Get Your Chimes On! (What to do with Christmas leftovers)

So you got a set of chimes (aka “tubular bells”) under the old Christmas tree?  Congratulations!  Perhaps these are your first chimes, or–if you’re Mike Oldfield–you finally wore out your original set and somebody got you replacements.  Either way, you have years of musical enjoyment to look forward to.  If you’re like me, you probably spent the holiday hammering out favorites like “Silent Night” or “Joy to the World;” or maybe you had some friends over for an impromptu sing-along with A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector or the Spector-influenced “All I Want For Christmas is You.”  But a few days afterward, you may be saying to yourself, “That was fun, but what am I going to play the other eleven months of the year?”

"How am I going to fit this in a stocking?"

“How am I going to fit this in a stocking?”

Fortunately, record producers’ use of chimes isn’t limited to the Christmas season: here are a few pop and rock songs that make use of the instrument to tide you over until next December.  (I’m leaving aside those songs that include the tolling of church bells, such as AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells”* or Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”  You can imitate church bells on the chimes, of course, but it only takes one pitch.  The songs that follow cover a wider range and sometimes–gasp!–even take the lead.)

Some kids got the deluxe model this year.

Some kids got the deluxe model this year.

If you’re feeling funky and futuristic, there’s electronic music pioneer Pierre Henry’s “Psyché Rock” (with Michel Colombier, 1967) and Jean-Jacques Perrey’s “E.V.A.” (1970).  Both feature chimes prominently amongst the fuzz guitar and space-age sound effects.  Henry’s composition, in particular, was the inspiration for Christopher Tyng’s Futurama theme (which also includes chimes, so learn all three and you can really make a night of it):

These guys know what I’m talking about:

If you still have a rhythm section at your disposal, consider Blondie’s 1981 mega-hit “Rapture,” the first single to contain rap to hit number one on the U.S. pop charts (and one of the first music videos played on fledgling cable outlet MTV that year).  The sound of bells can be exuberant or mournful; in “Rapture” they complement the slinky bass line in creating an otherworldly nocturnal atmosphere.  Along with Perrey’s frequently-sampled “E.V.A.”, “Rapture” can be heard as a spiritual forerunner of trip-hop.

Staying in the early ’80s, the British girl group Dolly Mixture is one of the most unjustly overlooked bands of the post-punk scene, but they are increasingly receiving their due.  Most of their recorded output is from the (unsurprisingly) spare Demonstration Tapes; their single “Everything and More” from 1982 has a fuller sound reminiscent of Phil Spector’s style, including a rocking chime riff:

Working a similar vein of updated ’60s guitar pop were The Housemartins, whose 1986 hit “Happy Hour” prominently features our chosen instrument in the break:

Perhaps your tastes run toward alternative or indy music.  May I suggest Throwing Muses’ “Mexican Women” (1988) or The Flaming Lips’ “The Abandoned Hospital Ship” (1995)?  Both songs save the chimes for the big ending, giving you ample time to make a dramatic entrance.

It’s fitting that we conclude this list with They Might Be Giants, a group that has throughout its history explored varying styles of production, often using the signature sound of an era or artist to frame its songs, as if they came from a slightly off-kilter parallel universe of pop music.  “Destination Moon,” from the 1994 album John Henry, draws on both the “wall of sound” of ’60s pop and the futurism of Henry and Perrey for a vision of outer (and inner) space travel that’s equal parts Heinlein and Dick.

That ought to do it.  Happy chiming!

* Not to be confused with this “Hell’s Bells,” sung by Betty Boop in the 1934 cartoon Red Hot Mamma.  Playing the chime part for this requires two pitches: Betty Boop 1, AC/DC 0.

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My 2013 in Film

As I mentioned last time, the end of the year offers a time to look back at the offerings—be they movies, music, or books—of the last twelve months and evaluate them.  I’m always interested to see what critics hold up as the best of the year, although in most cases I’ll put titles on my mental “to see or read” list rather than compare my opinions directly to theirs.  When it comes to movies, I’ve fallen behind; my wife and I used to be frequent moviegoers, but the arrival of children has an impact in more ways than one.  (I see more animated films, for one thing, and fewer documentaries.)  Not only does a night out at the movies entail getting a sitter, it means giving up precious time (of which I’m now more conscious of the scarcity).  Movies as a whole aren’t trivial, but specific movies—G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, I’m looking at you—are another story.  Perhaps that’s why I tend to be more forgiving of movies I watch at home.  Transformers exceeded my expectations as a cable TV offering, but I doubt I would have been as pleased if I’d trekked out to see it at the theater.  All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I probably won’t have a very complete picture of 2013 in film until 2016 or so, or possibly never.  The films I saw in the theater this year don’t even add up to ten, so my top ten list would of necessity include some movies I didn’t even like that much, and I had to search my memory to come up with some of them.

Pacific

A few years ago, I was discussing movies with a relative I didn’t see very often.  He revealed that he keeps an ongoing log of every movie he sees, with a numerical rating system of his own device.  Any movie that came up, he was able to tell me what he had rated it, and which movies were adjacent in rankings.  I doubt I could do that: I’m not that compulsive or organized, for one thing.  Asking around online, though, it seems that quite a few film buffs do track their reactions in that kind of detail.

I wonder how much their rankings change over time, though.  Some things I enjoyed the first time around wear thin after just one or two viewings (comedies are especially vulnerable to this).  Others stick with me, even as I’d rather they didn’t: I’ve only seen A.I. Artificial Intelligence once, and I hated it.  Really hated it; it was refreshing, in a way, because how often do we have such pure reactions to things?  Yet, large chunks of it stuck with me: that must be worth something, right?  And even the fact that I had such a strong reaction puts it on a somewhat higher level than the many movies that I’ve occasionally remembered and thought, “Oh yeah, I saw that, I think.”  I’ve read passionate and intelligent defenses of A.I. that have given me different perspectives on it; I don’t think I’d enjoy it any more if I saw it again, but I might appreciate it more.  How do I put a raw number on such an experience?

Professional critics, of course, do it all the time, and they, more than anyone, know the limitations of a star, number, or letter-grade system, boiling their nuanced and (hopefully) insightful consideration of a film down to “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”  And critics’ opinions change, as well, so even a listing of their favorite movies of the year won’t necessarily line up with the ratings they originally gave those films.  That’s okay, and as long as we don’t pretend any given opinion is the final word, it’s part of the process of evaluation we all take part in.

In any case, it’s easier than ever for anyone to be a critic, or at least to publicize their opinions.  Amazon and iTunes have featured customer reviews for years, some of them lengthy essays by prolific writers; now services like Letterboxd (“Your life in film”) allow users to keep track of their viewing and ratings, just like my relative (I wouldn’t be surprised if he were a Letterboxd early adopter), with the added benefit of making their reviews public and allowing them to compare them with others’ and cross-reference their film choices with influential lists such as the AFI 100 or the various critics associations’ year-end lists.  Like many other elements of contemporary online life, Letterboxd takes activities that many people were already doing in isolation, and turns it into a social activity.

Another change in recent years is the increasingly narrow gap between the big and small screens.  Many of the films that came out earlier this year are already available on DVD or Blu-ray, and the lead time between theatrical release and home video gets shorter every year.  Streaming and video-on-demand services make it even easier to catch up on the year’s releases at home, something that is increasingly important for those smaller movies that don’t have wide theatrical distribution.  I watched Escape From Tomorrow on Vudu at home; it didn’t make it to a theater near me, as far as I am aware.  This year, Stephen Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas as Liberace, was released in theaters in Europe but made its American debut on HBO.  Although I would have liked to have seen both films on a bigger screen, TV time shifting made them much more accessible to me.

It goes the other way, too, although rarely: this year my wife traveled to Olathe to watch the Doctor Who fiftieth-anniversary special The Day of the Doctor in a movie theater, a rebroadcast of the international simulcast.  While undoubtedly an unusual move designed to mark a significant occasion, special engagements like this will probably become more common as theaters look for ways to create communal “events” and spectacles (like IMAX and 3D) that will bring people to the theater.  Simulcasting of live performances is even farther ahead: concerts and stage shows are available in local theaters.  I can even see performances of the Metropolitan Opera here in Wichita.

So what did I think of the movies I did see? I’m glad you asked me that, Senator:

The Lone Ranger: No, it wasn’t quite as bad as its toxic reception indicated, but it wasn’t very good, either.  I enjoy Westerns, I’m open to the reinterpretation of popular characters, especially of the pulp era, and I even liked Pirates of the Caribbean, at least the first one, so this should have been a slam dunk for me, but The Lone Ranger was mostly a giant mess.  This might be another one that I enjoy more at home, where I can skip or tune out the boring or silly parts (of which there are many) and just focus on the bigger-than-life action sequences.

Oz the Great and Powerful: Another critical bomb that I thought was just okay, not flat-out terrible.  In crafting a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, director Sam Raimi’s appropriation of the 1939 classic film’s art deco and Technicolor visuals was both a strength—I thought it looked fantastic—and a drawback, as it couldn’t help remind viewers of the superior original. Films like this are stuck in a bind: the audiences who would in theory be most interested in it are also going to scrutinize it more than average and hold it to a higher standard before accepting it.  Properties with already-passionate fans are a double-edged sword, as NBC recently found out with The Sound of Music Live!

Oz

Escape From Tomorrow: I’ve already written about this one, so I’ll just add that this is one case where I’m glad I read some reviews before I saw it.  If Escape had been as incredible as its trailer promised, it would probably be my pick of the year, if not the decade.  Although I still enjoyed it and think it’s worth seeing, getting a sense of the buzz around it brought my expectations down to earth.

Speaking of trailers, another one that had me pumped this year was for Pacific Rim.  Personally, I loved it, but I can understand audiences being underwhelmed, as it’s kind of a “fans only” prospect—if you already love giant monsters and robots, the one-dimensional characters are genre conventions, not flaws.  I saw it twice, and took friends with me, both of whom are genre fans: one a fan of action and superheroes, the other a fan of Tolkien-style high fantasy.  They enjoyed it well enough, but weren’t as enthralled as I was.  Oh well, to each their own.  The only plot point that struck me as insultingly dumb was the “Gipsy Danger is somehow ‘analog’ while the other jaegers are ‘digital,’ and that somehow protects it from the electromagnetic pulse” thing. And while it’s kind of a nitpicky complaint, I was very excited to hear GLaDOS (the AI in the Portal video game series, voiced by Ellen McLain) prominently featured in the trailer.  McLain’s voice is heard in the finished film, but the resemblance to GLaDOS is toned down, as confirmed by director and Portal fan Guillermo del Toro for Ain’t It Cool News:

“I called Valve [the makers of Portal] and asked ‘Can you give us the filter?’ so we went full GLaDOS for the first commercial, but I thought it was too much. If you’re a gamer, it’s too distracting so we created our own GLaDOS 2.0 filter that’s a little less full on.”

I get his reasoning, and it’s probably the right call, but as someone who’s been interested in Portal almost completely because of GLaDOS’ lilting, half-mechanical voice, it was a letdown. Finally, although there’s been some criticism of the formulaic rivalry between hero Raleigh Brackett and cocky Chuck Hansen, after ten-plus years of Harry Potter and knock-offs thereof, it’s actually refreshing to have a story that knows the difference between a rival and a villain.  Hansen is abrasive to the end, but ultimately he and Brackett are on the same side, and the two characters are able to set aside their personal differences and work together.  It’s sad that something so simple has become novel.

Five Favorite Images of 2013

First of all, I don’t do Pinterest.  Or Tumblr.  (Never say never, but not right now, at any rate.)  But I do like to keep track of pictures I enjoy.  The end of the year is a time for solemn list-making by critics and fans alike.  By its very nature, this blog isn’t focused on movies, music, or books alone, so I won’t pretend to sum up the year in depth.  Making lists is fun, however, so here is a (hopefully) fun list: some of my favorite images from 2013.  Some of these have been around for a while, but they were new to me in the last year.

5.  Super Lil Bub!

A_SUPER

Everyone knows Lil Bub, the google-eyed cat that has taken the Internet by storm.  This 8-bit style retro design by Drew Wise was available as a tee shirt earlier this year.  I didn’t get one–I have a lot of tee shirts already–but this needs to be commemorated.  Even if it was just Lil Bub flying her saucer around space, who wouldn’t want to play this game?

4. Cookie Monster Cupcakes: Nailed It

Cookie-Monster-Cupcakes..-Nailed-It

Yes, these are everywhere.  But so help me, I laugh at this one every time I see it.  Never not funny.

3.  Injustice: Gods Among Us: shocked Batman

supes-kills-joker

I haven’t read Injustice: Gods Among Us, and frankly I doubt I’ll bother.  Although I have a documented interest in stories that put familiar characters in extreme situations, a graphic novel tied into a video game (from the makers of Mortal Kombat, in case that wasn’t obvious), and in which Superman is tricked into killing Lois Lane–and then goes on a rampage and kills pretty much everyone else–doesn’t grab me.  I’ll grant that Injustice has been polarizing: depending on whom you ask, it’s either the best or worst thing to happen to comics in years.  But what I like about the above illustration (from artist Jheremy Raapack) isn’t Superman disemboweling the Joker with his bare hands, but the look on Batman’s face in the background:

Injustice-Gods-Among-Us-Batman

If someone wanted to put this on a tee shirt, I’d seriously consider it.

2.  Platypus Venn Diagram

platypus.venn

This one has apparently been around for some time as well–as far as I can tell it’s the creation of Tenso Graphics, but I first saw it on this They Might Be Giants Tumblr.

1.  Sleeping Tyrannosaurus Rex

sleeping.trex

This illustration, by artist John Conway, just tickles me.  It’s from the excellent book All Yesterdays by Conway, C. M. Kosemen, and Darren Naish, which I may write about in more detail in the future.  The book is subtitled “Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals,” and the artists are deliberately trying to avoid the clichés that often define paleoart.  As Naish writes in the accompanying text,

Most hunting animals spend long days resting, either in order to conserve energy, or while digesting the food acquired from a fresh kill.  Like most warm-blooded predators, the fearsome T. Rex may have spent most of its time asleep.

Fearsome, yes, but just look at it: it’s almost as cute as Lil Bub.

The Return of/My Return to Community

Since my children were born, I’ve developed something of a tradition: at the beginning of each fall television season, I pick one new show that I make an effort to follow.  It wasn’t a conscious thing I started doing; apparently one new show is all I can handle adding to my schedule and giving my full attention.  I watch other shows, of course, but if I miss an episode or have other things to do I don’t sweat it.  Sometimes it works out: I love animation, so Adventure Time and Gravity Falls have been rewarding to follow, although my one-show-at-a-time habit meant I missed out on Bob’s Burgers and am only belatedly catching up.  Other shows have been disappointing: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip looked like the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing, but after a promising start it never felt remotely like anything real, and was often laughably pretentious and self-important. It was a relief when it was canceled, but so help me, I watched every episode.  Other programs, like the already-forgotten Nathan Fillion cross-country racing adventure Drive and the completely bonkers conspiracy thriller Zero Hour, didn’t even last more than a few episodes.

It is both harder and easier to be a fan of a TV show than when I was young.  On the one hand, it is easier than ever to time shift, recording and watching a program on my own terms with a DVR or finding it online.  I watched a lot of TV as a kid, and part of my thinking was that if I missed something, it might never be shown again.  I didn’t want to miss anything.  It’s easier to let go now in the knowledge that YouTube, Netflix, or a DVD set will allow me to catch up down the road.  I think The Simpsons is the first show that stopped being “appointment television” for me; the decline in quality around 2000 was part of it, but I also knew the episodes I missed wouldn’t disappear into the ether like so much of the stuff I watched as a kid.

But that same accessibility raises the bar.  When I was a kid, if you knew the names of background characters, or–God help you–the behind the scenes personnel, it made you a superfan; now there is so much information that there’s practically no end to how deep you can go.  My wife recently got into Doctor Who, and while that’s an extreme case—fifty years of history, and a show that is particularly beloved on the Internet—it’s incredible just how much material there is to master.  Mastery is still a key value of geekdom: how do you know you’re the biggest fan unless you can out-trivia anyone else in the room—or online, where it becomes a more daunting prospect?

The most intense relationship I’ve had with a television show in recent years was with Community.  Beginning in 2009, Community was a classic “hang out show” stocked with colorful characters who were just fun to be around: Greendale has often been compared to The Simpsons’ Springfield, and its knowing embrace of TV and movie clichés (mostly expressed by TV-obsessed Abed) included many elements close to my heart: wordplay, slapstick, doppelgangers, pastiche, and metanarrative games.  One of the common criticisms of the show was that it flattered an audience that congratulated itself for getting references to other TV shows and movies, and I wouldn’t deny it, but what can I say?  Community rewarded an obsessive attention to detail: as closely as the audience was willing to look, creator Dan Harmon had anticipated it and put some callback or Easter egg there to reward them.  The show’s mixture of smart and dumb comedy grabbed me, and there was enough genuine feeling underlying the arch tone for some truly cathartic moments.  It didn’t just feel real: it was better than real.

Community-Season-1-Promo-Posters

It didn’t hurt that the show premiered during an uncertain time of my life, including the birth of my second child and a reevaluation of my career.  The fact that it was set on the campus of a community college also meant I could relate to it, or at least recognize the character types involved.  Community was funny from the beginning—the interaction of Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), forced to return to school after his fake law degree gets him disbarred, with Professor Ian Duncan (John Oliver) is a highlight of the pilot episode—and although the first half of season one is considered uneven, especially compared to what would follow, it steadily improved and kept my interest throughout.  However, “Debate 109” was the episode in which Community went from being a good show to being my favorite show: the episode’s multiple threads (Jeff assists go-getter Annie in the debate against rival/mirror-image City College; the study group discovers that Abed’s student film project has been eerily predicting their activities; “non-traditional” student Pierce tries to help Britta stop smoking through hypnosis) come together brilliantly after a comic crescendo without becoming frantic or madcap.  The final scene, set to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ “Home,” captures the feeling of discovery—of self and of others—that is part of the college experience, and was central to the show at its best. The episode is quintessential Community as both psychological comedy and laid-back farce.

It was also fascinating and exciting to watch the fan community develop online: reading along with Todd VanDerWerff’s reviews at the AV Club, taking part in the discussion and speculation with other fans, watching the comment threads increase in size and fervor.  It was fun to get swept up in something big; by season one’s “Modern Warfare,” an epic paintball battle told through the rhythms and visuals of an action movie, Community was a cult phenomenon.  The fact that it continued to be low-rated and seemingly underappreciated by parent network NBC only added to the fans’ love: like Arrested Development, this would be the show all your friends would catch on to in four or five years, after it had been canceled due to low ratings.  Those of us in the know were ahead of our time.

Community.thankyou

In retrospect, my infatuation with Community’s first season was like the bloom of first love: in subsequent seasons I either had to adjust to the reality that the show wouldn’t stay the same forever, or move on.  The second and third seasons were often great (the Christmas episodes “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” and “Regional Holiday Music” have become required seasonal viewing for me), but it was inevitable that there would be missteps, and divisions within the fan community appeared as viewers reacted differently to the show’s plot developments.  (“Epidemiology,” the second season Halloween episode, was especially divisive, with its apparently real zombie plague.)

I began to sour on the show during its third season, as its increasingly outlandish plots and the emphasis on the dark undertones of the characters’ psychology became both off-putting and unreal.  The genre-hopping that seemed so brilliant in “Modern Warfare” came to seem like a crutch as they went to that well a few too many times, and instead of realistically flawed but likeable people the study group started to seem genuinely emotionally disturbed.

And this is where the realities of modern fandom started to wear on me.  Show creator Dan Harmon has a highly visible presence online: he’s active on Twitter, he regularly holds forth in his “Harmontown” podcasts, and he’s not shy about sharing his opinions on storytelling, dealing with actors and the studio, and anything else.  His troubles with the network and producer Sony, and his run-ins with cast member Chevy Chase, came to dominate news about Community; questions about its renewal were more dramatic than the show itself in its third season. Eventually, Harmon was leaking angry phone messages he had received from Chase, essentially airing dirty laundry in public.  As much as I enjoyed his work, I was starting to feel that I knew too much about the man behind the curtain.  I know, I know, “trust the art, not the artist.”  Easier said than done.  When the decision about Community’s fourth season finally dropped, it seemed to be the worst of both worlds: the show would continue, but Harmon was removed due to his inability to work with Sony.  As I said, I had already become dissatisfied during the third season, but I trusted Harmon to turn things around, and I stuck with it.  But the prospect of a “zombie Community” run by someone else, even someone sympathetic to Harmon’s aesthetic, didn’t appeal.

I watched a couple of episodes of the fourth season, but I wasn’t feeling it.  Barring a few moments here or there, it wasn’t very good, and felt like a parody confirming all the criticisms of Community as heartless and too clever for its own sake.  Combined with the sour feelings I now associated with it, tarnished by my knowledge of the behind-the-scenes rancor, I checked out and didn’t look back. I was busy anyway, and if Community was no longer the show I had loved so fervently, I no longer needed the escapism it had represented.

And yet. . . . In the wake of news that Dan Harmon would be returning to take the helm after the generally reviled fourth season, NBC is promoting the January 2 premiere of the fifth season as a rebirth and a return to form.  Seeing the teasers for the hour-long premiere event, with Jeff Winger returning to Greendale as a teacher (I guess he graduated at the end of last season, but from what I’ve heard no one was very satisfied with how it unfolded), I’m actually a little excited.  Clearly NBC is hoping to bring back fans like me, and maybe hook some new ones.  I’m going to give it a shot.  It will be hard to recapture the excitement I felt during the first season, but it will still be nice to check in with old friends.

Orphans of the Orchestra, Part Three

Early in Ernest La Prade’s Alice in Orchestralia (which I discussed in Part Two of this series), the title character is welcomed to Fiddladelphia, home of the stringed instruments, by the Bass Viol.  In promising to introduce Alice to the other members of the orchestra, the Bass Viol offhandedly remarks:

The others don’t live in Fiddladelphia, except a few of the lower-class stringed instruments, such as the guitars and mandolins and those pesky ukuleles, who hang about the outskirts of the village.  By rights they ought not to be here at all; they’re not members of the orchestra.  But it seems impossible to keep out the undesirable elements, even in Orchestralia.

(Previously, Alice finds the Bass Viol locked inside a case by “those naughty Ukulele boys” who are “always up to mischief,” so the antipathy is obviously mutual.)

One might assume this is another skirmish in the never-ending war between classical and popular music, the snooty Bass Viol playing into the stereotype of the uptight classical musician, while the “lower-class” ukes and guitars just want to live it up, “Roll Over, Beethoven”-style.  At the time of Alice’s writing in 1925, however, the jazz age was just getting underway, and rock and roll was decades in the future. Although there were some associations with “cheap” popular music such as ragtime and the songs of Tin Pan Alley, guitars, banjos, and mandolins had a solid presence in middle-class music making before World War I, and much of the repertoire for these instruments would strike even the following generation as quaint.  No, the undesirable element the Bass Viol hoped to escape wasn’t so much one of rebellion, but of amateurism.

Looking back to the mid-sixteenth century Renaissance, bowed and plucked string instruments were on nearly equal footing.  Instrumental music as a whole was not as developed as vocal music, and it was common for parts to be played by whatever instruments were on hand.  This was the “consort system,” a consort being a family of like instruments in different sizes and registers; a single consort, say a matched group of viols or recorders, could perform a multi-part work, or members of different families could be played together as a “mixed” or “broken” consort.  Along with the bowed viols were lutes, theorbos, and citterns, which were plucked with the fingers.

The lute, in particular, enjoyed great popularity as both a solo instrument and as accompaniment for voices; the first instruction book on playing a musical instrument was written for beginning lute players.  Queen Elizabeth I played the lute and included a lutenist as a member of her court.  John Dowland, who desired the position but never attained it (probably for political reasons), left a substantial body of lute songs and instrumentals. This musical activity primarily took place in homes; although music was used in the theater, at church, and for dancing, the public concert of music for its own sake was a later innovation.

Venere Lute Quartet

Venere Lute Quartet

After this high water mark of acceptance, plucked strings gradually split from the mainstream, following a parallel tradition.  The bowed strings gained momentum as the viols were superseded by the violin family; great makers such as Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari contributed to the design and made instruments that are still played and treasured today (although many of these makers also made lutes and mandolins).  The string orchestra as we know it came together in the mid-seventeenth century, both in Italy and in France at the court of Louis XIV.  Composers Arcangelo Corelli and Jean-Baptiste Lully are both credited with the innovation of bowing string ensembles in unison (perhaps a case of independent invention), a key to the rich, pure sound and unified phrasing of the orchestra that is taken for granted today.

The plucked strings were largely left out of this development, except for special uses: the mandolin continued to be a popular solo instrument in Italy, and (for example) there are a number of concerti by Vivaldi for the instrument, but it has never been a regular member of the orchestra.  The lute hung on as a continuo (chording) instrument in the Baroque period for a while, but was eventually replaced by the harpsichord, and fell into almost complete disuse until the “early music” revival of the early twentieth century that also brought the harpsichord back into currency.  The guitar, originally Spanish, became a nearly universal popular instrument in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but within the classical tradition it filled the niche of the earlier lute, playing solo or accompaniment roles but rarely joining the orchestra.  Other plucked string instruments were relegated to folk use, and there they have largely stayed.

Jumping ahead to nineteenth-century America, the growing wealth and education of the middle class, along with the increased production of material goods thanks to the Industrial Revolution, led to the cultivation of an amateur music-making culture comparable to the one that had existed in Elizabethan England.  A piano came to be seen as an essential article of furniture, and in those pre-radio and –television days it was common for families to while away an evening singing or playing.  Sheet music publishers supplied a steady stream of novel but not-too-hard compositions in anticipation of the pop music cycles of the twentieth century.  Outside of the home, choirs and bands were as much civic organizations as musical ones, and were variously sponsored by churches, schools, businesses, and even prisons.

This atmosphere of low-level but pervasive music making, supported as it was by social expectations and commercial interests (primarily but not only publishers and instrument manufacturers), was fertile ground for all kinds of musical fads to spring up and fade away.  One trend was the adaptation of the banjo (adapted from the African banja or banjar,) which had been popularized by minstrel shows as early as the 1840s but which continued to evolve throughout the century, adding the characteristic metal hoop and frets as late as the 1880s.  Banjo clubs became a popular outlet, and instrument makers obliged by creating different-sized instruments to play a full range of parts, consort-style.  (As a group, these were sometimes referred to as “plectral” ensembles, as all the associated instruments were played with a plectrum, or pick.)

I wish this video were longer; it is obviously from a later period than the 1880s and ‘90s, but it features a good look at a bass banjo with (kangaroo?) gut strings.  When I saw a bass banjo at Miles’ Musical Museum in Eureka Springs, Arkansas*, it was strung with wound piano strings, but it was a newer instrument and undoubtedly had a steel rod to reinforce it against the tension of the strings, which wasn’t the case before the turn of the twentieth century; the instrument here appears to be all wood.  The fact that the bandleader feels the need to introduce the bass banjo (and the bemused expressions of his bandmates) indicates that even at the height of the banjo craze the bass member of the family was a rarity at best.  (A number of different banjo groups, some with mixed instrumentation, can be seen here.)

The popularity of the banjo as a parlor instrument dimmed in the US, not to be revived until jazz brought it back in a louder, snappier form.  Overlapping and superseding the banjo fad was the popularity of the mandolin, first sparked by the American tour of the Estudiantina Figaro in 1880, a group of “Spanish students” who may not have played the mandolin at all, but rather the bandurria, a Spanish instrument similar to the mandolin.  Historically, the mandolin had a teardrop-shaped body with a round back, like an egg sliced in half (much like the lute, to which the original mandolin is closely related); the bandurria was more pear-shaped, with a flat back.  Both instruments, however, were strung with double courses and played with a fast tremolo, so the style was immediately recognizable, particularly to Italian-Americans who were among the first to follow the Spanish students’ lead in organizing their own mandolin groups.  (There was already some basis for an ensemble of different sized mandolins in Italy: Norman Del Mar in his Anatomy of the Orchestra mentions an Italian mandolin orchestra arrangement of a Cimarosa overture in his possession, p. 484.  The American mandolin orchestras took off in their own direction, however.)

Orville Gibson undoubtedly had the most influence on the development of the mandolin in America: a violin-maker, he applied the principles of his profession to a new design with a flat back and carved top, lengthening the scale and adding a cutaway to make the high positions more accessible; he also added the ornamental curl and art nouveau curves that are his design’s most distinctive features.  Gibson’s F-4 “Florentine” instrument was both visually striking and projected more loudly than his competition’s, a feature that was actually toned down with gut and wound silk strings.  At the time, the ideal mandolin sound was light and “fairy-like;” in a situation parallel to the banjo’s use in jazz, it wasn’t until the rise of bluegrass that a brassy, projecting sound was considered desirable.  But Gibson’s design could supply it.

Gibson also understood the power of advertising, and sold his instruments’ capacity to bring people together as much as their musical qualities.  Building on the consort principle that had proven successful for band instruments and (to a lesser degree) banjos, he and other makers expanded the mandolin family, adapting the tenor mandola (which had previously existed but wasn’t common) and developing a “mando-cello” and “mando-bass.”  With these four instruments, the mandolin consort could match the bowed string orchestra as its plucked equivalent; with the addition of a guitar or harp, and a few carefully chosen woodwinds, it had the potential to be a real orchestra unto itself.

Quartet of Gibson mandolins. Source: Wikipedia.

Quartet of Gibson mandolins. Source: Wikipedia.

The potential to rival the traditional orchestra, advocated by some**, was undercut by instrument makers’ insistence that learning to play was easy and painless.  A point frequently made in advertisements was the difficulty of playing the bowed (and fretless) orchestral strings: “While the violin pupil is struggling to grasp but one phase of his studies—accurate intonation—the student of the fretted instrument is able to enjoy his instrument in both solo and ensemble playing,” claimed Gibson’s 1921 catalog.

Large groups of mandolins or other plucked strings weren’t limited to the middlebrow approach described here, of course: in the classical realm, Australian composer Percy Grainger wrote for “guitar bands” in his idiosyncratic search for unusual sounds and textures, including a band of forty mandolins and guitars in his accompaniment for the Faeroe Island Dancing Ballad “Father and Daughter***,” along with more traditional instrumentation.  Bandleader James Reese Europe, a key figure in the transition from ragtime to jazz, is reported to have taken numerous mandolins and banjos with him as part of the “Hell Fighters” Band when he led the regimental band of the 369th Infantry in World War I.  The ranks of plucked strings were partly there for volume in those days before electrical amplification made it possible for a single guitarist to comp for an entire band.  Once jazz and swing replaced ragtime and parlor tunes in popularity, gigantic plectral ensembles became strictly the domain of folk festivals; witness the Russian balalaika orchestras that were an official part of Soviet musical culture.

Karl Alex Smyser Banjo Band ca. 1931, from Bluegrass Today.  (Follow the link for audio recordings!) Note the mando-bass on the right.

Karl Alex Smyser Banjo Band ca. 1931, from Bluegrass Today. (Follow the link for audio recordings!) Note the mando-bass on the right.

Ultimately, the mandolin orchestra gave way to jazz and other kinds of popular music after World War I, although a few groups soldiered on (such as the Smyser band shown above), and of course the mandolin itself became an essential voice in the developing bluegrass style.  A few mandolin orchestras stayed active (a list of active groups can be found here) as far afield as Australia, Japan, and Germany, and the last decade has seen a resurgence in large plectral ensembles; the ukulele is the most visible of the currently popular plucked strings, but a quick YouTube search (how I wish it had been that simple back when I first learned about this music!) turns up numerous performances ranging from the traditional “light classic” approach, to jazz, to covers of contemporary pop songs.  Fortunately, both scholarship and popular music have played a role in rescuing this fascinating instrumental genre from obscurity.

* Sadly, this institution is no more; it was truly a magical place.

** For example, William Place, Jr., in his 1917 book The Organization, Direction, and Maintenance of the Mandolin Orchestra, commenting on the practice of bolstering plucked groups with bowed instruments, wrote, “We have a complete string quintet of our own mandolin family, and there is no reason why we should be obliged to ask for outside assistance.”

*** Described and excerpted in Cecil Forsyth, Orchestration, pp. 481-485.

Dole/Darko ’88

I used to be a real pack rat when it came to newspapers (used to, I hear my wife saying).  While going through some boxes that had been at my parents’ house for about twenty years, I found quite a few papers and magazines that I had saved for one reason or another: historical value (“Clinton Sweep,” read the headline of the Wichita Eagle the day after Bill Clinton’s 1992 election) and souvenirs of places I’d been, but also stories that seemed dramatic or exciting to me, and which, in those heady days, I thought might be the basis for a dramatic work.  I was very much under the spell of contemporary dramas like David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly and John Adams and Alice Goodman’s Nixon in China; it seemed that any out-of-the-ordinary story might have sufficient conflict or resonance to turn into an opera or play.  I was fairly susceptible to any kind of cultural theory that came along, so my early thoughts about aesthetics were a jumble of second-hand Marshall McLuhan, Peter Sellars, and Gilbert Seldes, cut liberally with the provocative Dadaism of the Residents and Frank Zappa.  At one point I set a few comic strip texts to music, partially as an exercise, but also believing that “mass media” sources were the natural successor to the communal folk sources that had informed the classical tradition from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries.  Don’t get me wrong, those are still areas of interest to me, but like a lot of teenage “artistes” I was trying way too hard.  In any case, my own subsequent experience, not to mention the flood of shallow, hacky biographical operas that became trendy after Nixon‘s success, showed me that it wasn’t as easy as it looked, and not every news story held a grain of dramatic truth waiting to be turned into poetry.

One article I found that I still remembered vividly appeared in the Wall Street Journal of Tuesday, October 15, 1991: “Odd Tales of UFOs And Sen. Bob Dole Visit Russell, Kan.” by staff reporter (now WSJ editor) Kevin Helliker.  The disappearance of four women from Russell cast a spotlight on local writer Donna R. Butts, who had published a book about her contact with space aliens (and who was among the missing). According to her book, the Second Coming would begin as soon as Kansas Senator Bob Dole, who grew up in Russell, was elected president and moved the White House to his hometown, among other apocalyptic prophecies.  Members of Butts’ group of believers included local art teacher Gertrude “Trudy” Furney, whose public sculpture of the Seventh Trumpeter from the Book of Revelation sat (and still sits) in Russell’s Lincoln Park.  According to Rural Kansas Tourism, the sculpture (now popularly known as the Angel in the Park) “was constructed in 1988 to symbolize a turnaround of the local economy and a new beginning.  The artist’s idea was to portray that when the angel blows the 7th trumpet, better times and new beginnings were ahead.”

angel websize

It was apparently not unusual for the sculpture to be interpreted in more literal terms, however: according to Helliker’s article, the disappearances set off a wave of anxiety.  “Students at Bickerdyke Elementary School, located across the street from the Seventh Trumpeter sculpture, swore they saw the angel’s trumpet move.”  Psychologists were brought in to counsel the panicked students.  The public library was overwhelmed with requests for Butts’ book, and UFO sightings in the area spiked.

UFOcontact

I didn’t live in Russell, but the atmosphere of expectant foreboding described in the article felt familiar.  In the fall of my freshman year in high school, a brilliant light on the horizon convinced a number of people in my hometown that the Second Coming had arrived, or so I heard; it was the lights from the football stadium for the first home game, seen through an unseasonal haze.  There was a lot of that going around in the late 1980s and early ’90s, enough that director Richard Kelly’s decision to set his spooky 2001 film Donnie Darko on the eve of the 1988 presidential election felt weirdly appropriate.  In hindsight, this story, and several others that I collected, pointed to a convergence of two trends that would go mainstream in the 1990s: interest in UFOs and paranormal activity, and millennial fundamentalism.  The popularity of The X-Files gave a boost to the former, and the political ascendance of the latter is a reality that is still with us; in both cases, the Internet’s ability to connect like-minded people surely contributed to the trends.  The fact that “rational explanations” were forthcoming–pranksters confessed to faking UFOs with road flares tied to helium balloons, and the four missing women had undertaken a pilgrimage to Israel without telling anyone–makes it conveniently easy to dismiss the whole thing, leaving aside the question of why people get swept up in these manias in the first place.

Donnie Darko, 2001

Donnie Darko, 2001

I don’t have an answer to that, at least nothing that would go beyond the volumes that sociologists and philosophers have already written.  Perhaps, in addition to my dramatic ambitions, I was simply trying to make sense of the data, like that other famous clipper, Charles Fort.  Fort spent years arranging the “damned facts,” weird happenings and sightings culled from newspapers from all over the world, into his four books; the cumulative force of his observations asserts a loose philosophy of skepticism toward both unsubstantiated myth and scientific orthodoxy, putting his faith in facts without jumping to conclusions about how they fit together.  The Internet has made it both easier and more difficult to follow the weird happenings in the world: easier because we have greater access than Fort, sitting at a table in the New York Public Library, could have imagined, and more difficult because of the sheer scope of the information available.  Ultimately, the lack of a definitive conclusion is what makes this sort of story less satisfying for dramatic purposes than we might desire: we’re left either exaggerating the reality of the aliens’ presence, as in a Hollywood blockbuster, or dismissing it altogether, as most outside observers would.  The ambiguity and misdirection, the need to believe without being able to prove anything, was something The X-Files would get right, for the most part, and as Donnie Darko would demonstrate, sometimes the most captivating aspect of a case like this isn’t a story at all, but a mood.

And with that, I leave you with Donald Erb’s 1969 composition The Seventh Trumpet, appropriate mood music for this article.

Alliterative Insult: an Operatic Example

When composing his epic, four-installment opera Der Ring des Nibelungen, Richard Wagner wasn’t content just to write the music; as he had done with his previous operas, he wrote the text as well.  Wagner intended his work to be comprehensive.  As a Gesamtkunstwerk (“total art work”), Wagner’s form of theater would encompass music, text, stage direction, and even the design and construction of a new theater, all guided by a single controlling vision: his own.  Although Wagner’s musical innovations are well-known to audiences—his thorough-going chromaticism, his extended forms, the importance of the orchestral accompaniment in spinning out leitmotivs—his text is not always given the same appreciation, especially among non-German speakers.

When introducing students to works in foreign languages, I’ve noticed an assumption on many listeners’ part that the words are completely comprehensible to native speakers, and that their meaning for them is as clear as the translations that often appear as subtitles on video or projections in the theater.  There are many reasons that this is not so, and vary depending on the composer and the language in question; undoubtedly some operas are easier to understand than others.  The musical setting of the text (not to mention individual performance conditions) can emphasize clarity or destroy it, just as the range of English-language music theater runs from the transparent to the obscure.

In the case of the Ring cycle, the challenges go beyond that of translating from one language to another: Wagner borrowed and expanded a technique called Stabreim (“stave rhyme”) from the Icelandic Eddas, the medieval saga that, along with the German Nibelungenlied, provided the basis for his exploration of the Norse gods and their fall.  Stabreim, far from being a rhyme scheme as we might conceive it, is a form of poetic meter based on alliteration, the repetition of initial consonants at key points within the poetic line.  Wagner, believing the Eddas to be a spontaneous (and thus pure) outpouring of unconscious folk creation, sought to channel that supposed primitive force by imitating and expanding upon it.  Thus, his text is both deliberately archaic and in some places obscure; it’s comparable, I think, to English-language writers borrowing “thee” and “thou” from Shakespeare and the King James Bible to channel some of their solemnity and sense of antiquity, but goes even farther.  According to one translator, an anecdote has it that Wagner’s grandson Wieland, when directing productions of the Ring, would have the cast translate their lines into German—that is, modern German—in order to understand their parts.  If true, that certainly puts our difficulties into perspective.

It has proven challenging to translators, as well, and as is often the case, they have sometimes had to prioritize the meaning of the text over Wagner’s alliterative scheme (or his exclusive use of German root words, or the complex use of puns that saturate the text).  Still, there are a few places where the alliteration is too good to resist.  In Scene One of Das Rheingold, the dwarf Alberich, overcome by lust, is taunted by the three Rhine maidens for his ugly appearance (it is, of course, this teasing that leads him to steal the Rhine gold and renounce love, the decision that starts the plot moving).  Wellgunde, one of the maidens, rebukes Alberich by singing (at 8:50 in the embedded video):

Pfui, du haariger,

höck’riger Geck!

Schwarzes, schwieliges

Schwefelgezwerg!

The alliteration in the last two lines paints a detailed (and insulting) portrait of Alberich, calling him a Schwarzes (black), Schwieliges (callous) Schwefelgezwerg (Schwefel meaning sulphur and zwerg meaning dwarf).  Alberich is more than just a little person, however: in Wagner’s interpretation of Teutonic mythology, the Nibelungs were a race of skilled metal workers and miners that toiled in the ground in their own realm (Nibelheim), separate from either men or gods (think of Snow White’s seven dwarfs, or the dwarves** of J. R. R. Tolkien, who drew on many of the same medieval sources for his Lord of the Rings).  When zwerg is used, it is a term of disparagement (as in Scene Three, when Alberich calls his brother Mime a Tückischer zwerg, a shifty or treacherous dwarf).  Elsewhere in the text, Alberich is referred to either as a Nibelung or occasionally as an Alp (elf).  So, right off the bat, Wellgunde’s taunt calls attention to his ugly appearance, darkness*, and his connection to the deep earth (in fact, Alberich appears to have reached the Rhine by climbing out of a cave underneath it).

What have translators made of this? It’s one of the more colorful examples of alliteration in the text, so most translators have tried to preserve it.  In the video (from Robert Lepage’s recent staging at the Metropolitan Opera) the lines are subtitled as “You’re a hairy, horrible thing!  So hideous and spotted!”  It’s safe to say that there have been more ambitious renditions of Wellgunde’s insult.  A 1904 translation by Charles Henry Meltzer has it as

Faugh ! Thou hairy

and  Humpy old oaf!

Swarthy, shuddersome,

Sulphurous dwarf!

The adjective “sulphurous” can be taken literally, but also has a connotation of spitefulness: a poisonous disposition.  The uncredited translator of The Authentic Librettos of the Wagner Operas (Crown Publishers, 1938, although apparently the Rheingold translation also goes back to 1904) renders it as

Faugh!  You hairy

and horrible imp!

Swarthy, stunted,

and shriveled up dwarf!

Note the loss of any reference to sulphur; “shriveled up” could refer to Alberich’s size, old age, or (obliquely) sexual undesirability.

Stewart Spencer, in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung: A Companion (Thames & Hudson, 1993) has

Ugh!  You hairy,

hunchbacked fool!

Brimstone-black

and blistered dwarf!

I like this one; it’s a vivid and incisive description of a creature living too close to volcanic fissures underground.  Finally, lest we assume that subtitles, with their bias toward ease of reading and keeping the plot moving, must be devoid of interest, I present the translation used for the 2002 production at the Staatsoper Stuttgart, staged by Joachim Schlömer:

Urgh! You hairy,

misshapen old hog!

You randy, wrinkled,

rheumaticky runt!

It’s as if each translator has tried to do justice to the alliterative excess in Wellgunde’s insult but without repeating their predecessor’s choice of words. Fortunately, while the polyglot heritage of English vocabulary makes it challenging to construct extensive rhyme schemes (by comparison to the Italian terza rima of Dante, for example), the variety of words available provides almost unlimited potential for alliteration.  One could conceive of Alberich as a “miniature, mephitic miscreant,” a “pestilent, pint-sized playboy,” or even a “callous, coal-black Casanova”—none are exactly the same as the original, of course, but what translation ever is?

*The Eddas also mention “dark elves,” which some scholars think may have been dwarfs by another name; in any case the concept has branched into its own category, separate from dwarves, in modern fantasy literature.

** The plural “dwarves” was popularized by Tolkien, and has become standard when discussing them as a fantasy race; I have used the more standard “dwarfs” in this article except for explicit reference to Tolkien’s treatment of them.  Hence the discrepancy.