Monday, June 30, 2008

The Seven Wonders of the Castle5000 Environs

The Monday Quiz XIV, back in February, carried a special bonus prize. The winner was entitled to assign a blog post topic. Mrs.5000 -- hail, victor! -- took the first E.P., so here is the topic she chose.

Michael5000 will be on the road when this thing is set to post, so the formatting will probably be screwy at first.

The Seven Wonders of the Castle5000 Environs

1. Laurelhurst Park! Designed in 1912 by Frederick Law Olmstead's firm, Laurelhurst Park is like some idealized golden-tinged movie version of what a city park might be. Strangely, it's real. Many years ago, visiting from Kansas, I had an odd vision that Laurelhurst Park was the source of all the green in the world. Although I now live three blocks away, it is not technically true that the Park is my private running track. It's just that it might as well be.

2. The Famous Building! The Belmont Condomiums, a few corners from Castle5000, has been featured in glowing suck-up articles in most of your leading architectural and metrosexual journals, including Dwell and Metropolitan Home. It features a fauncy restaurant on the ground floor to which Mrs.5000 can take her more sophisticated friends on occasion, while I stay home and enjoy the simple but hearty fare to which I became accustomed in the long years of my bachelorhood.

3. Joan D'Arc! In the middle of an oddly out-of-context roundabout is an oddly out-of-context statue of the "Maid of Orleans," Joan of Arc. Why a salute to France's 15th Century populist woman warrior and religious nut, here in the City of Roses? Well, having braved the traffic to take her photograph, I found a little placard explaining that Joan is our local World War I monument. Which is cool, but isn't an important aspect of a monument that people need to know what it commemorates?
Whatevs. Joan is a most excellent citizen of the neighborhood, and I enjoy her somewhat random quality.

4. Dixie Mattress! In the very middle of a moderately properous neighborhood strip, in an area where property values have multiplied fourfold over the last fifteen years, this mysterious commercial (or perhaps industrial) building is an enigma. One can see a few mattresses inside, yes, but also miscellaneous junk and a thick layer of dust. Yellowing, handwritten notes on the doors give numbers to call "in case of emergency." There is no sign that anyone makes mattresses here, or even meth. No one seems to go into the building at all. [Update: Since I wrote this, an article in the 'Gonian has taught us that an occasional mattress is still repaired in Dixie Mattress by its, uh, loveably irrascable owners. Hello, Pulitzer!]

5. The Kitchiest Statue Ever Erected! A tribute to emergency services personel who died fighting a large fire in an East Coast city in the early 2000s. Their service and sacrifice is commemorated by this portrayal of a bare-chested man who thrusts forth a lantern with his left hand, barely missing a eagle that is just then taking wing. An American flag is caught in its talons. You would think this eagle would startle the guy, but he don't seem to notice it.

In his right hand, strangely, the man clutches the neck of a really big snake. Yep. A really big snake. Or maybe he's just happy to see you.

6. The Belmont Branch! One of the smallest branches of the Multnomah County Library in sheer size, it is one of the largest in terms of volume of books reserved and checked out. Only some of that is due to me. But really, it's an amazing thing. From right here on the internet, I can put a hold on almost any piece of cultural production that comes to mind. A few days later, I walk two blocks and pick it up. What's not to love? Nothing's not to love! This is a branch library that gets its own love letters!

7. The Castle5000 Raspberry Patch. Decended through several generations from the stock planted by Grandpa5000 years ago, the Castle5000 patch is the envy of all who behold its produce. The right hand patch produces around a quart of berries a day in July and early August. The left hand patch is new this year; since raspberries are biennial, it won't add to the crop until Summer 2009. Mmm... Raspberries....

What are the seven wonders of YOUR neighborhood?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Monday Quiz XXXIII

Name That Theme!

Michael5000 is on the road. Today's Quiz will be autopublished, and any formatting issues will just have to be dealt with.

1. What is happening here?

2. What motion picture does this poster advertise?

3. What kind of vehicle is this?

4. What form of storage media is this?

5. What is this?

And therefore: What is the theme of this week's Quiz?

Submit your answers in the comments.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Reading List: My Name is Red

There is a certain quality to prose that I have never seen discussed as such, but which I always think of as its viscosity. By this I mean the stickiness, or resistance, a text offers a reader -- how much, in other words, does it slow the reader down?

Shakespeare, for instance, is pretty viscous. There's all sorts of unfamiliar vocabulary and constructions and world view going on that forces the reader to parse sentences, tease out meanings, and think about implications. It takes time. Most philosophical texts are extremely viscous, for much the same reasons. Whereas, in more popular works -- we can perhaps identify Steven King as a consensus example of an author who writes highly accessible prose, albeit often for the dumbest storylines -- the viscosity diminishes to almost nothing.

Technical writing tends to have some viscosity, as it by its nature deals with the abstract and unfamiliar; the reason that we have technical writers is to keep the viscosity manageable. Poetry, dense with meaning and resonance, is viscous by design. And, prose naturally gets stickier as it ages. The Bible, an example I've been getting to know, puts up a real fight not just because of the unfamiliar names and customs, but because it was written by and for people who found significance and meaning in different aspects of the human experience than we do today. To try to envision the world through their eyes takes a lot of imaginative effort, which makes for slow reading.

My Name is Red

My Name is Red is a novel by the Turkish writer and intellectual Orhan Pamuk, whom you have likely heard of as the guy who has endured so much flack for conceding that the Armenian genocide might, duh, actually have happened. It is a novel of great intellectual interest, but with an intriguing mystery at its core as well. Characters are vividly drawn within an unconventional, engaging multiple first-person narrative structure. There is a playfulness of tone that keeps the mood from bogging down in the 16th Century details. There is, indeed, much to recommend this book. But alas, it -- or at least its English translation (by Erdag Goknar) is rather on the viscous side.

I wish this didn't bother me. I wish I was the kind of wise, reflective person who says "the beauty of this text is the way it invites the reader to proceed at a slower pace, to contemplate and reflect on an alternative vision of the world's workings." I can imagine Mrs.5000 saying something like this, for instance. But not me.

In a contemporary work of fiction, viscosity makes me grouchy. I've read enough books with sparkling language, brilliant insights, and/or moving narrative, and been able to read them at my natural speed, that being forced to slow down to make sense of the language is frustrating. So, while I can generally recommend My Name is Red as a fine modern novel, I also mourn a little for the book that doesn't exist: the My Name is Red that loses none of its virtues by streamlining its prose, and gains that quality of immersiveness in which a reader -- at least, this reader -- can lose himself entirely.

Things to Look For

To say that My Name is Red has a murder mystery at its heart is to give nothing away; the first chapter is narrated by the corpse. Which of the three essentially identical suspects may have done the foul deed, however, turns out to be immaterial. The more important issue is why he, or either of the other two, would have committed the crime, and like most of the best crimes, this one is all about ideas. Specifically, it is about the philosophical differences between European and Islamic styles of painting and illustration. This topic, and the larger collision of cultures that it represents, must be particularly resonant issues to the Turks, poised as they are always between Europe and the Middle East, between Europe and Asia.

Other attractions include a love story that has epic trappings, despite being conducted between two deeply flawed characters; a detailed exploration of the art of Islamic illustration; and a vivid invocation of life in Sixteenth Century Istanbul. The character of an illiterate clothier who moonlights as messenger between the courters and the clandestine lovers of the city is a bit of a show stealer, and I was always a bit disappointed to leave her world to get back to the business of the main plot.


A mysterious loner rides into town, determined to win back the woman he loves. But! A terrible crime has been committed, and he must find the killer before he can get the girl. It's all very spaghetti-Western, except that everything is driven by passionate disagreement about the portrayal of perspective. Told from the various points of view of a dozen major and minor characters, as well as a corpse, a dog, some paintings, and the color red, the story of our hero's search for the Truth is a long and strange one.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Thursday Quiz XLII


The Thursday Quiz!

The Thursday Quiz is an "Is It or Isn't It" game. From the list of twelve items, your job is to determine whether each IS or ISN'T a true example of the week's category.

Remember always to eschew hubris:

No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday
Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will be turned into a swan, or something.
This Week's Category is on a superhuman scale!

Gods and Goddesses

Are they or aren't they accurately described members of the ancient pantheons?

1. Aphrodite - Greek goddess of love and beauty
2. Ganesha - In Hinduism, and sometimes in Jainism or Buddhism, the remover of obstacles and "Lord of Beginnings"
3. Harmonium - Roman god of music and concord
4. Hestia - Greek goddess of the hearth and home
5. Isis - Greek goddess of beginnings, women, and the home
6. Jupiter - Roman god of the sea
7. Loki - Norse trickster god of mischief, strife and fire
8. Minerva - Roman goddess of warriors, poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, and music
9. Osiris - Egyptian god of the underworld
10. Poseidon - Greek god of the underworld
11. Quetzalcoatl - Norse god of war and metallurgy
12. Shiva - One of the three (or perhaps of the six, depending on who you ask) aspects of the divine in Hinduism, representing the forces of destruction or transformation.

As payment for your passage across the dark river, post your answers in the comments.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Classical Wednesdays V: the Romantic Era

[Despite popular demand, the “Classical Wednesdays” feature will be expanded past the original six-week schedule. Due to an unfortunate onset of long-windedness, the Romantic Era listening suggestions will be separated out from the current post and covered next week.]

Something happens in the first quarter of the 19th Century, and the rules-based elegance of Classicism starts morphing into a more individually expressive and emotional sort of sound. Continuing their great tradition of giving everything an obnoxiously confusing name, music historians have dubbed this the “Romantic Era,” suggesting that it is appropriate for Valentines Day, frilly hearts, and candlelit dinners. Just to clarify: to say that music is “Romantic” doesn’t mean it’s all about The Luv. It means, more or less, that it is intended to express individual emotion. That emotion could be love, but it could just as easily be inner turmoil, playfulness, excitement, yearning, or rage against the machine. Beethoven, for instance, went in heavily for the latter.

Goodbye Classicism, Hello Romanticism!

So what happened? Well, you could make a case that Beethoven happened. Beethoven is one of the most singular and influential individual talents ever to have penned a melody, and to ignore his influence on everything that followed, from Schubert to Soulja Boy, would be a mistake. Beethoven starts his career as an envelope-pushing Classicist, but by his Third Symphony the envelope has been pushed so far out of shape that it is almost unrecognizable. By his Sixth, you’ve pretty much left the Classical model behind. His contemporaries, and composers of the next generation, were quick to follow his lead.

But other things are happening at the beginning of the 19th Century, too. In the world of ideas, individualism and humanism are beginning to flourish, bringing with them an implication that human emotion might be something worth exploring. Politically, the divinely-appointment king is being supplanted by democratic ideas, and this ferment is reflected in the popular culture of the age. In music, as in houses of government, traditional forms and received ways of doing things fall into disfavor.

The audience is changing, too. Through the 18th Century, musicians were in the service of the nobility, and much of their output provided genteel entertainment for the top few percentiles of society. The genius of Mozart, in its original habitat, was music for aristocrats to dance, relax, and conduct intrigues to. As the 19th Century gets rolling, however, the aristocracy finds themselves a bit pinched, and a quickly growing middle class begins to be interested in taking in an occasional concert. Venues begin to be constructed where this new, larger audience can go for concerts, and composers begin to write for this audience. This broader listening public tends to encourage music that experiments a little, that sounds different from the music their parents listened to, that is increasingly bigger, more novel, and more extreme.

The Romantic Sound

Both the Baroque and Classical eras have a great deal of internal consistency, and once you are familiar with the styles you’ll be able to identify them immediately. Romantic music is harder to pigeonhole. One of its central ideas, after all, is disposing with the established rules of Classicism, and when people start breaking the rules they tend to start going off in all sorts of different directions. Romanticism, therefore, encompasses a wide diversity of sounds, styles, and music philosophies.

Rarely does Romantic Music have the simple melody-and-accompaniment structure that we saw in Classical music, and the Baroque idea of counterpoint is often dredged up and trotted back out, to greater or lesser effect. The Classical innovation of stressing dynamic changes, on the other hand, is retained and developed further in Romantic music. Key changes continue to be very important, at least in theory, but the idea of a regular, set order in which they should occur goes out the window.

Conventional ways of doing things are also set aside in the way Romantic music is structured. The melody line is seldom phrased in four song-like phrases of equal length, like it was back in the classical era. Sonata form is still given some heed at first, but as the decades go by it is stretched and altered and varied and monkeyed with until it is basically irrelevant. But perhaps the most noticeable characteristic of Romantic music is the flexibility of its meter. In Baroque music, the tempo is consistent as clockwork, and the rules-based classical composers tended not to mess too much with the essential pulse of their music. Romantics, on the other hand, frequently direct the conductor to speed up or slow down the orchestra. This not only adds a new tool for musical expression, but hands some control over to the actual musicians; two performances of a Romantic piece are expected to sound a little different, because the conductors will handle the tempos, and the dynamics, a little differently.

The Romantic Orchestra

A few new instruments join the orchestra during the Romantic period. Trombones become a commonplace, as does a (usually) lone tuba. You are more likely to see extensive percussion, and occasional oddments like a harp, a piano, or, in much later works, saxophones. Tragically, recorders fail to make a comeback.

More importantly, composers continuously embiggen the orchestra throughout the period. Whereas the Baroque orchestra sounds perhaps a bit thin, and the Classical orchestra sounds elegantly spare, an orchestra of the high Romantic – think Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak – is capable of a full-throated roar. This is partially the result of the composer’s quest for personal expression of passionate feeling, and partially the market’s demand for ever more impressive experiences. Too, the expanding middle-class audience made some orchestras quite successful, allowing them to hire more staff, and the increasing size of the concert halls meant that it took more noise to fill them up.

Having a big and varied orchestra allows Romantic composers to do a lot with orchestration, exploiting the different sounds possible from various instruments and combinations of instruments. And, a large orchestra in full swing is a powerful instrument indeed, just through the sheer force of volume. Bigger isn’t automatically better, though, and it’s worth noting that a big orchestra in the hands of a mediocre composer is merely an expensive way of generating elaborately muddy sounds and noisy bombast.

Next Week: michael5000 makes some Romantic suggestions!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Second Annual Garden Edition

Last year, I wrote about the many wholesome joys of the garden. I waxed eloquent, or so it seemed to me, about the pleasures of plant ownership and husbandry.

This year, I've ignored the garden almost entirely.

Fortunately, though, you can get away with that in Portland. When you neglect your yard here, the plants don't die, they just "get away from you." You can end up with an inpenetrable botanical jungle surprisingly quickly. They don't call it the City of Roses for nothing.

Last weekend, I took up my trusty Japanese Garden Knife (which is awesome! Lee Valley, $28.50, worth it) and waded into the fray. My mission was twofold: 1) to bring some order to the rapidly deteriorating situation, and 2) to locate and assess the plants I was putting in at last years post. On both fronts, the result was encouraging. Here is what has happened since we last saw the class of June 2007:

Penstemon "Margarita Bop." It's a little lost in the chaos of the back path, but it's healthy and establishing itself nicely. Now that I'm paying attention to it again, I can make sure it doesn't get bullied by its neighbors.

Melianthus "Antonow's Blue." This one went to town last summer, quadrupling in mass before our neighbors trampled it while using our side yard for access to put in a few plants of their own, allegedly on their side of the property line. I don't mind their plantings; I just wish they hadn't trod on my Melianthus. It's still alive, but it's going to take another year or two just to get back to where it was.

Draconculus Vulgaris. This one, which you may remember promises to smell like rotting meat when it blooms, started to look a little peaked a few weeks after I put it in, and was dead and gone by the end of July. Except, plants often act like the heroes and villains in action movies, popping back up even after the most convincing of deaths. Draco suddenly reappeared a few weeks ago and seems to be enjoying the summer so far.

Two of Delphinium "English Seedling." One of these has not only survived but is in bloom, the first time I've managed to get a Delphinum to blooming stage! Nice. The other one could not be located, and is feared dead. But you never know.

Other Breaking Garden News

Mrs.5000's artichoke plant is going nuts.

Monkshood in bloom.

On the trellises, Mr.Kiwi is finally blooming like a champ after several lackluster years. Mrs.Kiwi, lamentably, has some sort of horrible ailment, and all her old growth has withered and died. Her root system is apparently still good, and she has put out some vigorous new shoots, but it will be at least three years before they are ready to bear. This is unfortunate, because it takes two to make kiwis, and we had thought that this year was going to be the first big harvest (after two cute little fruits last year).

I've put a potted Japanese Maple out by the sidewalk in the front yard. I can't tell whether it provides an attractive point of interest, or if it just looks stupid.

The Monday Quiz XXXII

Culturally-Specific Artistic Traditions

1. With what religious tradition would you associate these two images?

2. How about THESE two?

3. These images are typical of the art of what ancient empire?

4. And what ancient empire are THESE images typical of?

5. And, what cultural tradition is the basis of THESE two images?

Submit your answers in the comments.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Weekend Edition

The Quiet American

The Work is throwing a benefit concert this weekend that features light jazz. There are about four dozen reasons why I don't wish to attend this event, but when my supervisor was offering me a free ticket yesterday, I stuck with what seemed like a safe one. "I dislike jazz," I said.

"Oh, really!?" she asked, seeming sincerely surprised. "I always think that really quiet people must always like jazz."

"Really quiet people"?


Books Are Good. Libraries are Good.

In a rare moment of civic-mindedness, I recently got myself elected to the board of the Friends of the Multnomah County Library. Why? Well, because the MCL is probably the best goddam municipal library on the planet, per capita, and because I am passionate about the enrichment it brings to our city, blah blah blah blah blah blah. You know the drill.

I mention this only to put those of you who live here in the City of Roses on notice. When I come after you in person, wouldn't it be satisfying to produce your little membership card and brightly announce "I'm already a member!"?

Those of you who don't live in Multnomah County, you can support your libraries too. Or, if you would prefer to support our library instead, drop me a line. I'll set you up.

A michael5000 Salute to..... Scandium! the Neglected Element that Gives Its All on the Lacrosse Field!

Scandium, a strong but light metal, has the atomic number of 21 but is only about the 50th most common element. It is found in minerals in Scandinavia, from where it takes its name, and in Madagascar. Its biggest use is in alloys for high-end bicycle frames, but its alloys are often used in a few other specialty products, including tent poles, lacrosse sticks, and some handguns.

It could be a useful material for aerospace vehicles, if there was more of it, but world production is only a few thousand kilograms per year. There appears to be plenty of Scandium in the sun, but at the present time we don't have an efficient means of retrieving solar materials. So for now, titanium and chromium fill the general roles that Scandium doesn't.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Great Movies: "Broken Blossoms"

Broken Blossoms
D.W. Griffith, 1919.

Let's not mince words. I don't care for silent movies, and I bet you don't either. You don't have to be an especially verbal person to miss dialogue. Having the action constantly interrupted by caption cards, all of which are on the screen long enough to let the very slowest of readers trudge through them, is a pain in the butt. The filmmakers, knowing this, keep the use of the cards to a minimum, but this causes problems too. It means that the actors need to express their communication through over-the-top miming of their emotions, attitudes, and intentions. Humor, where present, is reduced to witless slapstick. It's all very tiresome, for those of us used to the talkies.

But a project is a project, and Broken Blossoms is on the "Great Movies" list. And it is interesting enough, I suppose, from the perspective of the history of film, or of cultural attitudes, or whatever.

It is a sanctimonious and melodramatic tale with a heart of gold. Griffith was apparently chagrined by reaction to his Birth of a Nation, a groundbreaking film which had expanded the possibilities of movie-making -- but which had oddly glorified that bizarre amalgamation of campy dress-up and fascist brutality, the Ku Klux Klan. In Broken Blossoms, the hero is a Chinese man who comes to London hoping to spread the message of Buddhism to the West, an unlikely scenario that Griffith seems to be treating with respect and as a serious social critique, not as a gag. It might have worked better as a gag. The film staunchly affirms the equality of all humankind, both by contrasting an Asian hero with Anglo villains and, more bluntly, through preachy captions. Griffith's liberalism apparently did not extend to hiring decisions, however, as all of the Chinese roles are played by white actors.

Plot: A Chinese immigrant in a London slum tries to save a young girl from her abusive father, a thuggish prize fighter.

Dialogue: None. Silent, remember?

Visuals: You can tell that the craft of getting motion pictures on film was well understood by this point in history. The lighting, camera angles, cuts, and so on are all fairly polished and work well together in advancing a narrative. Still, the broad movements and expressions that the actors employ to compensate for the absence of language can't help but seem like hammy overacting today. The bad guy can't just sneer; he has to ooze sneering-ness in a way that no half-blind four year old in the back row of a crowded theater could possibly misunderstand. It gets tiring.

The affection of the lead character to the girl is unambiguously portrayed as romantic adoration. We are clearly meant to see that he is in love with her, albeit in a "pure" sort of way. Yet, he maintains a careful and constant few inches of distance, as Griffith strains to finagle a love story without breaking the then very firm taboo against interracial relationships. What makes a modern viewer more uncomfortable is the distinct edge of pedophilia -- the girl is only supposed to be fifteen years old -- but there's no evidence that the filmmakers gave this issue any thought. Funny how things change.

Prognosis: Of historical interest only.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Thursday Quiz XLI

Welcome back to

The Thursday Quiz!

The Thursday Quiz is an "Is It or Isn't It" game. From the list of twelve items, your job is to determine whether each IS or ISN'T a true example of the week's category.

Remember always the fundamentals:

No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday
Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will find themselves on the cutting room floor.
This Week's Category is far too small to be detected by the naked eye:

The Chemical Elements II

Is it or isn't it a real chemical element?

[Note: If it's an actual element, the chemical symbol and atomic number are real too. If it's NOT an actual element, then obviously I had to make the symbol and number up.]

1. Beryllium - Be - 4
2. Fluorine - F - 9
3. Bronze - B - 12
4. Argon - Ar - 18
5. Scandium - Sc - 21
6. Laudinum - Ld - 27
7. Nickel - Ni - 28
8. Krypton - Kr - 36
9. Yttrium - Y - 39
10. Byzantium - Bt - 63
11. Platinum - Pt - 78
12. Londinium - Ln - 79

Post your answers in the comments.

(The first Thursday Quiz on the Chemical Elements was TQVII. Blythe took the Gold.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Classical Wednesday IV: The Classical Era

One of the many confusions of classical music lingo is the distinction between classical music and, you know, Classical music. Specifically Classical music (that is, music composed in the style of the Classical era) is only a subset of classical music in the broader sense (in other words, music composed for the orchestra and other instrumental art music in the Western tradition). With me? Judging from the average orchestra’s programming, the average classical radio station, the average listener’s collection, I would say that at a very, very rough approximation, about 25% of classical music is Classical music.

That 25% is a huge proportion, though, when you realize that the Classical era is thoroughly dominated by just two and a half massively important composers: Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven. There are plenty of other very capable Classical era composers, mind you, but it’s a long drop from the household names of Mozart and Haydn to, say, Hummel, Boccherini, Gluck, and Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach. And, considering the long shadow it casts over all subsequent music, the era didn’t really last all that long. It kicked off in the mid 1700s, and the scene was pretty much dead by 1820.

The Classical Sound

Remember how the Baroque style featured a lot of “polyphony” or “counterpoint” – independent melodies that bopped along at the same time? Well, the first thing to know about the Classical style is that counterpoint is largely swept under the rug. What you get instead, to a great extent, is melodic lines played over chords. The chords aren’t just single sustained notes, of course – there’s always some rhythm and variation going on down there – but this is definitely a style where there is a main melody and an accompaniment. Relative to the Baroque, this style can be described as cleaner and more elegant. Or, as dumbed-down. It all depends on who you ask.

The other important thing is that in the classical era, music becomes very structured. The best way to get a feel for this would be to pick any random selection of symphonies and concerti by Mozart. They will all sound different from each other, but the odds are very, very high that they will all start with a succession of four phrases. The first phrase will establish a catchy run of notes, the second phrase with repeat it with a twist, the third phrase will move a little away from the original idea, and the fourth phrase will sidle right back to it again in a way that gives a satisfying sense of completion. It’s hard to describe this pattern any more specifically without getting all music-theory on you, but you’ll definitely see what I’m talking about when you look for it.

On a larger scale, the classical era introduced the idea of Sonata form. Sonata form is a kind of musical blueprint, a set of rules for constructing a movement of music. Taken to its extreme, sonata form would dictate almost everything that happened in a piece after the composer wrote down the first theme – how that theme would be repeated, altered, and expanded; when a related second theme would be introduced and how it would be monkeyed with, and how and when you would have changes in key. Key changes are kind of a fetish in classical music, and composers of this era were big on going through a proscribed set of key changes over the course of a movement before returning to the one they started with. This return to the original key is always described as “triumphant” in the liner notes.

All of this structure might seem a little bit wooden and off-putting, and indeed there are people who see it that way. Some people claim to find Mozart a bit sing-songish, and although I don’t agree at all, I can tell why they think so. Hip jazz cats, in particular, like to complain that Classicism put Western music in a straightjacket and that real music was only rediscovered much later by, I don’t know, Duke Ellington or somebody. But the truth is, as soon as you had the scaffolding of sonata form, any composer with any talent at all was already subverting it, messing with the rules in order to surprise and, duh, entertain their audience. So, Classical music is not nearly as mechanical as its critics complain it is.

The Classical Orchestra

By the Classical era, most of the modern musical instruments were in place. You had good clarinets, so recorders drop unlamented out of the mix. The harpsichord is replaced in the parlor by the far more diverse piano (via the intermediate “pianoforte”), and is supplanted in the orchestra by the far deeper, fuller, more window-rattling double basses. Improvements in the complicated valve structures of wind and brass instruments improve their functionality, as well.

This allows Classical composers to do some things that Baroque composers couldn’t, or at least didn’t, do. They are going to put a LOT more emphasis on dynamics, continually contrasting loud and quiet bits and making generous use of crescendos and decrescendos. They are going to put a much greater emphasis on instrumental texture and contrast of textures, since they have a broader palette of sounds to work with and because they need to make sure that the melody line is distinct from the accompaniment. And, as an extension of the expanded use of dynamics and instrumental “color,” you’ll also see composers starting to change the mood of a piece within a single movement. In the case of Beethoven, you’ll often see the mood changing literally every few seconds.

Still, the orchestra used by these guys is relatively small. If you ever go to a concert with, say, Mahler and Haydn on the program, you will notice that more than half the orchestra leaves at intermission. It’s not that they’re slacking. It’s just that a “full orchestra” in Haydn’s time employed only a fraction of the staff of a modern outfit.

Listening List: Conventional Choices

Mozart, Concertos: Mozart wrote five violin concerti and twenty-some piano concerti, but it is the handful for French horn, for clarinet, and for bassoon that are my favorite. They are not his most serious or sophisticated pieces, but they make excellent illustration of all the above concepts about the Classical era. In fact, they make an excellent introduction to classical music in general. They are unchallenging, they show off the expressive possibilities of cool instruments (I think Nichim will agree with me on this point), and their formal Classical structure gives them an immediate familiarity – as they move along, you always have a intuitive sense of where you are in the flow of the piece. Also, they are among the most charming little gems ever written. If you do not like them, you are probably dead.

[Right: Mozart]

Mozart, Symphony #40: For more sophisticated Mozart, you can turn to either of his last two symphonies, the 41st – the “Jupiter” – or the 40th, which sadly does not have a cool nickname. I have always liked the latter for its minor-key melancholy; it has a darkness and emotional depth that I find both pleasingly wistful and comforting. And when I say “I have always liked” it, I mean that I listed in as my “favorite song” on a handout at the beginning of 7th Grade English, not realizing that this intel would shortly be made public to the entire class. As you might imagine, I had a bit of a rocky ride through dear old Hometown5000 Junior High School. Eh, Mozart had a rough childhood too.

Haydn, Symphonies #94 (“Surprise”) & 104 (“London”): Since Becky made the unintentionally malicious suggestion that I blog “104 days of Haydn” a while back, I’ve been listening to a lot of his more obscure early symphonies. My report from the field: They’re all good! It’s crazy. The dude wrote a TON of music. The most famous ones are from late in his career, at which point he was an international celebrity fielding competing offers to spend a year or two in this city or that city, writing some symphonies for the local band. They are also the ones that have the most dynamic contrast and dramatic content, as old Papa Haydn was flexible enough to be absorbing ideas from Mozart and Beethoven and the other hepcats of the younger generation. These two symphonies are the most famous, and if you’ve been around classical music at all in your life they will sound immediately familiar and likeable. A warning about Haydn, though, and perhaps the Classical era as a whole: I’ve never met a Haydn piece I didn’t like. But, I’ve never met a Haydn piece that I really, really, really loved, either. It’s all good, but it is rarely sublime.

Listening List: Off the Beaten Path

Haydn, Symphony #82 (“The Bear”): One of the middling-famous Haydn Symphonies. It’s called “The Bear” for a big, goofy, loveable “dancing bear” theme in the final movement. It’s pure bubblegum, really, but pretty charming for all that.

Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, anything really:
If you love Mozart, you’ll like Ditters von Dittersdorf. Plus, you’ll cherish the times when someone asks you what you are listening to. “Oh, just some Ditters von Dittersdorf,” you’ll say, nonchalantly.

[Right: Ditters von Dittersdorf]

Boccarini, Guitar Quintets:
Buoyant, elegant, energetic, this is great chamber music for Sunday morning chores. One of the last pieces to put a guitar with a string quartet, a common Baroque arrangement that pretty much died out in the Classical Era. Plus, there’s one movement that has castanets. How cool is that?

Benda, Symphonies:
A solid early-Classical composer, Benda is one who cleaves pretty tightly to the sonata-form party line. He doesn’t have Haydn’s consummate elegance, Mozart’s pure sonic brilliance, or Beethoven’s dramatic genius, but he makes reliably pleasant music. Whenever I have decided to listen to his work, I like to tell Mrs.5000 that I am “going on a Benda.” I’ll understand if you don’t want to join me in that, though.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Forgotten Lands: Ste. Julia & Tin Te To

(Confused about the "Forgotten Lands?" Click here.)

Ste. Julia
Population: 600,000 (1989 estimate; considered unreliable)

Economy: Some plantation agriculture (sugar, mangos) and likely much more growing and processing of illegal drugs. Subsistence farming predominates in the interior. Heavily dependent on international aid.

It is only seventy miles from the bustling, dynamic center of Miami to downtown Elizabethville, yet in many ways the two cities could not be more different. It has been twenty years since Time magazine described this small Atlantic island nation “the nightmare neighbor America wants to forget.” In the intervening years, America has indeed seemed to have forgotten Ste. Julia, which has if anything slipped even further from media attention.

It has, certainly, been many years since Ste. Julia’s capital was a port of call for American tourists, and it is striking that not a single scheduled flight links the city with nearby Miami. But this is no wonder. Elizabethville’s twisting avenues of rusting shacks are patrolled by the rival militias of local druglords, making a stroll through the neighborhoods too dangerous for anyone but the most street-wise locals. Nor does the sun-blasted landscape offer anything resembling natural beauty or vacation fun. Even the one building in SteJulia of any architectural distinction, the decaying national palace, is tightly cordoned off by the army. “They protect it well,” a bystander remarked to the author, “because it is the only territory they really control at all.”

Until the 1930s, Ste. Julia fared no worse than most poor island countries. However, its thin soil (not volcanic, as in the Caribbean, but more akin to Florida’s flat plateau) proved unable to support the demands made of it from that time on. As a result, ever poorer earth has been asked to support an ever-greater population. Only the bare remnants of a formerly dominant commercial agriculture remain. The flat land has been badly deforested, leaving a scrubby, gullied, weedy landscape that provides little shade and supports little life. Since the 1970s, drug trafficking has defined life on the island, and citizens live in terror of the constant blood feuds among the competing criminal organizations. It is cold comfort to consider that, without the business in drugs, there might well be no way at all for Ste. Julia to feed itself.

Flag: A tall, serpent-like “Dragon of Ste. Julia,” the traditional symbol of the island, faces to the right on a trapezoidal field of white. Blue triangles to right and left, bordered by a thin stripe of gold, likely represent the surrounding Atlantic Ocean.

Tin Te To
Capital: Ashan’kur
Population: 285,000 (1998 estimate)

Economy: A modest internal economy is dominated by housing and infrastructure construction, much of it financed through the international community. Highly specialized craft items, including ceremonial knives and swords, jewelry, tapestries, glassware, and exotic cultivated plants bring in a surprising volume of foreign exchange. Tin Te To’s exquisitely engraved postage stamps are highly sought after by collectors, providing a handsome supplement to the national treasury.

How long, O Gods, O how long, wondered the great Tinitese poet To Ko, will my people wander, without a home? This age-old longing of the Tinitese people finally found an answer in 1998, as the United Nations Committee on Homeland Restoration quietly established the new country of Tin Te To from land ceded by China, Russia, and Mongolia.

The choice of this region was more political – allowing the three countries affected to share the burden of resolving “The Tinitese Question” – than tied to any specific historical territory of the Tin Te. An ancient, somewhat fragmented historical record places this “nation of craftsmen,” at various times, far enough to the west to submit to vassalage under the Holy Roman Empire, and far enough east to have built a trading fleet that is thought to have at one point plied the seas between Japan to as far south as modern Indonesia.

We know that some or all of the resident Tin Te were expelled from South Asia by the Moghuls, and there is some archeological evidence that the ancestors of the Tin Te may have traded with, or existed autonomously among, or perhaps been slaves to, the Scythians and Pharoanic Egypt. Theories that theTin Te were a “lost offshoot” of the Inca who had entered Eurasia through reverse migration across the Bering Strait, popular in the 1970s, have been rejected by most scholars as lacking credible evidence.

Flag: Tin Te To’s banner, which was unfurled for the first time in a special ceremony on the morning of January 1, 2000, is perhaps unique among flags in its generous use of gray. It is otherwise a conventional horizontal tricolor, with a center stripe of bright royal blue. The symbolism, if any, has not been publicly disclosed by the Tinitese government.


Two more Forgotten lands, Gokura and Nova Hibernia, have been reposted -- and mapped! -- on Cartophilia.

Also on Cartophilia recently was a cool piece on maps that graft Manhattan into other cities. As soon as I saw them, I knew I would have to throw my own hat in the ring....

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Monday Quiz XXXI

Board Games

What are the names of these board games?






Submit your answers in the comments.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Things People Told Me to Watch

The Animaniacs

(Recommended after I was baffled by a reference in comments.) I probably missed my window of opportunity on these 1990s-era cartoons. I can see their slapstick merit, and I appreciate the way that much adult humor, in both senses of the term, has been artfully inserted so as to not register on children's radars. Still, it's kid stuff at its core, and (because of that? despite that?) couldn't hold my interest for long.

Talk to Her

(Recommended by Austin after I talked up Volver, another film by the Spanish oddball Almodovar.) Talk to Her is another movie that you'll love if you love Almodovar, and hate if you hate him. I kind of like him. This one initially veers toward mediocrity with a long and ultimately pointless first reel about a female bullfighter, but once that bit is wrapped up we move on to a far more interesting tale about the creepy side of love. The director's trademark garish visuals and flat emotional affect create a feel that is part lowbrow soap opera, part high surrealism.

Anatomy of a Murder

(Recommended by an article in the New Yorker.) The most modern-feeling of any black and white "old movie" I've yet seen, Anatomy of a Murder stars Jimmy Stewart, usually an icon of earnest wholesomeness, in a cynical, irreverent critique of the legal process. The setting initially seems to place us in pure Perry Mason territory. Paul Biegler (Stewart) is an independant attorney with a smart, sassy secretary who faces a mediocre public prosecutor in a fabulously appointed courthouse packed with well-dressed spectators. But whereas ol' Perry only seemed to attract the innocent to his practice -- a deep flaw in his business plan, I've always thought -- in Anatomy the client is only too happy to admit having shot the local barkeep five times with his pistol, whereupon the unfortunate guy, as one character deadpans, "died very quickly of lead poisoning."

The late barkeeper may have: a) raped the client's wife, and been killed in revenge, or b) got lucky with the client's wife, and been killed in a jealous rage. The wife's bruises may have been put there by a) her rapist, or b) her enraged husband. It's left ambiguous. Biegler doesn't care anyway; his job is to defend his client, so he professes the first scenario with apparent absolute conviction. While Preminger obscures the crime itself, he dwells on the strategies, tactics, and dirty tricks used by both sides in the trial. The implicit critique comes through the portrayal of an elaborate criminal justice process in which no one is especially concerned about determining the truth about how or why the murder happened.

For "courtroom drama" you don't neccessarily think "small town Upper Penninsula Michigan," and for neither of the above would you think "steamy Duke Ellington soundtrack!" Yet these are the ingredients, and they actually sit quite well together. The movie is surprisingly frank about the adult aspects of its subject matter, albeit in a special 1950s code (a medical examiner: "Violation is sufficient for establishing rape. It does not require a... completion"). Stewart is surprisingly effective as a small-time, slightly seedy small town lawyer with more enthuiasm for jazz and fishing than the law. A sentimental male-bonding sub-plot is the only disappointment in this otherwise sharp, smart legal procedural.

The Last King of Scotland

(Recommened by Mrs. ChuckDaddy.) You have to salute any producer willing to put together the budget for a movie shot in Africa. Movies shot in Africa have a head start towards excellence, being able to draw on the magnificent natural and cultural imagery and the unhappily abundant human drama of that badly misunderstood continent. However, Africa is widely seen to be box office poison, so we only get a movie on African subjects every couple of years.

The Last King of Scotland is best understood as a biopic on Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, and in that respect it is terrific. It manages to explore how an unstable charismatic figure can sieze power when civil institutions are weak, how that person might be driven towards excess and paranoia, and the horrific brutality that can result when the guy on top has no checks on his power and his whims.

Amin is seen from the point of view of a young Scottish doctor who through random circumstance becomes his personal physician and closest confidant. This doctor is a very fully realized character in the movie, and we develop a strong sense of his family background, his significance on the fringe of Ugandan power politics, and his probable future after the events of the movie. Given this, it is a little unsettling to learn that this doctor is a purely fictional creation. He was made up simply to have a character from whose perspective Amin could be witnessed.

The Last King of Scotland is a grimly entertaining film. It is as dark as history usually is, but rooting for the young doctor through his midadventures is exciting and fun. As historical fiction, it likely exposed many people who had never even heard of Idi Amin to the strange and tragic career of the prototypical African dictator. At the same time, since the film is likely to become one of the most important historical documents about Amin for all practical purposes, it is a shame that it blends a historical falsehood into the way it tells its story at such a fundamental level. For many people, now, Idi Amin will always be that disturbing Ugandan dictator who had the Scottish doctor.