Flunking the Test of Time (Music Division)

Jeremy Nicholas on the ‘Lost Romantics,’ composers lauded in their era and after who are now footnotes: Spohr, Meyerbeer, perhaps even my beloved CPE Bach. This ‘falling out of the canon’ is more common than one would think in all realms of endeavor: John Sutherland has a recent wonderful Sir Walter Scott piece in TLS. The first superstar best seller, now largely forgotten except for the odd legacy of a “Waverly” Street or Avenue in thousands of U.S. cities. Nicholas makes the case for Ludwig Sphor (could it be the unfortunate name that did him in for posterity?). Calls his clarinet concerti delightful, a judgement that Naxos Music Library confirms.

Once part of the canon, now forgotten: Louis Spohr.

The Lost Romantics
In his opening number, the eponymous Mikado in Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta sings of the music-hall singer who attends a series of ‘masses and fugues and ’ops / By Bach, interwoven / With Spohr and Beethoven, / At classical Monday Pops.’ Yes, Ludwig (or Louis as he called himself in his autobiography) Spohr was a familiar enough name to be cited alongside Beethoven and Bach. True, Gilbert needed a composer with a single-syllable name to fit his verse scansion, but neither Gluck, Grieg, Liszt, Raff nor even Johann Strauss conveyed the desired effect quite as effectively as Spohr. Spohr was simply part of the canon in those days.

Complete article from Gramophone.

Jude the Obscure

Finished Jude the Obscure today. Read it over months, as I might have in a periodical (how I assume it was originally published); if anything, this made it more harrowing and darkly illuminating.

The elegance and style of the sentences add a cool irony to the grim anti-romantic tenor of the whole thing. Of the many depth charges in the book, the assessment of the drive to academic study and achievement cut closest to the bone for me.

He’s also pretty hard on organized religion and the agonies of marriage. At some point, Jude says he was born 50 years too early, it seems to me even more than a century later, we’re still caught–or at least I’m still caught–in many of these constricting social garments.

More mundanely: the rhythm of the writing leaves me in awe. An example:

It was indeed open country, wide and high. They talked and bounded on, Jude cutting from a little covert a long walking-stick for Sue as tall as herself, with a great crook, which made her look like a shepherdess. About half-way on their journey they crossed a main road running due east and west—the old road from London to Land’s End. They paused, and looked up and down it for a moment, and remarked upon the desolation which had come over this once lively thoroughfare, while the wind dipped to earth and scooped straws and hay-stems from the ground.

They crossed the road and passed on, but during the next half-mile Sue seemed to grow tired, and Jude began to be distressed for her. They had walked a good distance altogether, and if they could not reach the other station it would be rather awkward. For a long time there was no cottage visible on the wide expanse of down and turnip-land; but presently they came to a sheepfold, and next to the shepherd, pitching hurdles. He told them that the only house near was his mother’s and his, pointing to a little dip ahead from which a faint blue smoke arose, and recommended them to go on and rest there.

This they did, and entered the house, admitted by an old woman without a single tooth, to whom they were as civil as strangers can be when their only chance of rest and shelter lies in the favour of the householder.

“A nice little cottage,” said Jude.

“Oh, I don’t know about the niceness….”

More later about how the book affected me if I can manage it. If had nothing else, making a commonplace life as worthy of a grand tragedy as a great figure would make it a remarkable book.

3-D Printing Revolutionizes Guitar Making

ODD's Atom 3D printed guitar
The musical fruits of 3-D printing.

My partner Jim saw 3-D printing technology in action 10 years ago at a company on the Rt. 128 tech corridor outside Boston, MA. At that stage it was still just small machine parts and demos. Now it’s custom-order guitars, with increasingly gee-whiz possibilities on the horizon.





From the article.

He is working with printer maker 3D Systems in the US to make Gibson Les Paul-style bodies from poly ether ether ketone (PEEK), which has similar rigidity to wood. Combined with 3D printing’s ability to produce objects with complex internal shapes, this offers a range of accoustic possibilities.

“That’s where you can have enormous fun with having each string resonate to a different acoustic chamber.”

Diegel expects to have a guitar on the 3D Systems stand at the 3D Printshow in London in October, which has the tagline “The world is about to change again”.


Foundations’ Hubris and the Price we All Pay

An open secret among people who work closely with foundation support, as I used to. Philanthropy has taken on the trappings of venture capital, and not often for the better.

I’m particularly unsettled by the outsized influence Gates Foundation has had on school reform, which should–messy though it is–be a democratic political process, not a question of oligarchs saying “this is what school is for.”


A strong article from The Awl.

Meanwhile, without any significant public claims on foundation largess, the general run of charitable spending in the United States has taken on the protective coloration of American business culture. At every level, charitable grants have come more and more to resemble investment projects, with a specific, measurable return on equity in mind. Among the dozens of sources I’ve interviewed on the state of the foundation world, every one has singled out this trend as a major shift.



Speling: An insult to human intelligence?

Example of strange English orthographyGood read on the reliable topic of the horrors of English spelling, courtesy of a review by Tom Shippey on two new language books:

English spelling is notoriously inconsistent, and some have gone further, calling it “the world’s most awesome mess” or “an insult to human intelligence” (both these from linguists, one American, one Austrian). Maybe this is just because our alphabet only has twenty-six letters to represent more than forty phonemes, or distinctive speech-sounds, and some of those – notably q and x – are not pulling their weight, while j is not allowed to (see “John” but also “George”). If we gave s and z a consistent value (“seazon”) and extended this to k and c (“klok” and “sertain”), we could free c up for other duties, such as maybe representing ch, as once it did. But then there are all the vowels . . . .

How did this unsystematic system come about? And is it really that bad? Some say that there are only a few hundred deeply irregular words, but the trouble is that most of them are common. Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle even went so far as to claim that we have “close to an optimal system”, though that takes a deal of argument to convince.

Nice nod to my friend Tim Halle’s dad, Morris.

Full review at TLS review of “The History of English Spelling”

James McNeil Whistler on the origin of art

A visit to the Freer (a DC treasure in my book) occupied my afternoon. This quote was on one of the walls:

“In the beginning, man went forth each day – some to do battle – some to the chase – others again to dig and to delve in the field – all that they might gain, and live – or lose and die. Until there was found among them, one, differing from the rest – whose pursuits attracted him not – and so he stayed by the tents, with the women, and traced strange devices, with a burnt stick, upon a gourd.

This man, who took no joy in the ways of his brethren, who cared not for conquest, and fretted in the field – this designer of quaint patterns – this deviser of the beautiful, who perceived in nature about him, curious curvings, – as faces are seen in the fire – This dreamer apart – was the first artist.” James McNeil Whistler

Sounds like me at 12, hanging around the art room instead of playing kick ball. I guess the idea of a female artist didn’t really occur to Whistler. Hard to live without him, though, and revisiting the Peacock Room, is one of the major pleasures of being back in DC.

Nocturne In Blue and Silver

Nocturne in Blue and Silver, James McNeil Whistler

The Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery in Washington DC

The “Peacock Room” designed by James McNeil Whistler, and now on display at the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC.