Mar 1, 2003

So Wednesday night, after spending the day in the freezing cold, shopping, standing in line for tickets, then seeing “Thoroughly Modern Millie”, we were on our way to Lincoln Center to see the NY Philharmonic for the first time, and the first time in Avery Fisher Hall. The main attraction on the program initially was Peter Serkin doing the Brahms first concerto. I’ve heard Serkin a couple of times before, he’s not my favorite, and typically plays more modern stuff (last time with the BSO I think it was the Stravinsky Concerto, which suits him perfectly), so it was some mixture of anticipation and trepidation that I approached his attempt at Brahms. But the real star of the show was Danish composer Poul Ruders, who was in town for the American premiere in the same concert of his “Listening Earth”. We even went to the Barnes & Noble across the street for a pre-concert talk with Ruders. It turns out he came across the text that inspired him from a poem by Addison that was quoted in a novel by Kim Stanley Robinson. Since his operas have been about somewhat sfnal subjects in the mainstream (The Handmaid’s Tale, plus his next one based on Kafka’s “The Trial”), it’s kind of neat that there’s a composer who’s also a science fiction fan. The piece is in four sections that lead one into the next, the first three with a very dense orchestration that required four percussionists plus timpani playing a large variety of instruments, predominantly vibraphone and three glockenspiels. The last section takes a sudden turn into different territory as it was written after September 11, and is a much sparer, yet darker texture, with repetitive percussive outbursts from timpani and bass drum, which Ruders said should have been called “Angry Earth”. For this section, he diverged from Addison’s poem, which had a much more upbeat ending, and chose as inspiration W.H. Auden’s poem written the day the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. In his pre-concert talk he said he wasn’t trying to “cash in”, and didn’t even set out to compose a response to 9/11, but it since he was in the middle of composing something he couldn’t help but be affected by what had happened. The audience, which was about half full, was polite but not overly enthusiastic, but it seemed the sort of work that would benefit from multiple hearings. I’d heard of the “Handmaid’s Tale” opera, but the composer’s name was unfamiliar to me before, so this was a good introduction to his work.

The original attraction for the concert, the Brahms concerto with Peter Serkin, turned out to be something of a revelation too. Serkin was definitely giving it all he had, and as Tommasini wrote he seemed to feed off of conductor David Robertson’s enthusiasm, making the fast parts, particularly the last movement, very exciting. The large part of the first movement particular he allowed tons of time for the expanisveness of the music to naturally take over, such that the total elapsed time for the concerto was well over 50 minutes. I also liked how he played around with dynamics, taking some of the obviously fortissimo octave passages and playing them more mezzo forte once in a while. The last piece on the program, the Janacek Sinfonietta, is a very nice piece and was very capably performed, and Robertson acquitted himself and the orchestra admirably. And we got our money’s worth since it was nearly 10 (after a 7:30 start) by the time the show came to an end.

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Feb 28, 2003

So Tuesday night after spending a few hours roaming the streets we ended up at Carnegie Hall. A pretty decent-sized crowd for a Tuesday night was on hand to hear Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in recital. I’d never heard him before, not even on CD I think, but it was a good concert, not terribly long, certainly not flashy, but with a good mix of romantic and early 20th century works that all seemed to fit together. Andsnes has a very good touch, and was particularly at home in several of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, none of which were familiar to me. Beth liked the programmatic aspect of the titles, and they all seemed to evoke exactly what their titles promised. Of the five, he played March of the Trolls fourth, and then finished the set with “Bell Ringing”, a sort of quasi-impressionist piece. As if to bring more attention to the contrast, Andsnes went right into the next grouping without a break, two Debussy etudes and L’isle Joyeuse. It was interesting to juxtapose Grieg with Debussy in this case and hear how the former prefigured the latter to some extent. The second half started with a short work called “En Vers” by Miyoshi, a student of Takemitsu, dating from 1980. Fortunately not too heavily influenced by Takemitsu, and as evocative as the Debussy in a much more contemporary style. The program began and ended with late Chopin, the Polonaise-Fantasie at the beginning and the third Sonata at the finish. These were very competent performances, I think the Polonaise-Fantasie fit right in with the rest of the program, the Sonata less so. The overall program was relatively short, and the crowd was enthusiastic, so Andsnes played four encores, including more Grieg (Wedding Day at Troldhaugen), more Chopin (the first impromptu) and two unfamiliar pieces by Strauss (“Standchen” arranged by Gieseking) and Scriabin.(Impromptu Op 14 #1 according to the web site). The Grieg was probably the highlight of the evening (his recording of a lot of the Lyric Pieces was a Grammy nominee this year), enough so that I’d like to seek out both the recording and the music at some point.

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Feb 27, 2003

So we’re back from New York, and it was a good trip, but it’s late and I’m too bleary-eyed to say much about it at the moment. I’ll fill in the particulars in the next day or two.

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Feb 24, 2003

Finally got some pictures posted more or less the way I want, but still having some technical difficulties getting the links working automatically. The whole point of this exercise is to make it easier to post pictures, but the up-front time has taken longer that I would have hoped. Got an amusing e-mail from Mom today, frantic that the pictures were so small, and afraid that she was doing something wrong. I explained that she needed to actually click on the pictures to get the slide show going. She thought the thumbnails was all that was there. Guess I need a spot for instructions somewhere on the index page.

Off to New York tomorrow, so I may not post for a couple of days, but I’ll play catch up when I get back.

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Feb 23, 2003

It’s been a dreary, rainy weekend, so what better antidote than to be cooped up inside a comic book show this morning? I almost didn’t go, but then it turned out at the last minute Ted was available, and willing to drive, so we hopped in his car and headed downtown. Probably hadn’t been to a show in almost a year. Since I only get 20 to 30 comics at each show, I figure at this rate I’ll have completed by collection of 70’s Marvels sometime in the 24th century. As one nears forty, the realization that pace one has maintained on certain things will mean those things will never be completed, it becomes a sobering indicator that the amount of time left, while hopefully long, is indeed finite (and getting more finite all the time). But I was able to find a decent copy of Where Monsters Dwell #9 for eight bucks, plus some other odds and ends, no other major fills, though. I still have some leftover comics I want to unloadl on eBay, mostly stuff Dad picked up cheap at auctions, and now that I have the scanner I mean to figure out exactly how to go about doing that.

Not much else going on, went out to dinner last night but wasn’t in the mood for a movie. Have been enjoying playing a tuned piano with no sticking keys. Monitoring our Sydney users this afternoon to make sure they could log in successfully after our upgrade Friday night. Still working on a layout for the photo album web pages, think I finally have something that will work the way I want and integrate with the rest of this site.

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Feb 22, 2003

Seems like I should step back for one entry and comment on the big fire in Rhode Island, as it was a relatively local event and has been all over the Boston tv channels for the last two days. When those people were killed last weekend in a stampede at a Chicago nightclub, it seemed shocking at the time that in this day and age that sort of thing could still happen in this country. That sense of disbelief is only magnified after seeing what happened Thursday night in Rhode Island. There’s something fairly profound within that about the ephemeral nature of existence, in that one minute you’re at a rock concert that you’ve been anticipating probably for weeks, and three minutes later your out in the cold and glad to still be alive, or in an ambulance badly injured, or worst of all dead an burned beyond recognition because the crush of humanity in front and behind you prevented you from moving the extra 10 feet that was needed to get out the door. I felt the same way after 9/11, that all those people went to work, were in the midst of going about their business, not giving the fact that they were living and breathing a second thought, and one minute later they were faced with smokey stairwells, or with the choice of burning to death or jumping from 90 stories up, or they were vaporized by the explosion as the plane hit the building. Some days you want to do a lot, try to see things, learn things, create things, consume things, whatever, but take full advantage of existence while you have it. Other days you may just want to sit and look around, or let your brain jump from one random thought or memory to the next, and at the same time kind of take stock of it all, let it all pass by. An equally valid use of existence, at least for some of the time. And at any given moment, whether sitting at home alone without the tv on, or out and about at the mall or at work or whatever, you could have an embolism, or the building could blow up, or the car coming towards you could swerve into your lane, or some nutcase could open fire. or any number of things. And some times you would have the opportunity to react, and sometimes you wouldn’t, and sometimes even the opportunity wouldn’t be enough, or you’d choose wrong, or someone else would choose wrong. For me, after 40 years of this, I think it’s a wonder I’m still here, and that I still can’t make any sense of it all.

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Feb 21, 2003

Went to the BSO last night and saw Tan Dun conduct the world premiere of his “multimedia” work “The Map”, with Yo Yo Ma as soloist. Since this was a fairly long piece, sounded to be quite complicated on its own, plus the integration with the video performances that were going on, not to mention a world premiere, I would imagine the bulk of rehearsal time went to this piece. As a result, the first half was a little ragged in spots. The relatively short Shostakovich “Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Themes”, which the orchestra had never performed before, didn’t have the reckless yet tightly controlled abandon you’d normally expect. The Britten “Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes” held together fine, but again wasn’t allowed to cut loose. In this case it might have been more the fault of the conductor. The slow parts didn’t have much atmosphere or space, and the final “Storm” interlude didn’t raise the hackles the way it should have. The middle part of the first half was John Cage’s “The Seasons”, an earlier Cage work that seemed to actually follow standard musical notation without the typical aleatoric aspect you normally get from Cage. I’d never heard this piece before, it was a good contrast to “The Map” in that Cage was also looking for some cross-cultural synergy but here using only standard instruments. It was also unusual for Cage in that it consisted primarily of sustained notes and chords, and not his signature squeaks and grunts.

“The Map” was a tour de force from the orchestra, particularly the four percussionists who were involved in a huge array of Chinese instruments, and from Yo Yo Ma, who played every cello line as though it were the most beautiful melody ever composed. Although playing along with video seems gimmicky in concept, in this case it probably made sense, as the whole point of the piece was to explore and compliment traditional Chinese instruments and vocal techniques, and because the sounds are unfamiliar to western ears it helps to have a context of what you’re actually hearing. The only other way to do it would have been to have all the Chinese soloists actually on stage with the orchestra. The downside was some of the traditional instruments aren’t really instruments at all, and there were a number of giggles from the audience at the visuals of a man making music by blowing on leaves.

The most spectacular part of the video was the Chinese hand cymbals, played by two men as they danced around each other. The variety of sounds they could produce was amazing, and the rapid-fire alternating rhythms were made stunning by actually being able to watch them do it. The artsy part of the video was the stone-tapping, which featured close-ups of the performers’ hands (apparently Tan Dun himself) not only on the main screen but on three other video screens around the stage. This was followed by a quick succession of images of different patterns of stones and stones falling in slow-motion, etc.. The stone playing (ba gua) was the origin of the whole work, so I’m sure they were trying to represent something, but it was a bit much and out of context with the rest of the visuals.

Musically it was a survey of different Chinese musical forms, with some more and some less augmented by the cello and orchestra. For such a large-scale work it ends rather abruptly, but the audience gave it an enthusiastic reception. The problem with this kind of work is that between the skill level of players required and the mechanics of the extra-musical presentation, it’s not likely to get the repetition it deserves. Sadly that means the rest of the world will only be able to experience “The Map” as an artifact preserved on video.

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Feb 20, 2003

Tried putting up some pictures last night, but haven’t linked them to the main page yet. I think the pictures are too big (around 100K each), as at that rate I’ll run out of my allotted space here at about 40 pictures. Plus putting lots of them on one page doesn’t work that well, it takes a while to load, you have to scroll up and down, yadda yadda yadda. The scanning part went reasonably smoothly, so it seems like if I just want to sit and scan pictures I can do quite a few in an hour or so (it’ll take a while to catch up). And of course if we can get in the habit of using the digital camera that would save a step, too. But I would think some (cheap or free) software out there would help to do this, much like blogger helps in the formatting of weblogs. Probably next month I’ll take the plunge and register my own domain and find a webhost with lots of available space. Although Beth takes a fair amount of pictures, they all end up buried under piles of junk in the house once they’ve come back from the drugstore and been looked at. Or else they get chopped up and made into scrapbook pages, which in turn get buried under piles of junk and no one sees again (plus it takes like a week to make one page). So I think it’d be good to have an archive someplace of the good pictures, or a representative sample anyway, that can be accessed at will. The hard part is the actual publication, so we’ll see how it goes.

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Feb 19, 2003

Ben Bova has a short article in the April Analog about how “Isaac was right”, that is there is no intelligent life anywhere else but here. Stan Schmidt’s editorial in the same issue also talks about this and the original article from last year taking the alternate stance, but he comes down rather wishy-washy right in the middle. Personally, I find the arguments of people like Frank Tipler (whom Bova also mentions) fairly compelling, essentially boiling down to if there were intelligent aliens out there somewhere we would’ve found them by now, or more likely they would have found us. There are a couple of counter-arguments, though, that I’m sure other people have thought of before but aren’t mentioned by either Bova or Schmidt. One is the reliance on radio waves (including the entire broadcast spectrum for all communications, not just that used for standard radio) as the final arbiter of intelligence. There’s certainly a case to be made for aliens to have never developed radio. Also, as was pointed out at the Boskone panel on first contact, humans have only been transmitting radio for less than 100 years. It could be extrapolated that in the next fifty or a hundred years technology will have advanced such that something will render radio communication obsolete. That means not only are you searching for a needle in a haystack in terms of the amount of sky there is to point the radio telescopes at, the window of opportunity for any given intelligence to be caught during their “radio period” makes it even more unlikely. Another sort of cynical explanation would be that something in the assumption of how far those kind of radio waves travel before dissipating is wrong. We know pulsars can transmit across vast distances, but what if the kind of radio waves we produce don’t really go out all that far before they cease to be recognizable from the background chatter? That would mean there could be a zillion alien radio stations or whatever out there, broadcasting away, but they’re too far away for us to hear, and vice versa.

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Feb 18, 2003

Took an extra day off today as the piano tuner was coming to visit and I’d never actually met the guy before. This time around it needed more than just a tuning, so I thought it wouldn’t hurt to talk to him directly about its various problems. As it turned out, none of them were serious, but just a result of the piano getting older and never having had that much done to it up to this point. So he spent about an hour just re-tightening everything, fixing a number of sticking keys, reglueing the heads on some hammers, etc., such that he ran out of time before he’d actually tuned the thing. So he has to come back to finish the job in the next couple of days. Already it’s a vast improvement, but having it in tune will be even better. Now that I’ve been playing it more, I’ve recently been contemplating what the various options are in getting a different one (what I have is a Baldwin mid-sized upright, which I bought new in 1985, shortly after I moved here). There are so many different brands out there now, and manufacturers who produce pianos under several different names, not all of the same nationality, it gets confusing quickly. The prevailing sentiment among tuners is still that Yamahas are the best made for their price-range, but I was never enamored of the sound of a Yamaha, so it seems like there can be some trade-off between sound and craftsmanship/durability. I don’t figure on making a change anytime soon (a grand is pretty much out of the question unless I get a bigger house to put it in).

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