Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Daily Office:

Friday, August 7th, 2009


Matins: Food for thought this weekend: Alain de Botton proposes “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success,” in a presentation at TED. The main point: make sure that your idea of success is your own idea.

Lauds: Every time Jeremy Denk adds a new bit of music appreciation to his blog, the technical support gets better. Now, we think, it has caught up, in a piece about one of Brahms’s three sonatas for violin and piano (all beauties).

Prime: Felix Salmon: “When Stretching the Accordion Makes Sense.” Makes sense! It sounds like the best idea ever. But it does pit one idea of growth against another.

Tierce: Meet Judy Natkins — you can see her in court.

Sext: For those of you who haven’t seen Elizabeth Moss off the Mad Men screen, there’s Amy Heckerling’s Intervention parody.

Nones: We thought it might be Iran aiming to shut down Twitter, but it was more likely Russia and Georgia, trying to shut down one another — propaganda-wise, at least.

Vespers: Some Friday fun from Tao Lin, at The Stranger. “The Levels of Greatness a Fiction Writer Can Achieve in America (From Lowest to Highest).”

Compline: The weekend must-read: Jonah Lehrer’s “The Truth About Grit.” At last, a truly cogent demolition job on IQ testing (and testing in general).

Bon weekend à tous!


Daily Office:

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009


Matins: Josh Levin consults “the world’s leading futurologists” to hear how the United States might come to an end within the next century. Not that it will; just, how it might. (via The Morning News)

Lauds: Anne Midgette considers the pros and cons of tweeting at classical-music concerts. An intriguing discussion that left us feeling somewhat frustrated.

Prime: We’re very heartened by the news that one of two bidders for the Boston Globe contemplates running it as a not-for-profit operation.

Tierce: Christopher Shea may be forgiven for wondering: “But how many pieces about Child’s cultural significance can media outlets run before it starts to look as though reporters and editors have a financial stake in the forthcoming Nora Ephron movie about her?

Sext: We may have found the killer ap for the iPhone: Diaroogle. (via This That These & Those)

Nones: The Miskito population of Eastern Nicaragua renews its bid for independence.

Vespers: The protagonist of Ian McEwan’s next novel, likely to be called Solar, sounds familiar, but we’re not naming names.

Compline: Brooks Peters engages in “battle royale” with pretentious but ignorant mispronunciations of French words.


Daily Office:

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009


Matins: David Carr writes about The Party. You know the one! The Talk launch, which happened ten years ago last Sunday. Remember? When the Web was a “niche”?

Lauds: Alex Ross’s New Yorker column on the wealth of interesting music available through Internet portals, “Infinite Playlist,” hits a lot of bases, but keeps running.

Prime: Thinking of “investing in art”? Felix Salmon: Don’t be daft.

Tierce: Compare and contrast these contemporary fines: $675,000 for file sharing in Massachusetts; $1300 for second DUI arrest. Get your dose of righteous anger at World Class Stupid — it’ll make you laugh before you can rant.

Sext: Here’s something useful to fight about while we ponder Michael Pollan on cooking and couches: the (Scottish or English) origins of haggis.

Nones: Sometimes, ceremony matters. A lot of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s former cronies stayed away from his “endorsement.”

Vespers: Here’s a wonderful new literary game from LRB: take the title of a famous book and attach it to the name of an author who (a) couldn’t possibly have written it or (b) would have turned in a very different text.

Compline: David Bromwich writes about “America’s Serial Warriors,” captured at Tomgram. (via The Morning News)


Daily Office:

Friday, July 31st, 2009


Matins: The Urban Mole won second prize; I’d have made it the first-prizewinner. (via Good)

Lauds: A forgotten instrument from a famous score has been re-invented (one hopes!): the steel glockenspiel that Mozart had in mind for The Magic Flute.

Prime: One of the biggest problems in the way we do business — literally — is the slapdash way in which we do or don’t clean up after ourselves: “When Auto Plants Close, Only White Elephants Remain.”

Tierce: Unexpected but inevitable: what happens when lightweight Smart Cars are parked near canals. (via Infrastructurist)

Sext: How To Cook Like Your Grandmother. (via  MetaFilter)

Nones: After more than six years of expense, it has come to this:

“If there ever was a window where the seeds of a professional military culture could have been implanted, it is now long past. U.S. combat forces will not be here long enough or with sufficient influence to change it,” wrote [Col Timothy R Reese]. “The military culture of the Baathist-Soviet model under Saddam Hussein remains entrenched and will not change. The senior leadership of the I.S.F. is incapable of change in the current environment.”

Vespers: Will Blythe writes up the new new Thomas Pynchon novel — a noir detective story — at The Second Pass.

Compline: At the Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer discusses some recent findings about television as a balm for loneliness.

Bon weekend à tous!


Daily Office:

Friday, July 24th, 2009


Matins: Two related safety stories this week, at Infrastructurist: Rail/Road Safety; Cells and Speed.

Lauds: Alexander Hemon’s playlist for writing.

Prime: In “Too Small to Fail?“, Jay Goltz issues a call for better training for small business owners.

Tierce: Even though the 13 week-old Marshall trial hasn’t even gotten to the defense, there seems to be a wilting factor, as if everyone from the judge on down were just too tired of all this nonsense. In any case, no reports have been filed this evening with any of the papers. Or hadn’t been, when we last looked an hour or so ago.

We were going to invent something, and tell you that the Marshalls, having followed our coverage of the coverage, took advantage of an early recess to drop by our apartment, and that, while Mr Marshall took a little nap, Mrs Marshall turned on her Southern charm (to which we’re so susceptible!), and we suddenly realized what a lovely woman she is. That we’d be posting soon from a guest room at North Cove, or Cove Point, or Cape Fear, or whatever they call the place up in Maine.

Sext: Coming soon to Pi Mensae: Howdy Doody.

Nones: Kudos to President Obama for weighing in on the “stupidity” of the arrest of Henry Louis Gates in his own Cambridge home.

Vespers: Mark Athitakis, at The Second Pass, writes about an out-of-print novel by Ward Just, a writer whose work we almost always find totally engaging.

Compline: This weekend’s indispensable reading is Slavoj Žižek’s essay, in the London Review of Books, “Berlusconi in Tehran.” New meaning is given to the phrase, “constitutional democracy.”  

Bon weekend à tous!


Nano Note:
O sink hernieder

Saturday, July 18th, 2009


When I was in college, I took a heroic view of Tristan und Isolde. Musing over a remark that I’d heard, according to which German musicologists regarded  Tristan  as the perfect opera — a view that made sense to me, even if I wasn’t always in the mood to listen to the alleged perfection — I saw Tristan and Isolde as Olympian lovers who were willing and able to go a lot further to gratify their passion than anybody I knew. Wagner’s great achievement was to do the lovers justice by composing music that captured — a significant choice of words, I now think — a transcending, self-immolating love that could find resolution only in death.

When I say that this was an adolescent understanding of the opera, I don’t mean to condescend. I recognized that I knew nothing about love (nothing at all); and I was on the lookout for pointers. I did not long for love; on the contrary, I wanted to watch out for it. An opera that never shut up about the connection between love, on the one hand, and night, oblivion, and death, on the other, seemed very wise to me, and possibly full of prophylactic hints. At the same time, I wanted to be swallowed alive and completely roasted by Love — which is very much the same thing as not longing for love. Like any teenager, I wanted excitement without consequences.

In my middle years, I thought a lot about the love potion that Isolde slips Tristan — or, rather, that Brangäne slips Isolde. Isolde has asked her companion to prepare a lethal cordial that she will share with the man she hates most in the world — Tristan, the foreign murderer of her fiancé, Morold. Whether Brangäne makes a mistake and chooses the wrong bottle, or quietly overrules her mistress’s suicidal command, the result of drinking the philtre is undying love. The enemies become lovers, just like that.

Wagner may have been innocent of Freudian insight, but he knew his Shakespeare, and a huge chunk of Act I of his opera is taken up by Isolde’s protesting too much. Counting the ways how she hates Tristan, Isolde makes it clear that no other person on earth appears on her radar. If Tristan were dead — her fondest wish — she’d be lost, which is why she decides to kill herself along with him.

In a word, there is abundant evidence, at least for modern eyes to see, that Tristan and Isolde are in love before they drink the potion. When the potion doesn’t kill them (and certainly Tristan also expects it to), it allows them to acknowledge their mutual longing.

Listening to the opera this afternoon, I saw that a great shift in my understanding of the opera had taken place. The story of Tristan and Isolde themselves was no longer very important; it was but an armature on which Wagner could hang music that I used to think represented passion. Now, however, I knew that the music was the passion. Even though I was calmly — to all outward appearances — dusting the mantelpiece and vacuuming the carpet, the entire passion of Tristan und Isolde coursed through me. I was not leading a secret life of banked passion, sundering, on an imaginary plane, my connection with the banal quotidian world, permitting myself an internal escapade, clothed in the drag of grand amour, while applying a damp cloth to the marble top of a commode. There was no discontinuity at all between giving the phalaenopsis its weekly sip of water and crying out the praises of Frau Minne, as Isolde does when Brangäne tries to take ‘credit” for the very inconvenient love of Tristan for his uncle’s wife. “O tör’ge Magd!” ripostes Isolde — “you foolish inexperienced woman!” Every time I hear that line, I feel the true lover’s incinerating contempt for the world, and/but there is no need for me to set any fires myself. On the contrary; I wipe the glass on Kathleen’s wedding portrait and set it back on the table. Unlike the ancient Celtic lovers, but thanks no end to Wagner’s music, I know what I’m doing.

Daily Office:

Thursday, July 16th, 2009


Matins: “20 Bold Schemes” — that’s putting it mildly — for reversing climate change, the acidulation of seawater, and even for making bigger, puffier, whiter clouds! (Who can be against that?)

Lauds: LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich objects to next year’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. (via  Arts Journal)

Prime: For an “ownership society,” we have a tax code that inordinately favors indebtedness. Felix Salmon protests.

Tierce: Today’s testimony by Astor nurse Pearline Noble generated two stories in the Post.

Sext: Christoph Niemann is a Master of the Universe!

Nones: In retrospect, it wasn’t such a good idea to bring Uighur workers to Guangdong.

Vespers: John Self, intrigued by the kerfuffle surrounding Alain de Botton’s public unhappiness with Caleb Crain’s review of his new book, sat down and read The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, and he finds himself “coming down on de Botton’s side.”

Compline: Having sold the initial print run of 200 copies, the good people at Snarkmarket released the text of New Liberal Arts on line. Welcome to the new Maecenate? 


Daily Office:

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009


Matins: It’s  Bastille Day — but not in France. In France, it’s “La fête nationale.” What do you say to friends on le quatorze juillet?

You say, “Bonjour, madame,” comme d’habitude.

Lauds: You know, before you even start reading, that Anthony Tommassini is not going to give Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna top marks. But if you read between the lines, his review begins to look like a rave.

Prime: Robert X Cringely writes about the MADD strategies of Google and Microsoft, and how, if either of them suffers a mortal blow, it won’t have been aimed by the other.

Tierce: Pardon me, but I’m no longer interested in the Marshall trial’s verdict, whatever it may be. I’m already casting the movie. Who wants to play Brooke Astor, banging her cane as she is “dragged” into the library? Or saying, “I feel like throwing food in someone’s face”?

Sext: It’s very easy to make fun of Town & Country — if you’re not throwing up into an air-sickness bag — but Choire Sicha can be counted upon to do it well.

Nones: We throw up our hands: both sides in the Honduras dispute request American intervention. What a sterling opportunity to make enemies and influence people to hate the United States.

Vespers: At The Millions, novelist Sonya Chung tells us what it was like to meet her new book’s dust jacket.

Compline: Meet the Schweeb. An amusement-park ride for the time being, it may become tomorrow’s urban transport. (Via Infrastructurist)


Daily Office:

Monday, July 6th, 2009


Matins: Another way of looking at Earthly inequality: 50% of the world’s population inhabits nations that, in sum, produce only 5% of the world’s GDP.

Lauds: Elliot Goldenthal discusses his beautifully moody score for Public Enemies with Jim Fusilli, at Speakeasy.

Prime: Matt Thompson, at Snarkmarket, writes about the long overdue concept of “too big to succeed.”

Tierce: Just when we thought that the prosecution had exhausted its witnesses hostile to defendant Anthony Marshall, in walks the accountant.

Sext: So, we’ll bet you thought that a 50-pound ball of Silly Putty, if dropped from a 10-storey building, would do some awesomly rampaging bouncing. Not so.

Nones: Ethnic riots in Urumqi probably don’t threaten the stability of the Communist Party’s regime in China, but they do suggest that Uighur “aliens” don’t cotton to Shake-‘n’-Bake Han colonization.

Vespers: At The Millions, C Max Magee looks forward to books forthcoming in the second half of 2009. It’s better than Christmas — even if all you want to read is the new Joshua Ferris and a genuine novel by Nicholson Baker.

Compline: A phrase that’s altogether new to us: (to) gay marry. Friendship with (abstract?) benefits.


Daily Office:

Monday, June 15th, 2009


Matins: In the current issue of The Econimist, Lexington outlines some embarrassing figures about the hours that American children don’t put in at school.

Lauds: Jazz since 1959 — the year of Kind of Blue, Giant Steps, and Time Out — recordings that I hope you have in your collection, whether you’re an aficionado or not! (via Arts Journal)

Prime: A story about the rivalry between Comptroller of the Currency John C Dugan and FDIC chair Sheila Bair illustrates the biggest problem in regulation: updating/upgrading it in the middle of a turf war. (How medieval is “comptroller”?)

Tierce: When I saw the headline of this story about Ruth Madoff, “The Loneliest Woman in New York,” I asked myself how she gets her hair colored these days. Not where she used to!

Sext: Will the Fiat-ization of Chrysler deflate the American male’s libido? Gary Kamiya’s tongue-in-cheek reports ends with a truly dandy suggestion.

Nones: How the United States ought to respond to the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: stay the course already set by President Obama.

Vespers: Michael Dirda writes about Patricia Highsmith in The New York Review of Books: “This Woman Is Dangerous.”

Compline: Barbara Ehrenreich writes about the plight of the genuinely poor in this country, and finds that, just as it is in most places, decent (and legitimate) shelter is the big problem.


Daily Office:

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009


Matins: Will George Dangerfield’s 1935 classic, The Strange Death of Liberal England (one of the few history books that everybody ought to read, if only because everybody who has read it seems to love it) be echoed by a book called something like The Strange Death of Labour England? David Runciman foretells.

Lauds: Scott Cantrell wonders if piano competitions ought to take place behind screens (as orchestral auditions are); he doesn’t think that a blind pianist would have won this year’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition had the jury been blind.

Prime: Andrew Price notes the gender gap in unemployment, at GOOD.

Tierce: After Mily de Gernier’s testimony, prosecutors will have to rethink the top count in their indictment of Anthony Marshall. That’s the one that describes Mr Marshall’s sale of the late philanthropist’s Childe Hassam as “grand larceny.”

Sext: Choire Sicha: Which gender is superior, and why this means holding women to higher standards.

Nones: Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë has awarded the Dalai Lama honorary Parisian citizenship. Not an act of state, stutters President Sarkozy!

Vespers: Stephen Elliott interviews Dave Eggers, at The Rumpus. Once Mr Eggers’s forthcoming book (Zeitoun) has been dealt with, the conversation turns, very interestingly, to print and poor kids.

Compline: Alex Krupp shows how the Industrial Revolution’s grudge against human nature leads to intellectual impoverishment — via Benjamin Spock! “How intellectual pollution has crippled American children,” at Sensemaking.


Nano Note:

Sunday, June 7th, 2009


My favorite Gilbert & Sullivan Gilbert & Sullivan is now, officially, Patience. I have listened to it at least four times this spring, and loved it more each time. There’s a chorus toward the end of the first act that I’ve become very fond of, which is saying something, because Patience was the first G&S that I saw at the Jan Hus Playhouse forty years ago, and many, many of its numbers have been favorites for years. But this build-up finale chorus somehow escaped me until now. Here’s the line that I adore:

And never, oh never, our hearts will range
     From that old, old love again!

And then there’s Mary Sansom’s laugh (on the D’Oyly Carte CD) at the end of the reprise of “Twenty Love-Sick Maidens We.” It’s the most beautiful laugh that I have ever heard on a recording — a true silberklang. I burst into tears every time I hear it, just for the joy.

I’ve been devoting my Saturday afternoons to Gilbert & Sullivans, three at a pop, since the weekend after Easter (18-19 April). It’s late in the day to have figured out how to conduct the aural correlative of spring cleaning, but then everything about my lfie these days is of the better-late-than-never sort. I thought I might be at risk of finding Sullivan’s music a trifle outstayed this afternoon; after all, none of the great opera composers has ever occupied my house-tidying Saturdays on a remotely similar scale, even allowing for Ring cycles. But I had a merry time, listening to the line-up of Pinafore (which you’d think I’d know, but I don’t), Utopia, Ltd (’twas my misfortune to be at Bronxville High at the wrong time), and then, once again, Patience.

People often think that the subject of Patience‘s satire  is Oscar Wilde, but Wilde was hardly on the scene in 1881 (Except, as I just found out, to the extent that Richard D’Oyly Carte put him on it, as a publicist!). In fact, Reginald Bunthorne is a take-off on James McNeil Whistler, who, unlike Wilde, liked girls. (I doubt very much that Gilbert would have touched Oscar Wilde, in any sense of the word.) An important distinction, all in all. I mean, you wouldn’t have heard Wilde confessing to a catamite, “Well, between you and me, I don’t like poetry.” In any case, you wouldn’t have believed him.

Daily Office:

Thursday, June 4th, 2009


Matins: Read the terrorist prototype composite storyline and then give us a call if it describes anybody you know. (via The Morning News)

Lauds: While I agree with Anne Midgette and Jackie Fuchs about the Teen Spirit of grand opera, I’m afraid that they’re overlooking one important detail about teen life. 

Prime: James Surowiecki takes a look at the Argentinian coin shortage (who knew?) and makes a connection with financial problems in the United States: it’s what puts the “con” in “economy.” 

Tierce: Tony Marshall’s defense strategy continues to bewilder me. Unless, that is, a case is being built (without the defendant’s knowledge, to be sure) to cut Charlene loose.

Sext: I couldn’t make up my mind about this story, until I mooted it by saying: Improv Everywhere got the right couple.

Nones: In a very sensible first step toward restoring sanity after the Cold War (yes! it’s really over!), the Organization of American States voted today to re-admit Cuba.

Vespers: For maximum effect, you must read Elizabeth Benedict’s review of Christopher Buckley’s Losing Mom and Pup all the way to the end:  The Not So Discreet Charm of the Haute Goyim.

Compline: Although I have no idea of the provenance of this YouTube clip of retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong (incontournable!), I can vouch that it is indeed the bishop. Although this saint of liberal Christendom never mentions Augustine’s name, he drives stakes through core Augustinian inventions.

Bon weekend à tous!


Nano Note:
The Servant Problem

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009


Listening to a new iPod Shuffle loaded with secret vices, I understand how much better we are equipped, today, to deal with the servant problem.

iPods, when you think about it, are like servants. They all do the same thing, basically: they serve. Two iPods can’t do anything that just one can’t — but they can do twice as much of it. Which, in iPod terms, means that this Nano, loaded with baroque music, will remember exactly where to pick up when you tire of listening to Rufus on the Shuffle.

Instead of footmen (who would undoubtedly drink too much in the evenings), I have Nanos: two tall and slender 16Gs, three squat but sturdy 8Gs, two merely squat 4Gs, and now the 4G Shuffle, which is tiny — the number of objects in my personal possession bigger than the Shuffle is bewilderingly large. The device may never be taxed to its memory’s limits; there aren’t that many good songs in the world.

But that’s the whole duty of servants. Reserve power.

Daily Office:

Thursday, May 21st, 2009


Matins: At a blog, new to me, called Reddit, readers were asked to identify “closely held beliefs that our own children and grandchildren will be appalled by.”  Then Phil Dhingra, at Philosophistry, composed a bulletted list of a dozen possibilities. Be sure to check it out.

Lauds: Sad stories: No JVC Jazz Festival this summer, and no more Henry Moore Reclining Figure — forever. The festival may or may not limp back into life under other auspices, but the Moore has been melted down.

Prime: David Segal’s report on the planning of Daniel Boulud’s latest restaurant, DBGB, on the Bowery near Houston Street (it hasn’t opened yet) has a lot of fascinating numbers. 

Tierce: Attorney Kenneth Warner’s attempt to discredit Philip Marshall strikes me as desperately diversionary, but you never know with juries.

Sext: This just in: “The 1985 Plymouth Duster Commercial Is Officially the Most ’80s Thing Ever.”

Nones: The Berlin Wall, poignantly remembered by Christoph Niemann — in strips of orange and black.

Vespers: The other day, I discovered An Open Book, the very agreeable (if less than frequently updated) blog of sometime book dealer Brooks Peters. (via Maud Newton)

Compline: At Outer Life, V X Sterne resurfaces to post an entry about an unhappy moment in his job history. (We’ve been through this before, young ‘uns.)

Bon weekend à tous!


Dear Diary:

Thursday, May 7th, 2009


We went to a recital this evening, at Symphony Space. Jeremy Denk played the Goldberg Variations. It was extremely interesting — and wonderful to hear. But the “wonderful to hear” part was mine, and the “extremely interesting” part was ours.  

As I don’t mean to pre-empt a proper piece of music criticism, all I’ll say here is that Mr Denk’s performance took off — and it did take off — only after some initial uncertainties that, for my part, I found quite terrifying. How would I write about this event? It would have killed me to say that the evening was not a success. Happily, I don’t have to. But that’s just me. The applause had hardly died out when I learned that Kathleen Had Not Approved. On the contrary, she had channeled the force de frappe of at least three Reverend Mothers to compose her judgment.

(Tindley and Flather, I hope that you’re listening!)

Kathleen, who has never in her entire life lifted a cuticle to hear a recording of the Goldberg Variations, but who, like Cleopatra, has been involuntarily exposed to the best that there is in the world, à la Matthew Arnold, was stern when I remarked that Mr Denk had encountered “difficulties” in the first and the fifth variations. All Kathleen needed was a cigar to put on her best Churchill impersonation. “There were a lot of wrong notes at the beginning,” she intoned, not altogether froggily.

By Variation XIII, I was quite comfortable: Mr Denk was not just running through the score as best he could. He was giving us the Denk Version, and it was extraordinary. I was sure that Kathleen must be hearing this, too. Not, though. It was only when we got out of the taxi that I heard Kathleen’s Round II, which had to do with “emoting.”

Everyone who really knows Kathleen knows that she is supremely entertaining about music that she doesn’t like. Over the weekend, I am sure, I am going to be treated to schoolgirl imitations of Mr Denk’s “emoting,” even though I did my best to head this off at the pass. “That’s not ’emoting’,” I insisted. “It’s just the worry of trying to play the piece exactly right.” But Kathleen has locked on to the idea that Bach is “mathematical,” hence, “not emotional,” hence Mr Denk’s manner of playing is “hypocritical.” Total bosh, and I told her so. But before I convince her, we’ll be fooling around in a back hallway of the Brill Building.

Kathleen was shortsighted enough to dismiss her own review as “That’s who I am [darling]!” I hastened to remind her that she used to hear Mozart rather differently — before a stropping education!

Nano Note:
Rapture Unforeseen

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009


So it took until now to upload some Gilbert & Sullivan onto the computer, and thither onto a Nano. Which is another way of saying that I haven’t listened to anything Savoyard in over eighteen months. There’s nothing abnormal in that; until recently, I was a creature of musical enthusiasms. Feverish passions would make it impossible to listen to anything but The Sleeping Beauty for a few weeks. When the fever passed, it would be a long time before I tuned in again. Just like pop music, really, except that I always would tune in again, eventually. Something inevitably sparks a renewal of interest. In the case of Gilbert & Sullivan, it was Eric Patton’s mentioning that he’d seen this year’s Blue Hill Troupe production of The Sorcerer.

Because my mother was the choreographer for a light opera repertory company in north-central Ohio when I was a child […] I have seen every single Gilbert & Sullivan light opera with the exception of their first, Thespis, but all the music from that light opera was lost except for one song, “Climbing Over Rocky Mountain”, which was inserted into a later light opera, The Pirates of Penzance. Consequently, Thespis is never performed.

I rarely have the chance to impress anyone with my exhaustive knowledge of Gilbert & Sullivan.

I warned Eric and Asaph that Gilbert & Sullivan light operas were not very relevant to our lives today, and that the entire plot is generally resolved in the last song, usually by finding out that characters had been switched at birth.

So that’s why I’ve never seen Thespis.

The problem with listening to Gilbert & Sullivan at my age is that it makes me bawl. A phrase rends my heart; all at once, my lips are pressed together and my eyes sprung wide open (this discourages tears) — but then I burst out in sobs like someone remembering a lost child. What rends my heart is not, needless to say, what Eric calls “the light operas.” Gilbert and Sullivan were Victorian collaborators who, despite a stout fund of mutual loathing, remained on the same artistic page long enough to produce a baker’s dozen of satires (musical and dramatic à la fois). Two or three of them are masterpieces by any standard. What tears me up is the fragile knowingness of what I’ve just said. I, too, rarely have occasion to impress anyone with my exhaustive knowledge of Gilbert & Sullivan.

If you asked me which collaborator I preferred, I’d be paralyzed, because I regard each of them as supreme, and in the same way. Both are players, tweakers of the familiar. For Gilbert, obviously, the raw material was English verse, the grand pretensions of which he carefully replaced with a finer gas, so that there was never any deflation. (It’s crazy, I know, but I rank Gilbert near Shakespeare for his sheer command of English wordplay.) Sullivan did much the same thing, only his raw material was Italian opera. I’m not suggesting that Sullivan made fun of Verdi. Certainly not! He learned, rather, how Verdi made fun of Italian opera. (It is my fond hope that Sullivan’s music will eventually teach us what a tremendous scamp Verdi was. How anyone can hear “Questa o quella” without laughing is beyond me.)

Listening to Iolanthe this afternoon, I marveled (as if for the first time, it felt) at Sullivan’s dexterity at juxtaposing good old English roast beef (“When Britain really ruled the waves”) with rollicking French naughtiness (“If you go in, you’re sure to win”) — all seasoned with trademark silliness (“In vain to us you plead”). Another thing that made me cry was the scoring of the famous nightmare song, “When you’re lying awake.” Beneath the verbal humor, the nightmare is given a rather terrifying musical reality by touches that seem learned from Tchaikovsky. Taught to?

Young people today can scarcely be expected to imagine that “breach of promise of marriage” was once upon a time a tort — an actionable civil wrong. But they would certainly understand the defendant’s argument, in Trial by Jury (the first surviving collaboration), in favor of minimal damages: 

Defendant (repelling her furiously).

I smoke like a furnace — I’m always in liquor,
  A ruffian — a bully — a sot;
I’m sure I should thrash her; perhaps I should kick her,
  I am such a very bad lot!
I’m not prepossessing, as you may be guessing,
  She couldn’t endure me a day;
Recall my professing, when you are assessing
  The damages Edwin must pay!


Yes, he must pay!

Where’s the Kleenex?

Daily Office:

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009


Matins: The only thing that’s missing from this Observer story about a houseguest from hell is the atmosphere that Quatorze would exhale if he were reading it.

Lauds: Here’s a story that ought to be curdling my innards, but the innards in question were curdled so long ago that there’s nothing left. The Times may sell WQXR, according to the kind of rumors that have been panning out lately.

Prime: Even though I have NO ROOM, I must confess to being beguiled by Mike Johnston’s Online Photographer entry about starting a camera collection.

Tierce: Olympia Snowe’s envoi to Arlen Specter manages to make Ronald Reagan, of all people, sound like a moderate Republican. The Pennsylvania senator’s defection to the Democrats may also lubricate his former party’s easing-up on opposition to same-sex marriage.

Sext: And, speaking of marriage, The Morning News assembles a Panel of Experts, comprising a handful of youngsters who are engaged to be married, “The Rules of Engagement.”

Nones: First, the good news: things are looking up (a little) in Myanmar, a nation so devastated by Cyclone Nargis, last year, that its repressive junta loosened up a bit.

Vespers: Finally: a book by Colson Whitehead that I’d like to read. None of that postmodern bricolage, just a straightforward summer novel: Sag Harbor. Marie Mockett inverviews the author at Maud Newton.

Compline: One of the most egotistical, testosterone-driven, and commercially senseless mergers in corporate history is about to be undone, as TimeWarner and America Online approach the dissolution of their relationship.


Daily Office:

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009


Matins: Ryan Avent, at Portfolio, is “amazed”:

The truly amazing thing to me is that parental income isn’t just crucial in getting to college, and getting through college — its effects linger on, basically, in perpetuity. One of the most remarkable findings from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project is that a child from a family in the top income quintile who does not get a college degree is more likely to wind up in the top income quintile himself than a child from a family in the bottom income quintile who does get a college degree.

Lauds: Krystian Zimerman read the riot act at Disney on Sunday night. In light of yesterday’s Lauds, you won’t be surprised to hear that I disapprove.

Prime: At Sore Afraid, Eric undergoes laser eye  surgery; has “crispness” issues, but jogs in Central Park and tootles off to Washington just the same.

We had reservations for an activity at the International Spy Museum, but Asaph started feeling unwell, probably from dehydration, but things weren’t helped when he was bitten by a large fly. I tried to reassure him, but I am not so good at that.

Tierce: An exciting, ultimately frustrating story about “cyberwarfare” in the Times  boils down to “be very afraid” boilerplate. The Economist, however, counsels a more cynically relaxed response.

Sext: It’s a living — or is it? A pair of entrepreneurial Pakistani brothers may relocate to East Asia if their prosperous bondage-gear business gets too hot to handle in Karachi.

Nones: Just in case you think that things are bad here in the USA, consider the Balkan States: Lithuania’s economy dropped by 12% from the same quarter last year. That’s an almost unimaginable contraction in terms of everyday business.

Vespers: The return of the British thriller: the Curzon Group (currently comprising three crime writers) intends to restore the lustre of a genre that, in its eyes, has been tarnished by American “production line” methods. (via Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind)

Compline: Along with indoor plumbing, a hallmark of modern civilization at its most basic is street lighting: we take the safety that it provides for granted. But streetlights are in need of a rethink, not least because powering them comes to two percent of our total energy consumption.


Daily Office:

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009


Matins: May I say that I support President Obama’s decision not to prosecute CIA agents for torture perpetrated in reliance upon Bush Administration legal advice.

Lauds: What a nice year it would be if Susan Boyle turned out to  be the woman of it. The very president of it. For her, that is. For the rest of us, a bit of a lesson is in order, as Colette Douglas Home reminds us. (via A Commonplace Blog)

Prime: A psychopathological breakdown of royals stalkers. (Not to be confused with “royal stalkers,” eg Jack the Ripper.) It made me wonder: how many of Trollope’s bad girls suffer from de Clérambault’s Syndrome? (via  The Morning News)

Tierce: Here’s a little story that, properly followed, will chart the health/malaise of the Italian state — which seems to have less and less to do with “Italy”: “Italy fears mafia quake fund grab.” 

Sext: A sizzling story from the Telegraph: Separate bedrooms keeps the romance alive.” [sic]

Nones: Spain leads the way in new high-speed rail transport. Not everybody’s pleased. (via  The Morning News)

Vespers: Geoff Dyer discusses his new book(s), Jeff in Venice/Death in Varanasi, with Asylum’s John Self.

Compline: On the occasion of QE2’s eighty-third birthday (the real one, not the “official” one in June), we turn to for instructions on writing a letter to Her Majesty.