Happy Birthday Mozart!

I was reminded earlier by George at Euzicasa that today is Mozart’s birthday, and I think I’m not alone when I say that he is among my favorite classical composers, and that I wish him a very happy birthday.

To this day, I remember my first experience of a Mozart opera. I was 12 years old and traveling with my grandparents in Europe. We were in Salzburg and they took me to see a performance of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), performed in the famous Salzburg Marionette Theatre. They had introduced me to opera the previous year with Madame Butterfly, and I had loved it, but this was an entirely different experience. The voices were amazing, the production was beautiful, and the marionettes, well, I forgot that I was watching puppets after about the first ten minutes. It made me fall in love with opera and with Mozart, and that love has not diminished one bit over the years.

My daughter and I waiting for "Mozart Under the Moon" to start.

Now I’m trying to instill that same love in my daughter, and although she’s still a bit young for opera, she’s certainly not too young to enjoy the music of such a marvelous composer. Just last year I took her to her first concert, “Mozart under the Moon,” and we both loved it. It was the night of the “supermoon” and it was an outdoor concert featuring “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” and several other pieces (a gorgeous moon and brilliant music, how can you go wrong?). Its been nearly one year and she still asks to return, and whenever she hears classical music at home or on the radio, she calls it “concert music.” Needless to say, as soon as she’s old enough, we’re hopping a plane to Salzburg to watch the marionettes bring Mozart to life.

I was able to find this series of clips from the Salzburg Marionette Theatre’s performance of The Magic Flute. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything out there that showed an entire scene with decent quality, but at least this gives you a small taste of how magical the experience of watching it was. That Queen of the Night scene was downright breathtaking.


Wagner according to Anna Russel

Ever since I watched Melancholia, with Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde playing in the background, I seem to be surrounded by German Romanticism. Just this morning I finished reading Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther with my AP European History class, yesterday morning I  wrote about Ernst Haeckel and his links to German Romanticism, and last night I fell asleep reading a little Schiller.

Now German Romanticism can be a relatively dark and foreboding place, with themes of longing prevailing, and happy endings incredibly rare. Isaiah Berlin, in his Roots of Romanticism describes the German Romantics’ embracing this atmosphere of “sturm und drang” because of the belief that there exists an “insoluble conflict” in the world, where “conflict, collision, tragedy, death – all kinds of horrors – are inevitably involved in the nature of the universe.”   He later writes,

This sudden passion for action as such, this hatred of any established order, hatred of any kind view of the universe as having a structure which calm (or even unclam) perception is able to understand, contemplate, classify, describe, and finally use – this is unique to the Germans.

From the 2009 performance of the Ring Cycle by the Seattle Opera.

Then just the other night at our faculty post-holiday party, I got into a conversation about Wagner’s the Ring Cycle (best known for its “Ride of the Valkyries”) with the school’s choral director. Der Ring des Nibelungen is a four-part trilogy that is truly epic in its scope. A typical performance normally unfolds over the course of four nights at the theatre, and takes approximately 15 hours to complete. It’s a story of heroes, gods, and other mythical beings in a narrative that can rival anything written by Tolkien. It epitomizes yet another part of German Romanticism, namely pull of mythical heroes and nationalism.

During the course of that conversation with the music teacher, Anna Russel’s brilliant comedy routine about the opera came up. I remember first hearing it on NPR years ago and staying in my car to listen to it in its entirety, despite the fact that I’d already arrived at my destination. She took one of the most lengthy and complex operas and laid it bare with incomparable wit and style.

So here she is, removing some of the “sturm” from the German Romantics.


The second and third parts of her performance can be found here.

Please turn off your cell phones…

Not only is his playing absolutely beautiful, but his reaction to the ringing phone is just priceless.

Slovak musician Lukáš Kmit responds to a ringing phone by improvising his own version of the Nokia ringtone. Filmed at the Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Presov Slovakia. Recorded by GREATMILAN in July 30, 2011.


Good music, great message…and a Rube Goldberg machine.

Last month, soon after my still-distressing break-up, an old friend sent me a link to a video, promising that it would cheer me up. She was right, it was one of the first things to really make me smile.

The song is titled “This Too Shall Pass” by the always creative OK Go.  Once it starts, the video is impossible to stop watching, more so if you’ve ever had any interest in Rube Goldberg machines… and this is an insanely elaborate one. According to an article on wired.com that explains how the machine was made,

For nearly four minutes — captured in a single, unbroken camera shot — the machine rolls metal balls down tracks, swings sledgehammers, pours water, unfurls flags and drops a flock of umbrellas from the second story, all perfectly synchronized with the song. A few gasp-inducing, grin-producing moments when the machine’s action lines up so perfectly, you can only shake your head in admiration at the creativity and precision of the builders.

Regarding the message of the song, well, the message was the right one at the right moment, with its refrain of “Let it go, this too shall pass.” I still listen to it daily when I run.

So here it is; good music, an uplifting message, and an incredible video that may as well be an art installation…

Click here for a series of “behind-the-scenes” videos on the making of “This Too Shall Pass.” Definitely worth watching.


“A beautiful movie about the end of the world”

I don’t tend to watch many movies. I don’t particularly love movie theaters, and finding two solid quiet hours at home is nearly impossible. That being said, last night I watched Lars von Trier‘s new film Melancholia. I’d originally heard about it on an astronomy blog, in a post primarily about the film’s scientific impossibility. Now, I’m normally not a fan of science fiction (2001 being the exception), I really dislike action films, and I tend to be a nightmare movie-watcher in that I get some kind of perverse excitement in finding and pointing out every historical and/or scientific flaw that I can find. But after watching the trailer back in July, I was hooked. Was that Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde I heard in the background? Was that an allusion to MillaisOphelia? And no mention of cowboy-astronauts trying to blow up the rogue planet?? It may have taken five months, but I finally found the time to sit and watch it, and I was not disappointed. The film stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kirsten Dunst, Kiefer Sutherland, and Alexander Skarsgard.

In the film, according to Nils Thorsen,

we follow two sisters till the bitter end. Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst. A melancholic by the grace of God, she has a hard time finding her place in the world and assuming all its empty rituals, but feels more at home when the world draws near its end. And then her sensible big sister Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who thrives in the world and consequently finds it hard to say goodbye to it.

But its more than that. There’s more depth there. Although the film is uncharacteristically smooth and pretty for von Trier, that smoothness belies a deep study of our very natures when confronted with such a horrifying reality. I found myself identifying strongly with Claire…confronted with the loss of everything, I think I, too, would crumble, as I have a lot to lose with my daughter. There is a scene where she (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is running, carrying her son in a hail storm, and although a silent scene save for Tristan and Isolde, it seemed to scream the anguish and helplessness of that moment.

Melancholia is also a beautiful film, almost heartbreakingly beautiful. The first sequence where everything is shot in extremely slow motion, showing you the entire story before it even begins is simply stunning. I couldn’t avert my eyes. The film itself is shot in an estate in Sweden that can only be described as something out of a fairy tale. There is something about the juxtaposition of the beauty of the location with the hopelessness of the narrative truly underscores the sense of longing that pervades this film.

The music von Trier selected is also downright haunting. Although I’m not generally a fan of Wagner, I love Tristan and Isolde, and the prelude which carries the viewer through the movie provides the perfect backdrop for all that unfolds. It sometimes actually felt as if the music was a character in itself, providing a forward motion when the narrative did not.

From the start, the end is revealed, the world will end. There will be no happy ending, nor will this be a suspense film. As I watched it, maybe because of Wagner, maybe because of the Millais allusion, I felt as if i was watching a modern take on Romanticism. The film seemed a two-hour exploration of our inner sturm und drang, where nature is awesome, terrifying, and beautiful, and our souls are equally awesome, terrifying, and beautiful. It epitomized the sense of the phrase weltschmerz.  Von Trier himself has acknowledged the influence, although in typical fashion, he does so rather dismissively.

With a state of mind as my starting point, I desired to dive headlong into the abyss of German romanticism. Wagner in spades. That much I know.

I think this may be one of those films that one either loves or hates. The pace is exceedingly slow, the ending is revealed at the start, and the characters all have their fair share of flaws. Von Trier himself isn’t sure whether or not he liked it. I did, however…I found it refreshingly beautiful, moving, and thought-provoking. The kind of film that will stay with me for quite a long time.

Here is the trailer…

And here is the opening sequence of the film…


The Vertigo of Lists

Giovanni Paolo Pannini, Picture Galleries with Views of Ancient Rome, 1759

As the end of the year approaches, it seems as if everyone is compiling or discussing lists. This morning on my drive into work there must have been at least five different “end-of-year” lists referenced (and I live very close to my workplace), including “Top 100 Songs of 2011,” “NPR‘s Favorite 50 Albums of 2011,” and “Top 20 Books by Readers of 2011.” With this endless listing, it seems as if we attempt, looking back on the year, to make sense of it by creating these tidy catalogues. But that’s exactly the function of the list, to create order out of chaos; to organize, categorize, rank, and define. To reference a post from a couple of weeks ago, lists essentially act as a cultural Maxwell’s Demon.

But for Umberto Eco, lists do more than simply impose or express order, they function as creators of culture and windows into history. In late 2009, Eco curated an exhibition at the Louvre where his chosen subject was “The Vertigo of Lists.” Through this subject he intended to take us on a grand tour of art, literature, and music, all through the focus of lists. He was interviewed by Spiegel about this exhibit, and when asked why he chose the seemingly commonplace subject of lists for his work, he explained,

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

He then continues to say,

The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists.

According to Jean-Marc Terrasse, auditorium manager of the Louvre,

his central thesis is that in Western culture a passion for accumulation is recurring: lists of saints, catalogues of plants, collections of art, all show how in the right hands there can be a ‘poetics of catalogues’.

Based on his work at the Louvre, Eco wrote a truly beautiful book  titled The Vertigo of Lists (or The Infinity of Lists in the US). This book is a continuation of the work he had begun with his books History of Beauty and On Ugliness.  It is replete with vivid images of the art he wants us to look at as exemplifying his argument, and selections of the literature he cites. In this book, as with his work with the Louvre, he takes one on a whirlwind tour of Western art, literature, and music, selecting pieces that not only reinforce the idea of enumeration, but that also give one the sense of voluptuousness, abundance, infinity, or “vertigo.”

He certainly succeeds at conveying this sense of the infinite through his meticulously chosen examples. In literature he begins with Homer’s Iliad, and continues with lists care of Vergil, Dante, Shakespeare, Proust, Calvino, Zola, Cervantes, Rimbaud, Neruda, etcetera (he even includes a selection from his book, The Name of the Rose, a book full of lists). In art, the list is also exhaustive, including the works of Pannini, Bosch, Dürer, Brueghel, Goya, Ernst, Warhol, among hundreds of others. This along with myriad reliquaries, scenes from Hollywood musicals, images of nerve cells, and photographs of collections. Merely listing what he includes seems to give one that sense of vertigo. In addition to all of this, he also cites music, my favorite mention of which is Ravel, of whose “Bolero” he writes that  “its obsessive rhythms suggests that it could continue infinitely.”

For Eco, in both the exhibit and the book, the list is a “cutout of infinity,” an intimation of what may lay beyond the frame of a painting, or behind the shop window. It is not only what is explicitly mentioned in the list that is significant, but also the ellipses and “etcetera” at the end of that list; the indication that there is more that cannot even be mentioned, the implication of the infinite.

We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.

Although I never had an opportunity to view the exhibition at the Louvre, I did recently read the book (I purchased a copy for my grandmother for Christmas, and bought one for myself, too). I’m sure on some level I had always thought about the significance of list and listing, on personal, cultural, and aesthetic levels. That being said, I’d never quite thought it all the way through in the way that Eco proposed. The list, not as the obvious expression of the finite, but as the intimation of the infinite and the ineffable.

Here is a video of Eco discussing his work at the Louvre, his book, and, of course, lists. Umberto Eco: The Vertigo of Lists.

And if you haven’t heard (or are haven’t listened in a while) to Ravel’s “Bolero,” here it is…


I’ll end this post with the words that Eco used to end his introduction to his book …

In conclusion, the search for lists was a most exciting experience not so much for what we managed to include in this volume as for all the things that had to be left out. What I mean to say, in other words, is that this book cannot but end with an etcetera.

The Legend of Lumpy Sue… And Why it Matters

It’s “Black Friday,” the unofficial national holiday of excess spending and rampant consumerism. Now, I have no real problem with that in and of itself, some people really seem to enjoy the “rush” of standing in long lines to wait for a discount on a television set, or of beating someone else to the better deal… who knows, maybe it all taps into some ancient hunter instinct.  Whatever it may be, I am decidedly missing that gene.  The thought of a crowded mall with people clamoring over each other sends chills down my spine, and when I read about stories like this, or this, or this,  I feel downright glad that I lack the “Black Friday” spirit.  Instead, I go to sleep content on Thanksgiving, knowing that after a day of giving thanks for what I do have, I can spend next day sharing a beautiful afternoon with those I love listening to wonderful music in inspiring surroundings. In other words, at least here in Miami, the Lumpy Sue Acoustic Music Fest, a free music festival that has been around for a little over 20 years.

Granted, the festival has an odd name… who is this Lumpy Sue, and what does she have to do with Thanksgiving and free music? Well, here is the “Legend of Lumpy Sue,” as told by the festival organizers…

On the day after a fine Thanksgiving in the early
1960s, a fat Massachusetts cop named Officer
Obie slid into his police cruiser and set out to
investigate a malicious pile of irritating garbage
which, according to an eyewitness, had been
dumped on state land by a band of hung over
hippies. Using his sharp but rural detective
skills, Obie would conclude his investigation on
that very day by pulling his .38 on a skinny
litterbug named Arlo Guthrie, earning himself in the
process a lengthy stay in folksong history.
Although the fact is little known, one of the
people who helped Arlo pick up that stank
Thanksgiving garbage went by the name of
Lumpy Sue. In a 60s sort of way, she became
radicalized on the spot as she cursed and
scooped the end products of our consumerist
society. Her consciousness continued to evolve
through the disco and punk eras, and she eventually
became an underground folk hero in her
own right without ever really explaining the
origins of the nickname “Lumpy.” The hippest
people in the country have long passed down
the tales of her late night conversations with the
ghost of Joe Hill, how she nursed to proper
health thousands of orphaned children at
Chernobyl, and her heroic rescue of seven
dolphins enslaved by navy scientists. In those
olden times, back before it was illegal for miners
to buy spray paint, her fans went to a lot of
trouble to scrawl her name on highway overpasses,
often right below “Clapton is God.”
Lumpy Sue came to North Miami Beach in
1982 where she was instrumental in founding, in
her own selfless and historical way, the annual
acoustic music fest in Greynolds Park which
appropriately bears her name.

If you haven’t heard Arlo Guthrie’s classic “Alice’s Restaurant” (Arlo is, of course, the son of Woody Guthrie, the famous American folksinger of “This Land is Your Land” fame), you should. I’ve included it below, although I have to warn you, its long. It’s a song about Alice, yes, and Officer Obie, but it’s also a song about peace, about protesting social injustice, and ultimately about coming together for what’s right and just.

And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singing a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. They may think it’s an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singing a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. And friends they may think it’s a movement.

As I was laying on the grass today listening to the music, watching the children dance, feeling the cool breeze on my face, I thought about our world today and just how terribly divided we all are. I thought about the Occupy movement, and the violence and derision with which it is so often met. I thought about Paul Krugman’s article arguing that the statement “We are the 99%” actually doesn’t go far enough. I thought about my daughter, and the kind of world that I would like to leave for her. And of course, I thought about Lumpy Sue, cleaning up someone else’s garbage, leaving things just a little better than she found it. And I looked around, and saw a group of people capable of doing the same, and I returned home just a little bit hopeful… and very glad to have avoided the malls.

As promised, here’s a little Arlo Guthrie to kick off the post-holiday weekend…

Enjoy! And lets all try to keep a little perspective as the holiday season unfolds.

Music and the “Opera Aperta”

I was talking to an old friend last night.  He had read my blog posts and his response was incredibly insightful and thought-provoking.  First a little background, this friend is a professional musician and an author of several books about music.  He is incredibly creative, intelligent, and one of the most insightful people I have had the pleasure of calling a friend.

His reply to my blog was about music, naturally, and how music provides for him a similar experience as the written word does for me.  Then he said something that set me thinking…  he said he spends his time “reading” music, that his  “ears are always giving [him] information, and there is a whole universe of things in sound that cannot be put into language.” Fascinating.  Now I love music in most of its forms, and consider myself a sophisticated listener, but I’d never quite thought of it that way.  As much as I love reading, I have to admit that music can be incredibly powerful, even transcendent, with its own unique vocabulary that is open to such broader, and more personal interpretation.

That, in turn, got me thinking about a book that I read years ago, Umberto Eco’s Opera Aperta (The Open Work), one of his earlier works about the dance between text and reader (yes, Eco again, at least until I finally read Prague Cemetery).  In this book, Eco argues that a text can be read an infinite number of ways, depending on the reader, the context, and myriad other factors.  Eco himself also states that musical compositions are also “open works”, offering “fields of possibilities” of interpretation, by performers who interpret the scores, and of course, by the listener, who brings with her all manner of unique experiences and perspectives.  This idea of such an intimately interactive relationship between reader and text, listener and music, viewer and art,  is truly at the core of how we meaningfully experience the world around us… this constant dance of thought and change, affecting later interpretations and experiences, a process, that if we keep our minds open and alive enough, can last throughout our lives.  As Eco so eloquently states at the end of the Spiegel article that I blogged about yesterday,

If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing. And if nothing changes, you’re an idiot.

At this point, I began reflecting on some of my more powerful moments of listening to music.  At those moments the music is such an intensely personal experience.  Like the author can provide structure but not explicit meaning, so too with music… the musician or composer can hint and nudge, but ultimately the meaning that we derive is truly and uniquely our own.  And as such, we develop the same intimate relationships with the music that matters to us much in the same way that we develop such personal relationships with our books.