Halloween Piano Fireworks

Casting around for some holiday music to play, I remembered Danse Macabre, a beloved orchestral show piece by Saint-Saëns. It’s usually heard in its orchestra guise, but I found a version on IMSLP arranged for piano by Liszt, with his customary virtuosic élan. Here’s Howard Shelly, who recorded every note of Liszt, performing it.

My digging also turned up the fact–new to me–that it was originally a song. Still, perhaps at its best in that crazy orchestral arrangement, particularly when Toscanini is at the helm.

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Fall Words

mums at Dumbarton
Chrysanthemums at Dumbarton Oaks Gardens. Getting ready for their last act death scene in the opera called “autumn.”

Nice news all around…back in DC after long, but stimulating, work trips. Happy World Series results, and a true fall day in DC. Misty morning, with bright fall leaves through cool damp. Calling forth Keats “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.”

And Wallace Steven‘s lines from “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” come to mind, (looking forward to December).

The last leaf that is going to fall has fallen.

The robins are la-bas, the squirrels, in tree-caves,

Huddle together in the knowledge of squirrels.

The wind has blown the silence of summer away.

It buzzes beyond the horizon or in the ground:

In mud under ponds, where the sky used to be reflected.

The barrenness that appears is an exposing.

It is not part of what is absent, a halt

For farewells, a sad hanging on for remembrances.

Happy Halloween!

Research Words: Reading Slows Cognitive Decline

An informed summary of some research on reading (with a less than surprising conclusion), but well written:

“The upshot” (as a college math professor of mine liked to say at the end of class):

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The Peabody Library in Baltimore. Reading the books helps you beat aging, and climbing the many stairs takes care of the exercise bit. Libraries as “life long fitness”?

The study suggests that reading and other cognitive activities really are good for you, and may help slow cognitive decline. It’s a nice study, the longitudinal design is a good one, and they were careful to work with participants only when they had complete sets of data.”

From a group blog called http://scientopia.org/blogs. This in turn led me to the Science News blog (where the unnamed author of the piece about the writing study now works, and which is a great browse, perhaps not as cognitively helpful as reading but still fun.

Observant words: Thomas Pynchon on the Dot Bomb Bubble

Pynchon’s latest novel, Bleeding Edge, concerns New York c. 2000-2002, the tech bubble deflation. Don’t know where he gets his info, but this is pretty spot on, particularly given that he is in his mid-seventies now.

Faces already under silent assault as if by something ahead, some Y2K of the workweek that no one is quite imagining, the crowds drifting slowly out into the little legendary streets, the highs beginning to dissipate, out into the casting-off of veils before the luminosities of dawn, a sea of T-shirts nobody’s reading, a clamour of messages nobody’s getting, as if it’s the true text history of nights in the Alley, outcries to be attended to and not lost, the 3 a.m. kozmo deliveries to code sessions and all-night shredding parties, the bedfellows who came and went, the bands in the clubs, the songs whose hooks still wait to ambush an idle hour, the day jobs with meetings about meetings and bosses without clue, the unreal strings of zeros, the business models changing one minute to the next, the startup parties every night of the week and more on Thursdays than you could keep track of, which of these faces so claimed by the time, the epoch whose end they’ve been celebrating all night – which of them can see ahead, among the microclimates of the binary, tracking earthwide everywhere through dark fibre and twisted pairs and nowadays wirelessly through spaces private and public, anywhere among cybersweatshop needles flashing and never still, in that unquiet vastly stitched and unstitched tapestry they have all at some time sat growing crippled in the service of – to the shape of the day imminent, a procedure waiting execution, about to be revealed, a search result with no instructions how to look for it.

Two great reviews of Bleeding Edge are out in the LRB and TLS respectively, here are bits. Both unfortunately behind paywalls.

Christian Lorentzen in the LRB.

Silicon Alley was a name given around 1996 to the cluster of internet companies in Manhattan. The phrase is mostly in disuse now: it connotes boosterism, puffery, and a lot of money lost on ventures that had little chance of turning a profit. It was a silly name in an era of silly names. I worked in Silicon Alley for a few months in the spring of 2000, first at an unnamed travel website where I was paid in cash. After a few weeks, the site had a silly name: peterplan.com. I almost quit out of embarrassment, but after another few weeks the Nasdaq started falling and I no longer had a job. Then I found a job at a website about jobs. I wrote daily newsletters advising professionals in the human resources industry about the latest in recruiting tactics, benefits packages, compensation and retention. I was told that if I stuck around I would accumulate stock options. The website was run out of a loft in Chelsea full of coders, designers and content producers. I made a lot of friends. I attended a focus group, and from behind a one-way mirror I watched several HR professionals discuss how useful, informative and entertaining my newsletters were. I was praised for my ‘out-of-the-box HR thinking’. The newsletters would become a channel, I was told. Then the Nasdaq definitively crashed. I quit for a job at a magazine. I was invited many times over the next two years to drinks marking my old colleagues’ layoffs. The company never quite folded, and was sold to a venture capital firm in 2007. The man who hired me, one of the ‘founders’ – what is it about starting a website that makes people think they have a lot in common with George Washington? – is now a not very funny comic wine columnist.

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge is a period novel about Silicon Alley. Pynchon is fond of silly names, and in the dotcom bubble they seemed to be self-generating: Razorfish, AltaVista, HotBot, Yahoo! There was a strange connection during that boom between whimsy and greed, as if the internet had brought about a completely innocent, even goofy way of becoming fantastically rich.


Lidija Haas in TLS.

Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel is his first in fifty years – since V – to take a long look at New York, and if that seems to merit a sense of occasion, he doesn’t shrink from it: on the first page, we land squarely in the spring of 2001. Fortunately, the book does not appear to be chastened by the spectre of September; as you might expect with Pynchon, there is too much else going on. As well as being a heartsick ex-wife and one in a line of anxious Jewish mothers, Maxine Tarnow is a gumshoe of the Philip Marlowe school. Not technically a private dick, she is something a little nerdier: a “Certified Fraud Examiner”, which still involves a fair few “matrimonials” but tends to require her to “chercher le geek” rather than la femme. Relieved of her licence for bending one too many rules (and thus forced to close her bar tab at the exclusive CFEs’ club), she and her tiny firm now inhabit a kind of financial netherworld: “some days it seems like every lowlife in town has Tail ‘Em and Nail ‘Em on their greasestained Rolodex”. “When I was a CFE I was cute”, she tells a friend, “but a defrocked CFE? I’m irresistible. To a certain type; you can imagine what comes in the door.” Maxine is good at spreadsheets, but also carries a concealed weapon and has a penchant – in Pynchon’s terms, “a fatality” – for poking around and wandering into hidden places, “which is what got her kicked out of the profession to begin with and will maybe someday get her dead”.

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NASDAQ, I remember thee well.

Poetic Words: Jack Spicer

To start off the week, here’s a poem by the Bay Area poet Jack Spicer, whose selected has the wonderful title: My Vocabulary Did this to Me.”

A brief bio of Spicer is available: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/1656
Helped me get past thinking of him as a West Coast Frank O’Hara, although they do have some traits in common.

“Any fool can get into an ocean . . .”

By Jack Spicer

Any fool can get into an ocean
But it takes a Goddess
To get out of one.
What’s true of oceans is true, of course,
Of labyrinths and poems. When you start swimming
Through riptide of rhythms and the metaphor’s seaweed
You need to be a good swimmer or a born Goddess
To get back out of them
Look at the sea otters bobbing wildly
Out in the middle of the poem
They look so eager and peaceful playing out there where the
    water hardly moves
You might get out through all the waves and rocks
Into the middle of the poem to touch them
But when you’ve tried the blessed water long
Enough to want to start backward
That’s when the fun starts
Unless you’re a poet or an otter or something supernatural
You’ll drown, dear. You’ll drown
Any Greek can get you into a labyrinth
But it takes a hero to get out of one
What’s true of labyrinths is true of course
Of love and memory. When you start remembering.
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High tide at Ocean Beach, San Francisco

Beautiful Song: Berlin Philharmonie at 50

The Berlin Philharmonic, generally considered the best orchestra in the world, is getting ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its innovative concert hall designed by Hans Scharoun. As part of the festivities, they are offering a free 50th anniversary concert in the Digital Concert Hall, their ambitious web site that streams the entire season live.

Good program:  Beethoven, Kurtág, Vaughn Williams, Rihm, and Gabrieli, which should sound particularly spectacular in that concert hall’s unusual shape. Kicks off at 1:30 pm on the East Coast of the US and you probably have to give them your email, but should be an engrossing show if you are a classical music lover and/or Simon Rattle junkie, like me.

Sketch for the Philharmonie
The architect’s sketch…


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…and today.


Funny Words: Andy Borowitz & others on the Shutdown

What would Thaddeus Stevens have done about the shutdown?

The New Yorker wit nails the Shutdown.  Ted Cruz: “The dream of keeping poor people from seeing a doctor must never die.”

and later

Sen. Cruz’s closest ally, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) also spoke reverently of the shutdown, calling it “the most expensive Civil War reënactment in history.”

“Unfortunately, once again, the wrong side won,” he said.

A history prof I had in college presented the thesis that Reconstruction, which wasn’t the tragic era of legend, had never really ended in U.S. history. Maybe he was right.

Philosopher and blogger Paul Wolff suggests so:

The emotions aroused on the right by the ACA are quite mysterious. It is not at all surprising that large numbers of people in the United States have intense feelings about abortion or same-sex marriage. I may find those feelings reprehensible, but I am not surprised by them. Nor does it surprise me that many people feel strongly about taxation, or about America’s military involvements. These are quite naturally subjects of controversy, and though we may grow angry at those who disagree with us, we ought not to be surprised by the disagreements. But medical insurance?

Medical insurance is a bit like highways, supermarkets, or television — a familiar part of life that we more or less take for granted. Most of the time, those of us who have medical insurance [which is to say, eighty percent of Americans, or more] use it without giving it a great deal of deep thought. I go to the doctor, present my insurance card to the receptionist at the front desk, perhaps pay a co-pay, see the doctor, and forget about it. There are of course problems — with caps, uncovered procedures, pre-existing conditions, and so forth — many of which the ACA is designed to address. But because the entire health care sector of the economy and society is so huge and impenetrably mysterious to most of us, it is very hard to develop passionate feelings about it. Indeed, I suspect that we feel about health care very much as we feel about the Congress — we have a low opinion of the system, if we have any feelings at all, but like our own doctor.

And yet, there is now a sizeable fraction of the American public, and a considerable number of Representatives and Senators, who say that they consider Obamacare an assault on everything they hold dear, a fatal blow to the American Way, a Socialist plot to destroy life as we know it, an evil so great that it is worth bringing the government to a halt and threatening the world financial system to defund it or even slow marginally the pace at which its provisions go into effect.

What on earth is going on? The answer, I think, is actually rather simple, although unpacking it will take me more time than I usually devote to a blog post.

To put the answer in just four words, the real, underlying reason for the hysteria engendered by the ACA is: Because Obama is Black.

I’m sure there are ranges of opinion fueling the division about ACA and in government generally–an African American senator voted against the re-opening bill–but some undigested chunks of reconstruction seem to be present.

Harsh Words: Nigel Andrews takes downs Julian Fellowes

The end of a review in yesterday’s Financial Times takes aims at the much celebrated bard of the BBC:

Romeo & Juliet is the second film this week (after The Fifth Estate) in which someone called Julian puts the world on nervous alert. The man formerly known as Downton Abbey ’s creator is now the founder of “WilliLeaks”.

Thrusting his sword in the Bard’s body, Julian Fellowes watches William Shakespeare bleed to death. The settings (real Verona churches, streets, painted palazzi) offer some visual compensation for a text dismally rewritten by Fellowes in clichés and crib-notes English and pedestrianly directed by Carlo Carlei. The older actors put on the best show they can, with Damian Lewis a rip-roaring Capulet. But the younger actors are dismal. They gabble, mumble, swallow their lines and are, in a few moments of mercy, inaudible altogether.

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Maybe he should have tried it as txt messages?

Quotable Words: Galbraith and Gottleib on the Shutdown

“Politics is the art of choosing the unpalatable over the catastrophic.”  –J.K. Galbraith, apt words for these times.

I guess these have often been the options.  At Washington Monthly, economist Paul Gottlieb makes an analogy to Charles I at the time of Oliver Cromwell. Although there were some differences, of course… .

From the article:

One key difference between England in the 1640s and America today is that we have a written constitution. That fact should protect us from the more extreme and unilateral forms of constitutional re-jiggering that were practiced by both sides in the English disputes of the 17th century. But, as many observers of this month’s events have pointed out, changing the precedents that are allowed within the letter of the constitution can tip the delicate balance of our three-headed government in dangerous ways. The House of Representatives is using its budget authority to give itself, not a line-item veto over new legislation, which is sometimes defensible, but line-item repeal power over laws that both houses of Congress have already passed and the President has signed. That this new practice has made American governance chaotic is clear. That it is fundamentally anti-democractic is a point that has been made by many (“one-half of one-third of the government….”).

Charles I Insulted by Cromwell's Soliders by Delaroche
The shutdown meetings haven’t gotten to this at least.

Charles I Insulted by Cromwell’s Soldiers by Hippolyte Delaroche

Happy Birthday, Verdi!

Today is the 200th anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth, and lots of celebrations around the web and on stage.  One of the best is likely to be the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the Requiem conducted by Muti, a great Verdian.

Streaming live at 7:30 Central and up for a year after that.  http://cso.org/res/VerdiRequiem/

And here are some gems from YouTube, Verdi in three moods, and pieces that have meant a lot to me over the years, representative of his dark, but honest sensibility and extraordinary musical power:

Caballé’s “O patria mia” from Aïda.

Price’s “Pace, Pace” from Forza

and Domingo and Milnes in the Don Carlo duet:

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Verdi, 1813-1901, & as long as people listen to opera.

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