Then there was Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. One of its chapters, “The Masque of the Red Death,” takes its title from Edgar Allan Poe and with mordant humor dissects the vacuity of Manhattanites consumed (and in some cases destroyed) by their grotesque, over-the-top consumerism. I recently re-read that stunning set-piece and the thought occurred, as it had before, that here was a far more effective polemic against materialism than anything ever issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
I’m also strongly opposed to the very idea of a classroom – a schoolhouse is a better idea, and even then, it should not be viewed as a place where children are managed. The example of my children might be informative: our oldest 4 (#5 is 13) all attend or did attend college, all are outstanding students – A students, magna cum laude, that sort of thing – and none of them took any formal classes at school or at home until, of their own volition, they signed up for classes at the local community college when they were teenagers. Having NO K-12 experience as commonly understood didn’t slow them down AT ALL.
did hard time in attended four different grade schools and three high schools, some Catholic, some public,1 so I may have a somewhat broader experience of education in the United States than most people. At the Catholic schools I sometimes attended Mass, and there were religion classes, but in general there was no significant difference between parochial and public. There was occasionally a little actual education here and there during those twelve endless years, but mostly what I learned was to sit still and feign attention. There was also a lot of busy work. I eventually concluded that the purpose of school was not to “educate” students, but to keep them off the streets until they were old enough to get jobs. The American education system is the greatest achievement in the history of day care.
It still makes me angry how many years I was required to spend the best part of each weekday doing nothing. I could have been reading, damn it. My brother didn’t have my patience with pointless nonsense. After fourth grade, he quit doing any schoolwork at all. He was eventually asked to leave his Catholic high school, where his GPA was third from dead last.2 He promptly took the GED, without any preparation, and scored in the 98th percentile overall, getting a perfect score on the verbal part.3
An aside: The second grade school I was sentenced to was 30 miles from home. My home was the second stop on the bus’ route in the morning and the second-last stop in the evening, so I spent two hours every day confined with a bunch of cranky kids in a noisy vehicle with bad shocks. An under-used argument against busing students to schools other than where they would ordinarily go is that busing itself is inherently abusive.
I may not have been cynical enough. Joseph Moore has written five-part series on the history of Catholic schooling, putting its development in the context of the Prussian model of education, Irish immigration and graded classrooms. It’s worth reading. The first installment is here.
Back in the 19th century, virtuoso pianists took themes from popular operas and arranged them into fantasies to showcase their pianistic prowess and dazzle audiences. These operatic paraphrases fell out of favor in the austere 20th century, and nowadays the only one you might hear is Liszt’s “Réminiscences de Don Juan,” based on themes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It’s a shame. They may not be great music, but they can be fun.
In this 21st century, something similar is evolving in Japan. Here’s a piece based on Yuki Kajiura’s music for Madoka Magica, arranged and performed by “Animenz.”
Here’s a more ambitious piece, based on themes from Gunbuster, performed by Yui Morishita, a.k.a. “Pianeet.” (It’s not clear whether it’s his own arrangement, but I suspect that it is.)
And another theme from Madoka, arranged and performed by Morishita.
Morishita is particularly interesting. Besides playing anime music, he is also an Alkan specialist. The reclusive Charles-Valentin Morhange, who changed his name to “Alkan,” was of the same generation as Liszt and Chopin and wrote notoriously difficult piano music. Morishita has recorded three CDs thus far of Alkan’s music. I’d like to embed here the video of his rendition of Alkan’s “Le chemin de fer,”1 which has particularly good sound and shows the finger gymnastics from several angles, but for no obvious reason I can’t.
You can find more of Morishita performing both anime tunes and Alkan on YouTube. I think he just might have the chops to make proper Lisztian paraphrases of anime themes that any fan of piano music will enjoy, and I hope he does. I’d really like to hear a good “Noir” or “Cowboy Bebop” fantasy.
For those who are interested in extreme piano, there is an Alkan Society. Unfortunately, it’s based in Great Britain, and its events are a wee bit inconvenient for Kansans to attend.
Here’s a recent article on Jewish comedian-musicians, which oddly spends quite a bit of time discussing Alkan.
Who am I?
You are Johann Sebastian Bach. The smartest person you know, you don’t suffer incompetence easily and are more than willing to tackle difficult projects yourself rather than trust them to others. Highly intellectual, you crave order, discipline and structure – let’s be honest, you probably have your picture next to “perfectionist” in the dictionary. Unfortunately, your brilliance is likely to go largely unappreciated by those around you, and you’re going to have to wait for future generations to recognize your genius.
Yeah, right. Who do you think you are?
… and now for something completely different. Alkan didn’t just compose for piano.
As-tu déjeuné, Jaco? (The French counterpart of “Polly want a cracker?”)
Et de quoi?
- Is there any significance to Valentine’s Day being Ash Wednesday this year, or April Fool’s Day Easter?
- The celebration of “Disney princesses” is a major international industry. Where are the Disney princes?
- Is it possible to be both a good person and a successful politician?
- The nearest grocery store recently put its carrots in a bin labeled “organic.” Do there exist inorganic carrots?
Here’s a month’s accumulation of video timewasters.
For those with certain, um, unusual tastes, here’s a documentary on the Shmenge Brothers.
It looks like Batman Ninja will be, at the very least, a good-looking movie, but what interests me is the writer, one Kazuki Nakashima.
And now for some high culture:
And finally, the only version I can tolerate of a certain overly-popular baroque piece, performed by the idiosyncratic Jun Togawa.1
Nicholas Slominsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective, a compendium of harshly negative reviews of composers from Beethoven to Varèse, is fun to browse. Years ago I based a little name-that-composer quiz on entries in the book. That quiz is long gone, along with the rest of my first weblog1, so I’ve compiled a new one. See if you can identify the composers and works from the following excerpts. In a few cases, the critic speaking is also noteworthy.
I’ll post the answers sometime next week.
1. Crashing Siberias, volcano hell, Krakatoa, sea-bottom crawlers.
2. ____ was abominable. Not a trace of coherent melodies. It would kill a cat and would turn rocks into scrambled eggs from fear of these hideous discords.
Composer, composition, critic
3. It is mathematical music evolved from an unimaginative brain … How it ever came to be known as The Tenth Symphony is a mystery to us.
4. The overabundance of dissonances and the incompetence in handling vocal parts in ____ reach the point where the listener can not be sure of the composer’s intentions and is unable to distinguish intentional wrong notes from the wrong notes of the performers.
5. The ____ is filthy and vile. It suggests Chinese orchestral performances as described by enterprising and self-sacrificing travelers. This may be a specimen of the School of the Future for aught I know. If it is, the future will throw the works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven into the rubbish bin.
6. If the reader were so rash as to purchase any of ____’s compositions, he would find that they each and all consist of unmeaning bunches of notes, apparently representing the composer promenading the keyboard in his boots. Some can be played better with the elbows, other with the flat of the hand. None requires fingers to perform nor ears to listen to.
7. ____ sometimes sounds like a plague of insects in the Amazon valley, sometimes like a miniature of the Day of Judgment … and for a change goes lachrymose.
8. It must be admitted that to the larger part of our public, ____ is still an incomprehensible terror.
9. If it were possible to imagine His Satanic Majesty writing an opera, ____ would be the sort of work he might be expected to turn out. After hearing it, we seem to have been assisting at some unholy rites, weirdly fascinating, but painful.
10. As a kind of drug, no doubt ____’s music has a certain significance, but it is wholly superfluous. We already have cocaine, morphine, hashish, heroin, anhalonium, and innumerable similar productions, to say nothing of alcohol. Surely that is enough. On the other hand, we have only one music. Why must we degrade an art into a spiritual narcotic? Why is it more artistic to use eight horns and five trumpets than to use eight brandies and five double whiskies?
11. Cunning must be the coinnoiseur, indeed, who, while listening to his music, can form the slightest idea when wrong notes are played — its difficulties to the eye being doubled by the composer’s eccentricity of notation.
12. To hear a whole program of ____’s works is like watching some midget or pygmy doing clever, but very small, things within a limited scope. Moreover, the almost reptilian cold-bloodedness, which one suspects of having been consciously cultivated, of most of ____’s music is almost repulsive when heard in bulk; even its beauties are like the markings on snakes and lizards.
13. ____ always sounds to me like the upsetting of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer.
14. ____’s symphonic poem ____ is not just filled with wrong notes, in the sense of Strauss’s Don Quixote; it is a fifty-minute-long protracted wrong note. This is to be take literally. What else may hide behind these cacaphonies is quite impossible to find out.
15. The ____ has pretty sonority, but one does not find in it the least musical idea, properly speaking; it resembles a piece of music as the palette used by an artist in his work resembles a picture. ____ did not create a style; he cultivated an absence of style, logic, and common sense.
Composer, composition, critic
16. There is only one thing for a man like ____ to do if he desires to escape oblivion, and that is to plunge into the grossest materialism in music and seek to puzzle or shock you, because he cannot touch your heart.
17. ____ had not much to say in his Fifth Symphony and occupied a wondrous time in saying it. His manner is ponderous, his matter imponderable.
18. … I shall hot criticize this music; quite to the contrary, I will say that this is wonderful barbaric music, the best barbaric music in the world. But when I am asked whether this music gives me pleasure or an artistic satisfaction, whether it makes a deep impression, I must categorically say: “No!”
19. The Paleozoic Crawl, turned into tone with all the resources of the modern orchestra, clamored for attention at the Philadelphia Orchestra concert when ____ was given its first airing on this side of the vast Atlantic. It was the primitive run riot, almost formless and without definite tonality, save for insistently beating rhythms that made the tom-tom melodies of the gentle Congo tribes seem super-sophisticated in comparison … Without description or program, the work might have suggested a New Year’s Eve rally of moonshine addicts and the simple pastimes of early youth and maidens, circumspectly attired in a fig leaf apiece.
20. The ____ threads all the foul ditches and sewers of human despair; it is as unclean as music well can be.
21. I can compare ____ by ____ to nothing but the caperings and gibberings of a big baboon, over-excited by a dose of alcoholic stimulus.
22. … if the crude expression be permissible, I should say that what was at the back of ____’s mind was an alarm of fire at the Zoo, with the beasts and birds all making appropriate noises — the lion roaring, the hyena howling, the monkeys chattering, the parrots squealing, with the curses of the distracted attendants cutting through them all.
23. Again I see his curious asymmetrical face, the pointed fawn ears, the projecting cheek bones — the man is a wraith from the East; his music was heard long ago in the hill temples of Borneo; was made as a symphony to welcome the head-hunters with their ghastly spoils of war!
24. ____’s violin concerto sounds, in its brutal genius, in its abolition of all formal limits, like a rhapsody of nihilism.
25. (the amoeba weeps)
Update: The answers are here.
A couple of links to help you get into the spirit of the season:
If you absolutely must sing a carol, here are the words:
Is this true? It doesn’t tally with my observations, but I try to minimize my exposure to popular culture.
Something that is often forgotten about J.K. Rowling’s books/movies is that while they started out being almost equally popular among girls and boys (the authoress chose old-fashioned initials to hide her sex from little girl-hating he-men), by the time the eighth and (sort of) final movie in the series finally came out, their appeal was almost wholly to girls, just as J.R.R. Tolkien’s fans are overwhelmingly male.
The bit about Tolkien fans would be news to the rat maiden at the too-long-idle Quenta Nârwenion.
Kim Du Toit’s discussion of body graffiti reminded me of a favorite story by Saki, “The Background.” It’s easily found online, and you can read it below the fold here.
A depressing number of commentators recently got sentimental and downright gooey talking about Star Wars, which was released 40 years ago this week.
By 1977, I had read a lot of science fiction. Gene Wolfe and R.A. Lafferty, Philip K. Dick, Joanna Russ and Cordwainer Smith were favorites, and I collected all the various best-of-the-year anthologies (and for a while, there were a lot). I regularly visited all the bookstores in town, new and used, looking for interesting new writers and well-written, adventurous stories.
One of my co-workers praised the movie, so one afternoon I rode my bicycle out to the theatre and sat through 17 minutes of commercials in the chilly dark1 waiting to see this magnificent new breakthrough in science fiction. Finally, the movie started.
And it stunk. If you are Star Wars fan, I’m sorry, but I found it stupid. The script was comic-book level. The actors might have been talented, but their lines were drivel. The music deserved a better showcase, and why did Alec Guinness bother with this mess? (Money, I suppose.)
I did sit through The Empire Strikes Back, and found it a little better — having Leigh Brackett on the script probably helped. It was still lousy, though, and I didn’t bother watching any more Lucasian nonsense.
I would hesitate to call Star Wars “life-changing,” but along with a few other disasters like Blade Runner — I left the theater furious at what had been done to Dick’s novel — it was one of the reasons I lost all interest in movies.2
By the way, if you want to see Alec Guinness in roles that suit him, start here.
It crossed my mind
to buy yet another book until
I stopped to count the ones I have.
I’m alive again after an unpleasant two weeks. I’ve got a lot of cleaning and catching up to do, so I’ll continue to be scarce here.
A few things that caught my eye or ear recently:
I have a little list of words and phrases that tell me everything I need to know about the people who use them. So does J Greely.
Mozart and Chagall.
There’s a live-action version of Tonari no Seki-kun. You don’t need to know Japanese to follow the story.
Bonus link: Vulcanologist Erik Klemetti counts down his list of the ten most dangerous volcanoes. If you’re thinking of investing in European real estate, forget Naples.
Real history is nothing like school history. Oddly, real history is more like a swords-and-sorcery novel: evil priests, hair matted with blood, commit human sacrifices atop pyramids amidst a city built on a lake inside a volcanic crater; frenzied fighting ensues.
Post script: See also Conan the Librarian.
If you have the experience as I’ve had of just driving through town driving past schools and then driving past prisons, they really often look a lot alike.
During 2016, many people died, some of whom were famous. This happens every year. 2016 was a really lousy year for many reasons, but not because a lot of celebrities died.
Most of the dead performers were adequately memorialized — the hoopla surrounding David Bowie’s departure was downright ridiculous1 — but a few were overlooked, and I discovered their deaths weeks or months later.
One whom I miss is Bob Elliott, half of Bob and Ray. I wonder if youngsters today can sit still long enough to appreciate B&R’s unhurried delivery. Here are some of their skits, some of which are older than I am.