Sunday, November 13, 2016


Turned out there was a reason God took Leonard Cohen from us at the moment He did. It was so that we could get the full effect of this double memorial.

Pay particular attention to the third verse. (There are different versions of the lyrics. These are all authentic Cohen.)


(This is intended to be a non-spoiler. I hope to thoroughly confuse anybody who's not already familiar with one or the other of the prose fiction or film I'm discussing.)

A couple weeks ago, as reported here, I went to a preview showing of the film Arrival, and was impressed with this thoughtful, intelligent, cerebral SF film. Of course, I'd already read "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang on which it's based, so I had a leg up on the actually profoundly disorienting plot. (It is a Ted Chiang story.) But the publicity people told me that others who'd seen the movie without knowing the story had found it intelligible.

Now it's been released, and I'm reading the reviews and I'm not so sure.

San Jose Mercury News: "Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics called in by the U.S. government to attempt communicating with the visitors. Banks still wrestles with the guilt of losing a daughter to an incurable disease and is immediately presented as a complicated and passionate character."

The Guardian: "Unknown to anyone, there is a secret tragedy in Louise's life: a lost child, dead of cancer in her late teens. Her attempts to communicate with the aliens cause painful, illuminating echoes in her consciousness."

Are these misdirection to avoid spoiling the ending, or did the reviewers actually not get what's going on? The Guardian might be the former, though I'd guess not; but the Mercury News definitely the latter, even though the reviewer also wrote, "as in “Interstellar,” the point remains hidden until nearly the end." I wonder what the reviewer thought the point was.

I'm dismayed, because I thought the filmmakers handled this really well. Not only did they include verbatim my favorite moment from the story, the vertiginous shift in perspective pivoting on a single term that occurs between p. 295 and 296 of the original publication, but, just in case anyone missed it, they used it as lead-up to a more blatant appearance of the same effect later on that was entirely invented for the film. (The phone-call scene.) What impressed me about this is that it's the opposite of what Peter Jackson would do. One of the besetting sins of his Lord of the Rings films was repeated anticipation and flattening: he'd copy Tolkien's most striking effects and add them to scenes earlier on in the storyline, thus undercutting the drama of Tolkien's part of the story when it finally arrives.

Arrival does the opposite: by putting its invented scene later, it underlines and emphasizes what it reproduces from Chiang's original. See, it really does matter what order you experience events in, doesn't it?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

opera review: Akhnaten

Open are the double doors of the horizon.
Unlocked are its gates.
I'm not much of an opera-goer, and it's unprecedented that I would travel out of town just to see an opera. But it's not out of character for me if that opera is Akhnaten by Philip Glass. I only know Glass's earlier theater works, and there are parts of Satyagraha and The Photographer I cherish most. But overall, Akhnaten is my favorite. A production by the LA Opera was a golden opportunity for a work rarely staged, and I made a quick trip down to see Thursday's performance at the Chandler Pavilion, a hall I'd been to before when the LA Philharmonic was still playing there, before they moved to the newer Disney Hall across the street.

Akhnaten was the Egyptian pharaoh who essentially, at least as Glass understood the history, invented monotheism. At a pre-show talk, conductor Matthew Aucoin described him, as depicted in this opera, as a visionary reformer whose achievements were erased by his successors; sound like anybody we know? Without getting further into politics, Aucoin suggested that this performance would be a catharsis that we all needed. He described Glass as also a visionary reformer, ridding music of unneeded complexity as Akhnaten had the pantheon of gods, in revolt against the serialist orthodoxy (Aucoin used that word) of the previous generation.

Akhnaten is not a plot-based opera; it's a series of near-static tableaus, focused on the music rather than the action, which is part of why I like it so much. I also like the dark sound quality; as with the Brandenburg Sixth, another favorite work of mine, there are no violins; but this is otherwise a big orchestra with a full sound.

This production was imported from the English National Opera. The sets and costumes, though not Egyptian-inspired, were weird and fascinating. The special feature was a troupe of ten silent juggler/acrobats integrated into the story; the repetition and shifting patterns of their juggling reflects the music. Except for the jugglers, however, everyone on stage moved extremely slowly. Even Akhnaten's violent overthrow at the end took place in such slow motion that it could seem motionless moment-by-moment.

This too reflected the music; but I found it not at all boring, but beautiful and gripping all the way through. Not all agreed, though. After each intermission the audience was slightly smaller, but most of us appreciated all 3.5 hours of it. It was an enrapturing performance that was worth the effort I took to get there.

SFCV's review of the premiere last week has details and photos. And the LA Times review has more; I thought the orchestra was fine by the time I heard them, though the Chandler acoustics hadn't improved; but then, that I was prepared for.

Here's a recording of the part of Akhnaten with the most interesting vocal work, though it's still totally unlike anything opera-lovers would normally expect to hear. It's a trio for Akhnaten - a counter-tenor, an eerie voice type meant to come as a surprise after his silent appearance in the previous scene for his coronation - his mother Queen Tye (soprano) and his wife Queen Nefertiti (mezzo). By using the high range of the man's voice and the low ranges of the women's, Glass intertwines them fascinatingly. What language is that they're singing? Ancient Egyptian, of course; what else?

Friday, November 11, 2016

late review

Last weekend (seems so long ago now), The Peninsula Symphony, fortunately playing only works they were capable of playing, which made it easy to review. I thought of covering the Masterworks Chorale in Rachmaninoff's Vespers instead, and putting the PenSym off till March when they're doing Anna Clyne (whom I like a lot) and Scheherazade, but I fear they won't be able to be very adequate in Scheherazade, and writing disappointed reviews of amateur ensembles is painful. Also, I don't know the Rachmaninoff Vespers and lacked the time to learn it, whereas Masterworks' March concert is the Verdi Requiem, which I don't have to worry about.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


The response of those I know who were on the losing side of this election has overwhelmingly been grief. That's interesting. Those who lost eight years ago responded mostly with anger, and have gone on responding that way ever since. I think that says something of the differences between us.

I respond to grief by retreating into research. After my mother died, I stayed up most of the night selecting photos from her collection, and copying them at the all-night copy store in Palo Alto, for the memorial board at her funeral.

Now I'm researching election statistics. This is interesting, and you can see county-level (town-level in New England) statistics here. Can you find the counties that went 85% for one or the other?

The big Wednesday-morning quarterbacking question is, did the 3rd-party vote turn the election? And the answer is, it could have. The only state for which, if all the Jill Stein voters had gone Hillary, she would have won, is Wisconsin. That's not enough. But if a goodly portion of the Libertarians had done so as well, it could also have taken Florida, Pennsylvania, and, interestingly, Arizona, and that would have turned to a 302-EV Clinton victory.

But I don't think that's likely. Turnout is the real issue here, the same turnout that lost the Democrats the 2010 midterms. That, and voter suppression and intimidation, which I await measurements and estimates of.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

whole lotta voting going on

Both statistics and anecdotes are reporting large turnouts in today's US elections. I can add my mite to that. I went down to the neighborhood polling place about 9:30 AM. Usually the morning commuter rush is gone by then, and there's one or two other voters around, if that. Not this time. Three people already in the booths, one ahead of me in line, and two more behind me by the time they were done with that guy. It's not a long line by any means, but it's lot more than I've seen before.

This despite the long ballot. We vote here with pen markings on bedsheet-sized pieces of paperboard, and this year there were three of them, all two-sided. There were 3 federal offices, 2 state legislative ones (the state executive offices come up in two years), 7 school board seats (and weren't those hard to get real information about), 4 city council seats, 17 state propositions, and 4 local ones. That comes to as many votes as there are Shakespeare plays.

The official at the counter struggled to tear the receipt stubs off all three ballot sheets at once, slid them with fair versatility out of the protective sheath into a zipper slot in the big orange canvas rucksack that serves as a ballot box, handed me the stubs and an "I Voted" sticker, and off I went.

Monday, November 7, 2016

the king is duller than the queen

I started to watch Netflix's new series The Crown, but I couldn't abide more than about 20 minutes of it. Not only is palace life lovingly depicted as of unsurpassable dullness, but the royals, and also the politicians, spend their time standing around telling each other things they already know, so as to make sure the viewing audience is up to speed. Let me out of this march of the morons.

an unworthy thought

Janet Reno died.

I hope she voted early.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

concert review: Warsaw Philharmonic

Last week, I went to Davies and heard SFS play Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2. So what do I get when I go back to Davies for the visiting Warsaw Philharmonic? Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1. Like 8 Bartok quartets in 2 days, that's more than I want.

Nor is a Chopin piano concerto exactly a showpiece for a visiting orchestra. Undoubtably they played it because they, like Chopin, are from Poland. The soloist, whom the concerto is about, was not from Poland. He's one of those 22-year-old virtuosi with names like, in his case, Seong-Jin Cho. The audience thought vehemently well of him, and he was certainly fluent. In the Romanze movement he achieved a distinctive liquidity of tone which I thought was very fine. His encore was the Op. 53 Polonaise, a banging piece not designed to replicate that particular virtue.

The orchestra's big showpiece was the Brahms First Symphony, in a lean, energetic performance nevertheless notable for what seems to be Warsaw's most distinctive characteristic, a fat, heavy, almost crass tutti sound. For an encore, they acknowledged the country they were playing in and offered Bernstein's Candide Overture, which they didn't sound unfamiliar with.

Also on the program, something else Polish - sort of - and more for the connoisseur. It was the Polish Melodies by Moisei Weinberg, born and raised in Poland, moved to the USSR where he studied with Shostakovich and spent the rest of his life, and considered by cognoscenti to be one of the great unsung composers of the last century.

Not for this piece, though, which is a brief exercise in Soviet populism that could have been written by Kabalevsky, and doesn't even sound all that Polish. It does, however, begin with a long horn solo over a pedal point, so putting it at the start of the concert, with the horns not warmed up yet, was daring. A single flub could have spoiled the entire effect that the visitors were aiming for. However, there were no flubs. Good show.

Friday, November 4, 2016


Watched the Ghostbusters reboot, because the DVD was there. I liked the camaraderie among the four women. Made up for a lot of boring crap.