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December 14, 2005

Holiday Suggestions

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* There aren't many musicians more purely Modernist -- as in difficult and austere -- than France's Pierre Boulez. That's no reason to shun him, though. A wildly-gifted conductor, he's also an ear-opening composer who puts to use one of music's most ravishing sonic pallettes. Why not give him a try? You may feel confused, you may fall asleep, you may listen once and never again. But my bet is that, no matter how you react, you won't regret giving yourself the experience. (Hint: precision plus lushness is a French speciality. Think of high-end French food. Now think of its equivalent in modernist-music terms ...) Besides, this first-class collection is just too cheap not to buy.

* If Boulez sounds like a little much despite my praise, why not treat yourself (or a friend) to a different kind of out-of-the-ordinary music? I semi-recently recommended the work of a couple of downhome titans: the Bahamian genius Joseph Spence, and the Texas roadhouse giant Delbert McClinton.

* You've seen a little David Cronenberg and a little David Lynch, and you think you know movie-creepy? You think you know movie-surrealist? Sorry: Amazing as Cronenberg and Lynch can be, you don't really know movie-creepy and movie-surrealist until you've watched the films of the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer. I think his short movies are his best, and many of them are collected in this DVD. Attention: this is handmade, ultra-low-budget work, more akin to Claymation or to ancient dolls and puppets than to Pixar's slick latest. It's very un-cool. If you can get past that and synch up with Svankmajer's imagination and craft, though, watching his films can be like slipping into Western civ's very own icky dream world.

* What's more book-fun than flipping around a good collection of quotations, enjoying the shafts of wit and savoring the fragments of wisdom? William Sauer's new "Hip Pocket Guide to Offbeat Wisdom" is my favorite quotation-collection yet because it has a personality of its own. It isn't just a reference book or a collection with a theme, though the quotations here -- from a surprisingly eclectic group of sources -- are plenty terrific. There's also a funky brain and a creative taste-set at work behind the scenes in the collecting and the arranging of the quotes -- in the actual making of the book. This isn't just another quotation-collection in other words. It's a quirky and intriguing work in its own right.

* I wrote here about how much I loved Mike Snider's short poetry collection "44 Sonnets." At three bucks a pop, it's a perfect stocking-stuffer for lit-lovers. (It's also -- like "The Hip-Pocket Guide" -- an inspiring example for self-publishers). Go to Mike's blogpage and look in the upper-right corner. You'll see a "buy now" button. Click it.

* Those who argue that the US today lacks a truly major literary artist may not have encountered the phenomenon that is Frederick Turner. As an essayist, he fuses cultural depth with an openness to the new sciences. "The Culture of Hope" is so good -- so imaginative yet so down-to-earth -- that it can make you forget all the nonsense that the lib-arts crowd has generated during the Decon decades. (Not coincidentally, I'm on board with about 99.5% of what Turner says in the book. You can sample Turner's thinking online here.) As a poet, Turner is ambitious, deep, and accomplished. I'm sorry that I have an inabilty to read sci-fi: his epic poem "Genesis" is said by many to be his best work. But I can strongly recommend Turner's "Paradise: Selected Poems 1990-2003," which I found amazingly rewarding: sweeping, virtuosic, moving -- a kind of Norton Anthology of Poetry, only by one brilliant guy and for our very own age.

* The crack team at Design Observer has put together a mouth-watering list of design-centric gift books for the season.

* For more book recommendations, don't forget to visit Bookgasm and Will Duquette's Ex Libris, the best of the popular-literature bookblogs.



posted by Michael at December 14, 2005


If you like Svankmajer, you have to make sure to check out The Brothers Quay. Senses of Cinema article here, Wikipedia here. One of their shorts is titled "The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer."

Posted by: Kane Citizen on December 15, 2005 9:07 AM

Broken link to Turner

Posted by: Robert Speirs on December 15, 2005 10:30 AM

Re Pierre Boulez. He along with other members of the musical avant garde such as Karlheinz Stockhausen are what I no longer willingly listen to. I'm not anti-20th century music--when I was a performer I played a lot of it. But my sensibilities have moved a long way since. I listen to few pieces, preferring to play instead, and when I do it is pretty selective. Shostakovich, a couple of pieces by Stravinsky and a couple by Berg is about as far as I will go in the 20th century. The rest, the hyper-rationalist music of Boulez, the whacky experiments of Partch and Cage and all the rest I just find annoying. Instead, I prefer Bach, Mozart, Haydn, heck, you know the names--Guillaume Dufay!--all those composers for whom music was about beauty and expression and not sterile experimentation. Really, in the area of music, the 20th century was pretty horrible. As it was ideologically.

Posted by: Bryan on December 15, 2005 2:08 PM

Michael, it's funny you like Boulez, since you're such a skeptic when it comes to modernism in architecture.

The real problem with Boulez is not his taste -- hey, I wouldn't dare dispute that -- but some of the outrageous things he claimed about atonal music early in his career. It was along the lines of "tonality is dying; soon even the common man will listen to atonality and like it." Because of his prestige and skill as an all-around musician, a lot of composers were intimidated by those statements for a while, retarding development of fresh discoveries within the tonal branch of music. Which really sucked -- it was a discernible injury to world culture, I'd say. Even someone like Aaron Copland was affected for a bit.

And yes, Boulez is a great conductor.

Can you explain why you don't analogize from modernist architecture to atonal music?

Posted by: Fred on December 15, 2005 4:29 PM

KaneCitizen -- Nice to know you like the Quay Bros! And here's hoping some visitors give them a try. Strange, moody, and far-out stuff. For some reason their work doesn't hit me the way Svankmajer's does. I just don't love it. But I'm saying that based on seeing their stuff probably 15 years ago, so who knows how I'd react today ...

Robert -- Thanks for pointing that out. Fixed.

Bryan -- Interesting to learn about how your tastes (or willingnesses) have changed. I wonder if that's been the case for many performers -- once you don't have to any longer, you stop. I like Boulez's sonic textures and rhythmic weirdnesses, but I wonder what it'd be like to perform them. Boring? Exalting?

Hey Fred -- Yeah, Boulez was quite the bomb-thrower as a young man, and didn't exactly contribute to a mutually-tolerant atmosphere. I wonder how he feels about it now. Foolish? Proud? Or is he content that things have worked out so well for him? The Wife and I saw him conduct an evening of Bartok at Carnegie Hall recently, on his 80th birthday, and it was dynamite. He's gray and a little hunched-over, but aside from that there's nothing that isn't still awe-inspiring about his conducting.

I cut all the arts except architecture/urbanism a lot of slack, have a lot of far-out tastes, and generally don't mind the modernist line of descent (so long as it's viewed as one among many, anyway). But, unlike the other arts, architecture/urbanism is (99% of the time) a public act. Whatever the archtecture/urbanist thing is that gets made, civilians have to live with it, work in it, pass it by; it affects the lives of many people who have no choice in the matter.

For that reason I think that arch/urb ought to tend towards the conservative and the tried-and-true. A bad building can ruin an entire block. A bunch of bad buildings and spaces can destroy a downtown. If bad building and planning practices take over generally, they can degrade the quality of our shared lives in really dramatic ways.

And, as a practical matter, people seem to be happier in tried-and-true spaces than they are in glittering/fragmented/barren spaces. Happiness counts. Life's good when it feels more rewarding.

Besides, traditional building patterns are pretty much guaranteed to work. The result might be unremarkable, but it'll at least be pleasant, and it won't do any harm. Modernist-descended work often does actual harm. And since the good Modernist-derived stuff comes along about one in a hundred tries, I'd rather see us all just give up the effort. Modernist architeture is forever trying to redeem itself -- "really and truly, we know better than to create big, empty plazas! Trust us!" -- and is forever failing yet again. It's already been an amazingly destructive force. Why cut it any more slack than we already have?

Another way of looking at it: Why put all your money on an athlete who hits nothing but grand slams but whose batting average is .001, when you can field a whole team of guys who are guaranteed to always get on base?

So it's a political thing, really. Happy to take swipes at the pretentions of the modernist autocrats in the various other arts worlds too. They can do some harm, and it's fun to throw a few darts at them. But the harm they cause is mostly to people in their own fields. The academic poetry establishment has been vicious to New Traditionalist poets, for instance. But that doesn't really affect civilians, except in a distant way. And nothing keeps the New Trad poets from writing their poems and creating their own world. Architecture dictators can do vast damage to civilinas -- capture bureaucratic departments, ruin neighborhoods, spoil people's pleasure in their hometowns, etc.

What are the academic/grad music worlds like these days? As entranced by fancy non-tonal (or 12-tonal) ways of generating music as they were back in the '70s? More open to a variety of approaches?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 15, 2005 4:57 PM

Well put, Michael.

I believe Boulez has mellowed, but is not exactly apologetic.

I hardly have my finger on the pulse of the academic world, but I get the impression things are quite relaxed at the University of Michigan, down the road from where I am. In the old days of Ross Lee Finney, composition students would bring their assignments in, inked up on vellum (!) and the prof would make corrections, which the student would then incorporate into a new manuscript, also on vellum. Madness! From what I understand, the new way is the opposite extreme; teachers ask questions to stimulate thinking, mostly. I guess they feel composition is mostly self-taught, anyway. I'm not sure I disagree.

At U-M, things are so anti-hierarchical, they even experimented with rotating students among all profs in the department. It used to be, each prof owned the students who studied privately with him. If a student was unhappy with his prof, he had to contemplate a potentially career-ending decision to find someone else. It was like going through a divorce. Weird.

Posted by: Fred on December 15, 2005 5:29 PM

I can remember listening to "Le Marteau
Sans Maitre" when I was young and trying really hard to like it. I finally gave up, stopped feeling like a hopeless musical bumpkin, and decided there wasn't necessarily anything wrong with me. I've never met anyone, musician or otherwise, who was all that crazy about Boulez, except as a conductor.

If you want to get all French and 20th century, you could give a listen to (among lots of others, of course) some of Olivier Messiaen's stuff. I'm fond of the organ works but the Turangalila Symphony (which is really more of a piano concerto) is interesting, calling for a humongous orchestra and even an ondes martenot screeching around in there. Boulez himself hated it (he said it was "bordello music"). Maybe that's why I kind of like it.

Posted by: Flutist on December 15, 2005 9:57 PM

Michael, thanks so much for the plug!

It's a funny thing—I love Fred Turner's poetry, and I've been at times a near-compulsive reader of sf, but I've never finished Genesis. His earlier sf epic, The New World, I've re-read several times.

Posted by: Mike Snider on December 16, 2005 10:32 AM

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