OFAN Mini: Reviews

I’ve always had a lot of thoughts about concerts. It kind of goes with the territory of being a composer/performer — when you spend so many of your waking hours picking apart your own playing and writing, it’s pretty hard not to do the same to others. For the most part, I kept those thoughts to myself, or at most talked about them with whoever I happened to see the concert with. That was fine as far as it went, but that wasn’t very far; when your thoughts just disappear into memory, it’s hard to build on them or notice larger patterns.

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Review: For the End of Time

By now, it should be abundantly clear to everyone who knows me that I am hopeless Messiaen trash. So when I stumbled on Rebecca Rischin’s For the End of Time, an account of the composition and première of Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (Quartet for the end of Time), I knew I had to read it. It showed up under the tree for Christmas (thanks Mom and Dad!), I cracked it open eagerly, and . . . it was a very uneven ride.

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[one] and the Backstage Door

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Contempo Flux contemporary chamber music class’s final concert of the term out at UCLA. It was a diverse program full of interesting pieces — many of which were new to me — and the level of playing was, on the whole, phenomenal, but there was one piece in particular that stuck in my mind: Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s [one] [YouTube] for piano and percussion inside said piano.

It’s not the sort of piece I would normally be drawn to. Misty and atmospheric, it unfolds slowly and freely, with little sense of melody or rhythmic pulse. If I’d only been listening to a recording of it, I honestly would’ve been kind of bored — it’s just not my jam. But watching it happen in person was a deeply engrossing experience, and one that I’d very much like to have again. In thinking about why, I realized that it was because [one] is very close to being a theatre piece.

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Of Magyrs and Manticores

I read a lot of fantasy as a kid. A lot a lot. Even when I basically stopped leisure reading in college, fantasy literature was never far from my mind, and now that I’ve started up again, my “books to read” list is split pretty evenly between fantasy novels and everything else. I have fond memories of many of these books, but I’d be hesitant to read most of them again. As I’ve read more and more, my tastes have sharpened — I’ve become able to appreciate things I couldn’t before, but there are also things that bother me now in narrative fiction that I used to pass by with blithe indifference. Some books, however cherished in my memory, come with big, stark signs saying “do not revisit these waters lest you rend the glowing shroud of nostalgia asunder”. (My subconscious is kind of wordy.)

The Orphan’s Tales, by Catherynne M Valente, is not one of those books.

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Music Monday: Jubilee Riots: Penny Black

Just because I mostly write classical music (or whichever of the other imperfect monikers you prefer) doesn’t mean it's the only genre of music I listen to, let alone the only genre I get excited enough to geek out about. I may not have the same deep knowledge and stylistic vocabulary to engage it with, but there’s an awful lot of great music out there that does things to me that trio sonatas simply don’t. So this week we peek out from our usual waters to check out Jubilee Riots’ album, Penny Black.

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Consider the Audience

This past Tuesday, I had an underwhelming experience with the LA Phil. The concert was an "All-American" chamber show, the first offering in their "Next on Grand" series, a celebration of contemporary American composers. The underwhelmingness wasn't the fault of the music, or not entirely. As with most grab-bag contemporary concerts, I was fonder of some selections than others, despite the consistently high level of performance on display. No, the music alone was fine. What really bothered me were the set changes.

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Some Thoughts on the Absence of Mahler

I'm not sure I would have noticed if the lawyer hadn't been Schoenberg's grandson.

The Woman in Gold tells the story of Maria Altmann's fight to regain ownership of Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, an iconic painting that the Nazis stole from her family's home in Vienna on the eve of World War II. Her legal representative in this affair was E Randol "Randy" Schoenberg, the grandson of the (in)famous composer Arnold. Thruout the film, numerous people, on learning his heritage, make a comment about Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique and how difficult and yet rewarding it can be to listen to. And this turned out to be a bit of a problem.

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For a Social Science Fiction

Interstellar has a lot of physics in it.

Like, really, a lot of physics. While some science fiction is quite happy to loiter on the "putty" end of the Mohs Scale of Sci-Fi Hardness [TV Tropes], Interstellar at least aspires to the more unscratchable reaches. The general consensus seems to be that the bulk of it (until the denouement, at least) is at least vaguely plausible; the involvement of Kip Thorne [Wikipedia] certainly doesn't hurt the credibility in that regard. The space tech also feels real: It seems delightfully plausible that our first interstellar voyages would be on clunky, ruggedly built ships with a distinctly 70s vibe — I am 100% willing to accept the Endurance in a way that I simply cannot accept the Enterprise from the shiny Star Trek reboot. If spaceships ever leave the realm of engineering for that of graphic design, it's going to be a long time in the future indeed.

So, naturally, most of the back-and-forth about the film's plausibility has centered on the physics in the second and third halves, from the gravity-induced time dilation to the precise nature and limits of the tesseract. That's all well and good, but there's much more interesting science to be picked apart here.

Specifically, I'm interested in all the social science behind how we get to the world portrayed in the opening act.

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Weak and Idle Themes

Some pieces of music are really good. They reach down inside you and touch you on a fundamental level, they fill your heart with joy or cleanse your mind with cathartic sorrow. Some works, on the other hand, are just bad. They're melodically dull, or harmonically uninspiring, or any of the other myriad things that can go wrong when putting notes on the page. (And I've suffered all these faults and more in my own writing. Music is hard.) But then there are the works that are almost really good. They have a lot going for them, they almost hit it out of the park, but there's just . . . something where they fundamentally miss the mark. 

And works in that last category are often the most excruciating of all.

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The Book of Life

The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.

— Ursula K Le Guin, "The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas" (1974)

It is easy, almost effortless, to think of artistic masterworks that fit this pattern, exploring miserable lives with elegance and sophistication, marshaling great intellectual and expressive resources to pick apart physical and emotional suffering. It is harder to think of works that revel unabashedly in their celebration of joy, that take happiness and flourishing as their subject and refuse to apologize for doing so.

The Book of Life is one such work, and it is so refreshing for being so.

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