Saturday, November 27, 2010


A lot has been written about this movie on the interwebs, and theories about the mechanics of the plot abound. I have no new theories about who was dreaming when, how limbo works, how effective Cobb's totem is, and all that other stuff. The first two or three times I saw the movie, that's what I focused on until I accepted that whether Nolan intended it or not, the whole thing was a meta-dream experience for me. I can't make total sense of my dreams, and I couldn't make total sense of the movie. Instead, I'd like to look at the movie as it examines my favorite subject—death.

For anyone writing in English, death and dreams are inseparably linked. That's just part of our literary heritage. There is something of death in dreaming and something of dreams in living. "Come heavy sleep, the image of true death," writes John Dowland's anonymous lyricist.  "Our life as a dream, our time as a stream glides swiftly away, and the fugitive moment refuses to stay,"  says Charles Wesley. Conrad writes, "We live, as we dream—alone." Donne writes, "One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally." And of course, "What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause," says the Dane.

Think about it, when the characters died in a dream, they either woke up or plunged into an infinity of thought and further delusion.

What if Mal was right, not about if Cobb was still dreaming, but that existence as we know it, in any form, is not what it seems—that we are somehow shut out from the larger context of reality? Cobb accused his projection of Mal of being a "shade." (As an aside, there's a possible Dante reference there. He's in the deepest sphere of the dream, discussing his treachery, and he sees a shade. Hmmm.) But don't we feel like we are shades of ourselves, that we are never fully what we are? I think we all sympathize with Iago when he says, "I am not what I am."
It's only when our lives intersect with others we love that we really get a sense of how much more there is to things. It's like what Cobb said to the projection, "I can't imagine you with all of your perfection, all of your imperfection." Somehow, that realization clues us in that we have not emerged as our full selves. Don't all of us feel like we're part of something greater, that the weary life of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow isn't the summation of what we are? When we look at the timelines of those we love, there's an acknowledgement that the time and events are real, but only a shadow of the truth.

And how do we know anything? How do you know, really know, that right now, as you're reading this, you're not really asleep? The totems are worthless in the film. (Cobb's wasn't even his to begin with, and I'm convinced that whether it spins or falls is meaningless. At no point does he spin it and it stay up.) Likewise, any tricks about pinching ourselves or reasoning our way through the physics of a dream are wholly unreliable. I can't tell you how many times I've had a flying dream and was convinced it was reality. No amount of pinching could persuade me otherwise. I've often even been confused as to whether events I remember where dreamt or truly experienced.

In our highest and lowest moments, I think we all feel that life "is a walking shadow." And it's then that those impressions "tease us out of thought, as doth eternity."

Friday, November 19, 2010

"When Lenity and Cruelty Play for a Kingdom": The Hunger Games Trilogy

At first, I thought this was a series on teen anorexia. Turns out, it's not. I've found it difficult to tell people the premise of the book without making it sound like something no one would want to read. Here are some points about the premise:
  • It's set in the future, but it's not overly-futuristic. It's not trying to wow us with how cool technology is.
  • It is a dystopian novel, but it is the least preachy dystopian novel I have ever read. I really think it has zero political agenda.
  • A large portion of the books details a fight-to-the-death gladiatorial competition between children.
  • Naturally, then, these are violent books, but not overly so.
  • This is a romance, and a darn good one at that.
These books are a breeze to read. I typically read slowly and like to take long breaks and think about things as I read. I'm not kidding when I say I think it took me a month or two to read Life of Pi. I read Mockingjay in about three sittings over the course of 24 hours. After about the midway point in each book, the writing becomes all action. Not a paragraph goes by without some monumental moment erupting in the reader's mind. The momentum doesn't allow you to stop and think.
     Something else I typically do when I'm reading is guess ahead about plot points. That was so fun to do with this series because my expectations were continually dashed, but not in a bad way. Anyone picking up this book would assume that the main character would be a participant in the Hunger Games, but it doesn't happen the way we would expect. From the very beginning, Collins plays with our assumptions and makes every turn a thrill.
     She spent most of her career writing screenplays for children's TV shows, and you can tell. The books obsess over the TV coverage of the Games and later events. But there is also a cinematic quality to her writing. I think making a movie of these books would be superfluous. I've already seen it, and it's great. Why do a remake?
     I started this review off with a quote from Henry V, "When lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner." I felt that that became the main theme of the books, much more than centralized vs. decentralized government, justice, punishment, etc. The books are about morals and forgiveness. I like that.
     On the back of Mockingjay, there's a quote from Stephenie Meyer. Unfortunately for Ms. Meyer, this led me to compare the two authors. Whenever I criticize Meyer (which is too often), I always bring up William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. He says what the problem is with the modern author:
     "He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands."
     That's got Stephenie Meyer's name written all over it. But now consider what he says about great writing:
     "The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
     "He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice."
     That, dear friend, is The Hunger Games
So that's my general critique. If you haven't read the books, here's where you should pull out. Beyond this point, spoilers abound.
     Roger Ebert had this to say about Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice:
     "I felt an almost unreasonable happiness [at the end of the film]. Why was that? I am impervious to romance in most films, seeing it as a manifestation of box office requirements. Here it is different, because Darcy and Elizabeth are good and decent people who would rather do the right thing than convenience themselves. Anyone who will sacrifice their own happiness for higher considerations deserves to be happy. When they realize that about each other their hearts leap, and, reader, so did mine."
     The same goes for Katniss and Peeta. I struggled with the love triangle setup for the longest because I thought that Peeta was great, but Katniss was so undeserving. So I thought it was an absolute masterstroke when Peeta is essentially reset by the "hijacking," and Katniss has to earn his love all over again—she can't just rely on his altruism and an old crush. But in the end, they are both so good and wise and worthy. And how could she not choose Peeta, who was, without a doubt and at all points, the "gentler gamester?"

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sonnet 18

I never post my compositions on this blog, and I don't know why. They're probably a lot more entertaining than pretentious diatribes. Here goes a composition (one of the few that I've actually recorded):

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Theory of Music: The Historical Art

Every art has its own relationship with history. Literature is stuffed with allusions to previous works. Visual art, in a sense, preserves history by catching a solitary moment and freezing it indefinitely.

All music turns to the past. Once a melody has been written down, it becomes one of the most authentic ways to transport us back in time. The tint in a painting may fade over time, language changes over the centuries, but once we have a written record of music, it stays more or less the same. The harmonies in Thomas Morley's madrigals are the same as when he penned them almost five-hundred years ago.

Even impromptu must be conscious of its own past, since music is an inherently sequential experience. So even music that is created in the moment is still of necessity tethered to a history. Otherwise, the music would be nonsense.

As the craftsmanship behind making instruments advances, there will naturally be a few changes in timbre. Violin strings, for instance, are almost universally made of metal today in place of the older gut strings. But to the untrained ear, there is little significant difference in the sound. Of course every orchestra will play Beethoven's symphonies with a slight variation, but consider how much more similar every performance of Beethoven will be than the various stagings of any given play.

Musicians have to play the role of the historian. Unless they're performing their own composition, they must try to understand how the composer intended the piece to be played. Unlike a novelist or painter, a musician creates a unique moment by pure interpretation rather than inspiration.

In this sense, musicians must be connected to the masters of their art in ways that sculptors, poets, etc. cannot be. The entirety of their art is to be immersed in the work of the masters. One writer may read the work of another, but they are not a participant in its creation the way a musician is when he or she first begins to play. There is an intimacy that accompanies the practicing, memorizing, and performing of a work of the masters.

I think theater comes closest to music in this regard. In fact, I've recently noticed some shocking similarities between performing Bach and Shakespeare:

1—Both of them write exceptionally technically complex works. To be able to enjoy or perform the works of either, the audience as well as the performer need some training. It would be difficult to understand just the sequence of events in King Lear, let alone all the competing themes, if you had no previous experience with Shakespeare. This is not so for Moliere. And consider how chaotic Bach's violin concertos would sound to the uninitiated. In fact, the first time I heard that particular concerto it put me into a panic. I had to turn the stereo off because my ears were so overloaded. But once you have become used to each artist's style they are quite possibly the most rewarding artists in their field.

2—Both of them write exceptionally emotionally complex works. Take the prelude to Bach's second cello suite. This is not a technically difficult piece to perform, especially when compared to his other works for cello. But in the wrong hands, this piece can be a disaster. We have virtually no dynamic or tempo markings for this prelude, so all expressions and articulations are left up to the soloist. That may sound like not a big deal until you start trying to interpret it yourself. The piece is not at all straightforward. It wanders and meanders around, held loosely together with the simplest of all themes: a minor triad. The prelude has to be judiciously examined measure by measure to see what the soloist wishes to bring out and emphasize. Consider the pause after the climax of the piece around 3:35 in this recording. How should the cellist play the next few notes after the pause? Yo-Yo Ma chose to more or less continue on with business as usual. But there are a hundred different ways you could play that measure, and each would show as much about Bach as it would the performer. Yo-Yo Ma's interpretation works for him and is frankly beyond reproach. But I choose to hold that first note a little longer and quieter to ease the listener back into the flow of the music.

The liberty of interpreting Bach is increased exponentially when one plays his organ music, since the registration is left completely up to the soloist.

Shakespeare's works have the same ambiguity and emotional flexibility as Bach's. He provided next-to-no stage directions, so an overwhelming degree of interpretation is left up to the performer. Is Iago laughing as he divulges his plots to the audience, or is he sneering? Is he amused or disgusted? It depends on the Iago. And just as a violinist could change the whole meaning of a phrase from the Bach partitas with the slightest variation in articulation, an actor can imply an entirely different world of meaning with a subtle shift in inflection. Think for a moment about the scene where Gertrude says to Laertes, "Your sister's drowned, Laertes." Laertes' next line is, "Drowned! O, where?" There are an almost infinite number of ways that Laertes could say those three words. Or, take a more well known example from the same play, "To be or not to be. That is the question." How on earth is an actor supposed to decide how to say those most famous lines? So much hangs on them!

3—Both Shakespeare and Bach cross over into each other's field. Shakespeare is the most musical author I have ever read. The man obsesses over sound and rhythm. And no one in the history of our language has done so much with word play.

Bach, on the other hand, is the most poetic composer I've studied. His use of numerology and musical symbolism is unparalleled. He crammed an astonishing amount of meaning into a measure.

To sum up, music, even new music, is always historical. Because of this historical dimension, musicians are linked to composers in an extraordinary way. They are the voices of these men and women who can no longer speak for themselves. The discipline that comes closest to music in its links to the past is theater.


Here are some different openings to Hamlet's soliloquy.

My personal favorite:

And, quite easily, the worst of the lot: