The Tanana Valley State Fair (Faster than a speeding pullet is this year’s pun) started Friday night and we went on Saturday. For me, the Fair is actually more of an “event,” than something I really enjoy. It marks the beginning of our descent into winter and usually also coincides with the rainy season (August) in Fairbanks. I do like the food (grilled corn on the cob, deep fried halibut are my favorites), it’s fun to wander around and see what our community looks like, and sometimes I discover something new like the hardwood charcoal supplier operating out of his garage in North Pole. The reason I don’t entirely enjoy the Fair is that I don’t like crowds. I’m nervous in groups larger than a few people, and at the Fair I really have to concentrate to keep from being overwhelmed by all the people and what they’re all doing. When we got home on Saturday night, I was exhausted.
What does this have to do with Marc Haddon’s debut novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time? The main character is autistic, and in addition to several strange quirks like refusing to eat yellow or brown foods, he is easily overwhelmed by people because he can’t comprehend their emotions or perspective. At one point in the book he’s in a train station, and is unable to read any of the signs because he’s so overwhelmed. It’s a strange, and compelling, voice to narrate a story, and it was easy for me to sympathize with him because of my own introversion.
The book is narrated in his voice, with language like this (from page 56):
Then Ivor did a poo and Mrs. Alexander picked it up with her hand inside a little plastic bag and then she turned the plastic bag inside out and tied a knot int the top so the poo was all sealed up and she didn’t touch the poo with her hands.
There are cool mathematical digressions showing how his deeper understanding of mathematics helps him navigate the minefield of the world he is largely closed off from. (I’m still trying to wrap my head around the solution to the Monty Hall Problem.)
It’s a very effective book that shows a little of what it might be like to see the world in a completely different way, as well as how difficult it is to be a parent to a child like that. The first amazon customer review is written by an autistic: “As an autistic, I have a special interest in reading works that feature autistic main characters, partly to see how neurotypical people thing our brains work, but partly just for the joy I feel when someone ‘gets it right.’ Mark Haddon absolutely ‘got it right’ in this book.” It would be hard to give the book higher praise than that.
Absurdistan is the story of grossly overweight Misha Vainberg, aka “Snack Daddy,” the son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia. It’s basically a love story: Misha is trying to emigrate to the United States to be with his New York girlfriend, which he met while attending Accidental College in the U.S., but because his father killed an American in Russia, the State Department won’t give Misha a visa. Stuck in St. Leninsburg, he travels to Absurdistan, a small oil-rich country on the Caspian Sea where he hopes to get a Belgian visa that will allow him to escape Russia. Unfortunately, soon after he arrives, civil war erupts between the Sevo and Svanï ethnic groups (whose main dispute is over the slant of Christ’s footrest on the cross) as Absurdistan tries to stay on the global media’s radar long enough for the U.S. and it’s military contractors to show up. If you can’t tell from that description, the book is a hilarious satire of world politics and the excesses of American capitalism (and it’s grotesque relationship with the American government).
It’s been a very busy month, and even though I really enjoyed this book, it took a long time to finish it. Jamestown is a reworking of the story of the Jamestown Colony, told primarily from the perspectives of Johnny Rolfe and Pocahontas (who married in real life, back in 1614), but at some point in the post-apocalyptic future when Virginia represents the wild unknown and the boroughs of New York City are at war. Instead of European colonists travelling by ship to Jamestown in 1607, it’s colonists from the Manhattan Company travelling by bus. The “natives” they encounter aren’t really Native Americans, but are the warring clans of people left in the area after the cataclysm struck, including the Powhatan tribe.
The first and last sections of the book alternate between the voice of Pocahontas, a very horny 19–year girl, and Johnny Rolfe, who as we know from history, will fall in love with her. The middle part also includes chapters told by many of the other major and minor players in this, and the historical story. This is fiction, so Sharpe doesn’t stick too close to the facts, but the broad strokes seem to follow what I know of the actual events.
In addition to being a surprisingly touching love story, the book is extremely funny and deadly serious at the same time. Because of the humor, the undercurrent of violence, struggle, and loss seems underplayed until you realize how much of it there really was. I can only imagine what the Michael Bay or Mel Gibson version of the book would look like. I think that one of the points Sharpe is making here is that even as safe and secure our world seems right now, the distance between the world of 2007 and 1607 is much, much smaller than 400 years would suggest. Here’s Jack Smith, returning to the colony after a month, with a bunch of corn from Powhatan’s tribe. Pages 177-178:
By the way, that’s the core of what they have that we want: untainted food, real food that comes from things that walk on two or four legs or swim in the sea or fly or grow from the ground, real fucking food, it’s genius, worth killing and dying for, the staff of life, make a note of it, you peacenik dimwits.
Or Johnny Rolfe, from page 59:
To consider the imagination it took to invent the automatic assault rifle is not a happy or controllable activity. I wish I hadn’t started to think or talk about it or its user or its maker or its effects. I wish I hadn’t seen its effects, or known of its existence, or been born into a world in which people use, make, think, or are shot by automatic assault rifles.
Later in the book Johhny Rolfe IMs Pocahontas (the intersection of certain bits of modern technology in the book with the effectual return to the fifteenth century is brilliant) the following explanation for human survival. Page 207:
A guy observes a lot of the ideas his fellow humans come up with and act on and he despairs; he wonders how the human race survives; evidently not by the frequency of consistency of its good ideas. I believe survival is predicated on unrelenting will plus aggression plus, of course, how very pleasurable God made fucking…
There’s a lot more to think about and enjoy in the book, so head over to Soft Skull Press and pick it up. It’s also been chosen as the Summer 2007 Read This! pick on the litblog co-op. It should be a good discussion.
I’ve been listening to these four pieces much too long without a report, so this one is a bit abbreviated from the format I started with the Brandenburg Concertos. It’s been very hectic around here because we’re looking to buy a house, sell our current house, and move. All within the next month and a half. Even though nothing official has happened yet and we’ve only just started getting our house ready for sale, the whole thing has taken a remarkable toll on us. We’re not sleeping well, stress is high, and we can’t stop thinking about what we should be doing right now. Today I brewed beer and not only did I forget one of the ingredients when I went to the beer store on Thursday, I forgot to add another ingredient while I was brewing. It won’t be quite the same beer I’d planned on.
The third and fourth CDs from the Orchestral Works and Chamber Music section are the four Orchestral Suites Bach composed. They’re performed by La Stravaganza, an Italian (based on their web site country designation, anyway) orchestra led by Andrew Manze. They were recorded in 1994. Each CD has a Sinfonia from one of Bach’s Cantatas separating the suites from each other. The full Cantatas appear later in the CD set, but the Sinfonia from Cantata 29 is very familiar. I’m discovering as I go through these CDs that the things I find familiar were on the records Wendy Carlos made on the Moog synthesizer in the late 60s (Switched-On Bach, The Well-Tempered Synthesizer). Strange that a pair of synthesizer records my parents owned would have made such a strong impression on my musical mind. The Sinfonia from Cantata 29 and the second part of the third Orchestral Suite (Air “on the G-string”) are both familiar from a Wendy Carlos record.
All of the suites follow the same basic form, which (according to the liner notes) is an initial movement called an Overture with a slow beginning, and a faster fugal middle that leads back to the start. The remaining movements are dance forms.
I like the playful nature of the Orchestral Suites. They’re very entertaining to listen to, and Bach has filled them with great melodies and lots of interesting bits. They don’t really hold together very well, though, and even after repeated listening, I wasn’t able to identify what Suite a particular movement was from (except for Air on a G string, which is so recognizable that it’s distracting). But that’s just part of what an Orchestral Suite is: a collection of music in a lighter style, often bits and pieces pulled from a composer’s other works; a sort of greatest hits collection to entertain the masses. This is really clear on these particular CDs because of the Sinfonia that separate the Suites on each CD. You can immediately tell when you hit the Sinfonia because the style is so different from the Suite that preceded it.
Next up: the Violin Concertos.
The first section of the Bach: Complete Works on CD are Orchestral Works and Chamber Music, and the first two CDs in this section are the six Brandenburg Concertos. They're performed by Musica Amphion, a Dutch baroque orchestra conducted “from the harpsichord” by Pieter-Jan Belder, and were recorded in May and June 2006. Although I’m not an expert, I can’t find anything in the recording or playing to complain about. All the instruments are bright and crisp and there are no sound artifacts I can hear. Occasionally I can hear someone playing a wind instrument breathing, but I don’t think that’s unusual in recordings of small groups of musicians.
All together, the concertos are very different from each other, and none use the same set of orchestral or solo instruments. The variety in instrumentation, different musical styles, and the unique flavors make them really entertaining to listen to. Each one has something to recommended it, something that sets it apart from the others. I think it’s an excellent way to start off the collection.
Concerto Number 1 in F major, BWV 1046
Solo instruments: oboe, violin piccolo, horn.
Other instruments: two violins, viola, cello, basso continuo, harpsichord.
I wasn't very familiar with this concerto, but I've now listened to it more than any of the others because it’s the first one and I keep starting there and not finishing the whole set. The third movement is especially impressive with all the solo instruments charging in and out. One thing that surprised me is the strong rhythm in the piece (the whole set of concertos, really). I don’t usually associate toe-tapping with classical music (Waltzes excepted), but here it’s pretty strong in places.
Concerto Number 2 in F major, BWV 1047
Solo instruments: trumpet, oboe, recorder, violin.
Other instruments: two violins, viola, cello, basso continuo, harpsichord.
From the very beginning of the second concerto you know you’re listening to something very different because the instrumentation is so different, featuring a trumpet right out front. The second part is quieter and the conversational interplay between the recorder, oboe, and violin is very clear if you’re listening for it. The final part returns to the strong solo trumpeting from the first part. I don’t know whether Musica Amphion uses a traditional valveless trumped or not, but it sounds like it’d be difficult to play even on a modern trumpet. The recorder really compliments the trumpet in this part, sometimes mirroring the trumpet, and sometimes as a counterpoint.
Concerto Number 3 in G major, BWV 1048
Instruments: three violins, three violas, three cellos, basso continuo, harpsichord.
The third concerto is one I’ve heard a lot of in the past, and the melody in the first part is very familiar. I remember it as being played more slowly than what’s recorded here, but the rapid pace makes it seem more urgent and emotional than it would played slower. It really moves along, and has several very dramatic sections. This one only had stringed instruments, which is another variation from the previous pieces. There are parts that seem like solos, but the group is playing together and supporting the overall melody a lot more than in the first two concertos.
Concerto Number 4 in G major, BWV 1049
Solo instruments: violin, recorder.
Other instruments: recorder, two violins, viola, cello, basso continuo, harpsichord.
The fourth concerto is another familiar one, but I don’t think the versions I’ve heard in the past used the recorder. Bach apparently wrote “echo flutes” on the score, which is commonly interpreted to be the recorder, so I’m not sure what instrument I’ve heard in the past. The solo recorder, and the light and whimsical nature of the music brings a happy Disneyesque medieval countryside (Pylea, perhaps) to mind.
Concerto Number 5 in D major, BWV 1050
Solo instruments: traverso (modern flute), violin, harpsichord.
Other instruments: violin, viola, cello, double bass.
The fifth concerto was thought to have been written both to show off Bach’s new harpsichord, as well as for a competition with another composer and organist Louis Marchand, who didn’t show up for the competition. It’s also one of the first harpsichord concertos. The flute solos are quite prominent, but at times the harpsichord takes over completely with no other instruments playing. It’s a good opportunity to hear what a harpsichord really sounds like because it’s in the background for the rest of the concertos, and I’m far more familiar with classical music played on modern instruments where the piano takes it’s place. There are obvious differences in tone and richness between the harpsichord and piano, but one thing I can hear in the harpsichord is that the two hands seem to be able to separate their parts more clearly. During the harpsichord solo near the end of the first part, it really sounds like two people playing, and I think they’d blend together on a piano.
The second movement has just the solo instruments playing, and it seems thinner and less interesting than the rest of the concerto, which makes me wonder what Bach’s other chamber music is going to sound like and whether I’ll be able to appreciate it. Luckily the goodness returns in the third movement. Still, this one is my least favorite of the bunch.
Concerto Number 6 in B flat major, BWV 1051
Solo instruments: viola, viola da gamba, cello.
Other instruments: base, cembalo, harpsichord.
The sixth is another concerto that has only stringed instruments, but it’s unusual because it has no violins and so the sound is deeper and more open. I’m not sure if it’s the instrumentation or the recording here, but this concerto sounds like it’s on a larger stage than the previous concertos. The overall effect of the music and instrumentation makes it seem more serious and mature than the other concertos, and really expands the variety of the entire set.
Conclusions? Since the Brandenburg Concertos are so popular, I haven’t discovered anything new here, but listening to them more critically and with an eye toward what each instrument is doing has significantly improved my appreciation of them.
I got some of the information for this post from the Wikipedia page for the concertos, as well as Benjamin Chee’s introduction. As I mentioned in my introduction to this listening project, I have no particular expertise in classical music, so I’m hoping there will be enough information on the Internet to lead me when I’m not sure what I should be paying attention to.