[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 3:22 PM Eastern on 30-Mar. See below.]
We've now finished our final tweaking of our new grayscale S&F design (why does this have the ring of famous last words?) and we're pleased to have done with it. Not that we didn't enjoy the design process (we did), but it's time we got on with matters more substantive — like, you know, actual blog content. One last thing remains to be done concerning this new design because the design is an especially risky one. When one works with colors one can be reasonably assured the design will look pretty much the same across all browsers and all machines. Not the case when using grayscale exclusively. Gradation of the grayscale depends critically for its appearance not only on the browser used, but on the display type and the machine it's connected to. For instance, we've been able to test this new grayscale design across several Windows machines with various displays (LED, LCD, and the now almost defunct old standard CRT) and they all display the new design just fine as expected, but we haven't a clue as to what the design looks like on any of Apple's Mac machines, and it's that one last thing we need to check out. If all checks out OK on those machines, we can then say the deed is truly done. (If any readers viewing S&F on one of these machines would be kind enough to take a screenshot of S&F's Main page and forward it to us via eMail we would be most appreciative.)
So, given the problems of a grayscale design, why did we choose to go with it? The most straightforward and frank answer is: because it's most decidedly us. We've almost all our life responded aesthetically to brightly- or even mutely-colored representations with some measure of aesthetic repulsion. Too "big-hair" for our tastes. For us, variations of light and shadow and the forms they delineate are the most eloquent and aesthetically pleasing manner of representation of all. At bottom, we guess, we're a minimalist of sorts visually.
Well, as we've above noted, the deed is now (mostly) done, and so it's time for us to move on to more substantive matters. And we will, just as soon as we've managed to lay our design state of mind to a well-earned rest.
Update (3:22 PM Eastern on 30-Mar): Our thanks to all those who responded to our call for Mac screenshots of S&F's new grayscale design. It's clear from those screenshots that the basic design displays on the Mac almost identically as it does on Windows machines with the exception of the text in both the main column and the sidebar. We've long known that Mac machines display text markedly different from Windows machines and there's little we can do about that. One has to choose one machine or the other as the benchmark and so we quite naturally chose Windows and chose our fonts accordingly, not only because our machine is a Windows machine, but because Windows machines are far and away the more prevalent.
Once again, our thanks to all who responded, both for their screenshots and for their comments.
Although we've always thought of ourself as a fairly cultured person, there are certain gaps in both our knowledge and understanding of, not to speak of our utter indifference toward, certain domains in the arts which gaps give effective lie to that admiring picture of ourself. We speak here of the domains of art (lowercase "a"; i.e., painting) and the ballet. With regard to the former, we readily recognize the skill involved and appreciate the execution of art of all periods from the truly astonishing cave paintings at Lascaux to the abstract expressionists and even to the pop stuff of the Sixties, but none of it touches us emotionally and we're dismayed and appalled repeatedly and invariably by the absurd, even lunatic, prices paid regularly for paintings at art auctions and galleries worldwide. What makes our native insensitivity to paintings genuinely strange is that we've a quite refined visual sense (we made a very good living for a number of years as a professional photographer of architecture exclusively), but as assiduously as we've tried over the years to get at (or, rather, just get) the emotional power of paintings, our every attempt ended in miserable failure, the reason of that failure maddeningly beyond our ability to comprehend.
Our antipathy for the ballet is perhaps easier to explain. Again, while we readily recognize the skill involved and appreciate the execution, the actual dance leaves us cold emotionally. Worse, the dance, no matter how brilliant the execution, always strikes us as a distraction from the music at best, and at worst, a positive annoyance. Given our background and training, that at least sounds plausible, even in some measure excusable, albeit somewhat benighted. Yes, it's quite true we were captivated entirely by Margot Fonteyn's dancing of Juliet in the video of the Royal Ballet's 1966 Romeo and Juliet with partner Rudolph Nureyev dancing the Romeo (who merely impressed us as opposed to captivating us). But still, for us, it's always the overriding power of Prokofiev's music that's responsible for providing this ballet its emotional and dramatic wallop, never the choreography, the dancing, and/or the dancers; the music the thing responsible for making this ballet worthwhile of our time, the dancing, all of it first-rate in this particular performance to the extent we're competent to judge such things, little more than tolerated, Fonteyn's stellar performance notwithstanding.
If all the above seems to suggest that, at bottom, we're no better than a regulation philistine, this next will leave you in no doubt upon the matter.
Operating under the misguided and ill-informed impression that we were some sort of high-culture maven, we were years ago asked by a would-be connoisseur of the arts what might the very best thing about the ballet be. Our answer: the photographs. If you imagine that answer to be flip, off the wall, and totally over the top, we suggest you go to Google Images, type the single word "ballet" in the search box, and begin scanning through the resulting images at random.
Well, we suspected it was coming, even called for it, and it appears that this announcement is the opening stage of what will be James Levine's stepping down from his post as music director of the Metropolitan Opera. We suspect the final stage of that stepping down will be announced shortly after his 40th Anniversary Gala to be held 1 May 2011. We can't say we're unhappy about his stepping down, but NOT because we think his life on the podium is at an end or is in any way showing signs of artistic decay (it manifestly is not), but because it's clearly in the best interests of his physical health to do so. The guest podium will forever be open to him whenever he feels physically up to the task of assuming it.
Maestro Levine, we salute you and wish for you many more productive years in the field to which you've so richly and profoundly contributed so very much.
In the film Citizen Kane, fairly early on in reporter Thompson's search for the meaning of Charles Foster Kane's dying utterance, "Rosebud," we are witness in flashback to an exchange between the young Kane and his wealthy banker-guardian, Thatcher, that takes place in Kane's ratty office in his newly acquired first newspaper property, The Inquirer, in which newspaper Thatcher has just read the outrageously alarmist (and false) headline, "ENEMY ARMADA OFF JERSEY COAST":
THATCHER (gesturing to the headline): "Is that really your idea of how to run a newspaper?"
KANE: "I don't know how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher. I just try everything I can think of."
That was precisely Orson Welles's position vis-à-vis filmmaking when in 1939, at age twenty-four, he arrived in Hollywood as a filmmaker for the first time knowing virtually nothing about filmmaking, lured there by RKO's new studio head George J. Schaefer who in order to secure Welles's services had signed Welles to a contract to make one film a year; a contract that gave Welles unheard of control over the finished product including the film's final cut. And what was Welles's very first film shot a mere one year later? Why, Citizen Kane, of course, as today just about every moviegoer worldwide knows.
For Welles to have created Citizen Kane right out of the box, so to speak, is fully the equivalent of, say, a Richard Wagner creating Tristan und Isolde the very first time he ever put pen to manuscript paper. Quite impossible, of course, but create Citizen Kane is exactly what Welles managed to do, and without so much as breaking a sweat creatively (there were other matters connected with the project that caused Welles to sweat copiously, but those matters are outside our concerns here).
Over the past almost three-quarters of a century since its premiere, so much has been written about Citizen Kane (and about Welles himself, for that matter) that there really seems little one can say that hasn't already been said. We do, however, want to say a word or ten concerning several ancient but only recently read critical pieces on Citizen Kane by critics now deceased whose writings we respected in the past (although rarely agreed with), among them The New Yorker's Pauline Kael and The New York Times's Bosley Crowther, which critical pieces viewed Citizen Kane's Rosebud with some contempt calling it a gimmick and a rather hokey one at that. Some twenty years after the fact of the film, Welles himself, although for reasons that must be held somewhat suspect, declared Rosebud a bit embarrassing and confessed it to indeed be merely a hokey gimmick; "dollar-book Freud," as Welles wryly put it.
Well, Rosebud most certainly and most clearly is Freudian. But "dollar-book Freud" and merely a hokey gimmick?
We think not.
In 1941, the year of the film's release, the great Jorge Luis Borges had a few unkind words to say about Citizen Kane famously calling it, among other not so good things, "a labyrinth without a center." Clearly, Borges didn't much care for Rosebud either and so dismissed it entirely from consideration. How do we know that even though we've never read Borges's piece in full? Because "a labyrinth without a center" is exactly what Citizen Kane would be absent Rosebud, for Rosebud is precisely the center of the labyrinth that is Citizen Kane. The film (and the final draft of the screenplay) was structured that way from Day One.
There's nothing the least gimmicky or "dollar-book Freud" about Rosebud as it's handled in Citizen Kane although in less skilled hands it could very easily have become both. One has only to consider the film's great coda to appreciate the fact. That coda is dramatically, logically, emotionally, and psychologically quite perfect and no mere O. Henry twist; an exemplar of Welles's idea that,
You could write all the ideas of all the movies, mine included, on the head of a pin. It’s not a form in which ideas are very fecund. It’s a form that may grip you or take you into a world or involve you emotionally — but ideas are not the subject of films. [...] That is why, I think, my films are theatrical, and strongly stated, because I can’t believe that anybody won’t fall asleep unless they are. [...] For myself, unless a film is hallucinatory, unless it becomes that kind of an experience, it doesn’t come alive.
If one ever doubted our contention that Welles as a filmmaker was Wagnerian to the very core, an idea long held and frequently expressed by us in the past, the above should convince him otherwise.
Not only is Rosebud the center of the labyrinth that is Citizen Kane, it provides as well the proper final and central piece of the enigmatic jigsaw puzzle that is Charles Foster Kane himself whose life and actions as revealed in Citizen Kane are perfectly consistent, psychoanalytically speaking, with a man who as a young child was abandoned by a beloved mother (abandoned being how a young child interprets the separation no matter the actual reason), feels himself to blame for the loss of her love (which is how abandonment is interpreted by a young child no matter the actual reason), represses (in the strict Freudian sense) the psychic trauma, and is then driven unconsciously the rest of his life to attempt to wash away his imagined but undefined sin and win back his mother's love while at the same time never allowing himself to become deeply attached to a woman for fear of again being abandoned although he has no conscious inkling whatsoever of any of this or of what's driving it.
More like leather-bound, gold-leaf-edged Freud we'd say and no gimmick, hokey or otherwise. Of course, if one is inclined to dismiss all things Freudian just on general principles and is looking instead for social or political or spiritual or existential relevance, or social or political or spiritual or existential moral point or the like, then one will surely find Rosebud to be a hokey gimmick and "dollar-book Freud," and Citizen Kane to be something less than the consummate work of art others such as ourself consider it to be. For instance, the great filmmaker Ingmar Bergman — as a filmmaker, as Mozartian to the core as Welles was Wagnerian — was no fan of Citizen Kane or of Orson Welles.
For me [Orson Welles] is just a hoax. [Citizen Kane is] empty. [Citizen Kane is] not interesting. It’s dead. Citizen Kane, which I have a copy of, is the critics’ darling, always at the top of every poll taken, but I think it’s a total bore. Above all, the performances are worthless. The amount of respect that movie has is absolutely unbelievable! [...] In my eyes [Orson Welles is] an infinitely overrated filmmaker.
Oh dear. Well, what can one say. It may be Bergman's entirely honest assessment or, in part at least, payback for Welles once declaring (a declaration with which we are not in the least in sympathy) that,
I don’t condemn that very northern, very Protestant world of artists like [Ingmar] Bergman; it’s just not where I live. The Sweden I like to visit is a lot of fun. But Bergman’s Sweden always reminds me of something Henry James said about Ibsen’s Norway — that it was full of "the odor of spiritual paraffin." How I sympathize with that! I share neither Bergman’s interests nor his obsessions. He’s far more foreign to me than the Japanese. [...] There’s an awful lot of Bergman ... that I’d rather be dead than sit through.
Again, what can one say?
But all that's quite beside the point, the point being that Rosebud is as essential to Citizen Kane as was the gas in the Inquirer's gas lamps the day Kane first drafted his "Declaration of Principles" after which time Citizen Kane was everywhere recognized as the masterwork it so clearly is and subsequently elevated to its rightful place among cinema's greatest and most enduring achievements.
We don't know Julie Taymor nor have we ever even so much as exchanged a word with her. Nevertheless, crushed is not too strong a term to express our feelings on learning of her effective ouster from the beleaguered production of the Broadway musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark; this even in the face of our earlier declaring she should never have involved herself with this piece of pop trash in the first place much less have squandered almost ten years (ten years!) of her valuable creative life on the thing. We don't give a rat's ass about the show nor do we give a rat's ass about the $65M the investors in the musical stand to lose on the production. It's, after all, only money, and money and investors are common commodities and entirely interchangeable and replaceable entities. Unique, brilliantly gifted creators such as Julie Taymor are neither common nor interchangeable or replaceable. No matter how Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark turns out in the end (and knowing no more about this production than what we've read in the media, we confidently predict that absent Ms. Taymor at the helm it will, artistically speaking, be little more or other than just another piece of execrable pop trash entertainment in a world awash in execrable pop trash entertainment), the debacle attending this production will limit severely future professional opportunities open to Ms. Taymor and that's a meaningful loss — not only for Ms. Taymor and the world of the performing arts, but for us all.
More's the pity.
I got out of bed early yesterday morning (early being defined as, "before noon") in not inconsiderable pain due a bad hip and in a really pissy mood. This, I predicted instantly and with little hope of being in error, was not going to be a good day.
Limping into the kitchen, I began my daily ritual of brewing my first cuppa, a routine I ordinarily accomplish pretty much on autopilot, and let the hopper-fed, conical-burr grinder run too long thereby producing enough ground coffee for three cups instead of one; mismeasured the water first time round; and set the timer for the wrong brew time.
Yes, most decidedly not going to be a good day.
Bach was badly needed here, I determined, slipped the CD of Book I of the Well Tempered Clavier into the player (Gould, of course), and set it going.
That's the ticket all right, thought I, and almost immediately felt the pain in my hip — or, rather, the pain's edge — begin to dissipate a bit and my head and pissy mood begin to clear.
Coffee done and cupped, I then sat down at the computer to go through my morning rounds on the Web. I'd not been at it more than five minutes when came a knock at the door. Annoyed (I hadn't been expecting anyone to stop by), I called out a "Who is it?" in a not too friendly or welcoming tone. "Exterminator," came the reply.
Oh damn! What the hell is he doing here, and so early in the day? Limping to the door, I opened it and there stood a uniformed young guy in his mid-twenties or so whom I'd never seen before, equipment in hand and all pleasant smiles, who wished me a good morning, said he was sorry to bug me (bug me; get it?), but it was that time of month again and he was there to do his company's monthly apartment building preventive maintenance thing. I grunted my assent and returned to my business at the computer, the full flower of my pissy mood reestablished.
A few minutes passed. Then, from the kitchen, "Bach?"
Did I just hear right? "Excuse me?" I shot back. "Is that Bach we're listening to?" came the reply. I couldn't bloody believe it. "Yes," I said, now stopping work at the computer. "A prelude from the Well Tempered Clavier," I continued gingerly. "Which book?" "One," I replied, now definitely unable to believe this conversation. "I like Bach but I'm really more a Mozart man myself," said the exterminator.
What the hell was in that coffee I'd been drinking? Surely I'd entered into some Twilight Zone parallel universe where such conversations with twentysomething exterminators were perfectly ordinary things. I mean, this exchange couldn't possibly be taking place in this universe in this 21st-century America.
But it did and it was, and though the above was practically the full extent of the conversation, just like that my pissy mood evaporated, the pain in my hip at once became bearable, and the day now promised to be a very good day indeed.
And so it turned out to be.
Alex Ross, in his most recent critical piece for The New Yorker entitled, "Reverberations", reports on several New York performances, among them a performance of a 2009 work by Alaskan composer John Luther Adams ("the other Adams" as Ross wryly comments) entitled, "Inuksuit", the performance of which eighty-minute piece was given in New York's Park Avenue Armory this past February. The composition is scored for "a flexible ensemble of between nine and ninety-nine percussionists" the ensemble for this performance consisting of "a corps of seventy-six musicians, including five piccolo players. Arrays of drums, gongs, cymbals, bells, and numerous smaller instruments were set up on the main floor of the Drill Hall; atop catwalks on all sides; and in the hallways that connect to smaller rooms at the front of the building." Mr. Ross then continues,
[T]he performers are given four or five pages of music — the notation imitates the shapes of ... Inuit markers — which they execute at their own pace. Musicians with portable instruments are instructed to move about freely. Prearranged signals prompt a move from one page to the next. The result is a composition that on the microcosmic level seems spontaneous, even chaotic, but that gathers itself into a grand, almost symphonic structure.
At 4 P.M. on a Sunday, thirteen hundred people assembled in the Drill Hall to hear the piece, variously standing, sitting, or lying on the floor. First came an awakening murmur: one group of performers exhaled through horns and cones; others rubbed stones together and made whistling sounds by whirling tubes. Then one member of the ensemble — Schick, perched above the entrance to the Drill Hall — delivered a call on a conch shell. With that commanding, shofar-like tone, the sound started to swell: tom-toms and bass drums thudded, cymbals and tam-tams crashed, sirens wailed, bells clanged. It was an engulfing, complexly layered noise, one that seemed almost to force the listeners into motion, and the crowd fanned out through the arena. I spent some time in the outer hallways, where at one point I was caught unawares by a Chinese opera gong resounding deafeningly down a stairwell. Toward the end of the first hour, a decrescendo began, with the roar of drums and gongs giving way to gentler timbres of triangles, temple bells, and low cymbal washes. The sun was beginning to set, and the Drill Hall darkened. In the coda, piccolos and orchestra bells took up an array of bird songs that Adams had meticulously notated. For a few long minutes, it seemed as though Manhattan had been replaced by an endless tundra.
On reading all this, we let out a groan. "Jesus!" we thought to ourself. "A bloody Sixties 'happening' fer chrissake. Didn't we have enough of that kind of thing way back then to last a lifetime?"
Apparently not for Mr. Ross (for whom, it should never be forgotten, we have the highest admiration and respect), for as he continued further,
[A]nyone who ventures to declare in a public forum that "Inuksuit" was one of the most rapturous experiences of his listening life — that is how I felt, and I wasn’t the only one — might be suspected of harboring hippie-dippie tendencies.
And that was indeed our very next thought and ineluctable conclusion.
The Sixties may be long gone but they're clearly not dead and woe is us.
[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 2:03 AM Eastern on 7 Mar. See below.]
A conductor with enough integrity and possessing sufficient balls to give a decisive thumbs-down to a Regietheater hijacker, that is; decisive enough to strip the hijacker of his next contracted-for assignment.
Franz Welser-Möst, music director of the Vienna State Opera, is so critical of Jean-Louis Martinoty's two recent Mozart productions [Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni] that a planned third [Così fan tutte] has been cancelled, reports the Kleine Zeitung. [...] From the outset, said Welser-Möst, Martinoty dismissed everything in the pit as a collateral matter.
Update (2:03 AM Eastern on 7 Mar): Here are detailed reviews of the Le Nozze di Figaro and the Don Giovanni noted above editorially in square brackets. The reviews appear on the blog Likely Impossibilities with which blog we were previously unfamiliar but with which blog we were impressed; impressed enough to add it to our exclusive Culture Blogs listing on our left sidebar. Our thanks to Opera-L's Martin Rommel for calling our attention to these reviews.
Since 1974, the year of its inception, we've been a huge fan of the PBS science series NOVA. Although like pretty much everything else in American culture, the series, generally speaking, has deteriorated during the past two decades or so, in NOVA's case in both choice of subject matter and in quality of presentation, in 1997 NOVA aired an episode titled, "The Proof"; a telling of the tale of Princeton University mathematician Andrew Wiles's search for the proof of the (in)famous mathematical theorem known as Fermat's Last Theorem; a problem that had evaded successful solution for some 350 years since the theorem was first proposed by one Pierre De Fermat in 1637 but the proof of which Fermat never supplied although he indicated he'd accomplished it.
Sounds like it would make for pretty dry TV fare for all but math geeks, does it not?
Well, it's not. It's in fact among the most, if not THE most, engaging, suspenseful, thrilling — and moving — episodes NOVA ever aired.
"The Proof" is a brilliant 45-minute film by director Simon Singh and writer and producer John Lynch made originally for the BBC and titled originally simply, "Fermat's Last Theorem", and thanks to Google Video (and with a hat-tip to 3 Quarks Daily for the reminder) we can present the video of the full BBC film below (no video of the NOVA edition exists on the Web).
It must be in the air or in the water, so to speak. How else to explain the recent outbreak of articles and blog posts yet once again pimping the perfectly absurd and pernicious notion that classical music and pop music (by which we mean music of all pop-culture genres) are of equal value or worth; or expressed more generally, that the artifacts of pop culture are of equal value or worth as those of high culture (so called to distinguish it from the pop sort). That must mean it's time to once again call attention to our 2006 S&F reprint of a piece we wrote in 2003 titled, "A Call For A Return To Hierarchal Sobriety", the link to which S&F entry is now up on our right sidebar as our new Featured Past Post.
Metaphorically speaking (and once one gets past technical considerations of craft, one can speak of the core matters of aesthetics in no other way), the singular principal hallmark of all artifacts of the realm of high culture is their perceived aspiration to transcendence; transcendence of the quotidian world of experience, of the culture within which they were produced, and even of their very selves as works of art. And that singular hallmark is what's singularly lacking in all the artifacts of the realm of popular culture, their singular principal hallmark being a perceived aspiration to the widely accessible here-and-now entertaining.
Please note, I did not say all the artifacts of the realm of high culture are transcendent. Clearly, only the greatest are. Rather, I said that, in themselves (as distinct from the conscious intentions of their creators), their hallmark characteristic is their perceived quality of aspiring to transcendence. That quality is unmistakable, and can be sensed almost palpably.... And the inherent property of such artifacts responsible for that perceived quality of aspiring to transcendence is that such works always harbor secrets which are given up only slowly and by repeated visits, and then only to the most searching and probing eye or ear, the greatest works seemingly having an almost limitless store which are never divulged entirely no matter how long and deep the searching and probing. There can be no meaningful aesthetic comparison between works that occupy such a realm with works that occupy a realm where their just as unmistakable and almost palpably sensed hallmark characteristic is their perceived quality of aspiring to the widely accessible here-and-now entertaining; works which by their very nature harbor no secrets, or harboring them, give them up almost at once. That last is, in fact, at the very heart of what makes such works "popular".
The members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (those of them who remain, that is) have agreed to go back to work after being on strike for some twenty-two-plus weeks if management will agree to a binding-arbitration process before a specially selected three-judge panel. The Washington Post's Anne Midgette thinks it's too little, too late, and for the wrong reason. We agree. But having said that, we should also note we're in complete agreement with DSO members vis-à-vis the so-called "outreach" requirement management wants to force upon them. The value of the DSO to Detroit (and the world, for that matter) ought to be judged solely by their excellence as a performing group and NOT by any touchy-feely extracurricular activities such as community outreach. Individual DSO members or the orchestra as a group may engage in such activities at their own discretion, but not as contract-mandated forced labor.
Internationally famous architect (and well she should be) Zaha Hadid seems to have done it yet again. Designed and saw built a fabulously spectacular building, that is. Not in her adopted home country, England (she a native Iraqi), and not even in Europe, but in Guangzhou, China(!). And our calling the just opened Guangzhou Opera House fabulously spectacular is no gratuitous hyperbole. Judge for yourselves:
Story can be read here. More photographs can be seen here.
(All photographs by Dan Chung for the Guardian.)