Monday, October 31, 2011

Eerie Etymology

This Halloween I thought I'd share two really fun linguistic points.

First, the word monster makes its way back to one of the favorite words of all Latin 101 students, moneo, which means to warn or demonstrate. (In fact, you can see that demonstrate and monster are related.) It first meant a prodigy, and then a deformed person. Ultimately, that turned into what it is today. Pretty cool, huh?

Second, the word nightmare is fun. The night part is easy enough to parse, but what is that mare doing? Are we really talking about a female horse? Nope. Mare is an Old English word for a spectre or spirit that would produce a suffocating effect on the sleeper. Above my desk I have Die schönsten Märchen der Brüder Grimm, or The Lovliest Fairytales of the Brothers Grimm. And you guessed it—the German word for fairytale  is cognate with our word for nightmare. Honestly, that explains a lot about German fairytales.

(My source for all this is the Oxford English Dictionary.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


You may have heard, dear reader, that there will be a new movie coming out about how Shakespeare didn't really write Shakespeare. I don't subscribe to such nonsense, but I'll be seeing Anonymous regardless. Here's some articles that sum up why I think the "authorship controversy" isn't even up for debate. [In case you missed it, I wrote a gushing piece on how much I like Shakespeare here.]

How We Know That Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare (A very scholarly approach)

The Shakespeare Shakedown (Newsweek article)

Hollywood Dishonors the Bard (NY Times article)

Also, I've been reading Bill Bryson's Shakespeare, and I'd never noticed until Bryson pointed it out that this is such a bad engraving:

But seriously. One eye is bigger than the other. One side of his hair is longer than the other. He has no neck, and yet his head is levitating above his shoulders. His mouth is also awkwardly placed. And what's going on with that nose? All in all, a really shoddy job.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

We Remember September 11

Marvin Rosen of WPRB finished a project today which was one of the greatest exhibitions of contemporary music in the modern age. For twenty-four consecutive hours he hosted a radio broadcast of music written specifically to commemorate the events of September 11th, 2001. Obviously, none of the music was more than ten years old. For a compilation of classical music, that is quite the achievement—usually with classical music, centuries are the smallest unit of measurement. Some pieces were hot off the press. My string quartet, for example, aired this afternoon; we recorded it in August.

Over the course of 24 hours, I listened to as much of the broadcast as I was able. But just the fact that there was more music written than any human could reasonably listen to made a profound statement about classical music today. The creation of classical music is very much alive. Due to widespread education and communication more people are capable of writing and recording art music than at any other age in human history. This broadcast highlighted the work of over eighty composers. Eighty. 8-0. I think even the very well educated would have tremendous difficulty naming just forty composers from any and all eras.

And what gets written has relevance to post-modern life. As Marvin pointed out several times, 9/11 has inspired more music than any other event in history. All day long I was struck by the sounds of grief and hope, terror and atonement, anguish and love, dissonance and harmony. Today I felt more than ever that the Beethovens and Bachs are still with us in the flesh.

I was also struck with how beautifully the musical community has responded to what has clearly been the moment of greatest historical significance in this new century. Not only were the compositions technically solid, but they were meaningful. While so many authors and politicians wax bitter and pessimistic over the events of the past ten years, the music played today showed a glowing optimism and profound faith in humanity.

It was an honor to participate in this broadcast with composers whose talents are so much more refined than mine. This was the first time my music has ever been broadcast on the radio, and it was humbling to have it be in such a worthy program. I hope that my music and all the other music played today helped the listeners place the events of 9/11 in a greater context. I hope they were reminded, inspired, and uplifted. I hope we helped show the relevance of our craft. And most of all, I hope that because of this broadcast the audience will grow as I have in their love and reverence for life and humanity.

The Utah Symphony Season Opener

Thierry Fischer
Let me lead by saying that the Utah Symphony has never sounded better than under the baton of Thierry Fischer. I'm not sure whose life was threatened to get him to be music director in Salt Lake, but it was worth it.

I also have to admire the maestro for choosing On the Transmigration of Souls as his opener for the season. The Utah Symphony crowd is a pretty conservative one, and he ran a big risk by selecting a piece that so many find inaccessible. The piece, by John Adams, is unlike any other work I've heard in a concert hall. I've heard the BSO perform Varèse, so I'm not unfamiliar with grand, prolonged dissonances, but Adams' piece is different entirely. The notes of On the Transmigration of Souls are almost inconsequential. The piece isn't about structure, melody, and counterpoint. It centers on a heart-wrenching libretto and a progression of feeling that comes from the piece's overall sound.

Adams' is a dark piece. It focuses in on the agony of personal loss rather than global upheaval. It also challenges what we think of as music and poetry. For example, the lyrics weren't penned by a poet. They're taken from real-life sources—mostly the actual fliers for missing persons, but also personal pieces in the New York Times. The libretto creates a tangible grief and such a poignant realism. I don't know if it could be equaled with composed poetry. I wept when the choir sang, "I loved him from the start…I wanted to dig him out. I know just where he is." Other especially powerful lines:

"We love you Louis. Come home."
"She had a voice like an angel, and shared it with everyone, in good times and in bad."
"I miss his gentleness, his intelligence, his loyalty, his love."
The mother says: "He used to call me every day. I'm just waiting."

The whole performance reminded me of one of the closing lines of Eliot's "Wasteland." "These fragments I have shored up against my ruins."

But I need to be honest. I did not like On the Transmigration of Souls the first several times I heard it, and I probably would never have appreciated it until I experienced it live. In fact, my string quartet in memoriam was written as a direct response to Adams' piece. I wanted to write something accessible and firmly tonal, and to focus more on the events and healing that occurred after 9/11. His piece, on the other hand, eloquently tells the story of those awful events, and its focus rests firmly on that day.

And then we heard an interpretation of Beethoven's 9th symphony unlike any I have ever heard. Thierry Fischer showed his chops and fully rose to the occasion. I've never, ever heard a performance of Beethoven's 9th with such a deft emphasis on the interplay between different sections of the orchestra. Since the age of 16, I've heard that symphony performed by a dozen different orchestras, studied the score, and listened to it in its entirety close to one hundred times, but last night I heard things in that symphony I didn't know were there. Fischer pulls out the best in his musicians, and comes to the stand with passion, knowledge, and skill in equal measure. I was completely blown away.

And recontextualizing this most iconic symphony in relation to 9/11 was brilliant. Fischer isn't the first to do it, but it was powerful nonetheless. There were a few lines from Schiller's poem that I felt were especially apt. "Deine Zauber binden wieder was die Mode streng geteilt / Alle Menschen werden Brüder wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt." And then I couldn't help but feel moved by the repeated chanting of "Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt." Previously when I would listen to this piece, I was always awestruck by its majesty. But this time, I was mostly overcome with nothing more or less than pure joy. I think this was a performance and a context Beethoven would have been pleased with.

Then, after a lengthy ovation, Maestro Fischer led the orchestra and audience in a rousing version of "The Star Spangled Banner." As we reached the end and sang, "Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave / o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?" I thought to myself, yes! Yes, this has been a rocky ten years. Yes, our liberties have been compromised. Yes, we have intruded in places where we shouldn't have been. We've made mistakes, and we don't smell like a bed of roses. But this remains the freest country in the world. Our history has never been untarnished, but we still continue the great experiment. Once again we are being tested to see if a nation "so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."

Let us "highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Thursday, August 4, 2011

String Quartet in Memoriam of September 11th

For my generation, September 11th was a stumbling from one dream into another. We were born at the very end of the Cold War or at the beginning of what came after. We weren't witness to the existential horrors of the 20th century—the Great War, the greater war that followed, the Holocaust, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, or the later nuclear posturing. We were never part of bombing drills, never lost a brother or father on the shores of Normandy. I think to us, more than anyone, that day in mid September—at the dawn of the twenty-first century—was a shock.

No one saw this coming, and I don't understand why. True to form, Chomsky rushed to the conclusion that our imperialism was the cause of our shock. He wrote that the only thing that made this atrocity unique was the target. But the World Trade Center had already been bombed by Pakistani terrorists in 1993 with the intent of destroying both towers. Nevertheless, the uniqueness of the 2001 incident is evidenced by the difficulty we had in naming it. It wasn't a bombing. It wasn't an attack. It wasn't restricted to a single location. It wasn't a battle. It wasn't an assassination. It wasn't murder. It was larger than murder. It was a time, a date. It was 9/11.

Our inability to name this event or to adequately articulate our emotions about it makes music one of the most fitting ways to discuss it. Music is the language we use to amplify or express our thoughts and feelings when our quotidian communication fails. And as a composer, I have an affinity for the events' symbolic and almost mathematical significance. Two parallel towers in parallel motion; 9+1+1=11; 11, two towering vertical strokes. 9ths and 11ths make for a striking (if compromised) authentic cadence.

But unlike the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, I do not see 9/11 as a work of art, let alone, "the the cosmos." In fact, I feel a disconnect with many of the writers, politicians, artists, musicians, and academics who have focused their efforts on Spetember 11th, and this quartet arose largely as an attempt to put my own voice into the discourse.

I won't analyze my own work or force my own interpretation of it on anyone else, but I will at least explain why I chose the titles for each movement.


i: "the eleventh"

This should be obvious.

ii: "our sleeping sword"

"Take heed how you impawn our person, how you awake our sleeping sword of war—we charge you in the name of God, take heed; for never did two such kingdoms contend without much fall of blood."

Like King Herny V, I felt that the morality of going to war was never clear—good or bad. (I especially felt that way about Iraq.) I believed the president when he said that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but even after we discovered that wasn't the case, I felt helpless in deciding whether or not we should still be there. On the one hand, women were gaining the basic rights which they were previously denied, but did we really have the right to be there in the first place? Doesn't democracy have to come from within the people themselves? At the heart of the whole affair were decisions that had to be made—decisions tangled in ambiguity. That is why this movement is pure improvisation. I didn't write any melodies or supporting lines. I just wrote out a few harmonic structures and general instructions. All the important decisions lie with the individual players.

iii: "where"

"Where" seemed to be the great question surrounding 9/11. Where did this come from? Where is my father, mother, husband, wife, friend, son, daughter, sister, brother? Where was the fourth plane headed? Where will they strike next? Where are they hiding abroad? Where are they hiding among us? Where will they send our soldiers?

iv: "sed perfecta caritas"

Timor non est in caritate sed perfecta caritas foras mittit timorem quoniam timor poenam habet.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear, for fear hath torment.
—1 John 4:18

I believe that individual responses to the events of September 11th showed a staggering amount of love. Yes, there were also displays of fear, hatred, confusion, anger, and malice, but more than anything else, I remember the candle-light vigils and the profound empathy we felt for the families of the victims.

Mehdi Dagarian, a survivor of 9/11, begins his lengthy account of that day by saying, "How can I not believe in miracles when I walked out of the World Trade Center unhurt? How can I not believe in love when I see the outpouring of it from the friends and family who have been calling and e-mailing me since the attack? Rather than seeing the world as an uglier place after the attack, I see it as a beautiful place where people give all they can when called upon to do so."

This final movement of the quartet is a study on John's claim that there is no fear in love. Although it rang true to me, I had trouble understanding what it meant. Certainly loving parents were afraid for their children on that day. But I feel that John meant something else. It's difficult for me to put into words, but I hope I captured the concept in the music.

This movement is also a celebration of the line, "but perfect love casteth out fear." As trite as it may sound, it is my firm conviction that love nourished with understanding will be the only solution to these crises. And I'm a hopeless optimist. I fully expect to see the day Beethoven and Schiller celebrated—a day when joy rips apart the fashion that has divided us, and all men become as brothers.

What I want most of all is for this quartet to speak to those who lived through the events of September 11th. It's my sincere desire that this music will ultimately be a source of comfort and hope—because hope and terror cannot bear to co-exist.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Europe made me happy this morning

Two great news stories:

From Lithuania, a mayor goes berserk over illegally parked cars. He said, and I quote, "It seems that a tank is the best solution." What else would we expect from the hometown of Marko Alexandrovich Ramius? (Maybe I'm geeking out a little too much here.)

Also, in Sweden, a man was arrested for trying to make a nuclear reactor in his apartment. Yeah. Check it out here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Shakespeare and Why He's the Best

This past weekend I took a little road trip down to the Utah Shakespeare Festival because I really like Shakespeare, and I live in Utah. As I was driving down, I started to think about how absurd Shakespeare's fame is. Summer Shakespeare festivals are the norm for the civilized world. I have always lived within driving (and in some cases, walking) distance of some or other "Shakespeare in the Park" production. But is there any other author or artist who enjoys that kind of celebration? There's the Mostly Mozart Music Festival in New York, but that's limited to New York. Poland has a Chopin festival, but once again, that's in Poland. If you do a search for "Christopher Marlowe Festival," all the results show performances of his plays within some larger Shakespearean festival. I've never heard of a Moliere festival or an Arthur Miller festival. But here in the middle-of-nowhere, rural Utah there is a full scale, functioning replica of the Globe Theatre and a 50 year old festival that attracts thousands upon thousands of guests every year.

Shakespeare's influence is as singular as his appeal is universal. But there are some people whom I deeply respect (Mark Twain, for example) and some people close to me who never caught the Shakespeare bug. And so, I'm going to write why I think Shakespeare is so awesome and completely deserving of the attention we give his works. 

I feel like so many people think they don't like Shakespeare because they were forced to read Romeo and Juliet in high school by a teacher who had no real familiarity or fondness for the text. (Fortunately, this wasn't the case in Ms. Clark's room.) And for most readers, just sitting down and deciding to read Othello won't do the trick. These are plays, and they're meant to be watched as professional actors help the audience interpret the text. It took me a long time before I could just read a Shakespeare play without having seen it first. But there are three evidences as to why Shakespeare's texts are worth the effort—three reasons why he is globally celebrated and feverishly studied. These are: his language, his characters, and his ideas.

Shakespeare's Language

Can you remember a time when you didn't know the line, "To be or not to be?" I bet you knew the phrase long before you knew its context, who wrote it, or even (and especially) what it meant. That most famous of all English sentences has a balance, an elegance, and a musicality that make it inescapably memorable and appealing, irrespective of its actual semantic content. But forget all the existential tension and questions that come after that line. Could you think of a more grammatically alluring way to consider suicide? Probably not. Shakespeare's works explode with writing on that level of mastery. How can we help but empathize with Macbeth's guilt and paranoia when he phrases it like this: "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red."

But citing individual examples of how good Shakespeare's writing is will be fruitless because it is endless. I can think of two other ways to explore the quality of his writing besides pulling up quotes and saying, "Look how pretty this is!" The first is to look at how often Shakespeare is quoted. Every author and their grandmother quotes Shakespeare. Of course poets do it all the time (T.S. Eliot made a career out of it), but think about how many books, movies, and TV shows use Shakespeare quotes as their titles. The Sound and the Fury, Brave New World, What Dreams May Come, Band of Brothers, are just some of a long list. And you quote Shakespeare all the time—probably without knowing it. Ever said "assassination," "obscene," "lonely," "eyeball," "ode," "swagger," or "puking?" Those are all words invented by Shakespeare. Yeah, that's right. He straight-up invented those words. He also coined the phrase "household words." He was ridiculous.

And then my last testament to why his language is so good is that Shakespeare was kind of a hack. Almost none of his plays use plots of his own making. He fully ripped off other playwrights and historians and pilfered their works for stories for his plays. These were daylight robberies of a grand scale—not at all subtle. But tell me, are you familiar with any other version of Henry V? Does anyone give a flying terd about any other Othello? Absolutely not. When people "redo" one of his plays (as in ballets, operas, or popular films) they're always paying homage to Shakespeare's telling of those stories, not the original source material.

Shakespeare's Characters

This year's Richard III at the Utah Shakespeare Festival
But a problem arises when you try to attribute all of Shakespeare's greatness solely to his ability to turn a phrase. Shakespeare is widely read in translation. His plays have been translated into scores of languages and forced on high school and college students all over the world. As anyone who has worked with a foreign language knows, translation is a messy, problematic thing—especially in regards to poetry. Meter, rhyme, aliteration, and a host of other devices get warped or lost all together. For example, our celebrated "To be or not to be," is a gramatical impossibility in Chinese. One translation reads, "存,或毁" which means, "Existing, or destruction." It's okay. It gets the point across, but that is not likely to become The Most Famous Sentence in All of Chinese.

So if Shakespeare's language isn't preserved in translation, what is?

For one, his characters. Who can forget Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, or Bottom from A Midsummer Night's Dream? Even if we tried, could we ever escape the memory of Lady Macbeth? It's hard to do after she says things like:

I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
That's an image and a person that doesn't casually saunter out of memory. 

In a letter to his brother, Van Gough wrote about his awe of Shakespeare's dramatis personae "But what touches that the voices of these people, which in Shakespeare’s case reach us from a distance of several centuries, do not seem unfamiliar to us. It is so much alive that you think you know them and see the thing.” This has certainly been the case with Richard III. A host of historians and history buffs have formed societies to "clear Richard's name" because Shakespeare's villainous depiction of the monarch has so eclipsed the reality of the actual man. There's something intensely real and genuine about Shakespeare's characters that makes us feel like we know them, even to the point of tainting objective reality.

Speaking of characters tainting things, Iago. Iago is in a class I like to call "meta-villains." These are villains who are so convincing that they not only fool characters in the story, they fool the audience. (Think about the Joker in The Dark Knight. Lots of kids went away from that movie wanting to buy Joker lunch boxes and notebooks because he came off as being cool.) Do a Google image search for Othello right now. Go ahead; I'll wait for you. No doubt what you found was a lot of pictures of sexy, shirtless moors fondling Desdemona. Now do the same for "Romeo and Juliet," the archetypal romantic couple. You get a bunch of oil paintings, but hardly a shirtless Romeo. Judging by the results, you'd think R & J were the true lovers, while Othello and Desdemona were outrageous nymphomaniacs.
But Othello was an old man, and there's lots of evidence that even after he married Desdemona, they never slept together. In fact there's some question as to whether Othello could sleep with Desdemona. Othello was a lonely old man who found a loving companion and friend in Desdemona. I'll use his own, poignant words to describe their relationship, "She loved me for the dangers I had passed / And I loved her that she did pity them." They had a beautiful and profound marriage. Only one person every talks about Othello and Desdemona in a lewd way, and that's Iago. And why do we trust Iago? He tells us that he is lying, and we still believe it when he says to Desdemona's father, "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe." Countless directors and actors have taken their cues for Othello from Iago, as evidenced by our Google image search.

(By the way, this is my favorite depiction of Othello. It's just five minutes, but James Earl Jones perfectly captures Othello and his love for Desdemona.)

Iago genuinely terrifies me. I can't help but think he's contributed to the stereotypes and racism against people of color, and if that's true, then he is a villain whose reach extends beyond the story itself. I don't think Iago himself believed that Moors had an unrestrainable libido, but he does such a convincing job selling his hate and racism that it can't help but be bought. Just a few months ago, I attended a conference where a woman presented a paper on how Othello showed the same type of mental illness as a porn addict. Unsurprisingly, the foundation of her argument came from Iago.

So yes, Shakespeare wrote characters who were real and beyond-real. Claudius, Ophelia, Falstaff, Prospero, even Romeo and Juliet. And it was the immortal Goethe who said that "All old men are King Lear."

Shakespeare's Ideas

But Shakespeare did more than just write the best language in history and create a numberless cast of richly human characters. He also is responsible for the U.S.A. 
You think I'm joking.

It was December 31, 1776. George Washington and the continental army were in dire straights. The war had been a hopless loss, and the entire continental government was broke. On top of this, every soldier’s commission would expire the next day. Washington stood before the men and begged them to reenlist. He even resorted to petty bribery, offering them a whole month’s extra wage if they would sign up for six more months. The drums rolled. No one stepped forward to reenlist. Finally, Washington got on his horse and delivered these lines: "My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you can probably never do under any other circumstance."
I'll let David McCullough take it from here:

"Again the drums rolled. This time the men began stepping forward. 'God Almighty,' wrote Nathanael Greene, 'inclined their hearts to listen to the proposal and they engaged anew.'

"Now that is an amazing scene, to say the least, and it’s real. This wasn’t some contrivance of a screenwriter. However, I believe there is something very familiar about what Washington said to those troops. It was as if he was saying, 'You are fortunate. You have a chance to serve your country in a way that nobody else is going to be able to, and everybody else is going to be jealous of you, and you will count this the most important decision and the most valuable service of your lives.' Now doesn’t that have a familiar ring? Isn’t it very like the speech of Henry V in Shakespeare’s play Henry V: 'We few, we happy few, we band of brothers . . . And gentlemen in England now a-bed / Shall think themselves accursed they were not here'?
 Washington loved the theater; Washington loved Shakespeare. I can’t help but feel that he was greatly influenced."

So there you have it. Money couldn't keep the army together; these were no mercenaries. Washington himself needed the help of someone more eloquent than he. The continental army couldn't have rallied itself if it weren't for the power of Shakespeare's ideas—the idea that even though a battle seems hopeless, there is a holy brotherhood in war, that some causes are worth the scars, that it is a duty, honor, and privilege to fight in our hour history has appointed, and that a failing army could seize what little strength they had left and dedicate their victory to future generations, to their families, and to their God.

 As an American, I say thanks for the pep talk, Will. You really helped us keep it together. 

But generals are not alone in using Shakespeare's ideas. 
Emmanuel Levinas, who was one of the keenest minds and greatest writers of philosophy in the twentieth century, had a profound respect for Shakespeare’s writing. Levinas wrote, “Allow me to return once again to Shakespeare, in whom I have overindulged in the course of these lectures. But it sometimes seems to me that the whole of philosophy is only a meditation on Shakespeare.” It seemed that in Levinas’s writings on death, which were many, that the subject was entirely inscrutable without relying heavily on Macbeth and Hamlet.


I hope this little essay has been helpful. If you're in the early stages of approaching Shakespeare, I hope this will help put him in context and serve as a motivation to keep working at it—because let's be honest. An appreciation of Shakespeare really does require work. If you're a seasoned Shakespearean, I hope there's some fact in here you hadn't heard before, or at least you've found my love of these works to be resonant with your own.

Shakespeare is everywhere, and therefore belongs to everyone. He's a world treasure, and his work represents the highest artistic achievement humans have ever been able to produce. If he had written only Hamlet or only written King Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, the sonnets, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, or almost any of the Henries, we would have always celebrated him as the author of that one work. But what we have is a lifetime's worth of work that is worthy of the kind of study and enjoyment that could last several lifetimes. So, brush up your Shakespeare!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

HP 7–2 3D

If you know me at all, you know that I'm such a huge fan of the Harry Potter books. So it is with great pleasure that I write that the last Harry Potter movie was my favorite of the eight, and, I believe, a huge success. After HP 6 and HP 7–1, I had no expectations for this last movie, but, dear reader, I was stunned. Stunned.

I have always loved the way David Yates will put a picture on the screen. The opening shots of HP 7–2 3D (I actually saw it in 2D 'cause I hate 3D) do not disappoint. The dementors hovering over Hogwarts castle were deeply unsettling, as was Snape over seeing them all. There are so many more powerful shots in the movie, though. McGonagall awaking the stone statues, young Severus and Lily looking up at the sky, the protective shield descending over the castle....

Alexander Desplat did a better job with the score this time around. Unlike last time, he actually capitalized on those God-given themes John Williams had written for him. And to his credit, like Hooper and Doyle, he added some great passages to the canon of Harry Potter music. My favorite score, though, has to be HP 4. Doyle did such an amazing variation on the main Harry Potter theme in "The Story Continues," and the writing for strings in "Harry in Winter" is unforgivably beautiful. Doyle's skill for creating an aria-like melody is disgusting. He needs to score way more movies.

As far as acting goes, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and Robbie Coltrane are already legendary actors, and their performance here does not disappoint. The showdown between Snape and McGonagall was just astounding. They didn't need to speak; there was already so much gravity just in their stature. Unfortunately, our hero trio gets dwarfed by these British masters, but you can't expect them to compete. I'm always amazed, though, at how little chemistry Harry and Ginny have. It's like watching cut-out dolls flirt.

Most importantly, Snape was finally given something like justice. His flashback scenes were powerful and just as poignant as they were in the books. I loved the scene where he finds out why Dumbledore has worked so hard to keep Harry alive. When Dumbledore sees Snape's obvious disgust and asks, "Have you actually grown to care for the boy?" Snape's response and Rickman's performance are heartbreaking.

There are, of course, things missing from the book. Dumbledore doesn't break down in King's Cross. The Deathly Hallows themselves are really underplayed, including and especially the Elder Wand. Voldemort's final downfall lacks the speeches and publicity that it has in the book. The movie does not replace or excel the book, but the movie hits all the emotional cues of its source material, and I can't ask for much more than that.

Read the books.

I've noticed something. I'll occasionally read stuff about modern British children's literature where they compare Pullman and C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl and Tolkien (at least The Hobbit). And at first, Rowling was thrown into the mix (often compared to Dahl). But now, like other masterworks, people speak of it only on its own terms. You don't complain about the slow middle section in Hamlet, you know? Hamlet has transcended criticism. And I think my beloved Harry Potter books are marching quickly on to that transcended state.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


I've had two recent, rapidly reoccurring dreams. They're both panic dreams, but I'm panicking about things that have almost no bearing on my life. For example, the first panic dream is that I'm being asked about the specifics of the Catholic dogma ex cathedra. For those interested, it's when the pope speaks with doctrinal infallibility. It doesn't happen very often. But I'm not Catholic, nor have I ever been. Why am I having nightmares about their dogma? I'm not facing catechism or confirmation. I haven't even been watching Cadfael recently. I blame it on Jack White and St. Jerome.

[I just got bit by a spider while writing this. Perhaps a future of spandex and crime fighting awaits.]

The other panic dream is that I'm trying to find my group flute instruction class in the HFAC. The thing is, I know the insides of the HFAC pretty darn well. Also, I've never had any desire to learn to play the flute, nor do I think they teach it in bulk.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Art and the Interpretation Thereof (Deux)

Images come from here.
Faithful readers will remember that I once scored a movie. Previously, I wrote about how fun it was and all the things I learned by making it. But now I'd like to write about what I've learned from watching the movie—or rather from watching others watch it.

The first time I watched METRO with people who weren't on the team was at BYU's Final Cut Film Festival. I heard one girl behind me telling her friend how excited she should be to see the last film on the program. That film happened to be none other than our little METRO. I thought that perhaps she was just saying that because Jake and I were sitting right in front of her.

I would be surprised if people liked it. Almost everyone I showed the sketches to said something like, "So there's no dialog? Are there going to be sound effects? No?" For one, I was insecure about the score (and still am). It was, by far, the most derivative thing I've ever written. Anyone who's ever heard one of Satie's "Gymnopedies" should be able to recognize the influence immediately. As the score-writing progressed, I tried to make it more sexy so as to hide my daylight-robbery of Satie's work, but it's still pretty obvious. Also, I never write for piano. I'm a poor pianist, and I feel like solo piano is overdone and kind of boring.

When the first screening of Final Cut was over, the friend of the girl who was pumped to see METRO said, "Oh. I get it. It's artsy. Artsy fartsy." Before that point, I had never considered that there was something to get. I thought it was just a shiny video of a girl chasing a fox. Since then, I've had quite a few people tell me what they think METRO is about.

To my surprise, METRO did very well at the festival. I didn't know that festivals were competitions, so I was shocked when Jake told me we were nominated for something. I assumed he was nominated for some technical award. He assumed I was nominated for the score. The awards ceremony started with the "Audience Favorite" award. This award was based on the number of votes via text message each movie received from the audience. There was no chance METRO got this one. I heard people laughing all the way through the second screening. (METRO, by the way, is not a comedy.) At one point I almost stood up and screamed at them for being such jerks. My vote for Audience Favorite was this fantastic documentary about high school band competitions. So I was more than a little baffled when they announced that Jake Wyatt's METRO had won audience favorite. The only other awards were honorable mention and first through third places. I was doubly surprised again when they announced that METRO had taken first place. (Two films that we were up against had won Emmys. We did not win an Emmy!)

So ultimately, I'm shocked at people's responses to the movie. I liked it, but I didn't think it had any profound meaning. After the awards, we went to a diner up in Orem to celebrate. After we were seated, a group of people came up to us and said, "Are you the guys who made METRO? We were talking about it the whole way up here!" I thought, How?! The thing is four minutes long! I was equally surprised to learn that the making of the movie did have serious philosophical meaning for Jake. I'm glad he didn't tell me about this interpretation until after the movie was finished because I don't particularly like his reading of the movie, and I know it would have changed how I wrote the score. I still don't understand why people were laughing during the screening or why it was dubbed "artsy-fartsy" by the one chick behind us.

This is yet another reason why I think the creator of a work should have no say in its interpretation. I think it's fair to say that the music contributed to the overall effect of METRO, so I was a contributor to the overall message of the movie. But if people take something from the movie that's greater than what I thought I was putting in, good for them. Once the thing is made, I don't really feel like it's my place to trample over anyone else's experience.

This post is largely an excuse to get people excited about the upcoming interwebs debut of METRO. It's still in submission to some other festivals, so we can't publicly post it online just yet, but the day is coming! So as a sampler of what is to come, here's a preview of what the score sounds like. None of this music is actually in the movie, but I recorded this when I was still doing concept work on the score. It's pretty close to how the score ultimately turned out:

METRO Preview by Alfonso X

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Art and the Interpretation Thereof

Even though my mother is an art educator and my brother is a professional artist, I don't have a lot of experience with art. I gave up on trying to draw when I was in first grade and couldn't for the life of me draw X-MEN fighting sentinels the way I had it in my head. I got no pleasure out of making grotesque scrawls of what I had in my head.

So I've been reading this book on how to look at art. It combines art history and art theory and is a fun little read. But it got into this long discussion about what in literary theory is called authorial intent. This is the idea of asking what the author or artist is really trying to say. Most modern literary theorists call this "the intentional fallacy" for a few reasons: 1) Shouldn't the work speak for itself? Why do we have to figure out what the creator meant by it? Why can't we just ask what the piece itself means? 2) There is no way we can ever know what the creator meant, even if he or she told us. They could be lying, they could say something off hand that they really hadn't thought through, or they could not really understand the piece themselves.

For the most part, I don't care what artists or authors or composers have to say about their work. Well, I should specify that I don't care what they have to say more than anyone else talking about the work. They may have some insight, but their views do not trump those of others. I'm not an accomplished artist or poet, but I have written my fair share of music, and one thing that I've found in writing all those pieces is that rarely do I begin a composition thinking, "What do I want this piece to say?" When I do write music that has some kind of meaning beyond the notes themselves, I tend to discover that meaning as I'm writing it (or sometimes long after I've finished). The goofy thing about art (in general, not just visual art) is that the creator often undergoes the same interpretive experience as the audience. So if it's the same experience, why should theirs overwhelm others'?

Obviously, there are exceptions to this. We have all read books where the author set out to prove a point, and we've all seen posters that were created solely to express a singular idea. But we call this "didacticism" and "propaganda," respectively.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Palin, Lear, and Paul Revere

In the first scene of King Lear, the old King becomes unjustifiably furious with his only noble daughter, Cordelia. When Lear refuses to pay her dowry, the king of France declares that he would still marry her since, "She is herself a dowry."

Now, without making any kind of political commentary, I cannot help but think that comedians feel the same way about Sarah Palin. She is herself a punchline. Behold:

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Hobbit Movies: Get Excited!

I am really excited about the new Hobbit movies coming out in December of 2012 and 2013 for many reasons. Here they go:

1) Guillermo del Toro, although no longer director, is still working closely with Peter Jackson on these movies. Let me explain what that means. First, Guillermo del Toro is a) a genius,  b) a champion, and c) a golden god. He's a big advocate of practical effects and puppetry, which I think always hold up better than digital effects. Compare his Faun and Paleman from Pan's Labyrinth to Gollum. Gollum is impressive as a digital creation, but he is obviously a digital creation, whereas Pan and Paleman are astonishingly organic. Guillermo is maybe the most poetic director working today. His movies are beautiful and powerful. I think he'll do a really good job of pulling in Peter Jackson and helping him refrain from excess.

2) On a related note, this reigning in of Jackson is good because The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings. The former is a much more quaint story of treasure hunting and goofy adventure. It's not an epic. Frankly, I get weary with the Lord of the Rings movies these days because they are simply too long. Also, they are often guilty of melodrama of the first degree. I feel that there's less room for that in The Hobbit, which hopefully will result in a more enjoyable movie.

3) The cast for this looks amazing. All the regulars are back on: Ians McKellen and Holm, Christopher Lee, etc. But also joining the cast are Martin Freeman (from the Hitchhiker's Guide movie and Watson in BBC's new Sherlock series) as Bilbo and Benedict Cumberbatch (who does such a fantastic job playing Sherlock in BBC's new Sherlock series) as an unknown character. Frankly, I don't care who Mr. Cumberbatch plays; he's just fantastic. Also Stephen Fry and Leonard Nimoy are supposed to be joining the cast. Fantastic. Also Howard Shore, whose excellent score I wrote about here, is back on. I can't wait to see what new things he does with this movie. Seriously, he treats these things like they're operas.

4) The fanboys of the interwebs are going to attack me for this, but I think this might actually be a prequel that surpasses its trilogy. Better looking, shorter, less melodramatic, and all the things that made the first movies great. Plus, GUILLERMO DEL TORO!!!!!

Also, I think Peter Jackson lost all that weight so that the cast and crew would be able to tell him and Guillermo apart. They looked too much like hobbits anyway:
(Guillermo) (Peter)

Post weight loss:

(Peter again)

And more fun pics just for kicks:

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Wagner, The Ring, All Things Norse

Yesterday I went to the Met's "Live in HD" broadcast of Wagner's Die Walküre. For six hours. It's the second opera in his four-opera Ring cycle. (A brief aside: when the American remake of the Japanese horror movie The Ring came out, all I knew was "Japanese" and "remake." So I naturally thought it was a Japanese modernization of Wagner's The Ring. Boy was I unprepared that evening.) There are two things you should know about me to put my viewing of Die Walküre in context. 1) I love opera. I'm still in my twenties, but I've gone to well over a dozen operas of my own volition. I've seen The Magic Flute live five times, and only two of those were the same production. 2) I'm such a huge nerd for all things Norse Mythology. I actually enjoyed Thor almost exclusively because I got to see Anthony Hopkins as Odin descend in a cloud of fury onto Jothenheim. (Also I love a good mythology that also defies spell checkers.)

Now when I was watching Thor last weekend, I thought how cool it would be to write a series of operas about the Norse gods. But I felt that I would be encroaching on Wagner's well-marked territory. I had never seen one of his operas before, but I knew his Ring cycle was all about Odin, and of course I had heard "The Ride of the Valkyries." I didn't think I could top that.

But then I saw Die Walküre. Now I don't think I could write a piece better than "The Ride of the Valkyries" per se, but I'm positive that I could write a much more engaging opera as a whole than Die Walküre. Holy crap, that opera is so tedious. And once again, this is coming from someone who 1) loves opera and 2) loves Norse myths. And this tediousness was not for want of talent from the performers. My favorite baritone in the world, Bryn Terfel, was singing Odin's part, James Levine was conducting, and this is the Met we're talking about. But even they couldn't sell me on Wagner.

If the only Wagner you're familiar with is "The Ride of the Valkyries" and the overture to Die Walküre (both below), you undoubtedly have a higher estimation of Wagner's catchiness than what he deserves.

The rest of his music is so non-melodic and overly serious. What Bruce Wayne's father said in Batman Begins is especially true of Wagner, "A little opera goes a long way." I was astonished at how little action took place over the course of six hours. Other operas, like The Magic Flute, have sprawling, almost incomprehensible plots. Die Walküre barely had one at all. Also, this is the best thing that's ever been done with Wagner.

Also, I felt like the Norse gods were way too Hellenized. Odin or "Wotan" was much more like Zeus than the Odin I know. And Frigga or "Fricka" was essentially Hera with an unfortunate name change. Odin is a morally superior and much wiser god than Zeus, but Odin is mortal. Wagner's "Wotan" had all the debauchery of Zeus but none of the wisdom of Odin, but he was still mortal. So he's essentially an emasculated Zeus. That's not fun for anybody. Also, to me the real appeal of Norse mythology is Loki and everything that comes with him. He is impossibly hilarious, shockingly clever, and painfully tragic. But Loki doesn't even show up in Wagner's Ring.

Also, I really had a hard time getting behind and sympathizing with the Twincest. Gross. Just gross.

THEREFORE, I hereby announce my intention of writing an opera cycle that takes us from the founding to Asgard to the last days of Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods. I'm thinking Heimdall will serve as a chorus, and we'll have three operas: Odin, Loki, and Ragnarok (and roll).

Odin will show us the god's wandering among mortals and all he learns from them. In between scenes of him wandering, we'll get Heimdall explaining to Hnossa about how Asgard came to be, how Odin lost his eye, gained his spear, etc.

Loki will be largely a comic opera full of cross dressing, mistaken identity, trickery, and all those things that make Loki great. It will have a turn towards the end, though, which will show Loki's madness. The final scene will be when Loki eats the burning heart of the witch and seals his fate.

Ragnarok will be about the downfall of the gods. Lots of fighting. Lots of death. Lots of opera. It will end with Vidar and Vali talking about how the world is reborn and how the Dawn of Men came to be.

But before I do any of that, I need to man up and finish my Inferno Symphony. Ugh. Just seven more movements to go....

Monday, May 9, 2011

Two Great Existential Parodies of Popular Fiction

And sorry, embedding has been disabled on this second video, so you have to click on this link. It is so worth it. It's Wizard People, Dear Reader, the best Harry Potter parody conceivable.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Help and The South

The Help:

I have heard a lot of buzz about The Help. Most recently, I attended a guest lecture where bell hooks railed on the book for almost an hour. I think bell was largely being unfair. This novel is at once mediocre, complex, trifling, keen, clumsy, charming, detestable, and engaging.

I started blushing on the first page. Roughly two-thirds of the book is written from the perspective of poor black women. The voice for the first of these, Aibileen, is embarrassingly stereotyped. She uses no form of to be other than be. Her tenses are muddled, and it felt like Ms. Stockett just used "Find" and "Replace" on Microsoft Word to turn every of into a. (I would love to see a video of Stockett going over the manuscript to herself, working on those accents.) And some of the philosophies of these black women are absolute white Yuppie nonsense. One of the maids realizes it's her calling in life to help one of the little white kids develop a healthy self-esteem. I have known many a black woman, but I have never met that one. I was almost ready to give up on the book after the first two chapters, but I felt like Minny was less offensive and much more engaging. Through the whole book, though, I couldn't stop thinking, why would a white woman choose to write a book in the voice of two black women? It is so easy to botch, and it can make you seem so racist so fast. I figured Ms. Stockett was just a down-right fool.

Then I read this quote she has tucked in the back of the book. "There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism." So says Howell Raines. And so I wonder why Ms. Stockett chose this as her exclusive subject matter. I no longer think she's a fool—she's either courageous or crazy.

bell hooks accused Stockett of oversimplifying race relations. To an extent I agree. "Why not also show the rage, the anger, the hatred, as well as the bonds of affection?" asked hooks. But I don't think bell is being entirely fair. Stockett does have several tense scenes between the help and the white women. At one point, one white woman refers to her help as her friend, and the maid sets her brutally straight. But had this been a Richard Wright novel (which I feel does more justice to the the complexity of race relations and the deadly naïveté which accompanies so many of the people who think they can immediately change things), our white activist protagonist, Miss Skeeter, would have wound up dismembered in a furnace rather than waltzing into the rosy ending of Stockett's novel.

Which leads me to my two major complaints about this book. First, I cannot stand Miss Skeeter. She is shallow, selfish, rude, treacherous, and mostly a heartless opportunist. Yet this is the character white readers are supposed to be able to connect with. Because she went to Ole Miss and never got a boyfriend, she's been somehow enlightened and can see her society through the lens of a retrospective futurism which belongs more in 2011 than 1964.

Second, this book wants so badly to pay homage to the great Southern writers. Stockett invokes the names of Faulkner and Harper Lee like an incantation. The very structure of the novel screams Faulkner. But Faulkner she is not. She actually gives up on the polyphonic stream-of-consciousness narration for one chapter, and we get a regular third person narrator. That chapter is, artistically speaking, the biggest blemish in the book. It screams that her ambition was beyond her capability. It was clumsy, and this narrator sounded exactly like Miss Skeeter, anyway. I know why she gave up—there was too much going on for her to keep it all in one voice. I wish, then, that we had heard the events of the evening from multiple people. Faulkner was so good at this. Just remember that most infamous five-word chapter from As I Lay Dying, "My mother is a fish."

The South:

(Image by Walter Anderson)
 But I would be lying if I were to say I didn't get a lot out of this book. Like Stockett, I was raised in the South, but left it as an adult. I too know the difficulty of being a displaced Southerner. Looking at the South from the outside, I can see so many faults I had not noticed as a child, but I am even more fiercely devoted to the richness and beauty of life in the South. No slighting word against Mississippi remains uncontested in my presence. I'm so quick to refute any doubters with Walter Anderson prints (I have a huge one hanging above my sofa) or rattle off a list of the great Mississippians.

The South—especially Mississippi—is a huge paradox. A rich literary heritage and the highest illiteracy rate. Rampant obesity and obsession with body image. A social structure which is at once all-inclusive and entirely alienating. And so it is difficult to do Mississippi justice, which I think is why all of us displaced Mississippians get so defensive of our little state. For instance, I hate Haley Barbour's swelling guts, but I still cringe when Stephen Colbert cuts into him.

Also, I think it's difficult for people outside of the South to understand how powerful the collective thinking is down there. When I first came out to college in Utah, I was shocked to see some people walk into class wearing cloaks and toy swords. They looked like rejected extras from Lord of the Rings. I thought this was some sort of college anomaly—some way of getting back at their parents who prematurely forced their children to stop playing dress up. Then I found out that in California and other places, kids would dress up like that to their High School classes. I really could not believe it. No one would dare dress up like an elf and walk into Oak Grove High School. You'd get the mess beaten out of you.

Another great example of group-mentality in the South is how Mississippi absolutely shut down these fools who came to protest the funeral of a soldier. Everyone from the law enforcement to the local yokel seemed in on it. If we don't want something to happen, we will collectively find some way to make sure it fizzles out and dies, for better or for worse. I mean, we invented Jim Crow laws. We are the kings of sticking it to the Man and having our way regardless.

And of course what any Yankee will think of first when thinking of the South is racism. This is a touchy subject for Southerners. For one, I can't listen to any Utahan tell me about how racist Southerners are against black people, when this fool has never met a black man in his life, and he treats any Mexican as a non-human. "But it's different. They're Mexicans!" he will say.

That said, I've only recently realized how racist I was as a kid. One question The Help explores is where does racism begin? Stockett concludes that it comes from the authority figures in the homes and schools of white children. I disagree. I remember being mortified by the idea of a black person and a white person being in a relationship together until I was in my later teens. I don't think my parents felt that way at all, nor would any teacher dare say such a thing in one of my classes. I also remember being in first grade and thinking that black kids were somehow inherently smelly and dirty. I certainly did not learn that in my home. These are embarrassing things to admit, but I do so because anyone who knows my family knows I did not learn those things from them. I think I just picked up that paradigm from the collective mentality of southern Louisiana and Mississippi.

But subject as I was to the collective mentality, I was also keenly aware that I was not a pure Southerner. There isn't a lot of social room for Mormons in the Bible Belt. Of course I had friends in high school—great friends—but we looked like the U.N. in comparison to other groups in the cafeteria. Not only did we have the standard trio of Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, we also had a Jewish girl, an Episcopalian, a Mormon, and occasionally a Catholic. Also, we were chummy with some Asians. But as a Mormon, I always felt like I never really fit into Southern society as a whole. I've never been comfortable wearing or seeing JESUS SAVES T-shirts because being in a religious minority, religion was an intensely personal and even private affair. (This is something I really struggled with when I came to Utah. I wasn't comfortable being comfortable in a majority.) And being "cast out of the synagogue," so to speak, has real social consequences.

I think because I always felt excluded from the socio-religious aspect of Southern life, it affected how I felt about other things. For example, when we moved from Tennessee to Mississippi when I was eleven, I was amazed to see someone driving around with a confederate flag hanging out of his truck. My first thought was, "This guy is going to get shot." And even after I saw how common it was in Mississippi (it's on the state flag, above), I never really got comfortable with it. (Chalk this one up as another Southern paradox: unquestioningly patriotic and inexplicably anarchic.) Also, before I went to college the only places I had lived were (in order): Hammond, Louisiana; Nashville, Tennessee; Franklin, Tennessee; and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Nevertheless, when I first moved to Hattiesburg, I was accused by several people of being a Yankee. Take another glance at my resumé. Nothing on that list could possibly be perceived as Yankee. But there was something about me that clearly did mark me as an outsider. Even though I don't think my Mormonism per se was showing, I think that was the root of my "otherness" in the South.

All that said, any time I feel a warm breeze, I can't wait to go running back to the South. It's my home, and I love it—incongruities, paradoxes, insanity and all. I love the sight and smell of rhododendron wonder that is an azalea in bloom. I love the taste of cornbread and molasses. I love the blankets of soggy heat that fall down on you the minute you step outside. I love the melodic intricacies of Southern speech. I love the no-nonsense wisdom of old Southern women. I love the courtesy and hospitality of the Southern home. I also feel like I owe the South a huge debt for raising me and teaching me and giving so much of my personality. It is a beautiful, wild place.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Summer Reading List

Here's a tentative list that's probably going to suffer some heavy revisions:

1—The Help
2—The Hitchhiker's Guide
3—The Book Thief
4—The Sound and the Fury
5—A Confederacy of Dunces
6—The Hound of the Baskervilles
7—Moby Dick
8—To Kill a Mockingbird
9—Absalom, Absalom
10—The Missing

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

My Conversation with the Standard of Liberty

I had another run in with the Standard of Liberty. Somehow, I got back on their email list, so I asked to be taken off, the rest of the context you can pick up from the subsequent emails.

April 4th @ 4:07 PM
From: me
To: sgraham

Never did I sign up for your e-mails. I asked to be taken off your list years ago, and you removed me for a while. But recently I've been getting your horrid epistles. Please remove me from your system forthwith.

—Michael Wyatt


April 5th @ 3:29 PM
From: sgraham
To: me

It shall be done. By the way, we would be interested in knowing what you find specifically offensive about this text.


Stephen Graham

April 5th @ 7:56 PM
From: me
To: sgraham

I'm sure y'all are nice people, but I don't agree with your initiative. I've written about it here.

That said, I'm definitely open to dialog, but one of the things that irritates me about the Standard of Liberty is that you don't engage in dialog. You never responded to my attempts to post on your blog aside from writing this outrageous piece and lumping my discussion in with, and I quote, "all other individuals who oppose us." (My italics) I invite you to read other posts on my blog and tell me if you feel at all justified in saying that I, even in the slightest, (and again, I'm quoting directly from your post) promote "sexual liberation and the demonizing of traditional morality and Christianity."


—Michael Wyatt

April 5th @ 9:41 PM 
From: sgraham
To: me

Oh, yes. It's you. Well, thanks for responding.

Stephen Graham
April 5th @ 9:56 PM
From: me
To: sgraham
 Seriously? That's all your gonna give me? You emailed me.
—Michael Wyatt