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November 2010

The Race is Not Always to the Swift
The Science is Not Always to the Fair

Science Fair 09 by DrBacchus


"Extraordinary how potent cheap music is."  
— Noel Coward, Private Lives 

Today a music video, just because.

Because I have liked this song for the past several years.

Because, although it was made in 2006, this is a pitch perfect recreation of a certain sort of video that would have been in constant rotation on MTV circa 1983.

Because it is empty-headed fun.

The band here is Novillero, proud sons of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and the song is "The Hypothesist" from the 2005 collection, Aim Right for the Holes in Their Lives.  I cannot say for sure whether the band still exists in any active way.  Through most of the last decade, however, they embraced a Mod Revival style not far removed from Paul Weller and The Jam.  I will confess that, particularly during the horn parts, this song sets my head to vigorous rhythmical nodding almost every time.

Join with me now and let us reel in the years and revisit the school Science Fair.  As we go, let us each frame our own hypotheses in answer to these burning questions:  

  • Will the unhip, put upon kid with the box prevail over the (presumably) rich girl with the elaborate chemistry set?  
  • Will the students maintain decorum in the face of a chugging rhythm section and those horns?  
  • Will the pretty teacher with glasses and her hair in a bun still have either in place by the end of the song?  
  • Will it all end in a celebratory freeze frame?

The questions practically answer themselves.

Be sure to show your work, as we go to the tape:


Photo: Science Fair medals, Lexington, KY, 2009, photographed by Flickr user DrBacchus, used under Creative Commons license.

Easton's Eden
[William Brittelle's Television Landscape]


I am probably going to have to break up my "favorite music" list this year in to two parts, just to give a fair shot to all the composers and performers who aren't released by New Amsterdam Records.  As matters stand today, New Amsterdam artists have locked up nearly half of any 2010 Top Ten, and threaten to drive the competition into the sea altogether before the year is out. 

There is probably no such thing as a "typical" New Amsterdam release, but William Brittelle's Television Landscape may be the least typical of them all.  The emphasis at New Amsterdam—of which Brittelle is one of the three founders—is generally on contemporary music in a neo-alt-counter-nu 'classical' vein, but Television Landscape mines a different tradition: grand lush ambitious orchestral prog-pop ca. 1980, the product as it were of some mythical supersession involving Brian Wilson, Todd Rundgren and Frank Zappa (in his guise as serious composer and virtuoso guitarist).  

With the exception of one guitar solo, Television Landscape is fully composed and notated, sung by Brittelle and played by him with a contempo orchestra featuring members of a number of New York's best new music ensembles, such as NOW EnsembleSo Percussion and Alarm Will Sound.  There is even, inevitably, a children's chorus.

Television Landscape
At one of Landscape's focal points lies "Sheena Easton."  The song that may or may not be about the Scottish singer of the same name, seen posing cheekily atop this post.  Probably both.  At his site, a dove on fire, Brittelle writes that the real Easton "was en vogue and dating prince when i first started listening to the radio.  her audrey hepburn-like looks and eighties edge will forever be fodder for nostalgia in my mind."

The Sheena of the song is the unattainable beloved, the girl outside whose house our hero waits in the cold, among the pianos and strings and shimmering guitars—NOW Ensemble guitarist Marc Dancigers is MVP among this album's players—realizing that he is "just a man of flesh and bone," that "the truth is not kind" and that, Sheena, "you are the truth." In the end, he leaves for warmer climes as all the children sing that he is "goin' off to Miami, Sheena!"  It is just that sort of song.  It is the richest finest fluff, and it will make your teeth hurt, and you will like it.  

William Brittelle - 'Sheena Easton'

All of Television Landscape can be streamed from its page on the New Amsterdam Records website where, in exchange for a wee bit o' information, you may also download the sparkly autotuned travelogue, "Dunes of Vermillion."  Hello!

William Brittelle - 'Dunes of Vermillion'

The New York Times profiled Brittelle in July, including the remarkable story of the loss and return of his ability to sing.  The composer also sat for an illuminating interview for eMusic.


Among Sheena Easton's own distinctions is having been the first James Bond theme-song-singer to appear in the title sequence in which said theme song is sung.  The film is For Your Eyes Only (1981), one of the better regarded of the Roger Moore Bonds, and the titles naturally are the work of Maurice Binder:


Everybody Give It Up for . . . Giving Up!

You declared you would be three inches taller
    You only became what we made you.
Thought you were chasing a destiny calling
    You only earned what we gave you.
You fell and cried as our people were starving,
    Now you know that we blame you.
You tried to walk on the trail we were carving,
    Now you know that we framed you.

— from "The Punk and the Godfather" (P. Townsend) 
    Quadrophenia (1973)

"The Punk and the Godfather" (or "The Punk Meets the Godfather," as it was titled on the U.S. release) appears at the end of what was, in the days of vinyl, Side 1 out of 4 on The Who's Quadrophenia.  In the arc of the album's story, it deals with the young protagonist, Jimmy, attending a concert headlined by . . . The Who.  Pete Townsend, ever one of the more self-aware of songwriters, took the occasion to reflect on the fundamental oddness of the relation between rock mega-star and audience, the heightened expectations each holds for the other, and the inevitability that those expectations will be unfulfilled.

It is perhaps the most "Who-ish" of Who songs, trotting out virtually every signature trick in the band's arsenal: the windmill guitar chords, the barely-controlled spatter of the not-yet-late Keith Moon's drum kit, Roger Daltrey's mighty howl offset by Townsend's limpid vocal on the bridge, even a self-mocking look back at "My Generation."  (That generation was, of course, Townsend's own: the immediate post-war first wave of the Baby Boom, the generation that made the '60s . . . and that, today, is well into its 60s.)

Disappointed expectation is the order of the day as U.S. mid-Term elections approach.  Incumbents generally are discovering that their constituents are not so Into Them as they once were, having been let down a few dozen times too many.  The President, while not facing reelection himself, is a particular target for the disgruntlement of one and all, having gotten the job in the first place by setting himself up as the very embodiment of heightened Expectation, positive Change, and boundless Hope.  As he zooms about the country in "campaign mode," it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the same rhythms and phrasings and cadences as sounded so genuinely vigorous and inspiring to so many only two years ago now come across as merely shout-y, almost as hard to buy into as a hearty "Helloooo, Cleveland!"

The President—a man at least as self-aware, I think, as Pete Townsend—surely knows that he is himself in large part to blame for all this disappointment: there are many important promises he offered up that he was actually in a position to deliver over these past two years, obstructionist legislators notwithstanding, but that he did not.  (I'm thinking here in particular of my own pet peeves concerning the President's ghastly record on civil liberties, but you can supply your own examples.)  But the fault, Horatio, lies not alone in our public figures.  It lies within ourselves, as well, and within the lies we tell ourselves.  Our expectations would not be so frequently disappointed but for our own folly in having many of those expectations in the first place.  

H. L. Mencken explained it all some 90 years ago in the opening paragraphs of his aptly titled essay, "The Cult of Hope," collected in the Second Series of his Prejudices:

    Of all the sentimental errors which reign and rage in this incomparable republic, the worst, I often suspect, is that which confuses the function of criticism, whether aesthetic, political or social, with the function of reform.  Almost invariably it takes the form of a protest: 'The fellow condemns without offering anything better.  Why tear down without building up?'  So coo and snivel the sweet ones: so wags the national tongue.  The messianic delusion becomes a sort of universal murrain.  It is impossible to get an audience for an idea that is not 'constructive'—i.e., that is not glib, and uplifting, and full of hope and hence capable of tickling the emotions by leaping the intermediate barrier of the intelligence.

    In this protest and demand, of course, there is nothing but a hollow sound of words—the empty babbling of men who constantly mistake their mere feelings for thoughts.  The truth is that criticism, if it were thus confined to the proposing of alternative schemes, would quickly cease to have any force or utility at all, for in the overwhelming majority of instances no alternative scheme of any intelligibility is imaginable, and the whole object of the critical process is to demonstrate it.  The poet, if the victim is a poet, is simply one as bare of gifts as a herring is of fur: no conceivable suggestion will ever make him write actual poetry.  The cancer cure, if one turns to popular swindles, is wholly and absolutely without merit—and the fact that medicine offers us no better cure does not dilute its bogusness in the slightest.  And the plan of reform, in politics, sociology or whatnot, is simply beyond the pale of reason; no change in it or improvement of it will ever make it achieve the downright impossible.  Here, precisely, is what is the matter with most of the notions that go floating about the country, particularly in the field of government reform. The trouble with them is not only that they won't and don't work; the trouble with them, more importantly, is that the thing they propose to accomplish is intrinsically, or at all events most probably, beyond accomplishment.  That is to say, the problem they are ostensibly designed to solve is a problem that is insoluble.  To tackle them with a proof of insolubility, or even with a colorable argument of it, is sound criticism; to tackle them with another solution that is quite as bad, or even worse, is to pick the pocket of one knocked down by an automobile.

Remnants of hope by jonathan mcintosh

So, as we trundle along in our troubled age, or in any age, we may not be any happier for it, but the best and most clear-eyed policy must be to break the false connection between Hope and Expectation.  Hope, for all that it may comfort us, ofttimes must be consigned to the land of dreamy dreams, while expectations should recognize what can be rather than what we merely wish to be.  

Or, as Mel Brooks advised in The Twelve Chairs, "Hope for the best, expect the worst."

Don't forget to vote, citizens, and try to remind those that you elect that what they cannot in fact make better—a vastly broader category than the typical politician, or typical constituent, is typically prepared to recognize—is probably best left alone.


Video: The Who, at the Cow Palace, San Francisco, Nov. 20, 1973, seemingly from the archives of Bill Graham Productions.  As a bonus, here is audio of the song from the band's show in Maryland sixteen days later—my 18th birthday, as it happens.

Photo: "Remnants of Hope" by Flickr user jonathan mcintosh, used under Creative Commons license.


Drive-In Saturday:
Antony and Destiny by the Lake

Upon hearing the singing voice of Antony Hegarty listeners tend to divide in to two classes.  There are those who find it a bit of a wonderment and who never want it to end, and there are those who, after 15-20 seconds, never ever ever want to hear that voice again.  I am in the first class. Your own results may vary.

As an Antony and the Johnsons enthusiast, I am looking forward to next week's release of Swanlights.   Until October 12, the album is streaming on NPR, and a listen there reveals that its songs include "The Great White Ocean."  That song has actually been around since at least 2008, when it was used as the soundtrack to an animated short by James Lima, "Fallen Shadows," created for the purpose of selling Prada handbags and apparel.  In the film, a woman's shadow wanders about in a vaguely surreal cityscape, musing on life and memory while Antony warbles mystically.   (A large Quicktime version is viewable here.)

"Fallen Shadows" is somewhat obviously influenced by painters such as Di Chirico and Dalí, and some sequences -- the dancing compass in particular -- seem to derive directly from "Destino," Salvador Dalí's uncompleted project for Walt Disney.  Dalí worked on storyboarding "Destino" at the Disney studios in 1945 and 1946, but only about 18 seconds were actually animated before production was stopped.  Eventually, at the instance of Roy Disney, contemporary Disney animators pieced together a version of the film that saw release in 2003.  Compare and contrast:

Antony and the Johnsons' music frequently walks the imagined line between popular and "serious" forms, and is oft inclined to slip toward the realm of the art song.  An example of that tendency is "The Lake," a setting of a lesser-known poem of Edgar Allan Poe, released on an EP in 2004.

Animator Adam Schechter created a video for the song.  Originally unofficial, the piece was subsequently endorsed by Antony and the Johnsons and now receives a link on the group's official site.  The video bears no apparent relationship to the song or to the poem, and is instead a strange and somewhat incoherent tale of the death (?) and transfiguration (?) of a feudal fox.  Or something of the sort.  In any case, you may view it below.  Poe's original text is beneath the video, for those inclined to read along and to take note of the liberties and variants in Antony's adaptation.

The Lake; To --
    Edgar Allan Poe, 1827 

In spring of youth it was my lot
To haunt of the wide world a spot
The which I could not love the less-
So lovely was the loneliness
Of a wild lake, with black rock bound,
And the tall pines that towered around.

But when the Night had thrown her pall
Upon that spot, as upon all,
And the mystic wind went by
Murmuring in melody-
Then-ah then I would awake
To the terror of the lone lake.

Yet that terror was not fright,
But a tremulous delight-
A feeling not the jewelled mine
Could teach or bribe me to define-
Nor Love-although the Love were thine.

Death was in that poisonous wave,
And in its gulf a fitting grave
For him who thence could solace bring
To his lone imagining-
Whose solitary soul could make
An Eden of that dim lake.


Three Weddings and Some Fireworks
[The Marriage of Figaro, Los Angeles Opera]

Figaro 1

Calm satisfaction, and the multivalent comforts of discovering that mind and heart and soul have all just been fed exactly enough and not too much, are conditions neither easy to describe nor particularly interesting to read about, methinks, so I am on something of a fool's errand in attempting to write about Los Angeles Opera's current revival of its production of Le Nozze di Figaro [The Marriage of Figaro].  And yet here we are, I writing, you reading, so I'd best make the attempt.

Given that Mozart operas have not been hard to come by in this town, and that Figaro is one of the more beloved pieces in the standard repertoire -- consistently in the top 10, and frequently in the top 5, most-performed operas in any given year -- it is something of a surprise to me that last Sunday's performance was my own first meeting with it on the stage.  As usual, it's been my loss.  Figaro has immediately earned a place in my personal affections alongside the comic romances of Shakespeare, and makes a particularly fine companion piece to Much Ado About Nothing. (The semi-military somewhere-in-the-past-two-centuries costume design in the current production is not far removed from Kenneth Branagh's film of Much Ado.)

Figaro 3

Mozart's Nozze was originally Beaumarchais'sLa Folle Journée [The Crazy Day], ou Le Mariage de Figaro, which stands in the history of French theater in a position comparable to that of The Godfather Part 2 or The Empire Strikes Back in American film: the even more admired sequel to a much admired original.  Beaumarchais introduced the character of Figaro, the clever barber of Seville, in 1772, in Le Barbier de Séville, ou la Précaution Inutile.  Although derived from the long line of rascally servants in the commedia tradition, the figure of Figaro immediately acquired a life of his own in French popular culture.  A sequel was demanded, and Beaumarchais attempted to deliver one in 1778.  Beaumarchais was ambitious to exceed his earlier play in depth and sophistication and, to that end, included several speeches directly hitting on social controversies of the day, particularly the rights of women and the uselessness of much of the herditary aristocracy.  The censors would have none of it. While the text circulated surreptitiously high and low for years, it did not reach the stage until a version with much of the 'seditious' material still missing was finally mounted in 1784, to great acclaim.

Within two years, Figaro had come by way of Mozart into the hands of the poet/dramatist Lorenzo Da Ponte, who adapted it in to an Italian libretto for the court of Vienna, decorously striking out nearly all the overtly political material to leave a plot that belongs in part to the long and honorable tradition of French boudoir farce with just a soupçon of the long and honorable tradition of French satire of the foibles of the powerful. His text approved, Da Ponte finagled the commission for the opera's composition back in to the hands of Mozart, who produced a score that set a new standard for the melding of character, story and music.  Those who are not inclined to hand the palm along to Wagner can still argue, and not frivolously, that Figaro (and/or Mozart's other Da Ponte collaborations on Cosi Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni) remains unsurpassed as a seamless masterwork.

It must be said that, as masterpieces go, Figaro is a particularly lovable masterpiece.  Mozart and Da Ponte evoke no cruelty toward their characters, even when they are most mockable, and the happy ending -- all the right couples settled together in all the right combinations topped off with, in the text and on the LA Opera stage, a spontaneous burst of fireworks -- feels authentically earned. 

Figaro 2

This is the third revival of LA Opera's current version of Figaro, under the direction of Ian Judge, and it is a smooth running saucy and sensual humanist comedy machine.  The proceedings are abetted by an able and likable cast, most making their Los Angeles Opera debuts.  

The principal returning performer is Daniel Okulich, last seen here in harness to the thankless title role in The Fly -- an opera that got at least as many things dead wrong, musically and librettically, as Figaro gets right.  Okulich worked hard to be part of the solution to that insoluble production, and for his reward he has been brought back in much better circumstances.  He makes a fine Figaro, one who is not perhaps so clever as he would like to believe he is.

(Also returning from The Fly: Placido Domingo in his guise as conductor. We do love our Placido in this city, and he was welcomed loudly and affectionately each time he appeared.  Domingo is a focused and earnest sort of conductor, showing admirable energy in view of the fact that he has also been singing the lead in LA Opera's premiere production of Il Postino.  He hunches and hops quite a bit at the podium when he's at work, reminding me somewhat of the gopher in Caddyshack.  I mean that in the nicest possible way, I really do.)

The women's roles are essential to a successful Figaro, and this production is aided immeasurably by a delicious Susanna in the form of Marlis Petersen.  Of all the characters here, Petersen's Susanna is the one who seems never to be at a loss; she is vivacious, strong minded, quick on her feet, and immensely tolerant of those around her.  (Rebekah Camm takes over the role in the remaining performances.)  Meanwhile, in the trouser role of Cherubino, Renata Pokupik is comic gold, providing an array of limber twitches and slouches as the lust-besotted teen who is roughly two parts brain to three parts heart to five parts hormones.

Rounding out the principals, Martina Serafin is all patience and rooted sobriety as the long-suffering Countess Almaviva.  As the Count, Bo Skovhus makes an elegant lout, misusing his authority not so much because he can as because he does not notice that he is doing so.

There are three performances still ahead, October 10, 14 and 17.  As a Boy's First Figaro, this production serves very nicely and it was a lingering pleasure to have made its acquaintance at last.



Just before all joyousness breaks out at the end of Act 4, Mozart trots out perhaps the most effortlessly moving short stretch of music ever penned, at the moment when the Countess Almaviva forgives and accepts her husband, knowing full well that he is as flawed and unreliable now as he has been from the beginning.  Milos Forman made admirable use of that moment in his film version of Peter Schaffer's Amadeus


Photos by Robert Millard, Los Angeles Opera.