on a famous tradition of Japanese artists. In the manner of Hiroshige’s Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido and One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, or Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, Tsuchimochi started creating his own series of 100 Views of Tokyo. That project, which has gradually been made available at Tsuchimochi’s Behance and Facebook pages, was completed back in June, and the results are pretty stunning.

These gorgeous works take the basic style of Japan’s ukiyo-e artists and add Tsuchimochi’s unique whimsy, vibrant colors, and occasional surrealist touches (including many cute animals!)

A book of the 100 Views, which includes additional maps and views of Osaka, is scheduled to be released next month by Shikaku Publishing Company.

You can see Tsuchimochi’s 100 works on Behance or Facebook. Read more at spoon-tamago.com.

View 100 - Kameido Tenjin

View 100 – Kameido Tenjin


View 88 - Donzoko (Shinjuku)

View 88 – Donzoko (Shinjuku)


View 26 - Ichiyo Higuchi's Old House

View 26 – Ichiyo Higuchi’s Old House


View 62 - Hogeisen

View 62 – Hogeisen

Cemetery of Splendor

cemetary-of-splendour-posterCemetery of Splendor (Rak Ti Khon Kaen), a 2015 film written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is, like the Thai director’s other works, mysterious, hypnotic, languorous in pace, and casually otherworldly. It won a fair amount of praise, with Cahiers du Cinema judging it the second best film of 2015, and Sight & Sound ranking it at number 5. If action and a straight-line narrative are what you’re after in a film, Weerasethakul’s works are probably not for you. But if you enjoy being immersed in world that resembles our own but is also strange, enigmatic, and suffused with magic, then Cemetery of Splendor is well worth investigating.

A long dark screen opens the film, into which industrial and jungle sounds gradually emerge. Heavy machinery is digging dirt while soldiers stand by. We suddenly cut to someone sleeping, his IV bag letting us know we’re in a medical setting. Many others sleep near him.

A mysterious sleeping sickness has stricken a group of soldiers. They have been transferred to a temporary clinic set up in a former school. Jenjira, or Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), a housewife who is volunteering at the clinic, attended school in the same building many years before. Her memories of growing up in that neighborhood take on a new life as she takes care of Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), one of the sleeping soldiers for whom she feels a mysterious attraction. Another volunteer, Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), is a medium who uses her powers to communicate with the sleeping men.

While Jen is applying lotion to Itt’s skin one day, he suddenly wakes up. They start to converse and get to know one another, and later make a couple of excursions. One is to a movie theater where, amusingly, we see the trailer for some sort of horror film, The Iron-Coffin Killer. Its drama, explosions, and weird creatures are much in contrast to the perfectly matter-of-fact way in which the supernatural manifests itself in Cemetery of Splendor. Just as amusingly, we subsequently move to the busy theater lobby, where in the distance we see Jen, followed by Itt who, suddenly asleep again, is being carried out of the theater by attendants. That scene cross-fades into a gorgeous shot of the special lamps that have been installed in the clinic; their lights gradually moving through a range of colors, therapeutically easing the men’s sleep.
cemetary-of-splendour-3
At a local shrine, two female mannequins preside over small animal figures and other offerings. The two goddesses come to life – things like that happen in Weerasethakul’s world – and inform Jen that the clinic sits on the site of a very old cemetery, where ancient kings are laid to rest. Those kings are continuing their warfare in the afterlife, drawing on the energies of the sleeping soldiers to fight.

cemetary-of-splendour-2In one of my favorite scenes, the young psychic Keng takes the spirit of Itt within herself, and she escorts Jen through the world that Itt sees as he sleeps, the old temple and its grounds that used to be located there. And Jen simultaneously guides Itt/Keng through the present-day forest that she knows well from her youth. It was once a park, with sculptures now overgrown by the forest. Signs with brief sayings are scattered throughout – one reads, “Time left unused is the longest time.” Another says, “When we offend someone, we want to be forgiven. But when we are offended, we forget how to forgive.”

Jen has had to deal with her own medical issue, as one of her legs is ten centimeters shorter than the other; she wears a special shoe and needs to use crutches to get around. In one strange, sensual scene, Keng pours herbal water on Jen’s injured leg and, in what she calls “therapy,” licks it off, causing Jen to cry, overwhelmed with emotion.

Then suddenly we’re back in the clinic. Itt is in bed asleep, and Jen sleeps with her head next to him. Both awaken, and they each say that they can see one another’s dreams. Was everything we’d just seen a dream? We start to question whether Itt ever actually awakened; it could well be that much of what we’ve been witnessing happened only within Jen’s imagination.

cemetary-of-splendour-1It seems reasonable to guess that the sleeping epidemic serves as a metaphor. But for what? Weerasethakul, or “Joe” as he is known to many, makes very personal films, but is also acutely aware of the political situation around him in Thailand. The concept of a sleeping sickness apparently derived from a true story of an outbreak of some disease that caused forty Thai soldiers to be quarantined. This happened about three years before Cemetery of Splendor was made, and coincided with a wave of political protests in the country. Thailand has had a turbulent recent history of coups, protests, and violence. There must be a connection between the soldiers, their sickness, and contemporary events – long-dead warriors who continue to sap the energies of today’s young men? As usual, however, Weerasethakul doesn’t spell it out.

Many of the elements that make up Weerasethakul’s filmic world recur in Cemetery of Splendor. Actors that appear here, like Jenjira Pongpas, are regulars in his films. There’s a densely wooded jungle setting, as in Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The rural clinic recalls the hospital in Syndromes and a Century, where doctors once again play a central role, as they do in Blissfully Yours (both of Weerasethakul’s parents were physicians). Soldiers are also prominent players in Tropical Malady.

Weerasethakul has a fondness for long shots. He doesn’t like to get in the faces of his characters, but allows them space and their own inner lives within a larger setting. Unlike some of his other films, there are no otherworldly animals in Cemetery of Splendor, although a couple of goddesses make an appearance, and Weerasethakul admitted in an interview that a “monster” scene was cut from the film. All his films move so easily from dream to reality and back that it is often hard to distinguish between the two.

Cemetery of Splendor closes with a wonderfully mysterious scene: a group of people dance to some lighthearted pop music (one of the rare times that music appears in the film) while a voice-over talks in poetic terms about the majesty of the past. Some kids play soccer amid the mounds left by the construction crews outside the clinic while Jen looks on, wide eyed. Jen has obviously discovered something new about herself and her world. Her wide eyes may indicate fear, or a sense of wonder, or perhaps she is seeing something that we are not. We are left to resolve that, and so many other enigmas that populate this lovely, haunting film, for ourselves.

Norman Mailer’s Lego City

mailer-lego-city-new-yorkerNorman Mailer may not be the last person one would imagine playing with Legos, but he’d probably be pretty far down on the list. Yet the hard-boiled author of The Naked and the Dead, The Executioner’s Song, and Harlot’s Ghost actually spent some time in 1965 building a quite beautiful futuristic city.

Mailer took his “City of The Future,” which he dubbed “Mile High City,” very seriously indeed. It was announced for the first time in the magazine Architectural Forum and in The New York Times Magazine. Mailer came to loathe the manner in which New York was growing, and wanted to come up with his own alternative. He looked up, rather than out, in contemplating how the enormous cities of the future might look: “the cities must climb, they must not spread, they must build up, not by increments, but by leaps, up and up, up to the heavens.”

Mailer turned over most of the actual construction of his Lego metropolis to his wife’s stepbrother Charlie Brown and his friend Eldred Mowery. To Mailer’s precise directions, they built the city on a four-by-eight-foot sheet of plywood, supported by five-foot legs. The final product, which incorporated some 20,000 Lego pieces, stood about seven feet tall.

Each Lego block was said to represent a prefabricated box girder, 50 by 25 by 12 feet, inside which a single apartment would be built. The actual building would be around 3,000 feet high, and could house 60,000 people. Even within such a mass-produced kind of structure, a lot of variety of form is possible, as is visible in the photos.

mailer-with-legos-in-backgroundMailer is quoted in an article at greg.org as saying, “It was very much opposed to Le Corbusier. I kept thinking of Mont Saint-Michel. Each Lego brick represents an apartment. There’d be something like twelve thousand apartments. The philosophers would live at the top. The call girls would live in the white bricks, and the corporate executives would live in the black.”

Mailer admitted to a few practical problems if this city were actually built. For instance, if you lived on one of the top floors, you might have to slide down a cable to get to the ground (steps and an elevator would be available for some). “Once it was cabled up, those who were adventurous could slide down. It would be great fun to start the day off. Put Starbucks out of business.”

mailer-cannibals-and-christians-cover-legosA New Yorker article included a photo of the city by Simeon C. Marshall that was later used as the cover of Mailer’s 1966 collection of essays Cannibals and Christians. At one point, the Museum of Modern Art expressed an interest in displaying the model. But Mailer found that there was no practical way to move it short of disassembling it, which he refused to do.

For several decades the city remained on display in Mailer’s apartment. His wife Beverly noted, “It was a bitch to dust.” But there has been no word of its fate since his death in 2007. I hope that the city still exists.

Read more at greg.org, flashbak.com, and at the Village Voice.