September Songs

It’s a spectacularly beautiful day in D.C.; feels more like the height of summer than the first day of fall, but I’m ready for my fall music.

First, listening a lot to to BR-Klassik these days, and recently they did an hour on the Bulgarian soprano Anna Tomowa-Sintow, a somewhat overlooked singer of the 80s and 90s.  This cut of her singing Adriane’s glowing, if gloomy, aria “Es gibt ein Reich” from Strauss’ Adriane auf Naxos caught my ear.  Not fall music perhaps on the face of it, but so much of what Strauss wrote seems steeped in shadow. Check out the harmonic modulation at the end and how she glides through it effortlessly.

Anna

26_September_Song_thumbNext, Lotte Lenya singing Weill’s “September Song.” Weill was lucky with his collaborators (although I guess he loathed Brecht with the force of a thousand suns). Here the graceful lyrics are by the playwright Maxwell Anderson, and the song comes from a mostly forgotten musical called Knickerbocker Holiday. Lenya’s dusky voice is the opposite of Tomowa-Sintow’s gleam, but at the same, her singing makes you think she’s sitting right across from you in a Berlin cafe, beguiling you through the cigarette smoke.

 

And now, just because it caught my interest on the Gramophone music site. Decca has just released “The Lost Songs of St. Kilda” an effort to preserve songs from a tiny island off Scotland, uninhabited since the 1930s, and 3 hours from Skye (that’s a ways out there!). They made a video of a trip to the island to bring the music back, complete with composer James MacMillan and his piano. Both composer and instrument survived the trip.

Gorgeous video and moving project.

More info at http://lostsongsofstkilda.com/

Happy fall!

Monhegan Snapshots


“The sea can do craziness, it can do smooth, it can lie down like silk breathing or toss havoc shoreward; it can give gifts or withhold all; it can rise, ebb, froth like an incoming frenzy of fountains, or it can sweet-talk entirely. As I can too, and so, no doubt, can you, and you.”
― Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings

The Newly Renovated Boston Public Library

On one of my recent work jaunts to Boston, I checked out the nearly complete renovation of the Johnson Building of the Boston Public Library. First opened in 1972, the building was named after its architect, Philip Johnson, and meant to complement the McKim building, build in 1895.

The older building has been beautifully restored in all of its Renaissance Palazzo knock-off glory, now a less dingy and far more comfortable place to be. (The crazy Sargent murals are still in place on the top floor.)  But the essential dignity and grandeur remain.

The Johnson Building makeover was perhaps a harder case. The original building was a bit fortress-like in a 1970s style that isn’t much missed, with a giant empty atrium at the center (generally with painting visibly peeling off the ceiling window casements in my memory at least). That said, it worked well enough for me (and I’m a fairly intense library patron), had a good collection, but was not someplace I ever warmed to.

The redesign seems to be heading towards an answer to what a  future-friendly library might be. (Something that lots of places are wrestling with, as I’ve posted about, and we are about to get a big dose of in DC with the renovation of MLK Library at Gallery Place.) I don’t know any more than they do about what the future of libraries will disclose, but a few impressions above courtesy of an evening visit earlier this month, with cell phone snaps. Some beautiful things…others a little headscratching…

Ordinary Lives

A couple of Commonplace Book Entries that resonate with one another across a century and a culture. Bertolt Brecht on the anonymous workers who drive history (but are forgotten) and George Eliot on ordinary lives.

Questions from A Worker Who Reads
Bertolt Brecht

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished.
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song,
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years’ War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters” in a translation by Michael Hamburger


From an interview with Prof. Simon Reader (could there be any better name for an Eliot scholar?) at the New York Public Library blog.

Q: The subtitle of Middlemarch—“A Study of Provincial Life”—seems to be a direct description of her project and her method: an almost scientific examination the everyday. Was this approach to fiction avant garde at the time?

A: Certainly. Eliot was one of the first major English novelists to be concerned with representing reality as it was, in a kind of documentary fashion, as unadorned as possible. English Realism had already existed earlier in the century with Jane Austen, as well as Thackeray, although he’s dubiously realistic, and Dickens—again, kind of realistic, kind of not. Eliot really held herself back from introducing any kind of overly romantic, or sensational, or supernatural elements into her fiction.  At the end of Middlemarch, she gives what could be construed as a thesis statement, saying “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” She’s trying to elevate everyday life, to elevate the life of the common person in all of their hidden obscurity, to magnify the value of small, ordinary actions.


And last, ordinary lives in painting (was looking for Millet’s “The Gleaners” but found Jules Breton’s “The Weeders”  at the Met’s site.)  Similar theme and style.

 

weeders_sized
Jules Breton, The Weeders, 1868

 

 

Library Redesign: What to do with the Books?

New York Public Library has just re-opened its 53rd Street branch (replacing the old Donnell Library). Justin Davidson in New York Mag doesn’t much care for it

 

Glance in from the sidewalk, and the eye falls on a set of blond-wood terraces that go cascading into a cave, between walls of metal slats and raw concrete. The vibe mixes the slovenly with the dictatorial. On the steps, felt discs — four per row, not really plush enough to qualify as cushions — demonstrate where to place one’s behind, but in the end most people sprawl or hunch. Neither is especially comfortable. This narrow buried amphitheater gives library patrons a split-llibraryevel vista: above, a rat’s-eye view of the street and passers-by; below, a wide screen playing a promotional slideshow for New York and its libraries. Architects love choreographing such chance urban spectacles, but this one enjoys a special kind of pointlessness.

The Times was less critical adopting a wait and see stance and pointing out that the community space function of the library might be very well served by the innovative design.

As a bookish type, I share some qualms about thinning the collection out during a renovation (but it’s been happening for decades and probably centuries). On the other hand it looks like an intriguing space to me, perhaps pointing towards some new directions of what a library can be.  As John Cage said, “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” I’m looking forward to checking it out when I’m up there next, and seeing how it compares to the plans for the new MLK Library in D.C.

Washington Post 2.0

Great piece at NY Mag about the reinvention of the Washington Post, including some fine-grained reasoning on just what is or isn’t clickbait.

“Some Post journalists worry that the Amazonian values of growing an audience by giving the customers what they want could conflict with journalism’s civic mission to report on unpleasant truths. “There’s gallows humor: Are we selling our soul for traffic?” says one longtime Post staffer. Veteran Post journalists have been spared traffic quotas, but junior employees who blog for the website feel the pressure to produce with great frequency. Baron disputes the criticism that the Post has employed so-called clickbait to juice readership. “The way I would define it is, it has a headline that tries to trick you to read the story and when you get to the story there’s nothing of any substance. I don’t think we have any of that,” he says. “I know what’s generated the traffic here. And it isn’t clickbait.” Clickbait or not, it’s clear that the Post is playing a volume game, publishing a vastly higher number of stories than its competitors. According to a recent analysis, the Post, which has a newsroom of about 700, generates 500 stories per day, compared to 230 at the Times, whose newsroom has about 1,300 employees. That’s also about twice what BuzzFeed publishes daily.”

We could use a “Citizen Bezos” just now…

The whole thing is worth reading; makes the point that in addition to the gee-whiz stuff, there is an old story, namely an immensely rich person buying and retooling a newspaper.