Tone Poem Tuesday

It is now October and autumn is upon us, which means it’s time for some autumnal music. Autumn, like any subject, means many things to many artists, but it seems to have meant something in particular to Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, who at the end of his life explored autumn extensively in his music:

Those steps got longer. Attuned to nature and consequently the seasons, Takemitsu became increasingly autumnal, the season he most turned to in his music. In 1973 he wrote “In an Autumn Garden” for the ancient court gagaku orchestra and “Autumn,” a second work for shakuhachi and biwa soloists with orchestra. His last pieces included “A String Around Autumn” (a beautiful, melancholic viola concerto), “Ceremonial: An Autumn Ode” and the most beguiling arrangement of “Autumn Leaves” you’ll ever hear.

In Japan, autumn is a season that echoes both loneliness and gatherings, so exquisitely exhibited in Yasujiro Ozu’s late autumn-themed films. You can’t appreciate one aspect without the other. The cultural journey that began for Takemitsu in “November Steps” led to something far beyond fusion and not exactly integration. He transcended the whole concept of East and West, his oneness being the oneness of our physical reality in which an electron can be both a particle and a wave at the same time. His last solo piano piece, written for Peter Serkin, is “The Ocean Has No East & West.”

I’ve featured Takemitsu’s autumnal music before, and I haven’t come close to exhausting his output on that theme. Here, for another example, is the wonderfully minimalist and meditative Ceremonial: An Autumn Ode.


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The Pittsburgh Pirates entered the 1992 season as two-time defending National League East champions. Back then, both the AL and NL had just two divisions, East and West, and the playoffs consisted of a single Championship Series pitting the division winners of each league; the winners of the LCSs would then face off in the World Series. No wild-card teams, no play-in games, no divisional series, just two teams in each league facing each other for the pennant and then the World Series. The Pirates had lost the NLCS in 1990 to the Reds, and then they lost the NLCS again in 1991 to the Atlanta Braves. They lost some talent after 1991–most notably, Bobby Bonilla–and not many people penciled them in for another division crown in 1992.

But somehow, the Pirates managed to surge early to a lead in the division, which they somehow maintained throughout the season, though in the middle of the season, through July and the All-Star break, it looked like their lead was in trouble. The Montreal Expos were breathing down their necks (partly because of the play of Moises Alou, a former top Pirates prospect that the Pirates dealt to the Expos two years earlier for pitching help), the bullpen wasn’t doing terribly well because for all their talent the Pirates never managed to find or develop a true closer, and the rotation was two really good guys (Doug Drabek, Zane Smith) and a few other OK guys.

Meanwhile, down in the minors, there was a first baseman who occupied his downtime by practicing throwing a knuckleball, one of the strangest of all baseball pitches. When this guy was told straight-out that he would, at best, plateau as a position player no higher than AA ball, he decided to try reinventing himself as a pitcher, with the knuckleball as his main pitch. He didn’t have much other than the knuckleball, to be honest; his fastball speed was never above 80mph, so he was never going to overpower hitters at the plate. No, it was knuckleball-to-the-majors or bust. He made the conversion to pitcher and started toiling away in the minors as a full-time pitcher in 1990.

Knuckleball-to-the-majors or bust, indeed.

It worked.

He made it to the majors on July 31, 1992, when the Pirates decided that they needed some help in the rotation. Up came this weird knuckleballer, who proceeded to go 8-1 down the stretch for the Pirates, with a 2.15 ERA; his presence helped fortify the rotation and provided an exciting boost. The Pirates ended up winning the NL East handily, and went on to face the Braves again in the NLCS.

Honestly, it felt like the run was over very quickly; the Braves took a three-games-to-one series lead–but the one game was a complete game thrown by this rookie knuckleballer who managed to out-duel Tom Glavine, one of the game’s best pitchers and a future Hall-of-Famer. Suddenly everybody knew who this kid was.

His name was Tim Wakefield.

The knuckleball, if you’re unfamiliar, is a very strange pitch. Every other pitch–fastball, slider, curveball, you name it–relies on spin to control the ball’s trajectory. The knuckleball, so named because of the weird grip used to throw it, negates all of that. The idea is the throw the ball with no spin, so that the ball might do anything on its trajectory to the plate. If it’s thrown right, it might start off looking like this big fat old baseball moving slowly into the hitter’s zone…and then drop suddenly, one way or the other, as the hitter swings. Or it might look like it’s going to drop and then not drop, so the hitter either doesn’t correct or doesn’t swing at all. Or…you get the idea. The knuckleball is an unpredictable beast, and since most athletes at that level rely on predictable results from muscle memory, nobody wants to work with a pitch that relies on total randomness. In Wakefield’s first game in that NLCS, Braves hitters–a potent lineup including David Justice entering his prime–were made to look like inept Little Leaguers.

The Pirates won Game Five, behind a complete game by pitcher Bob Walk, setting up Tim Wakefield to go again in Game Six, on three days’ rest (the knuckleball’s other main grace is that it puts very little strain on a pitcher’s arm), again facing Tom Glavine. The series was back in Atlanta for the last two games, all Atlanta had to do was win one to return to the World Series. Surely there was no way this rookie knuckleballer was going to beat the future HOFer again.

Tim Wakefield beat Glavine again. He threw another complete game, his second of the NLCS. The Pirates, who had trailed the NLCS 3-1, now tied it up, 3-3, with Game Seven to come.

It didn’t escape anyone’s notice that the Pirates’ three wins had all been complete games. Everyone knew that the bullpen was not great and that all bets were off if the starter got knocked out. Doug Drabek, the staff ace who had won the Cy Young Award two years earlier, went out and shut the Braves down for eight innings.

And then, the ninth inning happened.

I’m not going to relate the specifics of that inning; suffice it to say that the Braves managed to get Drabek out of the game, the Pirates’ lack of a closer reared its ugly head in exactly the worst way at exactly the worst time, some backup “whodat” catcher came up with the pinch-hit of his life, Gold-Glover and Best Ever Barry Bonds couldn’t manage to throw out at home a guy who couldn’t outrun a rock…well, that’s a lot of specifics after I said I wasn’t going to relate any, but the bottom of the 9th of Game Seven of the 1992 World Series might well be the most galling memory of my sports-fan life. That one may actually hurt more than “Wide right”. (Google it, if you don’t get the reference.)

After 1992, the Pirates entered a salary purge. Bonds and others were gone, and when 1993 dawned, there were a bunch of rookies up with the club and Wakefield–who had finished third in Rookie-of-the-Year voting just the year before–found himself anointed as Opening Day starter, staff ace, and all of that. It was probably too much for him, and he spent most of the next two years bouncing back down to the minors before the Pirates gave up after the 1994 season. Wakefield ended up with the Boston Red Sox, where he successfully worked his way back into an MLB rotation–and he was a damned good one. He had a couple of really good years, and a whole bunch of solid years, riding that knuckleball all the way to a career that spanned 19 seasons and saw him make crucial contributions to two World Series winning teams.

Tim Wakefield retired after the 2011 season. He’s a fond memory for Pirates fans, but he’s beloved by Red Sox fans, and with good reason. Yes, I wish the Pirates hadn’t screwed up the team when he was there, but getting out of Pittsburgh was the best thing for him as the 1993 Pirates were starting a run of losing baseball that would last more than two decades. Consider: Wakefield came up as a rookie in 1992 during the Pirates’ playoff run that year…and then he played out his entire 19-year career and retired before the Pirates finally made the playoffs again, two years later.

Tim Wakefield died yesterday, aged 57.

Make sure you read Sheila’s post; she comes at it from a Red Sox fan’s vantage point. No doubt more satisfying than a Pirates’ fan’s remembrance, but that’s how baseball goes. Many players start one place and then blossom in another. It happens, a lot. It certainly happened for Tim Wakefield.

It turned out that he had been suffering a very aggressive form of brain cancer. The public wasn’t even supposed to know about this, but his former teammate, Curt Schilling, decided to take it on himself to ignore Wakefield’s and his family’s wishes and reveal Wakefield’s condition on his podcast last week. (Schilling may well have Ty Cobb to thank for keeping him out of first place for Worst Person To Ever Play Major League Baseball.)

Tim Wakefield is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and looking at things from a strictly statistical standpoint, I suppose that’s the right decision…but then, I remember what I wrote last year when quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick retired from the NFL:

But I submit that it’s the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Stats. The Hall of Fame does not exist merely to honor numerical excellence. I’m a storyteller, and stories are why I love the Hall of Fame–in fact, stories are what I love most about sports in general. Who doesn’t love sitting with friends around a beer or two, swapping stories about great games and great players or even players who weren’t so great but had some great moments?

We don’t love sports because of stats. Stats help and they’re fun in themselves, but stats aren’t what connect us to sports at the most basic level. Stories are why we connect with sports: stories that we can share, stories that we recall collectively, stories that bind us together in fandom either in love for this team or, yes, hatred for that team or player, the one that always drives in the knife.

I stand by that. Yes, baseball is about numbers, probably moreso than any other sport; when you play that many games in a season and when there have been that many seasons–more than a hundred of them!–then numbers become part of the way we talk about the game more than for any other games. But still, numbers aren’t everything. Numbers offer a shorthand to talking about the game, a way of quantifying greatness…but they don’t capture the game. As I wrote in another post:

You can’t look at a box score and tell how blue the sky was that day, or what it smelled like in the park because maybe the breeze was coming from the lake or the industrial park the other way (in Buffalo, with the cereal plants downtown, it often smells of Cheerios). A box score won’t tell you how scuffed up the first baseman’s jersey is after several close plays, or how the catcher is still trying to work off the gimpy ankle from that play at the plate last Tuesday night. The box score won’t tell you the crowd’s mood: Are they giddy and jubilant, or are they kind of grumblingly negative because the team’s having a rough season and they’re sarcastically cheering the guy hitting .197 who just managed to leg out a weak grounder safely to first?

The box score won’t tell you if the players are attacking an early season game with vigor, or if they are visibly just playing out the last few weeks of the schedule, mired in fifth place and just wanting nothing more than to go home and rest for about a month. The box score will tell you that a particular player homered in the sixth, but it won’t tell you that he was on a hot streak and he came up against a tiring pitcher who probably should have already been pulled and who had of late been surrendering homers to right-handed hitters at a surprising rate for a guy who, up to a few weeks before, had been almost unhittable.

Numbers are great and important and useful…but they are also a flattening force, a force that tends to flatten out story. A baseball player who collects more than 3000 career hits is almost guaranteed a spot in the Hall of Fame…but is that all that player does? All I really know about Robin Yount is that he hat 3000 hits in his career. That’s numbers: for me they reduce a Hall of Fame player to a guy who had roughly 150 hits a year over his 20-year career.

But, what if I ask a person who has been a Milwaukee Brewers fan their whole life, “Hey! Tell me about Robin Yount?” Then, I’m not going to hear about 3000 hits. Then, I’m going to hear stories.

Sport isn’t just numbers, it’s also stories. I think that’s why we follow sport so adamantly as a species–well, partly, anyway. I don’t want to discount numbers, after all. But numbers aren’t the whole story.

Yes, I stand by all of that, as well. One common thing that I hear often in Hall of Fame discussions when players come up whose statistical accomplishments seem to make them a borderline candidates is, “Can you tell the story of the sport without mentioning this person?” And I suppose, depending on how deep you want to go, maybe you can tell the story of Major League Baseball, or the last thirty years of it, without mentioning the Tim Wakefields of the game…but it’s the Tim Wakefields of the game who flesh out the stories, who make them live. Every sports fan talks about their team’s Hall-of-Famers…but I wonder if it’s the not-quite-HOF guys that sports fans actually prefer to talk about. I wonder if they’re the ones whose stories summon up those knowing smiles and the twinkles in the eyes of the people who know.

I’ll always be a stories-over-stats person. It’s in my nature. And though he may not be in the Hall of Fame, but Tim Wakefield is in mine.


Posted in On Sport, Passages | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The collection grows….

For the first time in my life, I own a pair of Levi’s.

Overalls, of course.

The fit on these is damned near perfect! I knew these were out there but I always assumed they weren’t my size, until someone on eBay sold a pair with pictures of the measurements, demonstrated with an actual yardstick. At that point I thought, “Hmmm….”

And I love the burgundy color! Men’s overalls are almost exclusively blue, brown, or Hickory stripe these days. Those are all lovely colors, but this will be very welcome once we get to sweater season.

Meanwhile, another eBay seller had a pair of vintage Hickory stripe overalls by Key up for sale. I resisted these, since I already own two…but these had one nifty feature in particular: the elastic shoulder straps. On my other two pairs, the straps are Hickory stripe denim all the way down, so these looked really neat. I put a “watch” on them on eBay, figuring that someone else would beat me to the punch.

They lasted for something like three weeks.

“Fine,” I said. I actually got them about a month ago, and I’ve worn them a couple of times since, but I planned to wear them on our annual trip to Ithaca, NY for the Apple Harvest Festival. Yes, I plan my annual Ithaca outfit weeks, or even months, before the actual trip, because I’m geeky like that. The outfit was a new navy-blue Renaissance Faire shirt with those very vintage Key overalls, and wouldn’t you know it…I got three different compliments on the shirt, the overalls, and the entire outfit yesterday! That made me happy as a clam.

More on our Ithaca trip to come…but for now, I note that I saw more than a dozen people in overalls while we were at the Festival. If that’s not a sign from the heavens telling me that Ithaca is where we need to be, I don’t know what is.


Posted in Fashion, On Bib Overalls | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Why write bad reviews?

Roger asked me an interesting question via email:

When is an appropriate time to write a negative review?

This was in response to a comment I left on his post in which he talked about “reaction videos”, which he’s not a huge fan of but which I actually enjoy greatly. Here’s an excerpt of what he says:

I embrace the IDEA of the videos more than the OH-MY-GOD-THAT’S-INCREDIBLE reactions. After seeing a few in a row, I find them exhausting. To be sure, I’m not the target demographic.

This Reddit post speaks to this. “There’s some psychology behind why some of us enjoy watching people react to hearing music for the first time- music that viewers know to be great. We like having more information than the people we watch, whether that’s in movies, tv, etc…

“My problem is that most reaction videos I’ve seen are positive 100% of the time. It takes away some from the enjoyment and the feeling of authenticity when the youtuber is superlative with every song, maybe because they don’t want to lose viewers who love that song.” Yeah, it’s just too much for me. Too hyper, and often too hyperbolic.

And here’s part of my comment:

I don’t watch many reaction videos for time reasons, but I tend to love them precisely because of their positivity. On today’s Internet–and honestly, on just about ANY iteration of the Internet pretty much ever–negativity is generally the rule rather than the exception, with the only real difference being how vicious the negativity is. If these folks are truly reacting positively to certain things, I’m fine with it. I also suspect that many of them aren’t reacting positively to everything, but rather they are only showing the videos of them reacting positively. I understand that impulse; it’s much the same reason why I almost never review something badly on my blog or elsewhere.

Actually, that is my entire comment. Why excerpt myself? Sheesh!

Anyway, the question led us to discussing bad reviews, when they’re appropriate to write, and so on. Roger noted his own negative experience at a recent concert he attended, and it got me thinking about why I avoid writing bad reviews.

Well, I generally don’t write bad reviews for a number of reasons, so let’s run through them! These are in no particular order.

1. I avoid writing bad reviews because I can avoid writing bad reviews.

I’m not a professional, or even an amateur, critic; I have no real obligation to review anything that I don’t want to review, and usually I’m much more motivated to write a positive piece about something I loved than a negative one about something I didn’t. Now, I wasn’t always this way, and if you really want to, you can find a lot more negativity from me probably in the ancient archives of this site, or if you really want, you can track down my Usenet postings, though I have no idea how you’d go about doing that. But why do I mostly choose not to write bad reviews? Well:

2. Writing bad reviews doesn’t make me feel good.

There are some critics, pro and amateur and self-appointed, who obviously get a visceral thrill out of being negative. And yes, there are times when negativity helps produce some good writing! But generally, I don’t get a good feeling from having ripped some work, no matter what it is, to shreds. And I am a firm believer in “Do what makes you feel good and don’t do what doesn’t.” If you’re a pro or if you can write negatively without feeling bad about it, fine! I’m not in either of those camps, though.

Now, reading bad reviews by professionals is something I’ll enjoy doing, sometimes especially if they’re negatively reviewing something I think is terrific. It’s fun to challenge my own thoughts or analyze theirs, sometimes. And sometimes the bad reviews are a delight, such as those by Roger Ebert, who really had a special way with movies he didn’t like. But there are other critics out there whose negative reviews have a mean and sadistic feel to them; those critics I tend to ignore completely. (John Simon is a good example here.)

3. There are enough people writing negative reviews in the world already.

Sometimes the chorus really doesn’t need another voice.

4. Bad reviews require you to know your shit.

Yes, all reviews require this, but it seems to me that bed reviews require it more, if you want to be taken seriously. You have to know the history of the genre of the thing you’re reviewing, you have to know what context it is aimed for, you have to know what the artist is trying to achieve, and so on. It’s not enough to be able to artfully say that a thing is bad; you have to be able to describe and illustrate why the thing is bad. Again, if you want to be taken seriously in your positive writings you have to do this stuff too, but it’s easier to be motivated to really plumb the depths of why I love a thing than why I do not. In terms of James Bond movies: I would be much happier to prattle on for an hour about why I love On Her Majesty’s Secret Service than to talk for sixty seconds about why I dislike Live and Let Die.

5. If I don’t like something, I don’t finish it. And fairness dictates that I don’t review something without having experienced all of it.

This is mainly about books and music. If a book or an album or a classical work or whatever isn’t doing it for me, I put it away and don’t write about it. I think it’s wildly unfair to assign a star rating on Goodreads to a book I didn’t finish, which is why I don’t do that. Many folks over there would disagree with me on this; I know quite a few who rank “DNF” books (Did Not Finish) with one star, which then gets added into that book’s rating average. I have a real problem with assigning a rating of any kind to a book I did not finish (or an album I stopped listening to, or a movie I turned off, or whatever). What I might do is note why I put something aside, if there is a specific reason (I once started a graphic novel that opened with a dog being killed, and that was it for me), but more often than not, I can’t put my finger on something specific that turned me off and it’s more of a “mood” thing.

And that’s not even taking into account the fact that many books that have become beloved to me over the years were books I laid aside the first time I tried reading them. Bad reviews feel “permanent” in a way that I don’t like.

So, back to Roger’s question: How do I decide to actually write a bad review? It comes down to completeness and conviction, I guess. If I grapple with an entire work or something and I don’t like it and I’m pretty sure of why, then yes, I might very well give my thoughts. If it’s something I’m known to generally know well and have opinions of, then the chances might go up…say, a new Star Wars or James Bond movie comes out that I end up disliking. Or I may attend a concert that doesn’t work for me…or a particularly favorite author has a book that I think is a clunker. But honestly, these days? More often than not I might just note “This didn’t do it for me,” and move on.

I’m currently working on a book of essays about Star Wars, much of which is culled from the many years’ worth of posts I’ve written on this site and its predecessor. But I’m about to run into a problem when I have to write about The Rise of Skywalker…which is a movie I seriously disliked. The problem? I never wrote about it here. Star Wars movie that so frustrated me that I never blogged about it. So I’m going to have to watch the damned thing again and come up with new thoughts…


…what if I end up liking it?

(I won’t.)

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Look at your photos, photographers!

A nifty lesson I just learned, all by myself!

I’ve been using the Vero social media app (mobile only, as far as I know, but my user name is @kellysedinger) as a sort of showcase for what I consider to be my best photography. It’s too late for me to rebrand my Instagram as a “portfolio” account (though I suppose I could start up a new account, which I may do, and switch between that and the “personal” account), and my Flickr is all over the map since that’s where ALL my photos go (and only a small amount of those are made public; I’d say that over three quarters of what I have on Flickr is set to “private” just for storage purposes).

So, back to the main point: I look through my photos to post to Vero on a regular basis, and I’ve been looking through ALL of my various albums, not just the recent stuff with the brand new camera, because I like to think that I’ve always had a pretty decent eye for composition and now I’m just trying to level up in terms of actual technique. The other day I was looking through my Flickr folder from our trip to NYC in 2015 for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and I found a photo of a group of bagpipers that I almost certainly haven’t looked at since I took it and uploaded it. Why this didn’t catch my eye at the time, I will never know…maybe it’s just the budding street photographer in me…but I couldn’t take my eye off this one bagpiper.

I have no idea what had him in a state of consternation here, so near the end of the parade, but he was certainly not happy about something! Was he out of step? Was someone else out of step? Did he start playing the wrong song? We he telling the next guy “Hey, we gotta speed up!”? (A few times whatever group was in front of us had to speed up to get the timing right for the teevee people.) Was he thinking, “Curse Bob over there, with his perfect mustache! I can’t grow a mustache like that!” I’ll never know…but what a great little moment.

I’m really loving photography, is all that I’m saying here.

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Something for Thursday

In honor of my friend Robert (see yesterday’s post and Substack letter), here’s a suite from a Jerry Goldsmith filmscore that Robert loved very much.


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Robert John Guttke, 1952-2023

My newest Substack newsletter is a sad one…but when one knows someone like Robert, one must bear witness on their passing.


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Tone Poem Tuesday

Born this date, 125 years ago today: the great George Gershwin.

I was actually going to post this piece last week before I suddenly head an “Oh!” moment, one of those cliche moments when the sitcom person slaps their own forehead as they remember the obvious: Why post about Gershwin today, when his birthday is coming up?

So, here we are.

Gershwin was, of course, probably the first truly great American composer, because he was likely the first to really start to branch beyond the European influences and incorporate truly American forms and American sounds into his music, by bringing jazz and the melodic approach of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters into classical, or “serious”, music. He only got so far in this work–a brain tumor killed him when he was just 38 and starting to really plumb the depths of his compositional powers–and as he was still growing and attaining new heights of achievement at the time of his untimely death, Gershwin’s life stands as more of a tragic truncation of a great talent than does, say, that of Mozart.

Gershwin wrote for movies–he contributed all the songs and score to Shall We Dance, the seventh of the ten feature films Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together–and for the stage, often partnered with his lyricist brother Ira. But he also wrote for the concert hall, starting with today’s work and progressing through works that were more and more structurally interesting in a compositional sense, and he seems to have been heading for the opera stage at the time of his death. Who knows what he would have done had Porgy and Bess been a beginning instead of an ending…but Gershwin’s work still stands as a monument to one of America’s greatest musical talents from a time when America was starting to burst with musical talent.

Leonard Bernstein was an astute critic and champion of Gershwin’s work; even as he made some of the finest recordings of Gershwin ever, he was still realistic about the limitations of Gershwin’s early work, which ultimately turned out to be his only work. He wrote about this in an essay that is collected in his brilliant book The Joy of Music, which I excerpt below. Bernstein’s essay is in the form of a dialog between himself and a “Professional Manager”, whom Bernstein describes as “the fellow who makes sure that the music his firm produces actually gets played.” The main thrust of the essay is about simplicity in songwriting; to P.M. Bernstein gives the main question, aimed at Bernstein himself: “Your new Broadway show is a big hit, but none of the songs are hits. What’s that about?” (I’m paraphrasing, obviously) From this rises a discussion, shaped by Bernstein’s knowledge of American music and classical music, that eventually arrives on the doorsteps of George Gershwin. Bernstein notes that Gershwin was a songwriter who shifted toward serious music, while Bernstein was a serious composer (“I wrote a symphony before I ever tried writing a song”) heading in the other direction.

And finally we arrive at this passage, which has shaped not just how I think about Gershwin but also how I think about approaching any work of art, even works we know have issues in the execution.

(A star in his eye) If you had met him [Bernstein has just indicated that Gershwin died when Bernstein was a child in Boston] you would have known that George was every inch a serious composer. Why, look at the Rhapsody in Blue, the American in–

Now, P.M., you know as well as I do that the Rhapsody is not a composition at all. It’s a string of separate paragraphs stuck together–with a thin paste of flour and water. Composing is a very different thing than writing tunes, after all. I find that the themes, or tunes, or whatever you want to call them, in the Rhapsody are terrific–inspired, God-given. At least four of them, which is a lot for a twelve-minute piece. They are perfectly harmonized, ideally proportioned, songful, clear, rich, moving. The rhythms are always right. The “quality” is always there, just as it is in his best show tunes. But you can’t just put four tunes together, God-given though they may be, and call them a composition. Composition means a putting together, yes, but a putting together of elements so that they add up to an organic whole. Compono, componere–

Spare us the Latin. You can’t mean that the Rhapsody in Blue is not an organic work! Why, in its every bar it breathes the same thing, throughout all its variety and all its change of mood and tempo. It breathes America–the people, the urban society that George knew deeply, the pace, the nostalgia, the nervousness, the majesty, the–

–the Chaikovsky [sic] sequences, the Debussy meanderings, the Lisztian piano-fireworks. It’s as American as you please while the themes are going on, but the minute a little thing called development is called for, America goes out the window and Chaikovsky and his friends march in the door. And the trouble is that a composition lives in its development.

I think I need more coffee. Waiter!

Me too. I didn’t mean to get started on all this, and I certainly don’t want to tread on your idol’s clay feet. He’s my idol too, remember. I don’t think there has been such an inspired melodist on the earth since Chaikovsky, if you want to know what I really feel. I rank him right up there with Schubert and the great ones. But if you want to speak of a composer, that’s another matter. Your Rhapsody in Blue is not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable, or even pretty inevitable. You can cut parts of it without affecting the whole in any way except to make it shorter. You can remove any of these stuck-together sections, and the piece still goes on as bravely as before. You can even interchange these sections with one another, and no harm done. You can make cuts within a section, or add new cadenzas, or play it with any combination of instruments or on the piano alone; it can be a five-minute piece or a six-minute piece or a twelve-minute piece. And in fact all these things are being done to it every day. It’s still the Rhapsody in Blue.

But look here. That sounds to me like the biggest argument yet in its favor. If a piece is so sturdy that whatever you do to it has no effect on its intrinsic nature, then it must be pretty healthy. There must be something there that resists pressure, something real and alive, wouldn’t you say?

Of course there is: those tunes. Those beautiful tunes. But they still don’t add up to a piece.

Perhaps you’re right in a way about the Rhapsody. It was an early work, after all–his first attempt to write in an extended form. He was only twenty-six or so, don’t forget; he couldn’t even orchestrate the piece when he wrote it. But how about the later works? What about the American in Paris? Now that is surely a well-knit, organic–

True, what you say. Each work got better as he went on, because he was an intelligent man and a serious student, and he worked hard. But the American in Paris is again a study in tunes, all of them beautiful, and all of them separate. He had by that time discovered certain tricks of composition, ways of linking themes up, of combining and developing motives, of making an orchestral fabric. But even here they still remain tricks, mechanisms borrowed from Strauss and Ravel and who knows where else. And when you add it all up together it is still a weak work because none of those tricks is his own. They don’t arise from the nature of the material; they are borrowed and applied to the material. Or rather appliqued to it, like beads on a dress. When you hear the piece you rejoice in the first theme, then sit and wait through the “filler” until the next one comes along. In this way you sit out about two-thirds of the composition. The remaining third is marvelous because it consists of the themes themselves; but where’s the composition?

(A bit craftily)
But you play it all the time, don’t you?


And you’ve recorded it, haven’t you?


Then you must like it a lot, mustn’t you?

I adore it. Ah, here’s the coffee.

(sighing) I don’t understand you. How can you adore something you riddle with holes? Can you adore a bad composition?

Each man kills the thing he loves. Yes, I guess you can love a bad composition. For non-compositional reasons. Sentiment. Association. Inner meaning. Spirit. But I think I like it most of all because it is so sincere. It is trying so hard to be good; it has only good intentions.

You mean you like it for its faults?

No, I don’t. But what’s good in it is so good that it’s irresistible. If you have to go along with some chaff in order to have the wheat, it’s worth it. And I love it because it shows, or begins to show, what Gershwin might have done if he had lived. Just look at the progress from the Rhapsody to the piano concerto, from the concerto to–

(glowing) Ah, the concerto is a masterpiece.

That’s your story. The concerto is the work of a young genius who is learning fast. But Porgy and Bess–there the real destiny of Gershwin begins to clear.

That’s where I’ll leave off…I probably should have trimmed that excerpt but I couldn’t decide where to do it, and Leonard Bernstein would almost certainly have been one of the great writers on music if he hadn’t been such a great writer and performer of music. But for me, the money quote is near the end there:

What’s good in it is so good that it’s irresistible.

I have invoked that phrase many, many times when discussing things I love that are still pretty flawed. It’s such an important concept that I think gets lost sometimes in today’s “All or nothing” environment: a flaw can, and probably should, be openly admitted and acknowledged, without discounting the strengths that exist in the work, any work, alongside those very flaws.

From all this it’s probably obvious what today’s tone poem is, so I’ll just get out of the way of the music now. Here’s Leonard Bernstein, playing the solo piano and conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, in George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

And what the heck, here’s An American in Paris, from the same recording (this time, the New York Philharmonic):

I won’t feature it here because this post is getting too long as it is, but I have a higher view of the Concerto in F than Bernstein does–I consider it the finest piano concerto written in the 20th century not by a person named “Rachmaninoff”–but if you want to give the Concerto a listen, track down the recording made by Andre Previn and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. That’s one of the great recordings of all time, in my opinion.

And if you read this far, you should know that I share a birthday with Mr. Gershwin. Happy birthday to me!


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In our neighbors’ yard…

…there are frequently deer to be seen.

That little one’s antlers are starting to come in!


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A vicarious adventure

The Wife and I honeymooned around New England: a couple of days on Cape Cod, a couple of days in Boston, and then we road-tripped through New Hampshire and Vermont on our way home. One thing I wish we’d had time for was a drive up to the top of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

Thanks to my favorite YouTuber, Post 10, I can at least see what the entirety of that drive is like. I wonder how many motorists every year don’t take sufficient care to cool their brakes on the way back down….

(Put that on fullscreen and watch it in the highest def your connection can manage. It gets more and more eye-popping as you go.)


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