Monday, August 27, 2007

Stupid Traffic 2

The Runner-Up for Stupidest Traffic Control Situation has to be the two-lane highway on which I once had to drive across California's Mohave Desert.

There was one lane going in each direction. The highway ran as straight as a sunbeam and as flat as a roadkill as far as the eye could see; that is, as far as the range of mountains that looked the same distance away for three hours until, suddenly, they were on top of you.

Every mile or two, this crappy little east-west highway intersected some crappy little north-south road. For about 100 feet on each side of each intersection, the road widened to four lanes - a "going straight" lane and a "passing on the right" lane. I suppose there may also have been a left-turn lane, but that isn't what bothered me. What bothered me was that at every single intersection there was a traffic jam, caused by certain people jumping into the right lane (before going through the intersection) in order to speed past all the people in the center lane, who were at a standstill because 100 feet past the intersection, all the people in the right lane were trying to force their way back in.

In other words, the people who designed that highway were a lot like the people driving on it. Idiots.

Stupid Traffic 1

During my many wanderings, I have encountered some really stupid, local attempts to control traffic. I mean "stupid" in the sense of "that which makes you hopping mad at the time, and which makes you laugh later."

I think the all-time Grand Prize for Stupid Traffic goes to a small town in southeastern South Dakota, where part of the main drag had been torn up for resurfacing. At least temporarily, to manage the congested traffic during this construction project, the town put up an interesting combination of signs at one, central intersection. On the north-south road there were yield signs; on the east-west road, stop signs.

Now think about it. Which is more restrictive: a stop sign or a yield sign? You would think the answer would be a stop sign, because it requires you to stop when you come to it, every time; the yield sign only requires you to stop if there is oncoming traffic. But when you put a stop sign and a yield sign in direct opposition to each other - as I have seen only in that one instance - the result is that everyone on the road with the stop signs has to stop; and everyone on the road with the yield signs has to stop and wait for the people at the stop sign to go on.


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Adventures in Imported Food

If you follow the "food" thread on this blog, you already know that, when it comes to dining out at restaurants, I spoil myself terribly. To a lesser degree, I also spoil myself at the grocery store. I say "to a lesser degree" because I am not much of a cook, as you must also realize if my proudest achievement is combining red clam sauce with Velveeta Shells & Cheese. Nevertheless, I like to have adventures with food, so I am often trying new things.

Lately, I've realized that several of the flavor adventures I enjoyed the most are Cajun specialties. For example, your grocery store may carry a condiment you have never tried, called Chow Chow (above, left). Don't worry, it's not made out of dogs. It is sort of like a combination of pickle relish and mustard, only it contains chopped up pieces of squash, zucchini, onions, peppers, and maybe cauliflower, plus a unique blend of spices. It's chunky yet spreadable, tart and spicy but not overpowering (if used judiciously)...a very creditable alternative to ketchup and mustard!

I think I have previously mentioned the wonders of the muffuletta sandwich. Muffuletta bread (right) is a flat, round loaf of dense bread, in some cases sourdough. Sliced in half horizontally, it becomes the backbone of the sandwich that shares its name, a sandwich that (in its authentic, Louisiana-born form) contains several kinds of cold cut meat, cheese, and a condiment which few of us outside Cajun or Italian-American culture can identify. But they are all wonderful, and together they are miraculous.

Today I made a very heterodox muffuletta for lunch. Actually it wasn't anything like a muffuletta sandwich, but it had two of the key ingredients, plus sliced cheddar, between two long, oval slices of so-called "St. Louis Sourdough Bread." The first ingredient was a concoction called Black Olive Tapenade (left), which contains black olives, tomatoes, garlic, capers, and other flavorful stuff, ground up into a chunky, oily paste. You can also get Green Olive Tapenade, as well as other kinds of tapenade containing such things as artichoke, but the key to a good muffy is a spreadable olive salad, and I went with black.

The other special touch was capicola (below, right), a cut of dry-cured, cooked meat from the neck and shoulder of a pig. Thin-sliced, rubbed with a delicious blend of spices and paprika, it has a texture vaguely similar to corned beef and a flavor all its own. Italian Americans pronounce the word "gabaghoul" and eat it on pizzas, salads, and sandwiches. A proper muffy is made of gabaghoul, olive tapenade, and muffuletta bread, plus salami, provolone, Swiss cheese (or rather, emmentaler), and bologna (or rather, mortadella: another wonderful Italian cold cut, from which bologna evolved).

My grocery store, particularly the deli and imported foods sections, has exposed me to a world of meats, breads, cheeses, and relishes that have distinctive flavors, textures, and appearances, compared to the homogenized and impoverished varieties American shoppers know better. Just think what eating adventures may await you in the aisles of your neighborhood supermarket!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Reading Mozart's 39th

Mozart wrote his 39th Symphony in E-flat in the same summer of 1788 as his 40th and 41st symphonies, a time of poverty and distress for the composer that seems strangely unconnected to this trilogy of works. The 39th is particularly full of joviality and polished craftmanship. It's a pity Mozart never got to hear it performed.

The first movement begins with a slow introduction consisting mainly of running scales and majestic dotted rhythms. The opening of the sonata proper is comparatively quiet, though this first theme contrasts with more dramatic material. The movement dazzles with its wealth of attractive musical ideas, an array of contrasts brought together in a beautiful harmony.

Movement II is a slow sonata without a development. The first theme is graceful and delicate, not to say just short of soporific (I do admit that Mozart sometimes loses me in his slow movements). The second theme strikes me as brusque and stern, though some may hear tragedy in it; the music mellows out, however, in a lovely synthesis of the above material.

Movement III is a Minuet with a Ländler trio. The Minuet part is very forceful, in contrast to the gentler trio with its gorgeous woodwind writing.

Movement IV is yet another sonata, built on a theme that rapidly runs up and down the scale (mi-fa-sol-fa-mi-re-do, etc.), igniting a machine that motors along pretty well throughout the movement. Nevertheless the development section includes a surprising pause, some disturbing harmonic maneuvers, and a sinister concluding passage (leading up to the recap) that brings me out in gooseflesh. Both halves of the movement (first the exposition, then the development and recap) are repeated, with the mi-fa-sol-fa-mi-re-do run bringing the movement to an unusual but effective close.

The E-flat Symphony doesn't get the press the G Minor (No. 40) and C Major (No. 41) get. In fact, lesser symphonies by Mozart, such as the "Prague" (No. 38) and "Linz" (No. 36) Symphonies, seem to get more air time than the 39th, though the latter shows Mozart in the full maturity of his genius. Nevertheless, when one does hear the 39th, it all comes rushing back. Or rather, having once come to live inside you, it awakens again with a joyful and familiar greeting.

EDIT: In the video below, Karl Bohm conducts the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in the first movement of Mozart's 39th. Interestingly, the video begins with a close-up of the tympani:

Stupidity on the Phone

In a day and age when a tiny computer device, small enough to stick in your ear, can take voice commands such as "Call Mom" (using your cell phone to dial her number), it is amazing how backwards certain parts of the phone industry can be.

For example, I don't understand why the phone company insists on blaring a deafeningly loud error message into my sensitive, musician's ears, simply because I dialed a "1" and then the area code (even when it's a different area code from where I am calling from) because the number isn't long distance, or because I failed to dial a "1" (even when it's the same area acode as where I am calling from) because it is long distance. Am I a computer? Must I know exactly which numbers are and aren't long distance in this crazy, mixed up telephone system? If they have a computer that can decide whether or not to deafen you with an error message (based on whether you correctly chose to dial or not dial a "1"), couldn't that same computer also decide whether or not the number was long distance and simply make the connection? And must the phone company make such a loud noise directly into its customers ears?

We have reached an age when you can talk on the phone without holding anything in your hands and without trailing around a cord connected to a land line. We have lived to see days when you can store speed-dial numbers and call favorite people at the touch of two buttons. We have blue tooth devices and software sophisticated enough to recognize voice commands. We can take pictures, listen to music, send and receive text messages, play video games, and even surf the internet with our phones. But we can't get over the dilemma: "To dial 1 or not to dial 1." Here's an idea whose time has come: If the computer knows whether or not you should have dialed 1, why bother?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Reading Haydn's 100th and 104th

Two more of Joseph Haydn's most overplayed works, and therefore works you should know by name, are the 100th and 104th Symphonies.

The 100th, in G major, has the nickname "Military," owing to the references to Turkish military music in the second and fourth movements, and the trumpet fanfare in the second movement. It begins with a slow introduction that has a stately melody. After a loud outburst, this intro comes to an emphatic end. Then the flutes introduce the sprightly main theme of a "very lively" sonata movement. The second theme, full of teasing good humor, leads off in the development, followed by minor-key fragments of the first theme in which the bassoon plays an important role. A condensed recap and an energetic coda close the movement.

The second movement repeats the same noble tune several times, alternating between a "straight" orchestral version that makes remarkably sensitive use of the woodwinds, and a "janissary" version in which bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and Turkish crescent are used to create the majestic effect of Turkish military music. This style was in vogue in those days (perhaps you recall Mozart's "Rondo alla Turca") and was regarded as both exotic and awe-inspiring. It certainly makes an unusual impact in a Haydn symphony! After going back and forth between these two styles, the peaceful and the military, Haydn begins to mix them up. Then a dramatic trumpet call and drumroll trigger a brief but severe climax, after which the Turkish-colored pomp-and-circumstance ending seems quite cheerful.

Movement III is a dignified, fluent Minuet of relatively broad proportions. Its trio is quieter and lighter, with a skipping rhythm; together they make a very charming movement. Get a good earful of it, because if you listen to a lot of fine-art music, you will probably hear this piece so often that it will all but fade to inaudibility.

Movement IV is another lively sonata, this time with a jig rhythm. Even so, the development has some meditative and serious moments. After a while, the jig rhythm takes on the aspect of a woodpecker's hammering - an impression reinforced when the timpani picks it up. Toward the end, the janissary band rejoins the ensemble to add an exotic, military sparkle to the final bars.

In the 104th or "London" Symphony, the first movement - like the finale of the 100th symphony - is a monothematic sonata. That is, instead of having a full-blown second theme, it modulates to the dominant where we hear the first theme all over again. The great thing about Haydn is that he could get away with this without being thought a cheat or a bore.

First there is a slow introduction in D minor, beginning with a strong unison statement that outlines the tonic note and the dominant at a fifth above and a fourth below. Between returns of this unison passage there is other material, some of it quite poignant. The last return of the opening phrase sets up a transition to the D major sonata. This is a strong, confident, cheerful movement whose one theme breaks up into two parts. The development section builds on the second part of this theme, to exciting effect.

The Andante has a gentle, hesitant, mincing melody, full of refined pathos and a single very dissonant note that marks it as a prominent pimple marks an otherwise beautiful face. This theme seems to grow in character and charm each time it returns, again showing Haydn to be a master of orchestral color and delicate phrasing. The movement is not without drama, however, having a central section full of harmonic searching and a tragic climax, and added character facets toward the end, such as a wry flute solo and a chuckling countermelody.

Movement III is a minuet with a strong tendency toward hemiola, or changes in the pattern of rhythmic accents, and surprise pauses. The Trio gives an impression of measured haste, like a long-distance runner who knows how to pace himself; it also has freak pauses and turns of chromaticism that lend it an air of gentle pathos.

The finale - the final Finale of Haydn's enormous symphonic oeuvre - lays out a drone bass under a tune that might have been taken from Croatian folk music. When it isn't kicking up its heels, the movement leads us through unexpected chord progressions and a graceful second theme with a fourth-beat accent. Haydn breaks these ideas and more into fragments and develops them, letting in more and more of a spirit of abandoned celebration until the bright, strong, characteristically manly conclusion.

I love Haydn. Perhaps, in listening to these symphonies, you will begin to see why. To truly appreciate Haydn, you may have to immerse yourself in his world for a while; in so doing you may develop a "palate" for his work. Why bother? Well, it has been a couple hundred years since many people thought in his musical language. What you hear, as you listen to Haydn through ears fresh off a Mahler symphony, may not seem very weighty or emotionally deep. But to those who have ears to hear, they are far more than testaments to the order and grace that typefied his time. They are, rather, extraordinary statements of conviction and sentiment that can still, to this day, speak to the heart as well as the mind. They are the expression of a bright, jolly, independent-spirited man who knew more of the world than most people of his class and generation, and reveled in it. They are works of refined genius that can both thrill a come-and-go dabbler and enlighten a patient disciple.

EDIT: In the video below, Mariss Jansons conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in the first movement of Haydn's 104th.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Regurgitatorial Tackiness

Now showing on the ELCA lighted church sign in my neighborhood:


Translation: "We take invertebrates as our role models!"

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Reading Mahler's 1st

Austrian composer Gustav Mahler's (1860-1911) First Symphony in D Major is often erroneously given the nickname "Titan." I see this subtitle on both my CD of the piece and the cover of my Dover Miniature Score. Though Mahler himself gave this title to the work, it is not correct; such is the complexity of the story behind this Symphony.

Mahler originally wrote this piece in 1888, and it premiered the following year, billed as a symphonic poem. Between 1889 and 1894, while the piece had three performances, Mahler tinkered with it. He inserted a fifth movement (after the first two), a piece called Blumine which was originally part of some incidental music for a play; later Mahler changed his mind and cut the movement again. For two of the first three performances of this "tone poem" he also gave the movements programmatic titles in reference to the novel Titan by Jean Paul; afterward he retracted this as well. Revisions and name changes continued until 1896 when it was finally designated as a symphony, it was published three years later under the title Symphony No. 1 - period. Mahler's revisions changed not only a few notes and details of orchestration; it changed the entire structure of the piece, and its purpose accordingly. So the composer himself repudiated any hint of "programme" outside the absolute music of the symphony.

Titan or no, it is a huge work, lasting for nearly an hour, and requiring an orchestra of considerable size. For example, on the very first page of the score the strings are divided into 9 parts! There are also parts for 4 flutes, 4 oboes, 4 clarinets, and 3 bassoons; though some of the above players must occasionally switch to piccolo, English horn, and any of five different types of clarinet. There are 7 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, and a tuba. Five percussion players are required, including two timpanists, plus enough hands to play a triangle, various cymbals, a gong, and a bass drum. And don't forget the harp! With doublings and reinforcements it can easily add up to 100 instruments.

Movement I begins with a chilling slow introduction, notable for the open-octave A's in harmonics on the strings, played very, very softly. This sonority strikes me as very creepy, like the icy stillness of a moonless, starless night. Perhaps Mahler meant to bring to mind the openings of some of Beethoven's symphonies, such as the 4th and 9th (we have yet to discuss them here, so I will say no more about them). Fragments of themes begin to coalesce like cosmic dust swirling together, including what sounds like signals from a distant battle, until finally the sun comes out in the form of a cheerful, easygoing tune. Here Mahler recycles the music from his song cycle for baritone and orchestra, Songs of a Wayfarer. Mahler was constantly re-using his songs in his symphonies, with and without lyrics. Here are the words to the song Mahler quotes in this movement, so you can have an idea of what he was getting at:
As I walked this morning over the field,
Dew still hung on the grass;
The merry finch spoke to me:
Hey you! Chink?
Good morning! Hey chink? You!
Is it not a lovely world?
Cheep! Cheep!
Lovely and bright!
How the world pleases me!

Also the bluebell in the field
Rang its morning greeting
To merry good things
With its chime, ding-a-ding,
Is this not a lovely world?
Ding, ding,
Lovely thing!
How the world pleases me! Hey ho!

Bloom and bird, great and small,
Good day!
Is this not a lovely world?
Hey, you! Chink!
Lovely world!
Now will my good fortune also begin?
No, no;
This, I know,
Can never, never bloom for me!
Until the last four lines, it sounds all right. Clearly Mahler, who wrote the words as well as the music, was a bit morbid in his mind. The exposition section of the symphony, if I may call it that - the part that gets repeated, at least - sounds entirely cheerful from one end to the other. After the repeat, however, the music plunges directly back into the eerie opening atmosphere, which must be very hard to play in tune (to judge by the one live performance I have heard). Again one hears fragments coalescing together, building up to the return of the main theme. The development divides itself between the song and the fanfare music, growing more and more sinister until the recap breaks out. The rest of the movement is an upward ramp of energy, growing in both magnitude and momentum toward an ending which goes past euphoria to a kind of joyful hysteria.

The "robust, animated" second movement is a dancelike scherzo movement which I dare you to listen to without humming the tune afterward. It has a very masculine, if not martial, feel. The main scherzo part, in A major, has a more chromatic middle section over a hurdy-gurdylike bass. The opening theme returns to for an ecstatic wrapping-up before the gentler (and also more chromatic and "modern"-sounding) Trio. I noticed the same trumpet phrase, both in the Scherzo and the Trio, sounding like an alien element. I wonder what Mahler was driving at, there. Anyway, the Scherzo returns, this time without the contrasting middle section, driving to another spectacular ending.

Movement III is a Funeral March marked "solemn and measured, without dragging." It begins with an unusual contrabass solo introducing the Austrian nursery-song "Bruder Martin," which is a round like "Row, row, row your boat." "Bruder Martin" is so similar to the French round "Frère Jacques," except for being in a minor key, that many non-Austrian listeners are fooled into thinking Mahler altered "Frère Jacques" and then diabolically wove it into a dirge. This is a profound misinterpretation of a movement that is not seriously meant as a tragic funeral march, but rather as a sardonic satire. For example, just as the dirge-round reaches maximum density, the oboist introduces a jaunty new melody right on top of it. It is as if one of the mourners at a funeral forgot himself and started whistling a cheerful tune.

Then, as the funeral procession comes to a halt, Mahler indulges in an even sharper bit of satire, lampooning a maudlin folk melody. The score is even marked "mit Parodie" at the point where the tackiness becomes obvious, particularly as the bass drum and cymbals are directed to sound like a one-man band. The picture this creates is of a local amateur band doing its best to sound solemn, but repeatedly slipping into the mannerisms of a polka. After this episode, the opening round, complete with oboe theme, makes a brief reappearance, like a rondo refrain. Then comes a sweet, dreamlike episode, quoting material from the end of another Wayfarer Song titled "The two blue eyes." The lyrics that originally went with this music were:
On the street stands a linden tree,
Where I for the first time rested in sleep.
Under the linden tree,
Which snowed its blossoms over me,
I knew not what life does [i.e., the pain it inflicts];
All, all was well again - all, all!
Love and sorrow and world and dream!
The phrase heard in the flutes at the end of this section (bars 110-112) is actually the final accompanying notes of the same song, based on the opening notes of its melody. It seems a little out of place here, quoted out of context, but somehow in my imagination it seems related to the second theme of this movement (the very beginning of the town band episode). After this wordless song stanza comes another refrain, with the round and the countermelody that was first introduced by the oboe, plus a new countermelody in the trumpets. The tacky town band returns, now overlapping with Bruder Martin, and as the movement dies away the last theme that is distinctly heard is the oboe countermelody, now chiefly in the bassoon.

Movement IV follows without a pause with a stormy atmosphere. After a preface-like passage, the horns and brass announce a strident theme that is then ripped up into motivic fragments. Until now Mahler has used his vast orchestra mainly as a palette, from which he selects a variety of color combinations; for much of this movement, however, the full forces are in play, creating extended passages of massive volume and enginelike energy. The intro music from the first movement returns, first in a sketchy, varied form, and later in a more literal quote; the fragmentary theme heard at the beginning of the whole work (constructed out of descending fourths) appears complete and triumphant, like a butterfly fresh out of chrysalis; and the final time we hear the open-octave-A's with battle-signals, they are at full volume and finally resolve to the tonic D in an extended and forceful closing passage that will shake the earth under you.

IMAGES: Mahler; a bunch of Austrian landscapes and an Austrian state funeral. P.S. Yes, I realize this symphony isn't listed on Assignment Two. Consider it a freebie! EDIT: Here is a nice video of the third movement being performed by Ukrainian musicians under the baton of Arkady Leytush:

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Last Legion

I found out on Thursday that my brother Jake was getting married on Friday. I guess it was a surprise for everybody, but not that much of a surprise. When I called my other brother Ryan on Friday afternoon to tell him about it, it was news to him too. So obviously I missed the wedding and the reception. I guess I was feeling like a party of my own, so I went to another movie.

This time it was The Last Legion, a film about the last boy-emperor of Rome, who fled to Britannia when the Goths sacked Rome. He fled in seach of the Ninth Legion - the one bit of the Roman army that might still be loyal to Caesar. I knew going in that it was a King Arthur prequel, with a character who turns out to be Merlin and a sword that turns out to be Excalibur, so the surprise twist at the end didn't surprise me. The rest of the movie was fun-for-the-whole-family fun. Neither a great historical film nor a jaw-dropping spectacle of hewing and cleaving, it was just a pretty-good adventure movie with a plot that wouldn't be out of place in the young readers' fiction I review for Mugglenet. Likeable, but not great.

The cast was all right, though. Ben Kingsley was effective as the young emperor's teacher, a philosopher who is also on a quest to find the sword of Julius Caesar which is prophesied to be invincible in the hands of a true king. Thomas Sangster is all right as the boy emperor Romulus, and his chemistry with Colin Firth is a given because they have worked together before(Remember the miserable Nanny McPhee?). Unfortunately, Colin Firth can't seem to put romantic comedy behind him. Maybe he took this job because the word "Roman" is in "romantic comedy." The way he acts in this movie makes it all but impossible to take him seriously as a tough old campaigner. I tried, I really did, but I was thwarted by the way the actor constantly reverted to a look either of good-natured imbecility, tongue-tied astonishment, or (whenever the leading lady was in sight) telling himself, "I'll never be good enough for her." Egads! Were there no manly actors who would have taken this role?

All right, calm down. Cast. I was talking about the cast. Well, there is eye candy for everybody, with the butt-kicking beauty Aishwarya Rai playing a female soldier of fortune from India and the stupefyingly handsome Rupert Friend splashing around in a fountain with his shirt off. Other familiar faces include John Hannah (of the late Mummy movies), Iain Glen (who played Richard the Lion-Heart in Kingdom of Heaven), Kevin McKidd (also of Kingdom of Heaven, though I always remember him as John Browdie in Nicholas Nickleby) and Alexander Siddig (who is doing more than any other ex-Star Trek cast member to put the Final Frontier behind him). Now Kevin McKidd would have done well with the role they gave to Colin Firth...I know. Let it go.

Hey, I just remembered: Siddig was in Kingdom of Heaven too. This must have been like a class reunion!

IMAGES: The principal players, including Sangster, Firth, Rai, Kingsley, Friend, and Nonso Anozie; Firth and Rai having a romantic-comedy moment while scaling the walls of Capri; McKidd looking like somebody you wouldn't want to mess with (but not as he appears in this movie).

Friday, August 17, 2007


For today's weekly movie indulgence, I had a choice of three new movies: Invasion - a paranoid-looking sci-fi thriller starring Nicole Kidman; The Last Legion - a prequel to the Arthurian legend featuring Ben Kingsley as Merlin; and Underdog, a superhero spoof/TV cartoon spinoff featuring a flying, talking beagle.

Natch, I went with the Beagle. I didn't really know anything about the other two movies and, not wanting to keep the line waiting behind me, I had to make a quick decision. So I went with the movie I figured would be good for some laughs. And it was.

Underdog features a beagle whose career as a police dog is on the rocks. Caught by a dog-catcher, he becomes a subject in a sinister (I mean, Barsinister) scientist's genetic-engineering experiment, and ends up with all kinds of super powers, including the ability to talk to humans. The dog escapes, quickly gets adopted by a widower cop (Jim Belushi) and his sullen teen son (Alex Neuberger, kind of a "B-movie Shia Leboeuf"), and begins a crusade against crime which eventually pits him against the evil professor (vertically challenged Peter Dinklage) and his idiot sidekick (Patrick Warburton).

Also featuring the vocal talents of Jason Lee and Brad Garrett, the movie is a "not altogether unenjoyable" parade of potty jokes, kids-and-animals gags, and comic booky campiness that is just bearable because it's done tongue-in-cheek. It won't win any awards, but it should bring families with kids some happiness for a weekend or two.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Reading Schumann's 2nd

Robert Schumann's Second Symphony in C was actually the third symphony he wrote. (An early version of his Fourth Symphony got in ahead of it somehow.) Though not as widely known as his First ("Spring") Symphony or his Third (the "Rhenish"), the nicknameless Second is, in my opinion, Schumann's greatest and most perfect symphony.

It begins with a solemn, almost churchly, slow introduction featuring a brass phrase (do-do-do-sol) that becomes important later. The intro gradually accumulates energy and foreshadows musical ideas yet to come. Then a truly exciting sonata takes off, starting with a theme that has double-dotted rhythms in it (i.e., really sharp, spiky things). Even as smoother themes unfold, asymmetrical rhythms and jerky accents create a feeling of restless energy that runs under all. After a thorough development, the recap shows the themes in, if anything, a sharper and jerkier mood than before. Things are finally settled by a coda that is unsually long in proportion to the movement as a whole - a coda in which the opening brass phrase reappears.

Movement II, typically for Schumann, is a Scherzo with two trios. The Scherzo proper runs rapidly, and all but ceaselessly, up and down, propelled ever forward by the harmonic forces that push unstable chords (such as diminished triads) toward a resolution. The first trio contains a dialogue between winds and strings. The second trio is a bit fugal, and again has a vaguely religious sound, until the final return of the scherzo in which, once again, the brass theme from the first movement's slow introduction returns.

If you want to hear the very epitome of Romanticism, feast your ears on Movement III: an achingly expressive slow movement that enfolds you in a billowy drape of sweet melancholy. Here and there it has a more upbeat moment, and there is another touch of fugato tucked in the center; but mainly the movement is driven by a single obsession, a theme that it turns over and looks it from every conceivable angle (again and again), and yet tempts you to continue toying with it indefinitely.

A fanfare-like passage sweeps us into the finale, in which we hear not only the first movement's opening brass theme but also a melody based on the theme of Movement III. The final solution to this modified-sonata's conflict, however, turns out to be a songlike theme that appears out of nowhere in the development section. The symphony closes with another coda of considerable proportions, in which all these themes play a role - including the increasingly chorale-like brass number from the slow intro. In this way, Schumann ties all his movements together in a very convincing unity.

I once attended a concert where Schumann's Second was to be played at the end of the program. At intermission, a group of people seated near me got up to leave, somehow giving the impression that they wouldn't be back for the second half. I appealed to them to give this symphony a chance...and they did. They said afterward they were glad of it, too. It is a wonderful piece that perhaps, in a way, benefits from being underplayed. For it is too unfamiliar to be taken for granted, and so excellent that many people hearing it for the first time are amazed at the hidden pearl they have discovered.

EDIT: Times are tough when the best video of an entire movement of this symphony is from a touring group performing on the campus of Eastern Illinois University. Robert Katkov-Trevino conducts the Millennium Chamber Players...

Reading Schubert's 5th

Schubert's Fifth Symphony in B-flat isn't a great symphony, but it's very pleasant listening and, unlike many of the works in "Assignment Two," it doesn't require a huge investment of time. Written when the composer was 19 years old, it plays like a light, cheerful tribute to Mozart. There are a few moments when you might even swear Schubert had lifted a passage directly from Mozart; in at least one instance (a transition passage in the Minuet) he actually does quote directly from Mozart's 40th Symphony!

Movement I is an easy-going sonata that sparkles with youthful joy and Puckish magic. Movement II is graceful and lyrical, the third-movement Minuet brusque and dramatic with a rustic village-dance-type trio, and in the humorous finale the ghost of Haydn elbows his way into view.

All the movements share the sense of being something Mozart, Haydn, or a young Beethoven might have written - with a few differences. Here Schubert eschews contrapuntal arguments, and his work is relatively free of dramatic tension, giving a surface impression of naive simplicity. But in his mastery of orchestral texture and daring harmonic twists and turns, Schubert matches and even excels the earlier masters to whom this work is a fitting homage.

I have always liked the Schubert 5th. It's not so much the kind of piece whose implications keep one awake at night, as one whose tunes one finds oneself whistling all through the following day. If you loved Mendelssohn's 4th and Schumann's 1st, I think you will also like Schubert's 5th.

EDIT: The video below is of Mark Heron conducting an Estonian orchestra in the first movement of this symphony.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

What Do People Say That Sin Is?

The following devotion started out as an attempt at writing for a Lutheran magazine. It didn't go over very well, and I understand why; the analogy is a bit weak. But I'm sharing it here anyway: partly because this blog is where I flaunt all my half-baked writings, and partly because the (admittedly controversial) scientific theory it describes really fascinates me. If you find it spiritually edifying, that's gravy!
If you ask most people to explain what “sin” is, they will say it is something that you do. Most people think of sins as separate actions that violate certain rules. By that thinking, sins are only occasional breaks from your normal behavior.

People view sins like cracks in the sidewalk: they turn up here and there, but they don’t make up the whole sidewalk. Or perhaps they think sins are like nuts in a cake: you may be able to pick them out without tearing the cake into crumbs.


God’s Word describes sin altogether differently. In Romans 7, the Apostle Paul writes that sin is a living power that “dwells in me,” like a parasite (Romans 7:17, 20). And this living power of sin struggles to control my will and my actions.

In this post, you see the eyes of a black cat, and something else. That “something else” is a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. T. gondii lives mainly in cats. It is so small that you can only see it through a microscope. Yet it is estimated that T. gondii infects half of the people on earth!

Researchers in England say that this amazing parasite can change the behavior of rats, and perhaps humans as well. When rats eat cat litter infected with T. gondii, they lose their fear of cats. Infected rats will walk right into an area that smells like cats, making it easier for cats to eat them. This way the parasite gets into more and more cats.


A new study suggests that T. gondii can even effect human behavior. People infected with T. gondii tend to have a different personality from the average, uninfected person. Women with T. gondii may be more likely to have children with schizophrenia. Drugs used to treat mental illness can also treat an infection of T. gondii.

According to Paul, sin is like a parasite living in us, changing our behavior. Sin is constantly present, spoiling our efforts to do good. Paul says that the sin in him “deceived me, and...killed me” (Romans 7:11). Paul also says, “For I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:18). Paul then concludes:

“I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:21-24).


What this means is: sin is not just an occasional pimple, rash, or sniffle in your spiritual health. Just as you cannot cure a disease by treating its surface symptoms, so you also cannot master sin simply by working hard to correct your behavior. To fight the power of sin, you need a cure for the infection that lives deep inside you, the cause of all these visible signs of sickness.

As Paul said in Romans 7:24, “Who shall set me free from the body of this death?” The answer is, “Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25). Jesus died on the cross, not just to pay for our separate sins, but to deliver us from the power of sin that lives in us. His Word, His forgiveness, His body and blood are the medicine we need to fight sin's power.

PRAYER: We thank you, Lord Jesus, for connecting us to your death and resurrection by Baptism (Romans 6:4). Because of this, we are now “dead to sin, but alive to God” in your name (Romans 6:11). Sin shall no longer be master over us (Romans 6:14). Keep us in the grace of our baptism, so that your power to defeat sin may always live in us. Amen.

IMAGES: a Window Maker theme which I touched up a bit in Photoshop; Toxoplasma gondii, from this Washington University news release.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Sweeties Out the Wazoo

My taste in candy has changed a lot since I was a kid. I used to think the best candy was a chunk of solid milk-chocolate the size of a checkbook, or maybe chocolate wrapped around a cigar-shaped hunk of malted-milk flavored marshmallow fluff, or a cigarette-sized stick of crispy wafer. I'm not so sure about that now. In fact, when I survey the last hundred times I gave into an urge to buy sweets for myself (which isn't hard; I don't have to think back very far), I find that there isn't much chocolate involved.

Here are the sweets that I crave the most. In some instances, I've been pretty good for a while...or maybe it just helps that I crave things that you can't buy just anywhere. I sometimes mooch around for years, hoping to catch sight of some of these things, before serendipitously stopping at a filling station in the middle of nowhere and finding the shelves loaded with them.

Atomic Fireballs kept me awake through many a long trip, especially ones that started before the sun came up or ended long after dark. They come in a variety of sizes and package styles, but the best kind are a bag of individually-wrapped balls, the size and hardness of a jawbreaker, but blazing all the way through with a painfully strong cinnamon flavor. One time I sucked on a series of Atomic Fireballs all the way from Fargo ND to somewhere east of Brainerd MN, and when I got home I was alive, awake, and unable to speak around the rawness of my tongue.

My current deadliest sin is Chewy Spree. It used to be sold in rolls, like regular Spree ("a kick in the mouth!"), but now it comes in a little pillow-pack, similar to M&Ms. This candy is not really very chewy, but it's easier on the teeth than the regular kind. I typically buy a pack at Walgreen's, across the street from the neighborhood movie theatre, and sneak it into the show. This saves me tons of money, overagainst buying more candy than I really want to eat at prices I don't want to think about. Spree are tart little wafers with a hard candy shell, and they come in an assortment of fruit flavors, including green apple, cherry, grape, lemon, and tangerine.

A candy bar that has become hard to find lately is the Chick-O-Stick. Again, you can get this confection in various forms, including individually-wrapped miniatures that stick to your teeth. The best kind is the regular-sized stick. It's a crunchy, peanutty stick, similar to what you find inside a Butterfinger bar, only with coconut around the outside instead of chocolate. The trick is finding them fresh; they aren't much fun once they start to grow stale.

I haven't had a Chocolate Orange in years. Now and then I notice signs that the brand has branched out into other flavors, such as Chocolate Peach, Chocolate Apple, and Chocolate Raspberry. I think that's ridiculous, the same way it is ridiculous to keep adding new flavors to Froot Loops cereal until it tastes like a compost heap. It's an old story: Company finds it has a good thing going, and tries to spin off something just as good, only it never is. They would have been better off sticking to the one thing they did well. And I can't imagine a Chocolate Raspberry or Peach having the effect of a chocolate orange. You have no idea how satisfying it is to pound that foil-wrapped ball of chocolate on the tabletop, then open the foil and find that it has broken into segments just like those of a real orange. Only with chocolate. Mmm.

Around the time I last had a Chocolate Orange, someone gave me a box of Belgian marbled chocolate molded into the shapes of various kinds of seashell. The chocolate was very good, and each piece had a hazelnut-cream center. That was a memorable gift. I think I gave another one like it to myself another time, and I tried to make both of them last. This was candy that not only tasted good, but looked good and felt good (in the hand and the mouth). They look like they should sound good, too, but I might as well tell you now: if you hold these shells to your ear, you won't hear the sea.

Here is another candy I have found useful for keeping myself attentive on a long road trip: gummi peach rings. Many convenience stores sell one or two generic brands of these in 2-for-a-dollar plastic bags. They also come in sour apple and watermelon flavors, and I think I once saw strawberry ones too. Coated with a little of that crystally stuff that makes sour candy sour, these little fellows poke at your tastebuds in a very refreshing manner. Like Chick-O-Sticks, they don't improve with age; however, even the toughness of those close to the end of their shelf life has its uses when you're frustrated by miles of road work and you need something to clench your jaws on. Be careful not to swallow till they are thoroughly chewed, however; nothing changes your perspective on that road work quite like a near-fatal choking incident behind the wheel.

Here are the "classic" Runts candies. Like Spree, both the hard and the chewy kind have their virtues. However, I've been in Runts mourning for several years, since they changed the flavors. Back when I could get Runts out of a vending machine at school, they came in banana, cherry, strawberry, orange, and lime flavors. I always used to share them with my friends, because I hated the banana ones and didn't miss the cherry and strawberry ones so terribly, but I LOOOVED the orange and lime ones. Then the jerks at Wonka decided to freshen things up, so they introduced raspberry and watermelon flavors...and got rid of lime. Ever since my mad rush around town buying up all the old Runts left over from before the flavor change, I haven't had Runts once. Not that I mind watermelon and raspberry, but I rather resent that they fired my favorite flavor.

These little guys are Wine Gums. Several different outfits make them, I think mainly in the U.K. I first heard about them through reading a Harry Potter book, in which there was a joke about some spell changing a dragon's teeth into wine gums. Then I saw this box in the foreign foods section of my local superdupermarket. I tried them, and I've kept trying them, because they are really a superior gummi candy. When they are relatively fresh, they are soft and pleasantly chewy (later, they become a bit tough). They come in a variety of colors, shapes, and flavors, including such novelties as grapefruit, and each one has the name of a kind of wine printed on it in raised letters. I wish more people would try these, because I'm sure they would be hooked and one would be able to find them in a wider range of stores.

Finally, I come to a liquid candy that has probably taken more years off my life than second-hand smoke, beer, air pollution, and Lutheranism put together. This stuff is seriously addictive. It is so good that I advise you NOT to try it, if you haven't already done so; because one day you will wake up in a gutter, surrounded by empty Yoohoo bottles... But seriously, this is a non-fat, practically non-Dairy chocolate milk drink which, in my opinion, has just a touch of cinnamon in its flavor. You have to shake the dickens out of it before opening the bottle, because the flavoring tends to settle toward the bottom. Like the Chocolate Orange, it has come in a range of superfluous flavors, such as Strawberry, Mocha, and Double Fudge; only the last-named shows any sign of sticking around. But it's the original flavor that really rules. You can get different sized bottles and cans, in different sized backs and all; but I think aluminum actually harms the flavor, so I always buy the individual bottles. Walgreen's has a good deal on it these days; no matter what I go in there for, I almost always come out with a bottle of Yoohoo.

All this explains why I am starting to waddle. Even when the close proximity of great stage, film, music, and art experiences cannot coax me from my monastic cell, I have been known to go out specially to buy Yoohoo and Chewy Spree. I don't particularly care whether the next President of the United States is Hillary Clinton, Hillary Duff, or Hilary of Poitiers; but there are days when I feel like writing a strongly-worded letter to the Wonka people about those lime Runts. And if I come to your wedding, or your child's graduation, etc., bearing a gift of chocolate seashells, make no mistake: I will be envious of the recipient.

More from Bachelor Gourmet

Here's another two-package recipe discovered by single-package me. All you need is one box of this, one can of that, one pan of boiling water, and a few handy kitchen tools every slob should have. It almost cooks itself!

Step 1: Cook some elbow noodles in a pan of boiling water. It helps to take them out of the box first.

Step 2: Drain the cooked noodles and return them to the pan over low heat.

Step 3: Cut open the airtight pouch of cheese sauce that you found in the box with the noodles. Squeeze the contents over the noodles. This part can be very satisfying.

Step 4: Open up a can of "chili without beans" and stir the contents into the mac and cheese. Hey, you're done!

Share the results with a friend or two, or be prepared to store leftovers in the fridge. With a minute or so in the microwave they'll be good for dinner tomorrow. Oh, yes! Remember to turn off the stove. And try not to spill too much chili-mac in your eagerness to scarf it. It may leave unsightly stains.