Friday, August 27, 2010

No music too familiar...

I'd like to make a brief post while it is still on my mind.
Some music is played so often that one thinks one can never hear it as new. Young Bizet's Suites Arl├ęsiennes surely are among these. Some of Handel's Water Music, too, especially if one is old enough to have heard the Hamilton Harty arrangements on 78rpm. Since the introduction of LP, the Brandenburg concertos of J. S. Bach, in innumerable performances.
I happened to have heard today, having the radio on, the first L'Arl├ęsienne suite (but unfortunately did not get the announcement) played as if it was new. All it takes is for a gifted conductor to have studied it afresh, to learn how Bizet composed it and perhaps divine why. Such a pleasure. Such a pity that he died so young.
This morning, on "Performance Today", they played the BBC's broadcast recording from a week ago at the Promenade concerts of John Eliot Gardiner's interpretation of the First Brandenburg Concerto, giving free rein to the pair of unvalved French horns. There was also a bit of interview. Gardiner likes to teach, and he is a very good teacher. In any case, he is my favorite conductor, and, since he is only nine years my junior, if I hear nothing by him or about him for a while, I may hope that he is well and all.
All those concertos tend to puzzle scholars and performers: some don't like clarino trumpets, others dislike recorders, but the unruly horns (and the English Baroque Soloists manage them uncommonly well) even played perfectly are certainly obtrusive. Gardiner is not worried (there are dozens of performances both live and recorded that allow the engineers to keep the horns in the background), and it was interesting and, yes, for the aspects of the structure of the composition that they emphasized, very pleasurable to hear him lead them in this way. As I listened I thought that it made that concerto sound rather more akin to Handel's Water Music than it usually does. Though Bach surely was experimenting with scoring, I wondered whether he wasn't providing the margrave with proofs of his ability to provide music especially for festive performance outdoors. If he knew the Handel, it would have been the Water Music, since the Royal Fireworks is much later. Of course, it is not as if no one else composed such music, including brass, in the early 18th century.
Here we only get bits of Proms, but I wonder if the concert included all six of them.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

"South Pacific", "Bound for Glory", and Kodachrome

In 1949 I would turn 15 and was just old enough to read, and begin to understand, Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific”. I had been listening to the Texaco (of beloved memory) broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera since 1945, the same year as we also had broadcasts of the San Francisco Opera. Besides the tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini, I had a terrific crush on the voice of Ezio Pinza. That is to say, the first post-WW II decade was the time when I began to grow up, when I saw that a wartime mentality was not the only kind, when I listened on the radio to broadcasts about the founding of the United Nations, and read about it in Life and Time, when we could even order European recordings direct from overseas if we wanted them enough.
And then the musical “South Pacific” opened.
Of course, I didn’t actually see it, but between war movies and the Movietone News and Life I could imagine the Pacific Theater of War perfectly well. We knew, among our friends and neighbors, ex-sailors and ex-nurses. We still venerated our still-living Admiral Nimitz, too, where I lived. We had had as a childhood treat going down to the Naval Air Station to watch the pontoon planes landing on the Bay.
For more than sixty years I’ve known all the words to all the songs in “South Pacific” (and those in “Kiss Me Kate” for nearly as long). I didn’t like the movie, which I didn’t even see until AMC broadcast it. Too much real landscape.
How could I like it without Pinza and Martin? The semi-staged version from Carnegie Hall broadcast on PBS, settled the problem so far as Mary Martin was concerned; Reba McEntire was perfect. The rest were merely all right (well, Alec Baldwin was excellent), and it wasn’t complete. It had been years since I’d read Michener, too.
The great thing about being retired and having PBS HD is that I can, if I wish, stay up almost all night and watch Live from Lincoln Center as much as four times over. It took me most of the initial viewing to accept Kelli O’Hara as Nellie Forbush, though she really can sing and she sang just right. And Paulo Szot is wonderful. Not Pinza, but just the right kind of voice, and a great Emile. The second and third time, concentrating also on details, I noticed the costuming: Bloody Mary dressed like New Caledonia and looking like a real Tonkinoise. The chorus of nurses coiffed just right and dancing what didn’t even look like choreography (viz, was really good choreography), a casual-seeming mixture of jitterbug and movie-version Rockettes and bits of half learned Charleston and simple tap dance from when they would have been about ten years old. The Seabees basically doing ordinary guys’ jitterbug. And the clothes! Nellie’s are just what a nice young woman in middle America would wear (with a girdle!) even overseas, stationed in New Caledonia or perhaps the New Hebrides: those are the islands where French is spoken, and Lieut. Cable has been flown in from Guadacanal, where it isn’t. Clothes that had to be starched and ironed (linen, or for the stage a linen-look-alike). And everybody walking and moving “period”, too. Szot even can sing “This Nearly Was Mine”, a killer song written for a unique lyric bass, all in the part of the voice hardest to support and control.
I am sure that, though the audience evidently loved it, too, this musical has special comfort and special importance for persons just my age, for whom Petty girls (see the opening of Act II) were current pin-up types.
And then, something that at first seems different, yesterday I received in the mail a picture book I had ordered, hardly daring to hope that Abrams and the Library of Congress would have succeeded in getting the color right. But they did. Kodachrome I, ASA 10, and of the first generation, was quite different from not only digital color (which I admit is the truest, now) but from the direct positive color films both from Kodak and from competitors that almost any shop could process. Kodachrome I was extremely dense. In very strong light, it was intense and produced what we used to deplore as Mexican-blue skies. Its shadows ranged from dark to utterly opaque. I have one taken in late afternoon in 1959 on Mykonos and another near Sparta, and I processed them very carefully after scanning the slides with the special Kodachrome setting on a Nikon 4000 scanner. Since old Kodachrome has excellent drawer life, but rather poor life with exposure to ultraviolet light (or to heat in projectors), these are among my best preserved ones; even so they are 17 years younger than the latest ones (1943) in my beautiful new book, Bound for Glory: America in Color, 1939–1943, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress. Fully 20 years ago, as I recall, LOC on its web page with FSA photography, had included some by Marion Post Wolcott Kodachrome up by Lake Providence, LA, and elsewhere in the south. Although the on-line images at that time were rather sad, I downloaded several just because they were taken in Louisiana, where I was teaching. That is why, when someone in an interview mentioned the book, I made haste to order it. I rejoice to report to anyone that loves this photography that the book is revelatory. Fully half of the government agency photographers, including some of the all-round best, such as Lee and Delano, accepted the new film and mastered it, and the LOC has kept splendid care of these 35mm slides from an era that probably has lost most of them (Autochrome, for all its relative difficulties—no good in a Leica, for example—was fairly permanent).
Now, here is why “South Pacific” and Bound for Glory are complementary for me; they both record the America that is still, for me, the normal America, the normal children’s clothes, the normal roads and streets and downtowns, the normal barns, even after 1941 the normal war. They both record a life that looks quite poor nowadays. Of course, early FSA did record appalling poverty, but it is worth remembering that by 1939 even Dorothea Lange had to hunt for subjects that really needed both compassion and attention: I know; I remember; I knew Nipomo as well as she did, though I was never taken out into the fields; my fellow kindergartners of 1939 and I had hand-me-downs which were still good, but we weren’t hungry or without shelter, not any of us. Ordinary cotton-wash dresses most often sewn from Simplicity patterns were the norm, and why not?
Also, the editor who wrote the introduction to this book, Paul Hendrickson, assumes (just as my students of 1989–2005 did in History of Photography) that the Depression was a world of grayscale, of black-and-white. Because it is important to understand what is inherently black-and-white photography, and not all of the FSA is, I tried to tell them what the colors were like, the colors that I remembered perfectly well, but I don’t think most of them could manage ‘mental colorization’ (perhaps knowing how bad the colorization of movies was, how obscenely unreal and unjust to the photographers in Hollywood), and I know, too, that I am one of those persons who remember colors quite exactly, and remember subtle differences of hue. In any case, to me the world of FSA photography, fond of the art of gelatin-silver photography as I am, was not a grayscale world, only my world rendered permanent in grayscale. And in his interview with Alan Alda, Bartlett Sher (born 1959) said that he had never seen “South Pacific” on stage, that he started with the printed play (or was it with Michener himself?), and worked from there. Think of that! Someone who hasn’t had “South Pacific” all his life. He and his colleagues certainly have made a very good new job of it, faithful to everything that wants fidelity, and without any bleeping of Seabee talk, and without any fussing about its point of view.
They have made me very, very happy these last two days, and so has my new book. Perhaps after all people born after I was grown up can see their way into my world. Sometimes I stop and think: today and the end of the War between the States, in 1865, is 145 years, and at the end of World War II, in 1945, was 80 years since 1865, which seemed very long ago to me then. Yet from 1949 to 2009 is 60 years. I think: perhaps photography and sound recording and radio/television and now the machines that permit blogs and all make all the difference. They do, provided that my juniors avail themselves of it all, and fully, but youth is a time (as “South Pacific” keeps saying) when living takes precedence over remembering. I must use my imagination to see this world as they live it, for my part.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Ancient Wonders, New Media
When a fortnight ago I mentioned Sir Harry Lauder in relation to the Beatles I had in my mind that my oldest Lauder recordings not only are 78rpm 12-inch disks that play for about 5 minutes but that several of them are acoustical and one-sided and pressed in hard rubber: pre-shellac. Those would be his very oldest recordings. My 78rpm turntable needs a new belt, and I need to get a converter to digitize them, besides. But I have many of his later electrically recorded ones in LPs.
My first experience with computers was with sorters and punchers that recorded letters and numerals in plain binary on the latest thing: IBM cards. I could 'program' a steel 'board' by connecting from hole to hole on it with small RCA-like cables. When we demonstrated to preserve, as an historical and architectural monument, the Old Mint in San Francisco, one of the main arguments was that, built to sustain minting machinery, its floors were strong enough even to hold computers.
But we accustom ourselves to new wonders very easily, and so quickly that the question is whether we have truly assessed the importance of each novelty before it is superseded.
My first 33 1/3 rpm turntable was made to play through our 1929 Electrola radio-phonograph; a clever electrician must have replaced some capacitors in it, I suppose. Its cartridge and the Electrola's amplifier were not really compatible.
And so on.
Now, my first personal computer in 1987 or 1988 was an IBM PS-2 running DOS 4.0. Though some friends were on line, I never saw anything when I visited them of any interest to me: I mean, a hand-held stereoscope with an albumen-print card gave me a better image of the Moon, or the Alps or Pyramids, or three small children in a bathtub than anything in 72 dpi at that date did. But as an extra attraction the PS-2 came with a fully colorized fractals program. This blew my mind, you could say. It would be a decade before I had Graphic Calculator, and the utter miracle of Google Earth (and just click to go to street level and look around) was still undreamed of. Why, we didn't yet have Mosaic or the first Netscape, though in a couple of years some terminals in the university library's Reference Room were running them. My first computer that was on line was the Mac in my office at the university which had Gopher and let me blissfully peruse every library card catalogue in the world. Research was altered forever.
But it is the programs that ran fractals that interest me here, though they are perhaps less interesting than the fibonacci sequence, which a substitute teacher one day at Oakland High School had mesmerized us 11th graders with on the chalkboard. Yet this was our grandparents' math and even older than that in Indian mathematics. It was a revelation.
So when I first read Sir Thomas Browne and a few months ago recalled him in a Post here, and so came to know the blog Aquarium of Vulcan, though Browne cited minds like Paracelsus's that were still recent when he wrote, when I read The Garden of Cyrus I thought how much Sir Thomas Browne would have loved the fractal patterns and their prevalence in nature and how he would have loved to muse on fibonacci numbers and their Pythagorean-like analogues and on and on: wouldn't he like to think about quantum physics, too? Surely his mind was more apt for quantum physics than mine is. My mind, of course, is perfectly geared to his interest in archaeological evidence in the Hydriotaphia: what kind of coins, of which reigns, were found where, what kind of burial rites could be observed? For all his studies in the best Schools abroad, he seems to me, as a doctor and an Englishman of Norwich, at his very best in such diagnostics! What a lovable observer, what an honest thinker he was, with a good physicist's theoretical imagination and a sober doctor's careful considerations.
Because I believe that just as in my three-quarters of a century I have easily accepted and come to take for granted the iPad (and the nanopod touch, for goodness sake!), and just as People of the Yellow Leaves (if I recall that name correctly) from Laos are now regular Americans in Minnesota, a brilliant and open-minded man like Sir Thomas Browne might, if alive today, be trying to decide about string theory (for example).

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Watching the Disney Channel

You wouldn't guess how I spent the last two hours: watching the Disney Channel, which was broadcasting their 2005 Johnny Depp version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A long time ago I read a short story in the Atlantic Monthly, I think, about a woman who had come to hate her husband and murdered him with a frozen leg of lamb when he came home, then offered the local police supper when they came to investigate... When I was teaching at St. Hilda's my Grade 8 (age ± 13) students introduced me to Dahl again, and the story had to do with pygmies (we had been reading The Forest People), or what I took for pygmies. Considering what liberties Tim Burton and Disney studios mighe take, it may have been the original Willy Wonka. I don't mind Dahl's apparent point of view, a price to be paid for his imagination. Even the Johnny Depp Willy Wonka was good (I had never seen a Johnny Depp movie before). Grade 8 in 1970 adored Dahl. Since then even Maurice Sendak has been put on the Index of Forbidden Children's Books. But my Grade 8 was as varied as the United Nations, and none of them made the elementary literary error of confusing a cautionary tale with a documentary!