Thursday, November 29, 2007
Mad scientists and their assistants
have switched from trying to create life
to strumming on acoustic guitars.
All around the world, especially
in Europe, when lightning storms blow through
and strange metal kites get to flying
above parapets of dark castles
the sparking arcs of blue-white lightning
are transferred by wire to the inside
of the dark castles, changed to a glow
and used to illuminate stage shows
where scientists in flannel work shirts
play blonde guitars and sing, backed up by
voiceless hunchbacks on rhythm guitar.
Instead of charging the dark castles
waving blazing torches and pitchforks
the townspeople, now, spend their weekends
listening to songs about love and angst.
Little girls picking flowers in the woods
don’t meet monsters, now, they hum folk songs
and make garlands of wildflowers to sell
to couples off to the dark castles.
The new Prometheus is about
lighting candles on small, round tables
so lovers can see each other’s face
and sigh and dream and exchange a kiss.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Ayn Rand characters have never heard any question that could not be answered exhaustively in an extemporaneous three or four hour monologue. Ayn Rand herself, on the other hand, writing about the philosophy behind her characters, could be reasonably succinct.
[Writing note: After typing that paragraph I went back and changed ‘extemporaneous’ to ‘off-the-cuff.’ But then I thought, screw it: I use big words. Somewhere out there in the world there must be a cool girl who likes six syllable words…]
Here is Ayn Rand writing in an essay titled, “Philosophy and Sense of Life,” in her book, “The Romantic Manifesto.”
Hey, Ayn Rand, what is love?
There are two aspects of man’s existence which are the special province and expression of his sense of life: love and art.
I am referring to romantic love, in the serious meaning of that term—as distinguished from the superficial infatuations of those whose sense of life is devoid of any consistent values, i.e., of any lasting emotions other than fear. Love is a response of values. It is with a person’s sense of life that one falls in love—with that essential sum, that fundamental stand or way of facing existence, which is the essence of a personality. One falls in love with the embodiment of the values that formed a person’s character, which are reflected in his widest goals or smallest gestures, which create the style of his soul—the individual style of a unique, unrepeatable, irreplaceable consciousness. It is one’s own sense of life that acts as the selector, and responds to what it recognizes as one’s own basic values in the person of another. It is not a matter of professed convictions (though these are not irrelevant); it is a matter of much more profound, conscious and subconscious harmony.
Many errors and tragic disillusionments are possible in this process of emotional recognition, since a sense of life, by itself, is not a reliable cognitive guide. And if there are degrees of evil, then one of the most evil consequences of mysticism—in terms of human suffering—is the belief that love is a matter of “the heart,” not the mind, that love is an emotion independent of reason, that love is blind and impervious to the power of philosophy. Love is the expression of philosophy—of a subconscious philosophical sum—and, perhaps, no other aspect of human existence needs the conscious power of philosophy quite so desperately. When that power is called upon to verify and support an emotional appraisal, when love is a conscious integration of reason and emotion, of mind and values, then—and only then—it is the greatest reward of man’s life.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
I’ve never much liked big entertainment or serious art. Broadway plays? No. De Kooning paintings? No.
On the other hand I practically worship low budget creations geared toward more blue collar demographics. Very often workman-like productions—in all media—have a reasonable respect for craftsmanship and lots of entertainment value. Sometimes they even contain unexpected, oddball little gems—moments, images, phrases—people remember all their life.
It’s difficult to imagine something lower budget or more workman-like than the 1956 Universal International horror classic [‘classic’ ?], “The Mole People.”
This film contains a moment I’ve remembered my whole life, and it illustrates a particular technique for writing a tricky kind of scene.
“The Mole People” is the story of a Harvard archeologist and his team of scientists doing field work somewhere in Asia. While investigating an unexpected artifact, a scientist—a bit player scientist—falls into a crevasse. Attempting to rescue their colleague, the other scientists discover a vast subterranean world with a lost civilization of albino Sumerians. The albino Sumerians keep a slave race of burrowing monsters—the Mole People—to perform their labor.
There also is a beautiful, non-albino girl the albinos regard as an ugly freak and keep as a slave. She, of course, falls in love with the Harvard archeologist.
Now, for a writer this kind of scenario brings up a problem. You’ve got a clash of civilizations. You’ve got an Ivy League professor. Presumably you’re going to get some Deep Questions asked and some Insightful Answers given.
But most writers, of course, typically have less insight than they have money (which they typically have none of).
So how does a writer create dialogue for a character that’s supposed to be wise and insightful?
I know of three basic techniques:
1) The cheesiest way is simply to fake it. Someone asks a Meaningful Question. The wise character starts to answer when suddenly a woman screams or a bomb goes off or a giant lizard crashes through the wall and the plot zips along right past the question and answer but the audience gets the impression the wise character could have delivered some insight.
2) The hardest way is to actually try to create an answer that is insightful. This is dangerous because there’s always going to be someone in the audience who either recognizes where the insight was stolen from or who catches half a dozen logical flaws. When they start to chuckle or snicker the whole audience will realize the writer screwed up.
3) The most workman-like way of crafting wisdom is to have the wise character say something that is bluntly simple and definitely not wrong and then move the scene along quickly as if the wise character could have said more if he’d wanted to. Sometimes these little, simple, not-wrong kind of things can have a beauty all their own.
“The Mole People” was written by Laszlo Gorog and he uses this third technique frequently. The film came out before I was born, but I saw it when I was very young. I’ve always remembered one particular scene.
The beautiful slave girl, Adad, is alone with the Harvard archeologist, Dr. Bentley, in the cave where he’s living. She plays something like a guitar while they chat. They have this exchange:
Did you learn that song as a child?
I did not learn it. I … found it.
It’s beautiful. As beautiful as you are.
No. I am a marked one. The priests said so.
They’re so right. It’s not only the color of your eyes and your hair and your cheek that mark you. It’s your heart, also. It beats with tenderness. The love of your ancestors is there.
Love? What is love? I do not understand.
Well, if somebody has hurt and his hurt gives you pain, or if somebody has joy and his joy gives you pleasure, that’s love.
It’s difficult to imagine a more Meaningful Question than ‘What is love?’ or a question more difficult to answer.
But as low budget monster movie answers go, I thought that one was pretty cool.
Tomorrow I’ll put up a quote from a writer who attempts to answer the question the hard way.
Monday, November 26, 2007
In cities everywhere among the homes
and business buildings there are empty lots.
Rectangles of open land with rubble
scattered around from what used to be there.
Plants, insects, small mammals make lots their home.
Empty lots are urban wildlife preserves.
They’re called empty lots but they’re not empty.
I grew up on Chicago’s near south side.
When I was a kid I loved empty lots.
Every summer I’d explore all the lots
within a couple of miles of my home.
Each lot had its own personality.
Some had low weeds. Some had giant sunflowers.
Some had beautiful orb-weaving spiders.
Some had logs with mouse nests underneath them.
I’m an adult now. After a fashion.
Grown, I often feel like an empty lot.
My life, rubble from what used to be here.
My self, wild like plants, insects, small mammals.
I am an urban preserve of something.
Something with some kind of order, value.
The modern world is a world of cities.
Cities are living things, made of buildings.
Empty lots, whatever they may contain,
are not buildings. They’re out of place today.
I’m not empty. But in the modern world
even I have to call myself empty.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“Shanghai looks like the future!”
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Gertrude: One woe doth tread upon another’s heel,
So fast they follow. Your sister’s drowned, Laertes.
Laertes: Drowned! Oh, where?
Gertrude: There is a willow grows askant the brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream:
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.
There on pendent boughs her crownet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaidlike awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
Laertes: Alas, then she is drowned?
Gertrude: Drowned, drowned.
Gertrude reports the events of Ophelia’s death as if she had seen (and heard!) them herself. How did Gertrude know all those details of Ophelia’s death?
Was Gertrude there? Did she put pressure on the ‘envious sliver’ Ophelia was standing on? Or was Gertrude just watching when the bough broke but then took no action at all to help save Ophelia?
Let’s look more closely at what happened.
Ophelia dies during act IV, somewhere between scene V and scene VII.
Scene V opens with Ophelia, Hamlet’s lover, confronting Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, and getting in a famous, subtle dig: “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” At this point, Ophelia is either mad from grief over the death of her father or she is feigning madness for reasons of her own, as is Hamlet. (Assuming, that is, Hamlet’s pretend madness really is pretend. It’s always possible Hamlet in fact is mad and his pretense at pretense is, well, just a pretense.)
In the middle of scene V, after Ophelia’s confrontation with Gertrude, Ophelia exits and Cladius instructs Horatio to follow her. However, a few moments later Ophelia returns and there’s no direct mention of Horatio returning also to keep an eye on her. When Ophelia exits, again, she will not return.
Gertrude exits just after Ophelia. There is no mention of either of them again until scene VII when Gertrude enters with the news of Ophelia’s drowning. And with all the details of Ophelia’s death…
Did Horatio continue to follow Ophelia as Claudius instructed him to do? Did Horatio witness Ophelia fall into the brook and report the details to Gertrude?
I don’t believe it. If Horatio had witnessed Ophelia fall into the brook, wouldn’t Horatio have jumped in and pulled her out? And Horatio almost certainly wasn’t Gertrude’s source for the details of Ophelia’s death because after scene V, Horatio was busy with the sailors delivering Hamlet’s letters in scene 6.
Where did Gertrude get the details of Ophelia’s death?
Gertrude must have been at the brook.
At the very least, Gertrude witnessed Ophelia fall into the brook and did nothing herself to save Ophelia, didn’t summon attendants to help. At the worst, Gertrude helped break the branch Ophelia was standing on. It’s murder, either direct or indirect.
Gertrude has her murder, just as surely as Claudius has his and Hamlet has his.
One big happy family.
It’s worth noting that scene VII, the scene that ends with Gertrude reporting the death of Hamlet’s lover, opens with Gertrude’s husband, Claudius, conniving to kill Hamlet. Royal family murder symmetry.
So why has history, all of pop culture, raised up Ophelia as a kind of icon of female suicide when a straightforward reading of the play casts her death as a murder?
Is it more acceptable in civilized culture for us to think that a young woman may kill herself than it is to think that a mother may kill her son’s lover?
Why have so few books even commented on the possibility of Gertrude murdering Ophelia? Or on the incongruity of Gertrude having so many details of the death?
Heck, a woman writer, Carolyn Heilbrun, has written about Gertrude and singled out her description of Ophelia’s death, saying: [Gertrude] leaves Laertes and the King together, and then returns to tell Laertes that his sister is drowned. She gives her news directly, realizing that suspense will increase the pain of it, but this is the one time in the play when her usual pointed conciseness would be the mark neither of intelligence nor kindness, and so, gently, and at some length, she tells Laertes of his sister’s death, giving him time to recover from the shock of grief, and to absorb the meaning of her words. [my emphasis] Heilbrun recognizes the speech is unique, but she never questions the content of it. Geesh!
It’s all very weird.
I don’t know which I find more interesting: Shakespeare’s play, ‘Hamlet,’ or the fact that four hundred years of pop culture critics and trend mongers have ignored the textual parallels between Ophelia and Hamlet and instead have reduced Ophelia to a one dimensional suicide victim (based on, in fact, only the words of the woman who almost certainly directly or indirectly killed Ophelia).
It’s all very weird.
I don’t know who has treated Ophelia worse, Hamlet, Gertrude or literature professors.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Two totally unconnected cryptozoology stories appeared in the mainstream press at the start of November. One was about bigfoot, the other was about chupacabra. Each was interesting in itself, and they both were typical examples of the way mainstream media report cryptozoology in general. Here are the two stories. I’ll make a couple of remarks afterward.
Hunter's Photos Ignite New Debate Over Bigfoot's Existence
RIDGWAY, Pa. — A hunter out to photograph deer last month has reignited the Sasquatch debate with a photograph of a small furry animal walking on all fours.
Rick Jacobs said he took this photograph with a camera using an automatic trigger in the Allegheny National Forest, about 115 miles north of Pittsburgh, hoping to capture deer. But his image has only managed to spark further debate about the existence of bigfoot.
"We couldn't figure out what they were," Jacobs said of the images captured on Sept. 16. "I've been hunting for years and I've never seen anything like this."
He contacted the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, which pursues reports of a legendary two-legged creature that some people believe lives in parts of the U.S. and Canada.
"It appears to be a primate-like animal. In my opinion, it appears to be a juvenile Sasquatch," said Paul Majeta of the bigfoot group.
However, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has a more conventional opinion. Agency spokesman Jerry Feaser said conservation officers routinely trap bears to be tagged and often see animals that look like the photos.
"There is no question it is a bear with a severe case of mange," Feaser told The Bradford Era.
* * *
Creature ID'd As Coyote, Not Chupacabra
SAN MARCOS, Texas (AP) — The results are in: The ugly, big-eared animal found this summer in Cuero is not the mythical bloodsucking chupacabra. It's just a plain old coyote.
Biologists at Texas State University announced Thursday night that they had identified the hairless doglike creature.
San Antonio television station KENS provided a tissue sample from the animal for testing.
"The DNA sequence is a virtually identical match to DNA from the coyote (Canis latrans)," bioligist Mike Forstner said in a written statement. "This is probably the answer a lot of folks thought might be the outcome. I, myself, really thought it was a domestic dog, but the Cuero Chupacabra is a Texas Coyote."
Phylis Canion and some of her neighbors discovered the 40-pound bodies of three of the animals over four days in July outside her ranch in Cuero, 90 miles southeast of San Antonio. Canion said she saved the head of the one she found so she could get to get to the bottom of its ancestry through DNA testing and then mount it for posterity.
Forstner said the testing provided an opportunity to demonstrate how science answers questions.
Chupacabra means "goat sucker" in Spanish, and it is said to have originated in Latin America, specifically Puerto Rico and Mexico.
"This is fun, not scary, but if people are worried about the chupacabra, it is probably even more important that we explain the mystery," he said. "Folks can fear what they don't understand, and a big part of the goal in science is to explain the natural world."
He said additional skin samples have been taken to try to determine the cause of the animal's hair loss.
These stories look to me like examples of a philosophical double standard—an epistemological double standard—on the part of scientists seeking to explain the evidence.
In mainstream paleontology, evidence is assumed to be representative of a ‘normal’ element of the population. For instance, the various sizes of ancient proto-human skulls are assumed to be representatives of normal individuals from different species of early man, not examples of regular humans with medical conditions that created large, small or misshapen skulls.
Indeed, when creation science believers make just that argument, mainstream scientists patiently explain that medical anomalies are rare and recovering any evidence at all is very rare, so the odds against a rare medical anomaly also being recovered as evidence become very high.
In cryptozoology, however, mainstream scientists almost always explain away evidence as an anomaly of some kind. Strange coyotes with a skin condition. Strange bears with a skin condition.
But the statistical dynamics are as valid here as in paleontology. Encounters with animals in the wild are generally pretty rare. Animals with bizarre medical conditions are pretty rare. Our ‘default’ assumption, therefore, when looking at evidence shouldn’t be that it depicts an unusual individual from a general population, but rather that it depicts a normal element of some population.
Monday, November 19, 2007
Normally I make an effort to keep this blog kinda/sorta on topic (Forteana, weird things in general). I know I often come up short in that effort, but, still, I try. Today’s post is a little different. Today’s post is pretty indulgent, but what the hell it’s my blog and other than the various voices in my head there are no editors here.
The Friday before last I included a pencil sketch I drew. I talked about how in comic art pencil drawings are used to establish structure and light/dark arrangements, then are modified by “inking.” I’ve developed my pencil skills, more or less, onto the path to adequacy, but my inking skills suck.
One trouble is there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of inking styles and techniques. Many are clean and precise. Many are scribbled and casual. My problem is that I have so little ability with a pen that my results are all over the place. It doesn’t appear ‘style-less’ in the sense of effortless and cool, but rather ‘style-less’ in the sense of being such a mish-mash of uncontrolled marks that there’s literally no style at all.
But I wanted to explain why I was spending time drawing Paris Hilton.
It’s not because I’m a particular fan of Paris Hilton.
Yes, I know I’ve mentioned her a bit. But that’s because I have a deep-rooted fear of talking about people and things that are wildly out-of-sync with the contemporary world.
It’s always bugged me, for instance, that the central reference in “Mischa Barton, Mischa Barton” was to “Danny Kaye. I mean, how many people alive today even know who Danny Kaye was, let alone remember the cool, happy, slapstick sense-of-life most of his movies projected?
If I talk about Paris Hilton, today everybody knows who and what I’m talking about.
So. I was drawing Paris Hilton because I had an idea for a cartoon about her.
(Hmmm. This cartoon drawing scheme goes back a couple of years. I’d decided that—maybe!—I should face the fact that I’m not going to make money selling manuscripts of short stories and novels after trying and failing for fifteen years. So I asked myself, ‘What else can I, as a writer, write and try to make money doing?’ After I slapped myself around for even thinking, ‘Well, I like writing and singing folksongs,’ I thought, ‘Well, I can draw a little. Maybe I could write captions for cartoons, draw them and sell the cartoons.’ I’ve been devoting a little time, now and then, to trying that.)
Early Saturday afternoon—just before my own evening of cool, happy, slapstick fun began—I did another pencil sketch of Paris Hilton. This time, however, I inked it and lettered some text. I did it all quickly, in about ninety minutes. I didn’t ‘labor’ over any of it because I think real ability has to come out of a relaxed, casual kind of effort.
This is the cartoon I made. It’s got lots of problems, but I wanted to post it as an example of where my abilities are now. Let’s see if I can get better. (Tomorrow, I promise, I’ll get back to Goblin Universe topics with news stories about bigfoot and chupacabra.)
Friday, November 16, 2007
Broken. Smashed. Shattered.
Pieces scattered. The whole lost.
Reduced to fragments.
But the magic world
is a holographic world.
Each piece is the whole,
entire, always connected,
Just coruscating . . .
The appearance of glitter.
Magic is physics
that’s not in the textbooks yet.
Everywhere we look
we see the glitter
of a holographic world.
All the king’s horses
and all the king’s men
can’t put us back together.
Because we can’t break.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Recently I’ve posted about guitars with (possibly) too many knobs and telescopes with (possibly) too many circuit boards. Now one company has sort of summed up my unease about the modern world in a single product:
The new Gibson robot guitar.
[coughs] Great. A guitar that tunes itself.
Musicians who play with Neil Young will probably buy the guy the prototype.
Is there really a point to a mechanical system for tuning a guitar? With guitar synths you can just assign a tuning to the strings and you’re in business. And, anyway, even with an analog guitar is staying in tune really that hard? I have a tin ear and I don’t have too much trouble staying reasonably close to in tune. You learn, over time, to hear octaves and fifths and harmonics and moving around the fretboard to find the different octaves and fifths and harmonics not only gets your machine in tune, but it helps you become familiar with the fretboard, it helps you warm up your fingers.
This is a strange invention.
Even if I had a ton of disposable income I would not be tempted even to try out this guitar in a store, let alone buy one to try out at home. I would be tempted to get a guitar with a lot of knobs—I would kind of enjoy a built-in preamp and a graphic equalizer. Or simply a full-featured guitar synthesizer. I’d even be tempted to buy one of those telescopes where everything is computer controlled and motor driven.
But I don’t see any need at all for a guitar that keeps track of the string tuning for me.
(In fact, the Gibson robot guitar has reminded me that I’ve also posted this: “How To Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion”)
Update: The newest generation is the Gibson Dusk Tiger
More Update: The NEW newest generation is the Gibson Firebird X
All that having been said, the guitar’s inventor says Steve Vai likes the guitar. Steve Vai is a pretty darn good guitarist and a pretty sharp guy. (I wouldn’t buy the robot guitar just because Steve Vai likes it, but his endorsement makes me wonder if I’m missing something in my thinking . . .)
Here’s an interview with the inventor from the Gibson robot guitar website:
Meet the Inventor of the Robot Guitar's Self-Tuning System
It took Chris Adams 10 years to perfect the lightweight and foolproof auto-tuning system on the revolutionary Gibson Robot Guitar. Aggravated by the never-ending tuning process, he devised a system that would automatically tune a guitar in no time flat. While he was at it, Adams developed the robotic technology that allows the Robot Guitar to switch effortlessly between multiple tunings, keep a guitar perfectly intonated, and even change strings.
What were your feelings about partnering with Gibson?
It's a dream come true. I'm proud of it because Gibson is the Mercedes of guitars. It's not just any brand; it's the most high-profile guitar manufacturer in the world, so it says something about the tuning system. It's a high-quality innovative product. That's why it fits so well with Gibson because Gibson's always cutting edge and a leader in technology.
What kind of guitarist do you think the Robot Guitar will appeal to?
It appeals to every type of guitar player. The total beginner can use it. It's so much more fun to have a guitar that is in tune from the start. The pro players are also very intrigued about the system because they can do so many things that they couldn't do before. A guitar tech can tune their guitar at the side of the stage, but the show happens on stage and a good guitar is very sensitive to changing conditions, concerning the climate and temperature. So no matter how good it was in tune on the side of the stage, it's not going to be in perfect tune on stage. This system gives the control back to pro guitar players. You have to think about so many things already when you're a guitar player that being in tune is one less huge hassle to think about.
Which famous musicians are already using your system?
Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins, he loves it. Matt Bellamy from Muse put it in his guitars. Uli Jon Roth, former guitar player of the Scorpions, says he actually can't live without it anymore. Steve Vai couldn't believe it unless he saw it, and once he saw it it was still very hard for him to believe. He's telling everybody about how great it is. Steve Lukather really loves it. I showed it to Pete Townshend, and he wants to get to know more about it. That's just the start of it.
How long does it take the average guitarist to feel comfortable with the Robot Guitar?
It takes less than two minutes to understand how to be in tune. Start with the basic stuff first. The only thing you have to do to start is pull the knob, strum the strings, and when everything on the display is blue, you are done. We checked the guitar out with some nine-year-old kids, and they picked it up immediately. It doesn't come easier than this—pull the knob, strum, push in, done.
How often do you have to turn the system on when you're playing?
Once you get this system, your tolerance for a guitar that's out of tune is lower. You get used to it very fast. After two weeks you hear so much more because you always have a guitar that is in tune. So you tend to turn the system on much more often because you have become much more aware of when you're out of tune. Who wants to be out of tune? Nobody. Now that it's no work, you tend to use this much more often. Once you get used to the system, it becomes second nature.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
When I was typing yesterday’s post, I had the uneasy feeling I was making some kind of blunt mistake, some kind of blunder.
But I couldn’t figure out what it was.
After I posted yesterday, I quickly found a couple of typing errors and re-posted to correct them. Later in the day I re-posted to add a sentence and a link. But I was still bugged by something.
It bothered me a bit that I hadn’t said anything about Toyota’s trumpet-playing robot (in fact, I’ve seen references to them having an entire marching band of robots) but I didn’t think I really needed that for the post. That wasn’t what was bugging me.
So, something kind of nagged at me all day and into the evening. Then, at about 10:30 last night, I was reaching for a book to read and flash like someone turning on a light—a yellow, shark-shaped light—I realized what was bugging me and why.
In my post yesterday, in the paragraph about Frank Zappa, I wrote: “With the possible exception of Pierre Boulez, I don’t remember Zappa having many kind words for classical musicians.” Well, somehow, I’d completely forgotten about Zappa’s amazing “Yellow Shark” (‘Der Gelbe Hai’) performances with Germany’s Ensemble Modern!
What the hell! Where was my mind at? Zappa himself approved liner notes that singled out the experience: “…the first time Frank Zappa’s so-called ‘serious’ (orchestral) work was rendered with a level of accuracy and dedication that both delighted the composer (rivaled, perhaps, only by Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain, which commissioned and recorded a number of his works in 1984) and left audiences in Frankfurt, Berlin, and Vienna alternating between rapt attentiveness and ovation.”
The Ensemble Modern had a budget that allowed for rehearsal time both in California and Germany. And their budget also covered a high-tech sound system for all their performances.
Most importantly, the musicians approached the music with humor and passion and the kind of tremendous skills most people assume all classical musicians have, but which are, in fact, quite rare.
The CD of the performances includes nineteen pieces that give a great overview of Zappa’s orchestral work, from the ‘classical’ sounding Zappa in ‘Dog Breath Variations’ through the ‘modern music’ sounding Zappa in pieces like ‘Welcome to the United States.’ Most of the compositions have a typical Zappa kind of ‘fusion’ sound, but not fusion of rock and jazz, rather fusion among classical, jazz and avant garde.
And the CD includes lots of interesting behind-the-scenes bits. My favorite is the story of what started out as an untitled string quartet piece that, for Zappa, was written as an evocation of modern Venice. When the musicians began rehearsal, they were working without a conductor and had difficulty keeping time. Eventually they decided that which ever player wasn’t playing at a particular point would tap out time against his or her instrument. The first time they played through the piece in that manner for Zappa, Zappa—always a lover of percussion—liked the tapping that shifted around the orchestra and told them to leave it in. Zappa said Venice has an endless supply of pigeons and the tapping could be the sounds of all the pigeons pecking at things. And the unnamed piece acquired its title: “Questi Cazzi Di Piccione” (‘Those Fucking Pigeons’)
So, there you go. I went back and listened to all nineteen tracks again last night. They were even more beautiful than I’d remembered them being—once I remembered them at all!
On a synthesizer note, some of these compositions had been created on a synthesizer, Zappa’s Synclavier, and even Boulez’s group hadn’t performed them well enough for Zappa to release. Zappa wrote that he’d begun to wonder if a real musician would ever play them properly. The Ensemble Modern, conducted by Peter Rundel, buckled down and got the job done.
It’s performances like these that make me look to the heavens and thank the technology gods for digital recording technology and CD players.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Last week I wondered why a musician would choose to devote the time and effort it takes to learn a traditional single-voice, single-sound instrument like a woodwind or horn when modern polyphonic instruments like keyboards or guitars can drive synthesizers that produce any sound imaginable, including the sounds of traditional instruments. (And Angie wondered what would happen to the music community at large if musicians stopped acquiring the discipline traditional instruments require.)
To round out this discussion, it’s worth noting that for decades in Japan researchers have completely sidestepped the whole synthesizer issue by developing anthropomorphic robots that physically play the same instruments a human being would play.
As far back as 1984 [!] a robot called Wabot-2 could sit at a keyboard, read music [!] and play the music. In “Loving The Machine,” Hornyak writes: “To show the world how well Japanese had accepted machines and robots into their lives, a slightly modified version of this electric pianist named Wasubot, with a repertoire of sixteen pieces, read and performed J. S. Bach’s ‘Air on the G String’ with the NHK Symphony Orchestra at Expo ’85 in Tsukuba, northeast of Tokyo. Emperor Akihito, then crown prince, was in the audience along with thousands of others. … Wasubot was a humanoid, and when he played it was not a recording, but a provocative performance. Some listeners saw an enormously complex and expensive machine usurping a most emotive human activity, and felt a chill. Others saw a robot—a mechanical mirror of themselves—and heard music that moved them to tears.”
More recently, Japanese researchers have developed a robot that can play the flute. You can actually watch its mechanical lungs working as it plays. There is a sound and video clip of the robot playing on the web. It’s amazing.
I’m not exactly sure what to make of this stuff. It’s vastly more popular in Japan than it is in America. I tend to see it from two idiosyncratic views.
Frank Zappa was often asked to compose and/or arrange and/or conduct orchestral music for established orchestras all around the world. With the possible exception of Pierre Boulez, I don’t remember Zappa having many kind words for classical musicians. I don’t know what the situation is nowadays, but in the 80s and 90s musicians were unionized and Zappa felt seniority counted for more than general musicianship. (Zappa, used to working with the finest studio musicians and performing musicians in rock and pop, according to legend often resorted to exhorting the classical musicians with things like, ‘Hey, if you guys can’t sight-read it I’ll fly in some of my rock musicians who’ll read it and play it so you can hear what it’s supposed to sound like.’) I think composers would probably enjoy having an orchestra of mechanical players who could be counted on to get things right. Composers might also want to work with real, human musicians, but I bet either openly or secretly composers would like having robots available just to hear things played the way the composer heard it in his or her head.
Robot musicians touch a very personal nerve for me, because when I was eleven years old, I really loved the scenes in “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” and “Dr. Phibes Rises Again” when his clockwork musicians played and he danced with his beautiful assistant Vulnavia. If I ever become a supervillain and construct a fantastic, hidden lair for myself and my beautiful assistant, I would like to have a band of clockwork musicians to play cool, slow versions of jazz standards while I plotted and executed my world domination (and danced with my beautiful assisant).
It’s quarter to three,
There’s no one in the place except you and me
So, set ’em up, Joe
I got a little story I think you should know
We’re drinking my friend
To the end of a brief episode
So, make it one for my baby
And one for the road . . .
Monday, November 12, 2007
Anime GirlOh, Sasquatch, if civilization crumbles under the pressures of accelerated climate change what will become of us?
SasquatchDon’t be afraid of tomorrow, Anime Girl! If Vikings return to Vinland or anywhere else I’ll use their threshing oars to harvest the skulls of any horde that tries to rampage over you.
Anime GirlOh, Sasquatch, you are just one beast of bone and muscle and fur and blood and flashing eyes and gnashing teeth standing against an on-rushing torrent of chaos and mad violence, winds that can up-root any tree, lightening that can shatter any boulder, but when I stand next to you and look at you I know your wide shoulders and your massive arms can knock aside even the mightiest toppled tree or cracked boulder that the Furies may hurl at us. I know in the end even if the whole forest around us has been flattened you still will be standing. And I still will be safe at your side. I love you, Sasquatch!
SasquatchAnd I love you, too, Anime Girl. I love you, too.
Friday, November 09, 2007
Two days ago—Wednesday evening—from seven to nine I watched “Mythbusters” on the Discovery Channel.
I also spent those two hours drawing this sketch:
This is graphite pencil on bond. I scanned it at 16-bit grayscale at 72dpi. It was ‘autocorrected’ in MSPM twice to bump the contrast. It was drawn from a photograph of Paris Hilton. (The last time I asked a woman to pose in real life she almost called over a security guard.)
This image creates a big problem for me. Or, rather, this kind of image along with the modern technology of image processing creates a big problem for me. It’s kind of a graphics version of the music issue I posted about yesterday.
I’m a fairly independent sort. (‘Independent sort’ is a polite, supportive way to describe me.) As a writer, I’ve always been attracted to the thought of someday illustrating one of my stories myself. Or even of putting together a graphic novel. Or, most intriguing, making an animated film doing everything myself—pre-production, production and post-production. Today’s technology makes such thoughts possible. And, over the years, I’ve tried to whip up in myself a skill set that might be compatible with such thoughts.
In terms of image making, for many decades ‘comic art’—the stuff typically but not always seen in graphic novels—has been created using a straightforward sequence: An artist first creates pencil drawings which define the structure and light/dark arrangement of the image; Then black ink is applied using pen or brush techniques to create a high-contrast image; Finally, and optionally, colored inks are applied over the black and white image.
These are really three different skills. Penciling, inking and coloring. They’ve often but not always been performed by three different people for a given image.
Technology now, however—printing technology and image processing technology—can take relatively low contrast pencil drawings and either print them adequately as is, or change them automatically to high contrast art. The traditional steps of inking and even coloring now can be done either automatically or with various levels of ‘assistance’ to stream-line the process.
Working in the digital realm, all on computer, an artist has access to infinite ‘undo’ and many automated functions with simplify everything.
So, the problem is, I’ve developed my drawing ability to this level, this sort of almost-good-enough level to create almost adequate ‘pencils.’ But I’m having great difficulty mustering up a sense of imperative to push beyond ‘almost good enough’ and get up to actually ‘good.’
The thing is, I’m pretty good with computers. I work with computers for fun, and I used to do it for a living. Everything digital comes naturally to me. Having gotten an image to this stage with pencil, stump and eraser, for me additional refinements, corrections and modifications are vastly easier in, say, Photoshop than in the real world of more pencils and then switching to pens and inks.
But if you look at modern comics, if you look at what even very skillful artists crank out when they use computers for inking and coloring, you see that almost everything sucks.
Modern comics with almost all the art created entirely within the digital realm are almost all ugly. They are almost always well ‘designed,’ but there’s very little there that elicits engagement with a viewer.
Somehow, for some difficult to define reason, the digital realm smothers art.
I don’t want to crank out well designed but ugly and worthless images. I want to maintain that difficult to define element, whatever it is, that is the spark of an image, that creates engagement, that is art—or, at least, acceptable commercial art.
But it’s much harder to do that than it is to futz around on a computer.
I don’t know how to turn off my awareness of the digital world’s power and ease-of-use and force myself to buckle down and get better with the analog world’s human-centric pencils, pens and inks.
I’m working on it.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
The most concise—and reasonably meaningful—definition of computer programming I’ve ever seen was coined when European computer scientist Niklaus Wirth titled a book, “Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs.”
I’ve never seen an equally concise definition of music, but some book on jazz composition I once read summed up “music” simply as what you get when you combine melody with harmony and rhythm.
Now, polyphonic instruments—keyboards, guitars—instruments which can play multiple voices simultaneously, can make music. Single voice instruments—trumpets, oboes—can play melodies. (Yes, I know jazz sax players can honk out intervals, but that’s hardly normal sax playing.)
With modern synthesizers having such great sound-modeling abilities, why does any musician choose to limit himself (or herself—Hi, Angie!) to a melody-centric instrument, a single voice instrument?
When I was very young and wanted to learn some instrument for making music, I gave my choice a lot of thought. Many different elements contributed to my thinking. Trivial, simple things like as a writer I already spent hours every day at a keyboard so I wanted to avoid just moving to different shaped keys. But I also considered more complicated things like polyphony and I liked the idea that guitars are actually fingers-against-strings with no mechanical intermediary.
Instruments like flute or oboe playing a melody certainly can be beautiful. But chords are so central to modern music—harmony, that is—that I couldn’t imagine myself limiting my playing to just one voice.
So I learned guitar.
But in the back of my mind I always envied the beautiful, sustained singing possible with woodwinds and horns.
Of course, synthesizers came along and then keyboards (and now guitars, too!) could fire off ‘sound-events’ built on profiles of any instrument in existence. At first samples and sound-profiles were crude and sounded awful. Now digital sampling and profiling is so sophisticated only very good ears can hear a difference between synthesizer and real. (And, I believe, in many cases even a good ear will be fooled.)
What’s going to happen to flutes? Oboes?
I know different types of instruments have their own ‘working’ traits—preferred ranges and troubled intervals and such—but a synthesizer player can learn such things very quickly.
Now, with synthesizers and keyboard controllers (or guitar controllers!) any musician can get all the benefits of polyphony along with any traditional instrument sound ever played (and the ability to model any new sound he or she can imagine). Keyboards and guitars give you access to melody, harmony and rhythm. And, now, all the sounds of the universe. Why ‘settle’ for a device which creates only pretty melodies in one sound?
Are woodwinds and horns going to go the way of the brontosaurus?
Is there any reason they shouldn’t?
Wednesday, November 07, 2007
Counting to 10 has never been so sweet! Wayne Thiebaud's delectable paintings, etchings, and drawings make Counting with Wayne Thiebaud as much an introduction to contemporary art as it is a delicious first book of numbers.
About the Author
Susan Goldman Rubin is the acclaimed author of such books as Degas and the Dance and Andy Warhol: Pop Art Painter. Her dynamic nonfiction has won her many awards and accolades from the CCBC, ALA, and the Smithsonian, among others.
[from the “Counting With Wayne Thiebaud” Amazon page]
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
I’m not really a cat person or a dog person. Generally I am more container oriented. So I keep Sea Monkeys. I’ve considered small fish. However, if I ever lived in a small cottage along some peaceful estuary, I would probably get a Norwegian Forest Cat.
When I first heard of the breed, I thought it was some kind of joke name. Like a cartoon cat or something like that. (Remember the Viking Kittens song?)
But Norwegian Forest Cats are real. Cats descended from cats that fended for themselves in the forests of Norway.
I’ve even exchanged some e-mails with people who own a Norwegian Forest Cat. I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about the breed. However, everyone has said they are loving and playful. The only caution I’ve heard more than once is that the cats are very loving. They become attached to people and expect to spend every free moment either playing with someone or just being with someone.
I like that combination in a cat that’s bigger than many dogs . . .
The Norwegian Forest Cat is an ancient breed that has probably been around for centuries but it is only relatively recently that it has been recognised as a pedigree breed. Norway is a large and picturesque country of mountains and forests which experiences long, dark, and extremely cold winters and short, cool summers. It was in this environment that the Norwegian Forest Cat (or Norsk Skogkatt as it is known in its native country) evolved. In such a harsh environment only the strongest survived and kittens that survived their first winter were the ones that went on to produce the next generation.
Over the centuries the Norwegian Forest Cat adapted well to the harsh climate of the forests and fjords of Norway but, although it was well equipped to live in the wild, the Norwegian Forest Cat was not a "wild" cat and was prepared to be friendly with humans. So there evolved a relationship between humans and cats whereby the humans benefited from the cat's rodent-catching abilities which protected the food stores and the cats benefited from the shelter provided by the humans. Bit by bit they made their way to the farms and fireplaces of the Scandinavian people, into their folklore as well and, finally, into the modern cat fancy where they enjoy an ever-growing popularity.
Companions of Vikings, Gods, and fairy folk, the Norwegian Forest Cat is equally at home purring on the foot of the bed, helping you sort paper clips and answer emails, or hunting wild animals (like butterflies!) in the garden. These are lively and curious cats with a mischievous streak and are intelligent, very brave, athletic and agile as necessary for their survival in Norway's extreme climate. The Norwegian Forest Cat quickly becomes an indispensable part of the family, adapting well to life with dogs and other cats and making a gentle playmate for children.
Known as Norsk Skogkatt in its native country, the Norwegian Forest Cat is a breed that has developed naturally as demanded by its environment. It is large and sturdy, standing high on its legs, with huge "snowshoe" paws adapted for climbing on rocks and walking on deep snow and ice. The head is triangular with a straight profile, open alert eyes set on a slight slant and giving an "all-seeing" expression, and large ears which are well tufted against the cold and have elegant lynx tips. Its body is lithe and muscular, ready to meet any challenge and it has strong legs and thighs for the speed to streak away from danger or to climb to the top of the tallest tree. Its long bushy tail is often carried high and proudly and looks most impressive but it also helps the cat with balance and can be used as a muffler to keep its nose and face warm in the snow and as a warm blanket for a mother cat's kittens.
The Norwegian Forest Cat's fur is unique consisting of a woolly, insulating undercoat topped by long, glossy guard hairs which provide year-round weather-proofing. In full winter coat the adult cat has an impressive ruff surrounding the face and shoulders and the back legs are also covered with long hair.
The Norwegian Forest Cat comes in a wide variety of colours ranging from solid black to pure white and includes blues, silvers and smokes, reds, tortoiseshells and the various tabby patterns. All are found with or without white markings of varying amounts and any amount of white or colour is equally acceptable. Colours which are currently not accepted in this breed are: chocolate, lilac, fawn, cinnamon, and the colourpoint pattern.
Monday, November 05, 2007
I like interesting and entertaining tin-foil conspiracy theories.
I especially enjoy silly conspiracy theories which are grand and cosmic in scope but at the same time are built on solid, blunt, every-day type facts. My favorite such theory is William Bramley’s, presented in his book, “Gods of Eden.”
Bramley began research designed to ferret out facts about the roles played by secret societies in fomenting wars throughout history. What he found, however, was what he regards as persuasive evidence of the secret societies themselves being manipulated throughout history and into the present day. Bramley, to his own chagrin, came to see the human race as essentially chattel, a slave race toiling away here on earth in service to interstellar owners and overlords.
As wild as Bramley’s theory sounds, he bases it on a buttoned-down review of ‘standard’ history coupled to a no-nonsense look at many contemporary institutions and practices.
I like theories built on odd ‘every-day’ type facts because even if a particular theory turns out to be, to put it politely, stuffed full of wild blueberry muffins, the odd facts themselves still need to be explained and possibly will have a ‘real’ explanation almost as interesting as the science fiction or fantasy theory which proved to be nonsense.
Today’s post, this Rate-of-God stuff, is the oddest set of real-life ‘facts’ I’ve ever discovered myself.
I don’t have an over-arching conspiracy theory to explain them. I have some thoughts, though, which I’ll get to after I present the basic facts.
Basically, this started when I watched the movie “Scream” and noticed that many of the characters were making a lot of references to God and/or Jesus. Once I noticed it, I noticed a lot of it. After thinking about it a bit, I decided to get all behaviorist about it and actually count the references. That made me curious about other, similar films. And that led me to create these three sets of stats:
I singled out these three movies because they are so similar. None is directly religious. In fact, in broad strokes, they all tell exactly the same story. A psycho killer is killing teenagers. Other teenagers try to stay alive and, maybe, discover who is doing the killing and why. All were made with similar budgets and production values.
One noteworthy thing is that the Rate-Of-God correlates pretty well with the success and influential nature of the movie. “Scream” grossed hundreds of millions of dollars and re-defined the whole industry of teen thrillers while spawning two sequels. “I Know What You Did Last Summer” didn’t do as well, but it did okay and spawned one sequel. “Cherry Falls” had the lowest Rate-Of-God and went directly to video with no sequels.
Something else worth mentioning is that although “Scream” contains the highest Rate-Of-God, it doesn’t contain many explicit, content-oriented references to religion. The references are typically in passing. However, the two sequels to “Scream” become almost bizarre in their explicit, content-oriented references to Christianity. Two examples of many: In “Scream Two,” the entire climax of the movie plays out with Sidney’s boyfriend ‘crucified’ and killed on a cross-shaped bit of stage scenery; In “Scream Three” the first character to be killed is named ‘Christine’ and the killer is named ‘Roman.’
What do I think this stuff means?
I think it’s probably one of three kinds of things:
At its simplest, and therefore most likely to be true, this kind of stuff may be nothing more than the stylistic imprint of the filmmakers. No deeper meanings of any kind.
Possibly, however, this is a more-or-less typical example of subliminal embeds. That is, ‘hot-button’ items which catch a person’s subconscious, create mental engagement and stimulate an emotional response. Such embeds have been used by certain artists for many hundreds of years. That story, of course, is told in Wilson Bryan Key’s books, like “Subliminal Seduction.”
At the outer fringe of possibility, however, there are the more intriguing, tin-foil possibilities. Things like this may be a concrete instance of the kind of manipulation James Shelby Downard proposes in his weird theories of political and social alchemy. Things like this may be the ‘brotherhoods’ of Bramley’s theory manipulating our thinking about religion. Things like this may be the latest manifestation of, for instance, the millennia-old struggle between Christianity and, say, Mithraism. (In “Scream Two” a stage director tells an actress, “The battle for the soul is fought in the arena of art.”)
I don’t know.
I just think it’s odd that stats like this exist.
And, as one final note, while most directors will never direct even one film that grosses hundreds of millions of dollars and re-shapes the industry, the director of “Scream,” Wes Craven, has had two such films, “Scream” and “Nightmare on Elm Street.” (Incidentally, although the film “Nightmare on Elm Street” contains no explicit political content, Elm Street is the name of the street in Dealey Plaza where President Kennedy was shot. Hmmm . . .)
Wes Craven might be one of them . . .
Friday, November 02, 2007
Tatum: Hey, Sid, just think: If they make a movie about you, who’s gonna play you?
Sidney: I shudder to think.
Dewey: I see you as a young Meg Ryan myself.
Sidney: Thanks, Dewey. With my luck they’d cast Tori Spelling.
Tatum: Hey, Mark, just think: If they make a movie about you, who’s gonna play you?
Me: I shudder to think.
Dewey: I see you as a middle-age William Hurt myself.
Me: Thanks, Dewey. With my luck they’d cast Clint Howard.
Thursday, November 01, 2007
This was a pretty pleasant Halloween.
No houses on our block were hit with eggs. Nobody wrote rude things on houses with shaving cream. I don’t know if I should be happy neighborhood kids are well-behaved or disappointed that local kids don’t have the energy and spirit to get up to the pointless kind of random bad behavior kids are supposed to now and then.
Halloween started off on a seriously macabre note.
Wednesday afternoon I was walking to the grocery store and I saw a news van from Chicago’s ABC affiliate setting up for a live remote outside our city hall. I chatted with one of the producers and asked what story they were going to cover. He said they were going to do a piece about the steps law enforcement was taking to keep children away from registered sex offenders during trick or treating. I thought, Oh, great, Chicago is all out of pedophiles so the news people have to come out here and associate our suburb with that sort of thing . . .
Once trick or treating got under way, however, everything stayed up-beat.
The coolest kid’s costume I saw was a high-tech Darth Vader suit. The helmet had a microphone, amplifier and sound processor built-in. When the little boy talked—“Trick or treat!” “Thank you!”—the hardware picked up the words, processed them and output a loud, Darth Vader voice: “Trick or treat!” “Thank you!”
Most of the kids were very young. We did have one pair of older teenagers. The girl was dressed something like a sexy, military policeman and the boy was dressed something like a sexy nurse. That made me homesick for the north side of Chicago where you see stuff like that pretty much every Friday night throughout the year.
My favorite costume was Angie’s. Angie’s feeling better—thank Heavens!—and was dressed as Raggedy Ann. The whole “living doll” look suited her very much. However as soon as I saw her I immediately thought of Pris from “Blade Runner.” (Angie insists she’s never seen the movie, but I wonder how much the ‘look’ of Pris has filtered out through the fashion industry, music videos and other movies? I wonder if the wild child in Angie’s deepest, secret soul used the Raggedy Ann look as a kind of acceptable ‘cover’ to indulge in some sexy, living doll android glamour?)
(“Blade Runner” certainly is a very visual movie. However I cannot strongly enough recommend everyone first read the book by Philip K. Dick, “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” It is not only vastly better than the movie—it’s one of my favorite books of all time—but the movie actually reverses [!] the theme and conclusion of the book. And, yes, I know Dick never said anything bad about the movie, but some people have estimated he made more money from selling the book to Hollywood than he had throughout his entire career writing manuscripts. Of course he didn’t say anything bad. He may have been quietly nuts, but he wasn’t stupid.)
Angie’s blog: Sentimental Small Talk