Something for Thursday

Once in a while I get on a kick where I listen to this song a lot. What do the lyrics mean? I have no idea. Who cares!

Here are The Killers with “Human”.

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“I have come to conquer you!” A repost in honor of the great Roger Corman

Filmmaker Roger Corman died the other day. It was always easy to poke fun at Corman’s films, but he strove to make them as good as he could, and on his own terms. Corman’s studio was not only prolific but also a starting point for many filmmakers who later went on to great careers of their own.

Below is the text of a post I wrote a number of years ago, praising my favorite Corman film, the 1980 obviously-STAR WARS-inspired “Magnificent Seven In Space” flick, Battle Beyond the Stars. I stand by every word of this. Is the movie good? Yes, because while its objective qualities may be debatable, what cannot be debated is that it’s a freaking delight.

 

Battle Beyond the Stars is a movie that seems to confound expectations. If you watch it expecting a good movie, you’ll be disappointed. But on the other hand, if you watch it expecting a bad movie, you may be disappointed in the other direction.

 

Battle came out in 1980, one of a string of flicks to come out in the years after something happened in 1977 to suddenly make the entertainment industry think that there was a market out there for science fiction, especially in the form of explodey-spaceshippy-goodness. Battle was produced by Roger Corman, the king of the low-budget movie who nevertheless also served as a talent scout for later Hollywood geniuses, the most notable being a special effects artist who designed the spaceships for this movie and who later went on to bigger things. His name? James Cameron.

 

I saw Battle when I was in fourth grade. It was part of a double feature at the local movie house, the first film being a flick called Starcrash. I’ve never seen Starcrash since [UPDATE: After writing this post, I did in fact watch Starcrash again, the results of which you can read about here. Is Starcrash bad? Oh Gods, yes. Have I seen it once or twice even since then, because it’s lovably bad? Oh Gods, yes! –Ed.], although I do have a downloaded copy on one of my hard drives. Starcrash is legendary for being a bad movie, although I recall liking it when I saw it. Battle was the main event of the feature, though, and I was really looking forward to it, mainly because the nine-year-old me had thought that this trailer just looked awesome:

 

 

That trailer had run on a bunch of movies leading up to the release of Battle so I was really stoked when it came out. And when I saw it? Well, I was nine. I loved it. It had aliens and spaceships and lasers and things exploding and a cute girl. I got the soundtrack album, featuring music by a composer named James Horner, and I played that album a lot over the years, wearing it out and grooving to what I thought was the best explodey-spaceshippy movie music I’d heard outside of a Star Wars film. (Of course, my sample size was very small, I didn’t know film music enough to hear Horner’s huge debt to Jerry Goldsmith in the score, and I didn’t know enough about orchestration or performance to recognize a score that was recorded on a shoestring budget and which featured some really bad orchestrations, such as the track “Cowboy and the Jackers” which does things to the trumpet section that may be in violation of several international treaties.)

 

I saw Battle once more when it showed up on network teevee a few years later, and still liked it, and then I didn’t see it again for many years. I may have caught it in a cable broadcast sometime in the 1990s, but I’m not sure. I didn’t see it again in its entirety until just last week. How does it hold up? Well, movies like this don’t really “hold up” – that’s the wrong way to look at them. I had no illusions that it was some unheralded gem of SF moviemaking, but I was pleasantly surprised that it’s not that bad, either.

 

So, what about Battle Beyond the Stars, anyway? What’s it about? It’s very simple: The Magnificent Seven in space. That’s it. Literally.

 

We open with a giant enemy ship traveling through space (at a very slow pace, even though it has six enormous thrusters that are constantly firing).

 

 

The ship is ruled by our villain, Sador of the Malmori. Who are the Malmori? Are they a race of aliens? An empire? A family? We’re never told. Anyway, his ship approaches a planet called Akyyr (that’s how I’m spelling it, anyway), which, seeing that it is inhabited by peaceloving folk who only own one spaceship (which is a weather station), decides that he’s going to conquer it. So he hovers his enormous ship over them, projects his enormous face over their heads, and says, “I have come to conquer you.” (This he does after destroying the weather ship, just because he’s evil. The weather ship had been occupied by two guys who display the Akyyrian attitude by greeting an enormous and malevolent-looking spaceship by grinning, saying “Look! Visitors!”, and then contacting it by asking, “Could you identify yourself, please?”)

 

Anyway, Sador gives the Akyyrians seven days (“risings of your red giant”) before he’ll come back and finish conquering them. Why the delay? Who knows, but it gives the Akyyrians time to send one of their local young men, a boy named Shad (played by Richard Thomas as John-Boy Walton in space), off in the other ship they own, the secret one once piloted by the old blind guy who used to be an adventurer, to round up some help in the form of mercenaries.

 

The ship Shad flies is probably the single most famous thing from Battle Beyond the Stars. The ship is simply named “Nell”, and sure enough, it’s run by a computer by that name who speaks with the voice of a cranky lady. What’s most memorable about the ship, though, isn’t her personality; it’s her shape:

 

 

 

This ship is one of the more famed B-movie spaceships in movie history. You know you’re talking to a knowledgeable geek when the mention of the movie Battle Beyond the Stars draws the rejoinder, “Oh yeah, the movie with the ship that’s shaped like a pair of breasts!” The ship is more than that, though – it looks like a feline body with female breasts and then a couple of wings where the ship’s guns are, which sweep up and out, spread out to look like…well, it’s a very feminine ship. (And it was designed by a young filmmaker who was cutting his chops with Corman’s production crew, the afore-mentioned James Cameron.)

 

Anyway, Shad goes off in search of mercenaries he can hire to fight off Sador. On the way he meets a taciturn fellow named Gelt (Robert Vaughn), who only wants a meal and a place to hide from the apparent galaxy’s worth of folks who are after him:

 

 

He meets a ship commanded by a group of aliens who have third eyes on their foreheads and who use telepathy to do stuff:

 

 

He meets a “Warrior Valkyrie” named “St. Exmin”, played by Sybil Danning:

 

 

 

Given that her screentime involves her looking like this, it’s almost a crime that Danning doesn’t get more of it. She does, however, have one of the goofiest lines in movie history, and boy, does she deliver the hell out of it:

 

 

The other girl there is Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel), who is every bit as naïve about people as Shad is, which makes her a perfect fit for him. She, too, gets far too little screentime, because she’s really cute. I remember her being one of the first females onscreen to impress me with her cuteness. I mean, look how cute she is in that clip, when she giggles at the prospect of learning how to “tingle, tangle, prangle” her new love interest from this warrior in the goofy headdress! Yeah, Nanelia is really, really cute:

 

 

Most memorable, probably, is the Space Cowboy Shad recruits who goes by the name “Space Cowboy”, played by George Peppard:

 

 

Cowboy is an arms runner who ends up leading the Akyyrian planet defense with the weapons he’d been running to a planet that Sador has just wiped out. Cowboy is extremely cool, although it’s hard not to expect him to grin and say, “I love it when a plan comes together!” But he does have one of the niftiest gadgets I’ve ever seen in a skiffy movie: he has a gizmo on his belt that dispenses Scotch and ice. (Why a Space Cowboy is drinking Scotch and not bourbon is never explained.)

 

And there are some aliens who are basically actors in rubber suits. You know how it is. Anyway, a big battle ensues (the Battle beyond the stars!), in which quite a few of the recruited mercenaries die heroically before Shad and Nanelia finally figure out how to do Sador in. I know, I just spoiled the movie, but what of it? Who would watch a movie like this and even consider the possibility of a bummer ending?

 

The clip above aside, there’s some witty stuff in the course of the flick, and one nicely done moment after Gelt (Robert Vaughn) dies, involving Shad’s bargain with him (a meal and a place to hide). There are also some exceedingly goofy moments, and like all B-movies, some of the stuff that happens isn’t explained very well at all (such as a scene in which the telepathic-collective aliens make their own stealth attack on Sador that involves sacrificing one of their own and a transplant of arms, believe it or not).

 

Of course, we have to have a romance between Shad and Nanelia, and it’s your typical awkward stuff (“Do they have kissing on your planet?”), but at the end, when victory has been won and all that are left are our hero and heroine returning to Akyyr, instead of ending with some neat dialog and some delightful snogging, we get Shad quoting at length from the “Varda”, the sacred text that the denizens of Akyyr are constantly quoting throughout the film. Weird stuff – the kid should be finally taking his big step into manhood, and instead he wants to recite from the holy book of a pacifist planet that sounds like The Art of War.

 

Battle Beyond the Stars is not a good movie. Nor is it a bad one. If you’re attuned to it and willing to go where it wants to go, it’s a fun little flick, if you’re into movies where the villain who is trying to conquer the planet Akyyr gets to shout in triumph at the end, shortly before his unimagined demise, “Akyyr is mine!”, followed by leading his entire bridge crew in sinister bad-guy-who’s-just-won-the-lottery laughter.

 

In other words, it’s the kind of movie that can only appeal to your inner nine-year-old. And that’s not a bad thing to be, is it?

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Tone Poem Tuesday

The Maker, a.k.a. Uncle George, a.k.a. George Lucas, turns 80 years old today.

My life without George Lucas’s influence would be very, very different.

Some music, then!

Nope, nothing from Star Wars today. Why not look elsewhere just this once?

 

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Amateur mistakes, I got ’em

We were at Canalside in downtown Buffalo the other day for a greyhound meet-up. It was a lovely time and I took a lot of photos, but I wasn’t super happy with my output, because the light was really bright and garish and made compositions difficult, and because I screwed up and didn’t check my focus settings first. So I ended up taking every photo with the camera set for Continuous Autofocus, which is what you want to use when you’re photographing something that’s moving, not something that is either stationary or moving slowly.

So, few of my photos had the clarity that I wanted.

A learning experience, then!

The Inner Harbor, also called Canalside, in downtown Buffalo. All those people on the far walkway are there for the annual MS Walk, which we didn’t realize was happening. I didn’t do anything to adjust this photo from RAW because I’m really not terribly happy with it in the first place. Harumph!

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WHY are all these TABS OPEN????!!!!

I mean, seriously. Tabs are like rabbits in the way they proliferate across the top of my browser window.

::  Skyline Chili explained by a local.

Skyline Chili is a perfect food and I will tolerate no slander of it. We can agree that sauce-like clove-nutmeg-cinnamon-and-god-knows-what-else-infused Cincinnati chili bears little resemblance to the bean-studded or beef-chunked stews that other regions of this great land might recognize as chili. But that’s no justification for the torrent of bile Cincinnati chili receives from those unaccustomed to its pleasures. (Deadspin notoriously called it “the worst regional foodstuff in America or anywhere else” and “abominable garbage-gravy.” ) But to those of us who grew up in the Greater Cincinnati area, this stuff is mother’s milk — Mama’s Cookies, even; it’s a Cincinnati thing, look it up — and it’s the pride of the Queen City, alongside Graeter’s ice cream, goetta, and LaRosa’s pizza. I specify “Greater Cincinnati area” because I’m technically from across the Ohio River in Northern Kentucky, but in my defense, so is the Cincinnati Airport, and you can take it up with them. I’ll be over here eating my Skyline Chili three-way (I’ll explain) with an oyster cracker and hot sauce chaser.

Cincinnati Chili is one of those food items that lots of folks (a) claim to hate, and (b) act like they don’t understand. I guess I can understand hating it, since everybody hates something food-wise, but not understanding? This, I don’t get at all. But then, people in the US tend to be really bad, in my experience, at understanding local variations on different foods, which is how you get people who think NYC is the only place in America with good pizza (and that Chicago’s pizza scene is a blight upon humanity), that the only good barbecue in the world can be found in Texas (or Kansas City or North Carolina or Georgia or wherever), and even in Buffalo where “wings” means one exact preparation with one exact dipping sauce.

My response to almost all of this is “Yeah, whatevs, I’m down for anything if it tastes good.”

Which is to say, I like Cincinnati Chili just fine, and I even have plans to make some in the hopefully near future. I guess what annoys people is the idea of calling it “chili” when it’s more a sauce that is served atop spaghetti, and I’ve also noticed that people in the US tend to not be big fans of the Middle Eastern approach to spices, where savory and sweet often live next door to one another, and since the seasonings in Cincinnati Chili were invented by cooks of Middle Eastern or Eastern Mediterranean descent, people claim to not like it.

Whatevs. I’m down for anything if it tastes good.

(This is the recipe I’ll be using when I get ’round to this, by the way.)

::  Stanley Whitney Doesn’t Like to Look Back, Even on the Eve of His First-Ever Retrospective

Lists of great artists often begin with rule breakers and revolutionaries—people like Duchamp, Pollock, and, Warhol who changed art by zagging from its traditions. Stanley Whitney belongs among these names, but he’s no revolutionary. The 77-year-old abstractionist has, after all, spent the last two decades of his career painting variations of the same square, gridded image. For all his achievements, Whitney has never been one to reinvent the wheel.

This fact is a central theme of the artist’s first-ever retrospective, “How High the Moon,” which just opened at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum in Western New York. While many career-spanning surveys measure their subjects’ success on scales weighted toward progress and innovation, this show highlights an artist who prevailed on different terms. A snippet of wall text two-thirds of the way in sums it up nicely: “Whitney has made paintings that are not about getting somewhere but about laboring to find where we are.” 

That’s no small feat.

Ending soon at Buffalo’s AKG Art Gallery is a display of paintings by abstractionist painter Stanley Whitney. The Wife and I saw this exhibit last February, and the works are fascinating.

A painting by Stanley Whitney. It looks MUCH better than this in person; this is the fault of the person with the camera. (That would be me. I’m learning, folks.)

::  Another recipe I’m going to make at some point: Enchilada lasagna, by Alton Brown.

::  Two articles by the ever-brilliant Matt Zoller Seitz. First: The Problem and the Solution: Why Palpatine from Star Wars is One of the Great Movie Villains.

Many of Palpatine’s most devious plans stem from him planting an idea or emotion in someone’s head and letting them do the rest of their own volition. He activates or amplifies some characteristic that amounts to an Achilles heel (fear of being unable to save a loved one for Anakin; arrogant complacency for the Jedi council; eagerness to end an occupation for Palpatine’s boss Padme, the Queen of Naboo). Then he stands back and watches as somebody else delivers the result he hoped (and planned) for. 

Obviously I’m a big fan of Palpatine–with the exception of his resurrection in The Rise of Skywalker, which annoyed me to no end. But I won’t be writing about that here; I’m saving my rants about that particular movie for my forthcoming (hopefully in 2025!) book of essays about Star Wars in general. Seitz has the right of it throughout this article, and I sometimes wonder if some of the goofy tone George Lucas created in the Prequels is specifically designed to help hide Palpatine in the tall grass. I love how Palpatine doesn’t have one single overarching plan; he has a sequence of plans that he changes and alters to fit the circumstances that arise, each one always designed to get him just a bit more power. He doesn’t just show up and seize control; he instead makes his growing power seem totally reasonable at each step. It’s really quite amazing, in terms of structure.

The other one by Seitz: Dear Tim Cook: Be a Decent Human Being and Delete This Revolting Apple Ad.

During the Super Bowl broadcast of 1984, Apple debuted one of the most innovative and spectacular commercials ever made: Ridley Scott’s ad for the then-brand new MacIntosh home computer. It showed an auditorium full of lifeless human drones staring at a dictator-like figure ranting on a giant screen, followed by an athletic blonde woman (the only splash of color in the scene) bursting through the doors and hurling a hammer into the screen, symbolically destroying the oppressor.

Forty years later, Apple CEO Tim Cook took to social media to debut an ad for “iPad Pro: the thinnest product we’ve ever created, the most advanced display we’ve ever produced, with the incredible power of the M4 chip. Just imagine all the things it’ll be used to create.” 

The tonal opposite of the company’s most famous ad, it shows a stack of creative tools and imaginative objects being crushed in a giant press. 

Sonny and Cher sing “All I Ever Need is You” as the device destroys some of the most beautiful objects a creative person could ever hope to have, or see: a trumpet, camera lenses, an upright piano, paints, a metronome, a clay maquette, a wooden anatomical reference model, vinyl albums, a framed photo, and most disturbingly (because they suggest destructive violence against children’s toys, and against the child in all of us) a ceramic Angry Birds figure and a stack of rubber emoji balls.

I only watched the ad once, and I thought, “My God, what a wasteful and sickening enterprise, to imply that every single tool ever devised by humans to assist with creative work can now be replaced by this one electronic gewgaw.” This sentiment was not alone, and in fact, the backlash against this ad was so swift and sure that Apple has already apologized for it. Well, that’s good news, at least.

::  I don’t recall how I ended up with a tab opened to the official site of artist Juliette Sandleitner, but I did, and her work is good! Check her out.

::  Dear Internet: Please Stop Making Me Think Articles About AI Are About “Weird Al” Yankovic.

On April 20th, the website Consequence of Sound ran an article confusingly titled “Drake Baits Kendrick Lamar with Weird AI Diss.” 

The internet collectively responded, “Huh?” This was followed shortly by, “Wait, what?” 

Because I am a forty-eight-year-old man who grew up with Weird Al Yankovic’s music and had the honor of collaborating with him on multiple books as an adult, I read that headline and wondered why Drake would bait Kendrick Lamar by dissing national treasure “Weird Al” Yankovic. 

What could that possibly accomplish? Why was Drake mad at “Weird Al” Yankovic? What did Al do to the Jewish Canadian former child star that made him want to attack him in his lyrics? 

Heh!

(Note to self: Watch the “Weird Al” biopic movie one of these days.)

::  By the way, an aside here: I have no idea who Drake or Kendrick Lamar are and since they have been massively being discussed on social media of late, I’m feeling like I’ve landed on a strange planet.

::  One final recipe I’ve had open for a while, which I’ll probably attempt next fall when I make chili: Jalapeno cornbread with a lime-honey glaze.

And that’s all for now! Finally, my browser is more manageable again. Time to open up some more tabs!

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Aurora

If you were anywhere north of, say, whatever latitude it is that the Pennsylvania’s northern border sits on, you were under instructions to get outside and look at the northern sky because the sun was blasting out magnetic particles that would result in potentially spectacular displays of the Aurora Borealis, or more commonly, the “Northern Lights”. The last time I saw a truly stunning display of the Aurora was back when I was in college; a bunch of us were inside doing whatever and another friend bursts in and says, “You gotta come outside and see this!” It looked like the entire sky was a blue, green, and red swirl of tie-dye. I’ve never forgotten that.

Last night’s Aurora was much more muted, at least where I live; I didn’t make any attempt to drive out into a darker spot, and while my own street is quiet and not super brightly-lit, directly north of my street is a two-mile-long stretch of car dealerships, which are brightly lit. But I went out around 9pm and looked up .The sky was clear (maybe a Karmic make-up for getting screwed on the eclipse?), but there was still some night-glow from the car dealerships to contend with, and initially I thought, “Nope, no Aurora here.” The Big Dipper was directly overhead, and the Moon was a lovely sliver as it is just starting to wax again. I thought about coming back in, but I stayed out just long enough for my eyes to adapt a little, long enough to see a few wisps of cloud directly overhead, making an interesting radial pattern. I’d never seen wisps of cloud in that pattern before, and they were actually shifting as I watched them…and that’s when I realized that I was actually looking at the Aurora Borealis.

A forever-lesson there: when going outside to look at the night sky, always wait at least five minutes. Give your eyes time to adapt!

I took a few photos with my phone, using the “Night” mode, and this one turned out best after some editing in Snapseed. I’m going to try a couple of my other shots later in Lightroom to see what I can do, but the Samsung S21 Ultra’s night mode did come through for me. I made no attempt to use my Lumix FZ1000ii for this event, as I didn’t want to break out the tripod and all of that jazz and I haven’t done any research as to what settings one needs to use to capture the Aurora. But that’s fine! Photographers like to say that “The best camera is the one you have with you,” and in this case, it was my phone.

The Big Dipper, shining through the Aurora Borealis. One of its stars isn’t bright enough to overcome the Lights.

Posted in On Exploring Photography, On Nature, On Science and the Cosmos, Photographic Documentation | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

IYKYK

That’s, “If you know, you know.”

Specifically, in this case, when your mechanic tells you: “Your car’s inspection is all set! No issues.” Entering the weekend on that news is always great! (I wasn’t necessarily expecting issues, because everything’s been running fine, but I’ve had this vehicle for almost two years without needing any significant work done to this point, so I’m at the point where I start getting antsy every year at inspection time.)

But yeah: If you’re a New Yorker, you know the relief of “Inspection’s done, no issues!”

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Something for Thursday

Two hundred years and two days ago, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor was heard for the first time, in Vienna. The bulk of this post is what I wrote about this symphony three-and-a-half years ago, and the performance I feature is the same, because it’s one of the greatest performances of this work I’ve ever heard–the energy this youth ensemble brings to this symphony is amazing–and because I can’t help thinking of this piece, with its themes of joy and universal brotherhood (and sisterhood!), played by this particular orchestra, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which includes Jewish and Palestinian musicians among its ranks. This music, in those hands, seems to me a far better thing than what is transpiring now between those same peoples elsewhere, and I hope the spirit of Beethoven triumphs in the end.

The post:

Whether or not the Ninth is Beethoven’s greatest symphony is a matter of debate, and I’m not going to join it here. The main contenders seem to be the 7th, 5th, and 3rd, each of which have strong cases to be made. For me it comes down to the 7th and the 9th, and I probably have a stronger personal attachment to the 9th, since it was my first real deep dive into Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphonic world. Quite a starting point, eh?

It was when I was in high school and becoming keenly interested in symphonic music, to the point that I was examining orchestral scores in an attempt to unlock what secrets I could, with my level of training to that point. (Which was, ahem, not much. But I went ahead undaunted!) I remember the bookstore: A B. Dalton (remember those?) in the Monroeville Mall outside of Pittsburgh, when we were there visiting my sister, who was in college. There was a Dover edition of Beethoven’s Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, in full score.

Dover Publications used to make wonderful copies of music scores in fine books…and apparently they still do! I just now Googled the folks at Dover to see if they were still around, and there’s an active website, so that may be a place that starts taking my money soon…but anyway, I remember picking up the book in that B. Dalton and thumbing through it. At this point I knew nothing at all about either work, so I was completely baffled when I flipped to the last movement of the Ninth and saw…music for voices?

Was this a choral symphony?

Indeed it was…and is.

My sister actually gave me that book for either my birthday or Christmas that year; I procured a recording not long after. My band director dubbed me a cassette of the Ninth, and off I went. The recording was Herbert von Karajan, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. You never forget your first Beethoven Ninth.

That the Ninth captivated me utterly is unsurprising, as it has been captivating its audiences ever since Beethoven wrote it. The premiere is one of the legendary events in all music, with the deaf composer sitting on stage as his work crashed and hummed all around him…and he heard none of it at all. Imagine the poignancy of one of the musicians, alto soloist Caroline Unger, at concert’s end, putting her hand on Beethoven’s sleeve to turn him toward the audience, that he might see what he could not hear: their applause. When you listen to the Ninth, as with all of Beethoven’s late works, you are hearing the musical realizations of a man who could only ‘hear’ the work in his mind.

Beethoven’s Ninth went on to become one of the most influential works of music ever written. He fired the imagination of many composers with this work, and indeed, the Ninth took on a nearly mystical air as the 19th century wound on. The Ninth was one of Richard Wagner’s favorite works, and it was deep inspiration to both Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler, both of whom felt superstitious angst as they approached their own ninth symphonies, as if Nine was a sacred barrier beyond which a symphonist dare not tread. Mahler, having already written eight symphonies when he set out write Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”), thought he might cheat the limit of Nine by not titling this work as a symphony, even though everyone believes it is. Even so, it didn’t buy Mahler much time: he would write his actual Ninth symphony and then die with only a few sketches written for his Tenth.

The Ninth is one of classical music’s true “event” works, often being programmed for concerts that are meant to commemorate specific events. One of the most famous of these was in 1989, when Leonard Bernstein conducted the work in East Berlin, leading an orchestra and chorus drawn from many nationalities. For this concert Bernstein changed the fourth movement’s focus from “joy” (Freude) to “freedom” (Freiheit), in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall just a few months earlier. There really is a universality to Beethoven’s Ninth that lends itself to such things. It’s a deeply human work, encapsulating the tortured journey toward joy as imagined by a great composer brought low by deafness.

I thought about writing a lengthy annotation of the Ninth, but time didn’t allow, and besides, I’m not sure if such a thing is really necessary. But there are so many moments in the Ninth that are sheer magic. Here are some of the spots that capture my imagination:

:: The opening bars, with the strings in tremolo, playing only the tonic and the dominant, so we don’t even know if we’re in major or minor key. It’s an opening of total mystery, leading to a stormy march of a movement that is sheer musical relentlessness.

:: And that fiery scherzo, whose opening motifs echo the main theme of the first movement, but in a rhythm that drives, drives, drives forward. Even the timpani gets into the act, pounding out that rhythm in moments that seem to come out of nowhere, no matter how many times I hear the work. But wait! Halfway through the scherzo, Beethoven changes his original time signature and provides, charmingly shocking, a genial “drum and fife” section that eventually yields back to the original scherzo.

:: The double variation of the third movement? I used to have trouble with this movement, not really understanding what Beethoven was up to. It’s certainly a very long movement that leads us into the depths of Beethoven’s mind, as one of the great writers of variations in music history. Somehow Beethoven finds new and enthralling textures each time he winds his way through the long melody that sustains the movement, and then toward the end come the two sets of giant fanfares that are answered by the strings. The woodwinds sing throughout, and the time is marked by pizzicato strings. It’s an amazing movement that once bothered me.

:: And then we arrive at the fourth movement, that gigantic movement that is by itself longer than some of Mozart’s entire symphonies. A stormy passage opens, leading to a remarkable passage where Beethoven quotes each of the first three movements, almost questioningly, only to have the low strings reject each one. After one last declaration by the low strings, we finally arrive where the entire symphony has been leading all along: the famous “Ode to Joy” chorale theme, played first by pianissimo low strings. Beethoven repeats the theme four times, adding to the voices each time (my favorite is the second statement of it, before he adds in the violins but also writes the most wonderful countermelody for the bassoons).

Then the original stormy passage from the movement’s opening bars reprise, before we hear the first of our voices: the baritone soloist, declaring that it is time for a more joyful sound. “Freude!” he cries out, and the choral passage arrives, with the soloists leading through a set of variations on the chorale theme, variations which are answered by the chorus, all of this building to an immense chord that is one of the greatest single chords in all of music…and then the bottom drops out and a Turkish march begins, with Beethoven doing one of his favorite tricks of off-setting the beat.

I won’t describe more than that, save to note that the symphony’s closing moments are one of classical music’s true moments of magnificence. I have never heard the Ninth in a live performance, but I can only imagine that if performed well, it can be an almost overwhelming experience. There is a vastness to the Ninth that makes it a colossus in itself, but this is not at all unique to the Ninth: Beethoven’s greatest works all enjoy this expansive quality, but none are quite so big in their concept as the Ninth. Few works achieve this sense of containing a universe in itself. With the Ninth, Beethoven moved beyond composing music and instead created a world.

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New video!!!

I guess the title says it all, huh? I bought some books, and here I unpack them. Because unpacking books is a blast! Everybody should unpack books!

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Tone Poem Tuesday

French composer Charles Gounod is probably the closest thing Hector Berlioz had to a successor in the musical world; Berlioz was too much the iconoclast to really found a “school” of composition reflective of his own thought. Gounod, however, counted Berlioz among his influences. Gounod was prolific and wrote a great deal of fine music, especially his operas–but for the most part, except for his operas Faust and Romeo et Juliette, Gounod is not much heard anymore. The apotheosis of French music was to come not in late Romanticism but in Impressionism.

When I was in high school, our band briefly toyed with the Grand March from Gounod’s opera The Queen of Sheba. Operatic grand marches are a particular delight, and this one is as grand as any. If memory serves we ended up putting this piece aside when the band director, Mr. Roosa, resigned suddenly mid-year and we ended up being rudderless as a band until a fresh face out of college, Mr. Fancher, arrived to take over in the last few months of my high school career. I remember that this Grand March was not much to his liking, and out it went. Pity, that…the trumpets have some really fun things to do in this piece.

Here’s the Grand March from The Queen of Sheba.

 

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