Saturday, December 29, 2012

Les Misérables—The Movie

Hugh Jackman as a boss
Faithful readers of the blog will know that I do not like the stage version of Les Misérables. The book was my favorite novel until I met Life of Pi, but I always thought the musical was tacky and lacking. So it was with very low expectations that I walked into the cinema today, but boy was I pleasantly surprised.

The film was superior to the play in almost every way imaginable. The most obvious and immediate difference between the two is the film's magnificent cinematography. The opening shots of the shipyard are stunning and grand, and they convey so much more so much more quickly than watching a dozen people in rags pantomiming physical labor on a dimly lit stage. But that opening scene was just a prelude to a long series of breathtaking and sweeping images.

The biggest departure from the play that was, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest masterstrokes of the film was to have the actors sing in a much more natural, much less broadway style. Part of that is personal preference. I've always found the Broadway vocal aesthetic intolerable and over the top (and this is coming from an opera fan). I have always hated Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream" because it comes off as hammy and grossly insincere, be it Lea Salonga, Ruthie Henshall, Susan Boyle…whoever. The way they would belt out "I had a dream my life would be / so different from this HELL I'M LIVING" was affected and ridiculous. But the way Anne Hathaway sang it was so direct, natural, and sincere. For one, she left behind the dreary morse-code monotony of the opening lines and actually spoke a few words. For another, she let her voice falter on some critical notes in order to give life to some otherwise unfathomably idiotic lyrics. I found that these words that I had previously mocked unsparingly were brining me to the threshold of tears. She sang the role better than it's ever been sung before.

But this was not "good singing" in a strictly music sense—it worked brilliantly within the movie, but I'd never buy this soundtrack. Almost every actor in the movie is seriously off pitch many, many times, but almost always to great emotional effect. That just kind of makes sense: if you're dying from a gunshot wound or venereal disease or old age, you're bound to let your pitch waver a bit.

The way Tom Hooper shot Fantine's solo was unflinching in a way that just can't be done on the stage. The camera hung so close to her eyes and never pulled away. The word that kept coming to my mind was visceral. Her descent into prostitution is much more graphic than the stage would permit as well, but I thought it was absolutely necessary if you're going to keep "Lovely Ladies" in the movie. I always hated that song. The jokes about penis shape and placement seriously undercut the horror of Fantine's demise. Comedy can be an effective way of commenting on subjects too delicate to tackle head-on, but it can also undermine the gravity of a serious issue. The latter is what happens in the musical, but the movie doesn't suffer from this problem at all, largely because its treatment of Fantine's story is so brutal.

But back to the music. Anne Dudley did a great job adapting the score for film. She brought out all that was best in the original music while leaving behind its weaker points (i.e., everything 80s). And the new music she wrote fit seamlessly into the original. But as I said before, the best thing about the music was the very organic way it was sung. Hugh Jackman was a champion at this. When the time came for him to belt out "I'm 24601," he did it at full blast and with an intensity that made it soar past my cynicism. But in a break from the norm, he sang "Bring Him Home" without any falsetto, which made him sound strained and weary, which was perfectly fitting for the scene.

Russell Crowe was the only one who wasn't pulling his weight, although his interpretation of Javert was much more nuanced and interesting than the antagonist ever appears on stage.

But the crowning achievement of the film adaptation was simply that it did a much better job of storytelling than the musical. In the play, the only inkling you get of Javert's backstory (his being born a bastard in a prison) comes out when he and Valjean are singing over each other. In the film, they wisely got Valjean to shut up and let us hear that crucial line from Javert.

There are countless other minor scenes and touches that the movie adds to make the story comprehensible and relevant. One vitally important scene is right at the beginning when Valjean is still in prison. Javert orders him to retrieve a flag from the shallows, and rather than just picking up the flag, Valjean singlehandedly lifts the entire mast the flag was attached to. It was an act of defiance and phenomenal strength that would have given Javert a reason to dislike and remember Valjean. It's doubly important since Javert recognizes Valjean later precisely because Javert witnesses his similar act of unbelievable strength.

Hugh Jackman, by the way, is perfect for his role. He is able to command poise, wisdom, and savagery in equal measure, and all the while making us believe that he's capable of any physical feat. It helps that he's Wolverine.

The only scene that really didn't work for me was unfortunately the last scene. Rather than embracing a full fledged apotheosis like the play does, Hooper puts the redeemed Jean Valjean and the dead revolutionaries right back into a war-torn Paris. It was cheap and didn't really make sense. The whole point of Valjean's life was that his acts of goodness and grace transcended the economic and political turmoil of his age. Having his spirit "set free" just to go back to a barricade was a miscalculation on Hooper's part.

And unfortunately, the film kept the inane "Castle on a Cloud," which makes me want to shove a broom in Cosette's face and tell her to shut it.

But really and truly I could not have been more pleased and surprised with this adaptation. I feel so lucky that two of my favorite books, Les Misérables and Life of Pi were both made into such masterful adaptations within such close proximity.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Film Adaptation of Life of Pi, or "That's a Tall Order"

When I first read Life of Pi, I thought it could never be made into a film. When I heard there was to be a film and it was in 3D, I groaned. When I heard it was rated PG, I thought, impossible.

I've read Pi twice in the past few months to gear up for the film. I listened to the audiobook, which was a first, but I really recommend it. The point is, I'm more familiar with the book now than I've ever been. And I say with pleasure that the film naturally had some additions and deletions from the original text, but it did a near perfect job of capturing the spirit and message of the book. It was playful, tragic, sublime, joyful, and wise.

There are a few things that I didn't really appreciate about the book until I saw the film. I never thought, for example, of how the life boat is this one point suspended between the vastness of the ocean and the infinity of the cosmos. Ang Lee drives that point home several times in magnificent shots of the boat from far off with the heavens reflected in the surface of the water.

I'd never realized how much Poe's sense of the sublime factored into Pi. The sinking of the Tsimtsum is at once exquisitely beautiful and magnificently terrifying. Richard Parker likewise continually inspires that same awe and fear. And there's a near-catastrophic encounter with a whale that was invented for the movie, but certainly fits in like it belonged there the whole time.

And I'd never been so convinced by the story "without animals." Don't get me wrong, I still subscribe to the story "with animals," but there was a critical bit of leverage in how the movie chose to present the second story. When I read the version without animals in the novel, I always imagined the action as it was being described. But rather than show the second story, the movie just has Pi tell it. Watching him deliver the second account and watching the emotional toll it took on him lent a layer of credence to the second story I'd never felt before.

But back to the more movie-ish parts of the movie. The score was apt, the acting was magnificent, and the cinematography was breathtaking. It's one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen. I love the way they introduced Richard Parker. Everyone who played Pi during the various stages of his life was a joy to watch. All the animal effects were totally convincing…

I really have no substantial complaints. The film enhanced my reading of the book, which is more than I could have asked for.

I have more that I want to say about the book, but what else is new? I don't think it would be very appropriate or fit well into this post. But I'll just close with this: I love the simplicity of Pi. Although the structure and themes of the novel are so complex and intricate they spiral out towards infinity, the basic premise can be expressed with just three nouns. Boy, lifeboat, tiger.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Hobbit

Well, I'm stuck in an airport and have time to kill. Plus, I just finished reading The Hobbit less than a week ago. So here goes:

Peter Jackson is coming out with a trilogy of movies depicting the story of The Hobbit. Knowing his tendency to err on the side of length, I decided to time myself reading the book to see if I could read it faster than I could watch the movies. The book's just 255 pages, and it took me 7.5 hours. Assuming his movies are all three hours long (as all The Lord of the Rings movies were), I'll beat him by an hour and a half.

But aside from seeing how ridiculous Jackson is, I've learned something else in reading Tolkien's classic novel.

The Hobbit is weird. It is an odd little book. And here are some of the things that make it so: it's clearly written by a linguist; it represents an awkward, liminal position between manufactured fairy tales and what would become fantasy fiction; it's a better book than the Lord of the Rings trilogy that followed; its prose oscillates from tedious to extraordinary; and last (maybe), while being a groundbreaking work, it espouses some woefully antiquated social paradigms.

When I make the claim that it was written by a linguist, some people may assume I'm talking about the runes at the beginning or the fantasy languages Tolkien created. Certainly those are indicative of someone who is heavily interested in languages, but they're also fundamentally more juvenile experimentations with language than the other language games that occur throughout the book.

I say they're juvenile, because using a foreign alphabet as a direct code for our Roman alphabet is something pretty much every child is tempted with when they learn a new alphabet. And making up imaginary words for things is a common game among children.

But let's take a look at the first bit of dialog in The Hobbit. Bilbo says, "Good morning!"

To which Gandalf responds, "What do you mean? Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?" A fairly pedantic response, but it shows Tolkien's deep interest in semantics and ambiguity—much more sophisticated language hobbies than writing in a direct cipher or making up imaginary words.

The interest The Hobbit takes in semantics and ambiguity underscores the entire novel. Bilbo's riddles with Gollum and Smaug are the two most critical turning points in the narrative, the two points when Bilbo acquires a vital power (the ring of invisibility and the knowledge of Smaug's weakness). By deciphering the runes on Thorin's map, mastery of language also unlocks the mystery of how to enter Smaug's lair. A multi-lingual thrush communicates Smaug's secret to Bard, who is able to take the dragon down. Language is the real hero of the book.

This emphasis on language and ambiguity marks a real difference between The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings books that followed, but more on that in a bit. The Hobbit is a bridge between fairy tales of the Grimm variety and the overabundance of fantasy novels that would be written as a direct response to Tolkien.

I think a lot of Tolkien's (frankly awful) verse is his attempt at something like a nursery rhyme. And the trolls the group encounters in the beginning of the novel are much more goofy, lumbering, and silly than the trolls that would show up in Tolkien's later trilogy. The world of The Hobbit, despite occasional sinister references to "the necromancer," is a much more jolly world than the ones we find in most fantasy novels or even Tolkien's own Lord of the Rings.

But at the same time, this was the first book to invent the kind of fantasy landscape that would become so common in the decades to follow.

This disjunct between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings presents a problem for Peter Jackson. He can't put the trolls from The Fellowship of the Ring into The Hobbit and it be true to the book. For one, these trolls seem more like comic, redneck cannibals than full-on monsters. They have pretty pedestrian names like "William," "Bert," and "Tom." By the way, Bilbo didn't have a swashbuckling showdown with William, Bert, and Tom. Gandalf tricked them by mimicking their voices (another time that language comes off as champion), until they got turned into stone by the sun.

Playing this scene with mute Moria trolls would be a mistake. This wouldn't be a superficial difference between book and film, but a real break from the whimsical, humorous tone of the book.

The Hobbit is better than The Lord of the Rings, anyway. The latter is boring. And when I say that, the die-hard Tolkien fans will tell me condescendingly, "Yeah. The Hobbit is much easier to read." Yes. It is an easier read. Each chapter is deliberate and furthers the story, and there aren't nearly as many rambling monologues about irrelevant plot points as there are in The Lord of the Rings. But that's not the only reason why I say The Hobbit is better.

The Lord of the Rings is almost entirely uninterested in ambiguity and moral dilemma. Sauron is irredeemably and inexplicably evil. Examining his motives is never rewarding for the reader because there's no depth or complexity to them. Likewise, Frodo is never really conflicted over what he should do, just whether he can hold himself together long enough to do it. The books are almost devoid of moral questions. (The big exception for this is Gollum, but he's a carry over from The Hobbit anyway.)

This is not the case with The Hobbit.

Bilbo is commissioned to be a burglar. At first this seems like a joke, but over the course of the novel Bilbo turns into a bona fide thief with a moral compass that's fuzzy at best. In his final act as burglar, he fully steals his friend's most prized heirloom and gives it to his enemy. A betrayl like that should give any of us pause before the execution.

And the whole purpose of going on this expedition is built on shaky moral grounds. Does the acquisition of wealth (even if it once belonged to Thorin's ancestors) justify all the deaths in the book's last battle, not to mention all the innocent people who died in Laketown during Smaug's attack? Bilbo certainly raises this question.

But for all of The Hobbit's exploration of linguistic and moral ambiguity, it still espouses some really troubling world-views, even if it is in a fantasy world. I think it's a little silly to call Tolkien racist because of how he talks about his own imaginary races, but think about how he portrays dwarves. At the end of the book, a recurring sentiment emerges: You can only trust dwarves if money hasn't entered into the equation, even with an otherwise honorable dwarf like Thorin.

Once again, I know we're talking about dwarves and not people in real life, but how comfortable would we be with a phrase like that if it were applied to Jews? "Jews are all right until they smell cash. Then you better hold on to your wallet." Obviously not okay. While I don't know of any dwarves who would be offended by what's said in The Hobbit, there is a problem with ascribing character flaws to an entire race.

Another puzzlingly dated philosophy in The Hobbit surfaces when Bard is made king. He kills Smaug and everyone cries out at once, "Well, shoot! Let's make him king. He totally killed that dragon." So that's what they do, and they live under more happiness and prosperity than they ever had before because they now have a dragon-killer as their king. Even assuming that monarchy is better than elected representation (which is a big concession), is marksmanship the best criterion for civic leadership?

I think this conflict between moral examination and antiquated ideology comes from Tolkien's unique position between modernity and antiquity. He was a veteran of World War I, the incubator of modernism, but he also spent his professional career immersed in ancient texts.

Tolkien's contemporary and colleague C. S. Lewis spoke of his own spot in the shifting historical landscape. In his inaugural lecture as the chair of medieval and renaissance literature at Cambridge, Lewis spoke of how valuable it would be to speak with an antique Athenian about ancient Greek drama. And then acknowledging the radical shift that was taking place in the West, Lewis said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you somewhat as that Athenian might stand." He correctly anticipated that he was one of the last men of a dying era, an era that would be swallowed up by modernism and postmodernism.

I think many of these seemingly hopelessly old-fashioned philosophies that Tolkien presents are a direct result of the historical tensions in which Tolkien found himself.

So let's see how much of that gets translated to the movies, shall we?

Monday, October 29, 2012

My Playlist of Endless Loop, or "Play It Again, Sam"

I have this thing where I'll listen to one song over and over again. I think it comes from being a musician and practicing the same piece again and again, but there are some songs that always leave me wanting more.

One is Stephen Paulus's "Pilgrim's Hymn" performed by the University of Utah Singers:

I love this song. It's serene, subtly dramatic, and the harmonies are beautiful. I'll often put this song on repeat when I know I'm going to be doing a lot of editing.

The next is Ralph Vaughn Williams's "Orpheus with his Lute":

Pardon the counter-tenor. I actually think he does a terrific job singing it. There's something deeply sorrowful about this song, even if it's not explicit in the text. It's exquisite and haunting. Also, I just love the Orpheus story so much.

Moving from classical to pop, I present you with Adele. Maybe you've heard of her:

I've gushed about how much I like her and specifically "Someone Like You" here, but she deserves a second mention. This is about as perfect as any pop song could ever hope to be. It's simple, straightforward, and soulful. I love that it's just her and a piano.

Back to classical. This is one of the two greatest pieces of music ever written:
Beethoven wrote this when he thought he was about to die. Once again, it wins on simplicity. Beethoven was at the height of his craft when he composed this, but he decided to keep it basic and beautiful.

And then virtually any song by Jack White fits in this category. This morning I kept repeating "Hypnotize":
I don't know why some songs do this to me while others don't. All the ones up to this point had pretty slow tempos, but here comes another fastie:

I have literally run to this song for hours upon hours. I put it on repeat and the time flies. It also makes me inexplicably happy.

And the last is like the first. This is an arrangement of Bizet's "Agnus Dei":

Miserere may be my favorite word in Latin. Or maybe lacrimosa. Anyway, this song takes me to a deeply peaceful place. The harmonies are palpable, and I love the tone quality of this choir.

Anyway. I don't know why I choose to listen to these particular songs for hours at a time, but I do. I like them. By the way, if you want to share in the experience of trance-like listening, just type "repeat" into the URL after "youtube."

For example, this is the regular URL for the last video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHZNY-LQbB4

And this is the looping URL:

http://www.youtuberepeat.com/watch?v=lHZNY-LQbB4

Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Abysmal State of Journalism, or "We Do Not Question Things at the BYU"

This will be a rage post.

This morning I read an article in The Daily Universe. This automatically puts me in a minority of students at BYU. I don't know if anyone else remembers, you know, last year when it was still a daily paper that published something that resembled news—thanks to the AP syndication.

Nudey Gaugin from my grandmother's home
There is so much wrong with The Universe, it's hard to know where to begin. The name alone is absurdly pompous for such a myopic rag. I could talk about how the kinda-weekly-or-so model is stupid, and no one reads anything but the Police Beat online, anyway, but that's not my main issue here.

As stated above, I read an article this morning in The Universe. It contained no news, no real research, and no insight. Here it is, an article about how great the Art Department is because they don't allow nude figure drawing on campus.

For everyone's sake, I'm not going to issue a treatise on why I think the university's policy on nude figure drawing (not to mention the no-nude policy in the MOA) is ridiculous. I'm not an artist. J. Kirk Richards, a man whose religious art I respect more than any other living artist's, wrote plenty about the morality of nude art here. Also, you should absolutely buy his beautiful new book on the Nativity.

But I will say this. Nude art is not inherently sexual. I have never been aroused by a Renoir, and no 14 year-old boy has a nude Degas tucked under his mattress. This summer I actually spent an afternoon staring at Degas' nudes in the Orsay, and I wasn't titillated in the slightest.

An instructive Renoir nude
On the contrary, nudes have a lot to offer society, even and especially those who (like myself) are religious. If you do a Google image search for "Victoria's Secret," you're going to find a lot of young, thin, sexy models. Contrast that with the nude to the left. This painting is beautiful, the woman is beautiful, and her body is beautiful. Paintings like this teach us that women can be beautiful without fitting into our narrow, unhealthy, fetishized ideas of the female figure. I think we could handle seeing more images like these and less lingerie ads.

But anyway. I didn't mean to focus so much on that. My main point is that The Universe is a joke, and that article had no business being printed. A friend of mine who is neither a BYU student nor LDS said it best when she pointed out that the article was at once self-congratulatory and self-conscious. That attitude plagues BYU's campus, policies, and PR.

Just think of the caffeine fiasco that unfortunately fizzled out over the past few months. When the LDS Church made clear that they have no anti-caffeine policy, people started asking BYU why they conspicuously sold no caffeinated drinks. The official response was, "It was a decision made by Dining Services based on the needs and desires of our customers. It hasn't really been an issue." Riiiiight. And every restaurant adjacent to campus sells real Coke because…no one buys it?

This may seem like a silly issue, but the university's stance is so clearly a steaming pile of crap. It gets frustrating that I'm enrolled in an institution that's teaching me critical thinking and analytical reasoning, but any attempt to question that institution's seemingly arbitrary policies is stonewalled. Don't get me wrong. BYU is a great university, and I don't regret for a moment my decision to come here. In fact, I'm very grateful for the opportunity. But the administration and the students can be ridiculous sometimes.

Enter the Student Review. I had such high hopes for the Student Review. Here was a publication that was unaffiliated with the university and could actually facilitate meaningful discourse. I even wrote two articles for them. So this afternoon when I saw the latest issue of the Student Review on my doorstep, I was giddy with anticipation.

Then I read the letter from the editor. I'm going to give Tamarra Kemsley the benefit of the doubt that she is not an awful and aggressively ignorant person. Her piece was about how modernity has been creating more options for consumers, therefore, we're on the brink of breaking from the two-party system. This is a lunacy that betrays a deep misunderstanding of how the country—you know—is. The two party system is a product of our Constitution, not a lack of multi-faceted discourse or freedom of the press. The Electoral College pretty much guarantees that there will always be two major parties, because there's no way a third party could begin to be competitive with the way votes are allocated. That's the result of a winner-take-all system in states' votes.

Perhaps her most egregious assertion, though, was, "True, there are still a lot of old people without Twitter or Facebook accounts. These are the people who still receive their advertising through costly TV ads and the like. But they're on the up and out and replacing them are Millennials – those born in 1985 and on – and not only do we dislike the breaks for ads on Hulu and Spotify, but we're also highly skeptical individuals jaded by politics and slander campaigns. In short, the old tactics just won't work on us."(emphasis mine)

Ah. So it's all the older generations' fault for not being savvy enough to log onto Facebook and Twitter. As soon as they're dead we'll all be living in a "jaded," "skeptical" Shangri-La.

Has Ms. Kemsley been on Twitter or Facebook recently? Social media platforms are inundated with nothing but two-party discourse.

Are "Millennials" old enough to be "jaded by politics and slander campaigns"?

And how about the arrogance in "The old tactics just won't work on us"? Why? Because you watch Modern Family on HuluPlus? Watch out, we've got a legit political philosopher over here.

But that was just one article. Surely there was more to this issue.

Not really.

The next article was titled, "What Does Jimmer Have That I Don't?" Answer: something to write about. Seriously. Andrew Alston, our illustrious author, had nothing to say and even went off on some bizarre, extended hypothetical about how patrons at the BYU Bookstore wouldn't have recognized Gandhi because they were paying too much attention to Jimmer Fredette. Because recognizing the ghost of turn of the century activists is such an important skill set to have when entering college bookstores.

I read a review of the new Mumford & Sons album that was as inarticulate as it was uninformed. It called Sigh No More an "overnight success." If we're calling three years "overnight," then sure.

There's a frivolous article called "Elder Holland Meets Chuch [sic] Norris."

Luke Swenson's "Speculation on the Future of Literature" opens with a colossal misunderstanding and miscalculation of text. "Reading has been stripped almost entirely of its historical function as entertainment…." Harry Potter? Hunger Games? Twilight? Have you read a book in the past ten years? I also call into question his assertion that the historical function of reading was entertainment. I don't think Romans read Vergil primarily to be entertained.

The "This I Believe" article was unreadable. It was all about how hard life was for super-logical Johnny Harris, and how difficult it was for him to tolerate his fellow Mormons' platitudes. No one should ever write in earnest anything that even resembles, "To an objective and dangerously analytical mind like mine I find my logic…" But then Johnny's heart grew three sizes that day, and suddenly he could tolerate his peers' "nebulous catch phrases."

Then their election coverage (the ostensible purpose of this "2012 Election Issue") was a farce. There was an article with more drunken third-party speculation, an article titled "Political Uniformity Limits Diversity" (WHOA! Slow down, Sherlock), and then a poll of eight students. Four of the students said they were voting for Romney. The other four said they were voting for Obama. (So much for that third party…) All eight of these students had a mini bio and a quote as to why they were voting for that candidate. But the quotes universally neglected to articulate anything outside the scope of buzzwords. "Romney. Economy." "Obama. Healthcare." "Hulk. Smash." There was absolutely no discourse or insight into a single policy.

And whoever typeset this monstrosity needs to rethink their life. I really don't understand it. Anyone with enough know-how to launch InDesign should know better than to leave no padding between images and text, to put dark red text on a black image, or to leave the column guides on the final copy. What happened?

What happened, Student Review?

Anyway, if you've made it this far, I'll reward you with a nip-slip.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Where be his quiddities now?" or "Cemeteries Give Good Perspective"

After a string of catastrophes and failures, I decided to become a lawyer. And if that doesn't sound like the first line of a great novel, I don't what does. But seriously, the decision came from a mix of frustration, ambition, altruism, and blind optimism. So for the past few months I've been cramming for the LSAT and looking at schools and programs.

I've also been reading blogs like this one that are pretty discouraging about the whole idea of practicing law. Clearly, the industry is not what it once was, and a legal degree, even from a top school, is no guarantee that graduates will get a decent job. And some law schools are coming off as almost criminal with their inordinately high tuition and low job placement, sinking their alumni with anywhere from $70,000 to several hundred thousand dollars of debt without the prospects of a legal job.

Anyway, yesterday I went to a law school fair and talked to a lot of different schools. At first I was overwhelmed with all the fancy options. But then I started to think about paying tuition at a place like Pepperdine and living in a place like Malibu. A pretty campus and even proximity to family are not worth that much debt to me. I went from being overwhelmed at all the possibilities to despairing over the prospects of any of them.

So I went for a walk to the Provo Cemetery. This is not as irrational as it might sound. Exercise (even something as moderate as walking for 90 minutes) makes you feel better, and there's no place quite like a cemetery to give you perspective on life and living. When I got there, I stood in the chilly shade of a spruce tree and waited for some kind of inspiration.

I started reading headstones, and the inspiration came quickly. It's a little cheesy, but here it goes: Not one of the headstones said anything about being an attorney or a judge. They all had some sort of declaration of faith and a family title. Mother, son, daughter, father, grandfather, grandmother.

If I get into my top school and have a satisfying and rewarding career while ridding the world of crime, rehabilitating criminals, and defending the Constitution, that'll be swell. But if I don't, that's okay because it doesn't matter nearly as much as my relationship with my family and my God.

I felt much better when I woke up this morning.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mumford & Sons pt. 2, or "Homeruns and Strikeouts"

Today was the US release of Mumford & Sons' new album, Babel. I wanted to love it completely, but I have some beef. I don't want to come off as a grump. The reason why I'm going to be hard on them is that they've set such a high standard for themselves.

The title track, "Babel," is great. I love the energy, right from the get-go. Just the timbre of the guitar establishes a pace and direction for the song, and we know it's going somewhere fast. We get great, mostly nonsensical but compelling lyrics, my favorite being, "I stretch my arms into the sky / I cry, 'Babel, Babel, look at me now! / For the walls of my town, they come crumbling down.'" This song is a homerun. I especially like Marcus Mumford's little "whoo!" in the middle.

"I Will Wait," a single that's been out for a while now, is not so solid a triumph. The music is great, but the lyrics are lackluster. I mean, the chorus is just "I will wait for you." Come on, guys. I mean, the music is really moving, but there's no substance behind it. The song creates neither a narrative nor even a string of images. This is no "White Blank Page."

"Lovers' Eyes," though, is a homerun, with a few caveats. The way the song starts out with that electronic ambience kind of gets on my nerves. It doesn't sound like anything Mumford & Sons has done before, or like anything else on the album. I don't feel like it's their style; I feel like it's the style of their producer, who also works with Bjork. This feels much more Bjork than Mumford.

Continuity, actually, is one of my biggest problems with this album. I learned from iTunes that it was recorded over the space of 18 months in four separate studios. They said that like it was a good thing. But Babel lacks the cohesion of their first album, and it sounds like a series of hit-and-run recordings. And the lyrics sound a little scatterbrained and recycled. Here are a few words Mumford should put to bed for at least a few albums:

Stone, grace, shame, son(s), heart, sin, tongue, truth, rage.

But back to "Lovers' Eyes." They have some fun wordplay with the idea of sight. Blindness and brightness establish themselves within the first verse, and the whole "I'll walk slow / take my hand" definitely implies a blindness at the end. It's kind of a great progression. I love it. I also love the almost a capella passages in this song. Their harmonies are tight, rich, and full.

The ultimate strikeout for me, though, is "Broken Crown." At the risk of sounding like a prude, it's largely because of their vulgar (and frankly idiotic) use of profanity. On iTunes, I pre-ordered a non-explicit version of the album, which version appears to now be non-existant. So I was surprised when I kept hearing, "I can take the road, and I can f### it all the way." (This is a family blog.) Yes, "Little Lion Man" has similar profanity (which is why it remains unchecked on my iTunes library), but at least "I really f###ed it up this time" is something people say. 

What does that even mean, "I can take the road, and I can f### it all the way?" If we take it literally, it seems like 1) a really inefficient mode of transportation and 2) a guaranteed way to get some serious chafe-age. But my objection isn't just that I won't listen to something because they used a dirty word. The reason I listen to great music and poetic lyrics is that I want to momentarily get a lift away from quotidian ugliness. I want to feel moved and inspired. If I just wanted to hear nonsensical obscenities, I wouldn't listen to music. Lyrics like that go against the very reason why I put on my headphones.

"Broken Crown" is full of sexy wordplays, and whatever. That's their prerogative, but when I come across lyrics like, "Crawl on my belly til the sun goes down / I'll never where your broken crown," I have to ask with Michael Bluth, "Have I missed this euphemism?" I never thought I'd compare a Mumford lyric to Gob. Not a good sign.

It's like the old saying goes, "Anything too stupid to be spoken is sung."

So, in sum. There are a few really good singles on this album, one song that made me feel betrayed, and the rest are just okay. The album as a whole comes off as poorly planned, subject to caprice, and executed by amazing musicians. To put this in perspective, I was so frustrated when I finished listening to it this morning that I felt compelled to watch "Gangnam Style."

Yeah.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Mumford & Sons pt. 1

Tonight is the eve of Mumford & Sons' new album release. I like Mumford & Sons. A lot. They're smart, they're catchy, and they're engaging. Let's talk for a moment about how they're smart.

My favorite Mumford song to date is "The Cave." I'm almost certain that it's an allusion to Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" from his Republic. If you're unfamiliar with the allegory, Plato describes the way most people see the world as prisoners watching the shadow of a puppet show against the wall of a cave. Coming out of the cave is painful because we're not used to the light of the sun and full mobility. Mumford's "The Cave" and most of the album seems to be about rebirth, expansion of the self, and enlightenment. So this is an apt allusion to make. And it makes way for one of my favorite lines, "So come out of your cave walking on your hands / and see the world hanging upside down."

Speaking of allusions and great lines, they quote Shakespeare all over the place, which naturally, I feel great about. The album's name, Sigh No More, is from Much Ado About Nothing.

Here's the text read at the opening of Branagh's brilliant film adaptation:

Anyway, they use the "one foot in sea and one on shore" line in first track as well.

While I think the Plato allusion is clever, playful, and apt, I mostly think they Shakespeare allusions are just playful. By way of example, the exuberant "Roll Away Your Stone" takes a deeply morbid line from Macbeth ("Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.") and turns it into a positively triumphal shout. I think they just used it because it sounds cool, which is fine. I'm all about that.

Other times, they seem to be using Shakespeare more consciously. I think "Little Lion Man" is an adaptation of Leontes' story from A Winter's Tale, since he did indeed "screw it up that time." (For those of you familiar with the original lyrics, this is a family blog.) Plus, his name means "little lion." I also like how they repeat King Lear's heart breaking line, "I gave you all," in the eponymous single. The line and its repetition give the song a powerful infusion of poignancy.

But when it comes to poignancy, nothing tops the delightfully melancholy "Thistle & Weeds." After a few times of listening to it, I realized that you could easily make the case that the narrator of this song is at the subject's grave. "But plant your hope in good seeds. / Don't cover yourself in thistle and weeds. / Rain down, rain down on me." Also, "Let the dead bury their dead, they will come out in droves, / But take the spade from my hands and fill in the holes, you've made."

And has the banjo ever sounded cooler than in the hands of Winston Marshall? Dang. I didn't know such a thing as a rocking banjo solo could exist, but it does. And the texture of Marcus Mumford's voice is spectacular. The way he sings "a swelling RAGE" in "White Blank Page" is fantastic. I'm ready for a new wave of British invasion.

Anyway, I'm quite excited about their new album coming out tomorrow. You can expect a review of it then!

ADDENDUM:

Here's all the Shakespeare quotes I know about, but I'd be grateful to anyone who can find more:

"Sigh no more" Much Ado About Nothing
"One foot in sea, one on shore" Much Ado About Nothing
"Man is a giddy thing" Much Ado About Nothing
"Stars, hide your fires" Macbeth
"Little Lion Man" A Winter's Tale (And a lot of the language is similar to Paulina's rants in act 3, scene 2.)
"I gave you all" King Lear

I'm sure there's more. If you find it, please post it in the comments.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Sennheiser HD 202: No Apology

I've long been dissatisfied with bud headphones. They either don't fit in your ear well, or they fit so snugly that you can suddenly hear every physiological shift within your body. They usually only last me a few months at best, and sometimes much, much less than that. Also, they're bad for your hearing. Because they don't block out external sound, you have to turn them up higher when you're around traffic noise to compensate.

Plus, I just haven't been satisfied with the frequency response of any of the buds I've bought. They're either lacking in bass or high frequency detail. (This is also bad for your hearing.) Granted, I've never spent more than about $20 on buds, but why would I if they don't last?

Enter the Sennheiser HD 202. I've been using these headphones for over a year at work, and I've always loved them. Great sound, and they're pretty comfortable. (That's another thing about buds—they really heart my ear after about an hour.) Based on just my longterm use of these headphones, I would happily pay $80 for them if I were the kind of person who spent $80 on headphones. So the other day I decided to Google the price of these cans. About $24. Twenty-four dollars. That's cheaper than any of the terrible headphones Apple puts out. WAY cheaper. I mean, I'm writing this on a MacBook, but the only thing keeping those terrible buds on the market is Apple's monopoly on tech mystique. Their standard headphones are $30, and the slightly-better-than-abysmal version is a full eighty dollars.

I asked one of my friends to listen to a song with his Apple headphones and then blast that same song through the Sennheisers. When he was done, his only response was, "How did they fit a subwoofer in there?" Exactly. I've been listening to Dvorak, Bizet, the Beatles, Jack White, and it all sounds amazing. "A Step Too Far" from Elton John's Aida concept album just came on. This song has never sounded so good, not even on my Bose speakers that cost five times as much. The detail guys, the detail. I'm hearing all kinds of stuff I just never knew was there.

So although I don't want to look like That Guy walking around with the idiotic, hipster cans on his head, I don't care. I love music, and my music sounds unquestionably better in these cheaper, better, more durable, more comfortable headphones.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Götterdämmerung

So, I'm watching the Met's production of Götterdämmerung on PBS. They decided to start the broadcast at 10:00 PM, which means it won't be over til 3:00. Right now it's 11:00, so I just have the length of the "eternal Hamlet" left to go.

Obviously, this opera is a masterpiece. It hardly needs my endorsement. The orchestration is amazing, and it's a huge achievement for any cast of singers to pull it off.

But it's also a tad ridiculous.

For one, no dramatic work should be five hours. Especially when you consider the other three operas in the cycle. I mean, come on. The whole thing is an infamous 14 hours with no breaks for intermission.

Also, let's look at this from a feminist perspective. Siegfried frees Brünnhilde from her father's prison, so she gives up her immortality and identity so she can stay in the kitchen and look after his ring. In exchange for standing up to her father, she has to stay at home and wait for her crazy, drugged up, unfaithful husband. She willfully goes from one identity-crushing male relationship to the next.

Let's talk about how Wotan is a total butthole. Really irresponsible, intemperate, and (frankly) stupid. No where near as cool as the actual Odin.

But let's take a minute to appreciate how FREAKING COOL the staging is. "The Machine" is a masterstroke. It's so simple, but they're able to do virtually anything with it. It's so great to look at during all those lengthy Wagner interludes.

I'm getting pretty weary of this whole, meeting-someone-for-five-minutes-then-trying-to-marry-them business. I know that was the standard thing in drama for a long time, but after Much Ado About Nothing and to a lesser degree,  Taming of the Shrew, I don't think you can get away with that kind of laziness in character development.

But Wagner doesn't strike me as a great Romantic. (See what I did there?)

I cannot hear Siegfried's horn theme without thinking of Elmer Fudd:
O mighty warrior of great fighting stock,
might I inquire to ask,
eh…What's up doc?

You know, this thing works pretty well as a commentary on our economic woes. When you think about it, all the problems in this opera (including and especially the melt down [I can't help myself] at the end) stem from people being selfish/living beyond their means. Wotan takes out a huge mortgage he can't afford to pay for his big new house. And all this at the expense of the environment (World Ash Tree). Forget Wagner being an anti-Semite. He was a freaking hippie.

"A hero claims your hand, by force if necessary." So…you're a rapist?

I like immortal Brünnhilde better. She's so lovely.

The art direction for this thing is largely impeccable. BUT the sword and the ring look like garage sale fare. The former looks like it just got pulled out of a five year-old's costume closet, and the latter looks like a glowing ringpop.

Hey, hey! Two hours down. Only three to go!!! We've gone from the eternal Hamlet to your average non-extended Lord of the Rings film.

Nothung, take note: this was a chaste courtship. My sword (HUGE phallic symbol) will rest between me and Gunther's bride.

Alberich's repeated, "Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn?" has taken on a special poignancy for me in the wee hours of the morning. Sei treu, Michael. Sei treu.

Man, the orchestral writing is really top notch. So many great textures. Also, the Gibichungs' hall is SO COOL LOOKING! I love the statue of Wotan hanging out in the background. He looks like a good old Pontifex Maximus.

And now everybody's grabbing the spear and swearing by Hagen's huge manhood.

Since everyone but Gunther and Brünnhilde has left the stage, I think they should work in "Let's Get It On" instead of the original music. Why not update the production a little bit?

Whew! Two acts down, one to go. Time for a little seventh inning stretch.

And by that I mean, more Diet Dr. Pepper. Honestly, I think my bladder is doing more to keep me awake than the caffeine.

"And yet, if I weren't married, I'd totally do one of these sexy mermaids." Why are we supposed to like Siegfried again?

As much as I don't like Wotan, this opera could use a little Bryn Terfel. Also, his costume design in this opera is the coolest.

I love the string writing for the song where Siegfried recounts what the birds sang to him. Also, the dude playing Siegfried looks perfect for the part. I'm sure his glorious wig is helping, but still.

I've been noticing the sun in the background all along, and I like it. It's a nice motif to have in an opera titled "Twilight of the Gods." Ooooh! Fun parody idea. Do a mashup of Twilight and Götterdämmerung. Only problem is, Kristen Stewart would play Brünnhilde! BAHAHAHAHAHA! I guess she could pull off the being-asleep portions of the role.

I love how long it takes people to die in an opera. I think La Traviata wins for the longest opera death, though. I mean, she started dying before the opera begins, and then hours later she finally kicks the proverbial bucket.

COOL effect of Gunther washing his hands in the river. I'm telling you, The Machine was maybe single the best idea in this production.

At this point in the opera, it feels like the gods have been relegated to the cheap seats.

Also, Wagner, you have less than an hour to wrap this thing up. I hate to be rude, but don't you think you're spending a little too much time on the funeral procession stuff?

And as we hear Siegfried's leitmotif, he raises his hand for a fist bump from Brünnhilde. Oh, denied!

Speaking of leitmotifs, obviously Brünnhilde has the coolest.

Brünnhilde's "Ruhe, Ruhe," could be both a command and a plea. Everybody shut up. I need peace.

Why didn't Wotan just move all that wood from the ash tree somewhere not right next to Valhalla? It seems like a lot of his problems could have been solved if he'd taken fire safety more seriously.

Okay. The puppetry on that horse is freaking awesome.

I'm confused. Is it the fire from Siegfried's pyre that burns down Valhalla? Cause didn't they do that right on the shore of the Rhine? And didn't the Rhine overflow?

This is really kind of an unsatisfying ending. I did not care about Siegfried, and Brünnhilde literally burning the world down seems a little spiteful and myopic. Wagner's gods seem way more Hellenistic than the "real" Norse gods. You could just change some proper nouns and call this, "Zeus Gets his Comeuppance." The Odin I know is a much sadder, wiser god. And Loki is one of the most sympathetic tragic figures in any mythos. Here, "Loge" is hardly a footnote.

Well, whatever. I did it. I watched all five hours, starting at 10:00 PM. I'm glad I finally got around to seeing at least two of the four operas. I still don't get Wagner, but I get why people get Wagner, if that makes sense. I still don't think he's a great dramatist or storyteller. I think he was a great orchestrator. And honestly, I have to respect the scope of the cycle.

I'm watching the behind the scenes interviews after the opera, and Siegfried/Chris-Hemsworth-look-alike, Jay Hunter Morris, sounds like an absolute effeminate hick. It is hilarious! I can't stop laughing. I love it when my fellow Southerners represent. I never would have guessed that he was a total redneck. His website is THE BOMB! [Edit: This sounds a little mean. But seriously, I love this guy. He did a fantastic job, and from the interviews I've seen, he has zero ego. Maybe "hick" and "redneck" are too strong. How about cowboy? Without a doubt, he is the world's greatest Wagnerian cowboy.]

Why am I still awake? Oh yeah, I have two liters of Diet Dr. Pepper running through my system.

Monday, September 10, 2012

If I Were a Campaign Adviser, or "I'm Already Over This Election"

If I were Obama's campaign adviser, I would hammer into the American people's mind this question: Do we really want to go back to the party that created this recession? Dubya inherited one of the biggest economic booms in the history of the world, and after eight years he left the world in economic meltdown.

If I were Romney' adviser, I would have him talking a lot more about Obama's failure to take care of veterans. The president and vice president both gabbed a lot about taking care of the troops. Biden called it, "the only truly, sacred obligation we have as a nation--to equip those we send to war and care for them when they come home from war." But soldiers going to war today are more likely to kill themselves when they come home than they are likely to die overseas. Good job, Barry. I can see your taking the care of our veterans seriously.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

100 Posts!

In honor of this being my 100th post on this blog, I'll reveal the story behind the title of this thing you've been reading. It goes back to high school.

I was in a music theory/appreciation/history class, and I came across "Alfonso el sabio," or Alfonso X, king of Spain. His title means "Alfonso the wise." I thought that was a hilarious name, so when I took Spanish class and we got to pick names for ourselves, I naturally picked "Alfonso."

I actually came to like Al's music. Here's one of my favorite pieces of his:

Anyway, so I picked that name in Spanish class, and I took all the Spanish classes my high school offered. In consequence, lots of people knew me only as "Alfonso." Once I was in town with my parents, and I heard someone scream, "HEY! Alfonso!" I think this was the first time my folks found out about my alias. I don't know if they knew what to make of it.

Later, my group of friends decided to make matching "Happy Wednesday" shirts with our nicknames on the back. My obvious choice was Alfonso.

Early on, I realized the power of the Happy Wednesday shirt. I wore it on a Tuesday in Disney World, and a poor man came up to me in something of a frenzy asking me, "It's not really Wednesday, is it? I'm supposed to be back in the office."

My favorite confrontation, though, is with people who have visibly mustered up the courage to approach me about it, and say with almost shaky indignation, "It's Tuesday; not Wednesday."

I pull them aside in a tone of mock conspiracy and say, "Shhh. Don't tell anyone!"

So there you have it, folks. I don't know who you are or why you read this blog, but thanks!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Why I Hate Phantom, or More Musical Iconoclasm

Short answer: It's tacky and I hate it.

Long answer:

I'm currently watching the PBS Great Performances version of The Phantom of the Opera and blogging along live. Let's talk about how tacky and ridiculous the opening is. The chandelier is "Lot 666." Ooo, subtle. I see what you did there.

Next up, I understand that this was a product of the 80s, but that overture needs a facelift. Mainly, we need to get rid of that drum kit. *up chromatic scale* ==DZOO DZOO== *down chromatic scale* ==DZOO DZOO==

Okay, I like "Think of Me." One point for Andy. BUT, at least in this production Christine's coloratura skills were wanting. To be fair, it may have been my speakers.

Ugh. And now we hear the Phantom with his breathy "Brava, brava, bravissima!" It's hammy. Hammy, hammy, hammy. And quickly we launch into Christine's creepy Elektra complex and daddy worship. Well, to be fair, I guess at this point it's just foreshadowing of the upcoming creepiness.

That's one of the big problems with this musical—no one is even remotely likable. The Phantom and Christine are both creeps and Raul is a worthless nancy boy.

Also, the whole referring to the Phantom as just "the angel of music" gets old fast.

"I'm your angel of music. Come to me, angel of music." Great lyric, but can we repeat that eight times?

YES! Return of that 80s drum kit. That's when you know you're listening to real art music.

I'd also like to point out that up to this point, the only thing like counterpoint that has shown up in any of the singing has been parallel thirds and sixths. Don't work too hard, Andy.

Okay, even though I hate the song, the staging of the actual song "Phantom of the Opera" is pretty rad. Especially in this production. One more point to Andy.

Oh. Oh. But do you hear that majestic guitar solo? Sorry, you just lost that point. Oh man, I can't stand this.

I'd love to see someone do a drinking game with this musical: take a shot every time someone says, "angel of music."

And now we're at Christine's famous AAAH-UH-AHHH-UH-AH-AHHH. Watch out guys! Andy's figured out key changes. His gain; our loss.

"Music of the Night." Not a bad tune. I'm going to turn down my sass for the present. BUT the song's still gross. Also, Andy once again shows that he's recently discovered the chromatic scale. (Sass is back on, btws.) Phantom just sang, "let your soul take you where you long to BEEEEEEEEEEEEEE." And he did that thing that is my most hated mannerism in all of broadway-style singing. He threw in a high-pitched hiccup at the end of his note. Sometimes people do it right before a note or right after. Either way, it gets on my nerves every. single. time.

Okay, we're at the "Damn You" Phantom solo. Not Andy's greatest exhibition in melody.

I have friends over, so this writing may be more sporadic, or it may just end in a second.

Video Games Can Never Be Art

I did this piece for BYU Radio. It's a response and investigation into Roger Ebert's now infamous claim that "Video games can never be art."

Also, here's the link to my friend Will's blog:

http://willstrongart.blogspot.com/

I interviewed him for the segment.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Les Miserables

The film version of the musical is coming out in December. It stars Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, and although I love Hugh in pretty much everything, I have some beef with the musical itself. The music is fine—some of the songs are great. But the lyrics are lacking. I'd like to highlight three of my favorite bad lyrics.

1) From Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream":

"But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
As they turn your dream to shame."

Mixed. Metaphor. Just read it. Where are these tigers coming from? It totally breaks the mood of the setting of revolutionary France to bring in exotic predators. And it's a bad metaphor. Tigers aren't seductive, and when's the last time you heard someone complain about a tiger turning their dream to shame? Ugh. And the great thing about this song is that Fantine reaches climactic cheesiness right on these lines—right as she's climbing up the scale on "shame." I HATE THIS SONG SO MUCH.

And actually, I really don't like the music either. The intro, with that repetitive E-flat, makes me think of Peter Seller's parody of "Night and Day," where he played the beginning in Morse code.

2) From Cosette's "Castle on a Cloud":

"Crying at all is not allowed,
Not in my castle on a cloud."

This is maybe my most hated number in the whole musical. I like the kind of Renaissance treatment that the theme gets when Valjean shows up, BUT this song was born tired. And these lyrics represent the lowest of lows in the song. In my minds eye, I can see the worn page in the rhyming dictionary for the entry, "cloud." And so we get the line, "Crying at all is not allowed." Let's think about this practically. Making crying a punishable offense seems to work against itself:

"What is that you're doing? Crying?!"
"No, officer! I swear I wasn't!"
"You're in for it now! We don't put up with any of that nonsense. Not in the castle on the cloud!"

3) From "Do You Hear the People Sing"

"Do you hear the people sing,
singing the song of angry men?"

Outside of a musical, when's the last time you heard someone say, "I'm so mad I could just…just sing!" The answer is never. You've never heard anyone say that ever.

I could go on, but I won't.

I'm learning that I don't particularly like musicals. They tend to be hammy and tasteless, sung by people who are over-trained to over-act—people who can sing loud but not necessarily well.

That said, I'm absolutely going to see the movie come December. I really like the book, and I really like Hugh Jackman. And you know what? After The Dark Knight Rises, I'm really liking Anne Hathaway. Let's just hope there's some leather pants in Fantine's future. Am I right?

But seriously, Hathaway did a fantastic job in DKR. Just please never ask her to host the Oscars again. Although, she did a great duet with Hugh Jackman in '09:


Friday, June 15, 2012

Back in Berlin and What Have You

As my previous, lengthy post intimates, I've been in Europe for the past few months. I know the common thing for people my age to do is create an entirely new travel blog and posts lots of pictures of ourselves jumping in front of monuments.

That's not how I roll.

I had previously never been to Rome, Greece, or France, and my reactions to those places are a little bit embarrassing. The rumors are true. Rome is oozing history everywhere--ancient, unbelievable history. St. Peter's is imposing and inspiring. The Vatican museum is absurdly well stocked. The Colosseum is truly impressive, and Italian food is delicious. I had kind of expected all of these things, but the degree to which they were true was staggering.

I expected Greece to be a trashy, run-down, lawless wasteland. I don't know why, because nothing could be further from the truth. Greece was astonishingly beautiful, clean, and full of friendly, helpful people. Also, Thessaloniki has some amazing seafood. This is coming from a severe seafood snob. The mussell, I realized, has been a heretofore under appreciated cuisine in my life.

And Paris.... For whatever reason, I had never believed that she had crimson sunsets splashed across cool violet skies, never believed that the Seine swirled under and around the greatest of Gothic cathedrals and majestic bridges, never believed that something as cliché as a night in Paris could be so enchanting.

Believe it.

Also, the Orsay is more fun than the Louvre, and while they have great croissants and onion soup in Paris, we've done a fine job replicating them in the States.

Now the big hitter: Berlin.

My first encounter with Germany's great metropolis was after my freshman year of university. I went to study German at the Goethe Institut in the capitol city. This was my first real experience as an adult. For the first time, I wasn't regularly eating food prepared by my parents or the cafeteria adjacent to the dorms. I had to shop for myself at the grocery store for the first time, and this in a foreign language and country. This was the first time in my adult life that I successfully made a new set of friends. It was the first time I really lived in a big city.

When I went back, I was expecting to relive some of those same feelings. But I'm no longer a bright-eyed, budding adult. If we're looking at a graph of Jungian individuation, I've been being my own person for a while now. Plus, I just didn't have the time to re-experience everything I wanted to there.

That's something I realized in my first stay in Berlin, though. There's far too much beauty in the world to experience in just one life. For example, I'm writing this in a second story internet cafe in London, and I just saw a double decker bus drive by with an advertisement to visit Louisiana. I'm a native Lousianan, so I can never know what it's like to discover Louisiana as a Londoner. I'll never know how that wild Louisiana English must sound to someone from Britain. Have you ever considered that? I don't know what I sound like, because I just sound like me. I figure I need about thirty lifetimes to really do this world justice. I'd like to spend at least one of them in Berlin.

Anyway, on this second trip to Berlin, I didn't get to see an opera or a concert at the Philharmonie. I didn't get a leisurely stroll down Unter den Linden or get to poke my head in the Neue Wache. But I did get to visit the gardens behind the Charlottenburg palace.

When I was first in Berlin, my brother had been living in Puerto Rico for two years, and I had had essentially no contact with him during that time. He flew out to visit me in Germany, and the first thing we did was walk to Charlottenburg. It's a well worn truth that we just can't communicate the sentiment or significance of our most poignant moments, but I need to add that disclaimer here anyway. I just can't illustrate the dizzying magnitude of our walk through that park. The way his eyes bulged and hands flailed with every story. The way the wind caught the autumn leaves in a smokey dance. I can unpack my arsenal of verbs and adjectives, but I really can't communicate what it was like. As I've taken to saying, we had a moment.

Back to 2012. When I was in the park again, many of those feelings came right back to me, and strangely it was then that I realized that I'd returned to Berlin with the wrong intentions. I can't relive exciting chapters from my life. I can remember and be grateful, but ultimately I should have been on the lookout for new lessons to learn.

So now I'm in London. The city of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Eliot, the Elizabeths and Henrys, Churchill, Cromwell, Bacon, and anybody who's anybody. I remember speaking to a pair of UKers, one from London and one from Glasgow, and trying to explain why London is so magical for Americans. I described it as visiting Narnia. In that vein, I'm about to run past this lamp post to a pub and pick up some fish and chips. Or maybe bangers and mash.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

I'm in Europe

Doing European things. I went here:

 
Photo credit: Keri Erdmann

More to come later.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Gifts from my Grandparents


There are few relationships in my life so uncomplicated as the early ones I had with my grandparents. I could do no wrong, and any slight accomplishment was a herald of genius and overwhelming success. They showed abundant parental affection without the extra dimension of reprimand, and they were always liberal with sweets. That helped.

My first grandparent to pass away was my paternal grandmother, Lois (Nanie). My first theological debate was with her on the way back from church one Sunday. I must have been five or six, but I had a list of questions that I thought dismissed the idea of the Trinity. (Yes, I've always been insufferable.) Of course, she had a thousand years of exegesis on her side, but she really had the upper hand as soon as she suggested we go to lunch at McDonald's and forget the whole thing.

I remember her taking me on frequent trips to Discovery Depot, where I would stare in terror and awe at the remains of preserved mummies. Nanie was always concerned with my education. Once I was watching Nickelodeon on her TV when she walked into the room, turned it off, and handed me the book she authored on John James Audubon. I didn't understand the book, and to this day I know precious little about the artist, but the gesture had lasting significance.

She had a hard life with some harsh disappointments and betrayals, which left her scarred and a little austere. She survived cancer and divorce in a time when both of those calamities were much less understood. But my earliest memories of her are full of warmth and kindness. I still remember how soft and plump her cheeks were, and I can still hear her voice reading The Rainbow Goblins as I was tucked  neatly under a strawberry comforter. I catch traces of her voice in my dad's speech at times, especially when he reads, and it hits me like music from the great beyond.

Of all the people in my life, she was most responsible for developing a love in me for my native land of Louisiana. She taught me about Carnival and Lent. She told me about the history of Elmer's Candy Company. And I still remember with clarity the propaganda poster in her kitchen for Louisiana Shrimp, not to mention the countless crawfish boils we passed on her back porch, sipping Barq's root beer on heavy summer nights.

My paternal grandfather, Lew (Bobie), followed Nanie just a few months after she passed. He was 89 and had previously been in perfect health. I don't think any of us knew how deeply and completely he loved Nanie until we saw him on his deathbed. He's not my biological grandfather (I never met that one, actually), and he and Nanie got married when they were both past middle age. They had both been wounded by bad marriages and played close to the chest. They spent all their time in separate wings of the house.

But in his bereavement and death, we all saw that Nanie meant the world to him.

Bobie was one of my childhood heroes. He invented rubber for Esso, he flew planes, he studied astronomy, gemology, and computer science. He seemed to know everything. When I would spend a week with them during the summers, my favorite thing to do would be to sit in his study (it was actually more like a lab), listen to his music and talk with him about science. He taught like Socrates. I remember once how he asked me a series of questions about how we could identify intelligent life on a distant planet. I said that we could watch to see if water was disappearing. Seeing a deep misconception in my understanding of the universe, he taught me about the water cycle.

He never had any children of his own, but he readily adopted us and I loved him completely. He had a camp out in the middle of nowhere, and he used to take us out there exploring. We'd hike across its cliffs and streams, or we'd ride his huge industrial tractor to try and clear a trail. I often find myself exaggerating the stories of his camp just because I want people to get it. To get across the emotions of seven-year-old boy when he's confronted with all that is wild and wonderful about nature, you have to exaggerate.

I still think of him often. He financially facilitated my education and my extracurricular studies of piano and cello, but he passed away before I was any good at either. I wish I could play for him now. I tend to have awful dreams, but one of the sweetest dreams I have is that I sit down and talk with him again. Thankfully, it's recurring.

And this morning, about an hour and a half ago, my maternal grandfather, Lawrence (Poppie), passed away. One of my earliest memories of him is us all sitting around his glass table, listening to him tell a story while we munched on Tommy's Pizza. Tommy's Pizza, by the way, is the greatest pizza in the world. There are some things from childhood that, upon revisiting them, lose their magic. They weren't quite as good as you'd thought. But Tommy's Pizza is as good as it was twenty years ago.

I got my middle name from Poppie, among other things. That's kind of a big thing—a name. Because of the remarriage, I never had a grandparent with my same surname, but even a middle name was a strong tie.

Poppie taught me how to love movies. Bad movies, great movies, all movies. In fact, I remember the day when he showed me how to enjoy a really bad movie. You could either have fun at the movie's expense by laughing at its failures (think Van Helsing), or you could study it to try to understand why it didn't work. That's a skill I've developed over the years, and it's been invaluable to me as a music critic.

Whatever love I have for musicals, which admittedly is not great, comes from him. He showed me a lot of musicals growing up, and most of them didn't take, but I'll always remember his reaction when he heard I'd never seen Fiddler on the Roof. We raced to the nearest Blockbuster while Grammy whipped up some homemade popcorn and rootbeer floats. I still haven't gotten over that movie and its music. In fact, I think the only reason I took Hebrew in college was because I like Fiddler so much.

One thing I share with Poppie is that we both communicate much better on paper than in person. He was an excellent writer, and I find myself using writing as my primary way of making sense of the world. Like now.

Although my mother had an enormous influence on my love and study of Shakespeare, Poppie certainly helped. I saw Hamlet for the first time at his place. I couldn't understand a word, but I was captivated by the language, if that makes any sense. Not Shakespeare's particular use of language, but just the language itself and how it managed to be at once familiar and foreign. As I grew older and understood more, Poppie and I would have long talks about Hamlet, Othello, et al. in his living room. I loved how animated he got about it. As a speech professor, Poppie was prone to monologue, so it was sometimes hard for a little kid to follow him in conversation, but I treasure those hours spent with him when I finally found a voice. A few years ago, Poppie gave me his beautiful, illustrated copy of the Complete Works. The subtext is much more valuable to me than its gilded pages.

I also loved listening to his stories, even the ones I'd heard dozens of times. I would try to catch any alterations in how he told it, but he was too polished for that. Plus, he had a phenomenal memory. I remember one time sitting in his living room and wondering how something as small as his head could hold all these thousands of names and faces—his old students, professors, roommates, colleagues, neighbors, friends. My memory now is nothing like what his was, even when it was in decline. I wonder, though, if that wasn't as much a curse as it was a blessing. Sometimes we all need a little sip of Lethean springs just to keep our chin up.

No Christian is perfect, and every disciple has a thorn in the flesh, but Poppie loved Jesus. He spent his last days searching out the mind of Christ by writing a book-length study on how Jesus taught. Poppie is certainly not the only key figure in building my testimony of the Savior, but he played a critical role, and that is far and away the greatest legacy he's left me.

My sweet grandmother is the only one remaining. Sadly, her picture at the top is the only one I have of any of my grandparents on my computer. It's from her wedding announcement. I won't eulogize the living, but my heart and prayers go out to her. They've been married for over fifty years, and I just can't imagine the magnitude of her loss.

All my speculation and theorizing about death seems cheap in moments like these, but I believe in a life after death and that families are eternal. Donne speaks much more eloquently on death and marriage than I can:

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion.
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do;

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

What's in a meme?

I'd been distressed recently about what the word "meme" meant, where it came from, and where it was going.

I first encountered the word on forums. There were some reoccurring themes and motifs that would show up in different members' posts, and those themes and motifs were unique to the forum. Those ideas were called "memes." As I understood it then, a meme was an idea that got spread around a community, and members of that community then made that idea their own.

This definition makes sense in the context of the website knowyourmeme.com. The site is devoted to cataloguing internet trends and explaining their origin. But I've recently discovered that this meaning of "meme" is a transitional definition.

The definition doesn't make as much sense with the website memegenerator.net, where you can go to generate memes. Once, for example, my roommate said to me, "Check out this meme I just made." My response was, "How did you just make a meme?"

Then I realized that "meme" was coming to mean a single image macro, not an overarching theme or idea across the internet.

I decided to consult the Oxford English Dictionary, the mother of all dictionaries, to find out the origin of "meme." I was surprised to find that the word goes back to 1976. It was coined by Richard Dawkins, that unapologetic apologist for atheism. As he first used it, the term meant a culturally inherited trait (e.g., belief in God). Although, I have not read The God Delusion (written by Dawkins), I can't help but think that its popularity and publishing in 2006 led to the rise of the word in its popular, internet context.


I love this. I love how a word's meaning can change so drastically in such a short time. The word went from being scientific jargon to meaning this:

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Te Deum

I should be translating some more Ovid right now, but I just thought up an idea that I'm really excited about.

I've been in a compositional slump for about eight months now, but I think I'm about to come out of it.

I love this text, and have for some time. I love the English and the Latin versions, and this morning I was toying with the idea of setting it for a choir, but I decided I didn't want to: 1) It's been done so many times already by much better composers. 2) A full SATB choir and orchestra (or even organ) accompaniment felt like too much work. The text is pretty long, after all. 3) I couldn't decide if I wanted to do it in English or Latin.

Then, all at once, the idea came to me. Three high voices (soprano or tenor, it won't matter), accompanied by a solo cello. The first voice will sing Latin and stand in for the Father. The second voice will sing English and stand in for the Son. The third voice will sing a vocalise and stand in for the Spirit.

The piece will also function as a puzzle. Each of the three voices will be able to stand alone, and if a vocalist wished to perform any of the three parts as a solo, the cello part + the other vocal lines could be played on a piano (or preferably organ) as accompaniment.

There are obvious theological metaphors at work here. The three personages of the Godhead sing independent but mutually reliant melodies, all working in harmony. The text they sing is fundamentally the same and entirely different. There's a unity in their constant metamorphosis.

Anyway, I need to clear some time up in my schedule to start working on this thing. I wish I'd thought of this a month ago and that it would be ready for Easter, but alas.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Death of Ajax

This is my translation from Book 13 of Ovid's Metamorphoses, lines 382–98. Ulysses and Ajax have been arguing over who should inherit Achilles' weapons and armor. Ajax is clearly the one who deserves them, but Ulysses was tricky and eloquent, so the judges sided with him. My translation picks up right after the council makes their decision:

The council of the princes was moved,
proving the might of speech:
a quick tongue won
the great hero’s sword.
Ajax, who alone withstood
Hector, steel, and fire
—and at times the very will of Jove—
fell to his own wrath.
Anguish conquered the unconquerable.

 He seized his sword and screamed:
“Surely this remains mine,
or does Ulysses beg it too?
This edge will work a sacrifice
for ruin, of myself unto myself.
Ever soaked in Phrygian blood,
this my blade shall feed on its master.
None shall defeat Ajax, save Ajax.”

This he spake, and into his breast
the point lept quick. There,
where never he had suffered wound,
the hilt slid fixed.
What hand could loose the blade?
The hero’s blood itself
pushed the weapon out.

Watered with the sanguine waste,
the earth answered back
with a budding violet blossom—
a flower first sprung from
a youthful Spartan’s wound.
And in the center of this bloody flower,
shared by the boy and by the warrior,
letters appeared inscribed:
A name. And a cry of woe.