Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Feast for the Nose

Thank you, God, for the magnolias in bloom in St. Louis! Their beauty strikes the eye and nose in equal measure. Their otherwise almost naked branches are heavily laden with plump, pale blossoms that seem too soft and innocent to last. And their sweet perfume fills the air with a sweetness that makes you forget about engine exhaust and grease-stained pavement. Smaller, neater shrubs nearby may shine forth with more brightly hued and tightly arranged blossoms at this time, and even their scent adds to the loveliness of late March in the green places of the city; but today I rejoice most of all in the magnolia and its wild, loose, generous profusion.

I wish a picture could show how wonderful this flower smells. Actually, in a way, it does. It smells just like it looks. Use your imagination!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Blix You Might Miss

Today I am reading one of the Fablehaven books by Brandon Mull. Among the many magical concepts he has invented for this series is a nomenclature for different breeds of vampire, each with a name ending in -blix. For example, a narcoblix is the type of vampire who, once it has stung you with its venom, can control your body while you're asleep. A lectoblix, I have just learned, is a vampire that rejuvenates itself by sucking the youth out of other people.

I have some ideas for types of vampires that would fit into this schema. For example, a weetablix could be a vampire that magically sucks the milk out of your breakfast cereal. Imagine the horror of having to eat it totally dry! Then, perhaps, one might encounter a flicublix, which sucks the butane out of your cigarette lighter. Of course, that one might actually be beneficial to your health.

In a similar vein, suppose you met an icecublix, a fiend that lurks around take-away restaurants, draining the liquid out of your soft drink and leaving nothing but ice. Now that I think of it, I'm pretty sure I've been attacked by one, every time I visited Sonic. What can be more discouraging than paying a couple of bucks for a mouthful of limeade and a 20-ounce cup of crushed ice?

I'd also like to drive a stake through the heart of the rollerblix that is always draining the ink out of every pen in my desk drawer, including ones I recently bought. Then there's the tempusfugiblix, the little devil responsible for the way your day off always goes by too fast to get anything done; and, of course, the soxblix, which makes sure that fewer full pairs of socks come out of the dryer than went in.

I'm sure our society is plagued with specimens of the civiblix variety, who drain elected officials of their common sense, dignity, and commitment to the public good. This is almost as damaging to our nation as the rampant boobtublix, which drains many people's ability to concentrate on or think intelligently about anything that isn't displayed on the screen of a TV, computer, or handheld device.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Thursday Debauch

This morning I heroically got out of bed and dragged myself to work on a dreary, drizzly day after a short night's sleep caused by sinus trouble. After work, I decided I deserved a reward for my heroism. So I ate out, then shopped till I dropped.

First thing after getting out of work, I stopped at the Emperor's Palace restaurant in Chesterfield, MO. My visit confirmed my belief that it is one of the best Asian-style buffet restaurants around. If I tried to describe how huge this buffet is, you wouldn't believe me. It actually has separate areas for Japanese, Vietnamese, Mongolian, Chinese, and general-audience food. It's one of those buffets where you keep thinking you're almost at the end of it, but then you turn a corner and there's lots more ahead. Not if you were the biggest glutton in greater St. Louis could you actually try a little of everything on this menu. With a glass of iced tea, my check came in under $10. Not a bad deal, I thought.

The highlights of my repast were spicy chicken and shrimp, a shark-fin dumpling (I wonder if it really has shark fin in it?), and a soft, sweet doughnut with chicken in the center. There were lots of other things for me to try, and still more things for me to look at wonderingly. I had a slab of yummy chocolate torte for dessert, and somehow restrained myself from going back for a third plateful of food.

If you eat at the Emperor's Palace, bring your extra tank and save room for the chocolate fondue fountain. Then enjoy a different kind of fountain, splashing over fake rocks and into an indoor koi pond near your table. It's a cool place, in spite of the heat thrown off by the huge bronze braziers outside the front door, and it has plenty of seating for a large group. But believe me, no matter how adventurous the palates of your party may be (or not), they'll find plenty of the kind of food they like at Emperor's Palace, from dishes sizzling with distinctive flavor to safe, bland staples of the middle-American diet--and so many things in between that you'll be continually surprised.

After dinner, I dropped by the nearby World Market and invested in a few of my favorite imported treats, including a couple of bags containing multiple, single-serving-size packets of Asian-style cracker mix. Then I made a Sam's Club stop, where I somehow managed to keep my haul within the dimensions of my car's small trunk. And lastly, I visited the Best Buy a few doors down, where I purchased exactly one DVD: Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning, a spoof of "Star Trek vs. Babylon 5" filmed in Finnish with English subtitles.

I watched Star Wreck this evening. It was much less cheesy than one might expect of a low-budget, foreign-language parody, especially when it's the sixth film in a series of made-for-the-web fan flicks. Unlike the five earlier Star Wrecks, this one was a full-length feature, and it was shot in a higher resolution. Most of it was apparently shot in front of blue screens, so virtually every scene on board a spaceship or space station was a special-effects shot. And the special effects really weren't bad. The ships, the station, the space battles, all looked similar in quality to the TV series being spoofed.

More importantly, it was funny. Sure, to appreciate the script I had to rely on subtitles. And yes, the many scenes bore witness to the director's and the cast's lack of experience. On the other hand, the actors were well suited to their parts and played them with gusto. And some of the jokes worked even without being translated. For instance, the android with the silvery skin is named "Info," and the Plingon (sic) with the ridged forehead is called "Dwarf." I can't repeat the name of the Russian officer based on Star Trek's Chekov, but the fact that he was played by the same actor who also spoofed B5's Bester was ingeniously appropriate. A couple of the actors eerily resembled the originals of their characters. And in spite of their limits as actors and filmmakers, they collectively showed a flair for comedy. Captain Pirk's reaction when a barrage of "light balls" turns out to be "light beers" was hilarious. Security Chief Garrybrandy's lunge toward the button to stop "Babel 13" from exploding was splendidly silly.

I only wish the "special features" had shown the same spirit of fun. I could not believe how boring they were. I'm not saying this just because it takes longer to say something in Finnish than to read the subtitles in English. The "inside out" making-of documentary went on and on and on, going into way too much detail and leaving way too little to the imagination. And the featurette on the production team's latest venture, the upcoming movie Iron Sky, was all but maddeningly tedious. The entire writing team took it in turns to mouth banal generalities about their new project with so little concern for what a viewer would want to know that, after half an hour, I still had no idea what Iron Sky is about. I finally gave up and wikied it. I'm not going to give it away, because based on what I saw tonight, I feel hopeful that these Finns will prove better at telling the story than talking about it. Based on that assumption, I wouldn't want to spoil it for you.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Bracing Whimsy

Today's addition to my redneck comedy routine was inspired by a radio commercial I heard on the way home from work. The ad was for a rug-cleaning company, and it included a riff on the idea that only nabobs of olden times could afford to have "family retainers" clean their rugs for them, but anybody can afford to have So-and-So do it today. Instantly, I began channeling the guy pictured here...

OLD REDNECK: Where I come from, a "family retainer" was an orthodontic device that got passed down from one siblin' to the next.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Full-Court Tackiness

Apropos the college basketball championships and the upcoming Palm Sunday, my neighborhood "Lutheran Church of Opportunistic Tackiness" currently offers the following lighted-sign sentiment:


And when I hurl, it'll hit nothing but net!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Wild Piano Chase

For reasons related to the upcoming refurbishment of my church's pipe organ, I've been looking around for prices on renting and/or buying a digital piano. A few weeks ago, before Mozart and Monk pinned down most of my time outside of work for two out of the last three weeks, I decided to start by looking up Lacefield Music.

According to the internet, one of Lacefield's locations was in the city, only a few miles north of my church. I drove up and down the full length of the bad neighborhood where this store was supposed to be, but couldn't find it. I decided to cut my losses and drive out to the South County Mall, where I knew of another Lacefield location. Find it I finally did, after driving almost the entire way around the mall (because Google Maps gave me a very misleading impression of its location). The person who worked there seemed determined to give me prices on instruments other than the ones I was interrested in. But that was the most success I have had so far.

A few days later, I asked one of my sectionmates in the Symphony Chorus what piano store he would recommend. This knowledgeable person (a salesman at the city's venerable Shattinger Music) suggested that I try Ludwig Aeolian in Earth City. He described how to find it. I verified the directions on Google Maps. I even checked out their website, which still indicates that Ludwig Aeolian is alive and kicking. When I got to Earth City, I found myself driving around in an industrial park. All I knew was what street it was on - a street that makes a huge loop around the intersection of Earth City Expressway and I-70 - but I didn't know where on the street it was. So I drove around and around, looking and looking. I stopped at a couple of establishments and asked people if they knew where Ludwig Aeolian was. All I got was blank looks, of the "We just work here, we don't actually look at anything on our way in and out" persuasion. I called information. They had no listing for Ludwig Aeolian. Eventually I learned that the place had gone out of business months ago. Huh.

Today, I made a list of four piano dealers in the city and decided to visit them this afternoon. Two of them were recommended to me by a friend, two of them by a website. I scribbled down street addresses, phone numbers (in case I got lost), and directions from the nearest major streets, taken from a Google Maps search for each address.

I drove up Kingshighway looking for the first address. The street address was on Magnolia, but the Google Maps directions put it somewhere a couple blocks north of Manchester, and just west of Kingshighway. I first realized something wasn't right when I drove past Magnolia, knowing that I was still miles south of Manchester. I gamely went forward, deciding to trust my Google Maps. But there was nothing resembling a piano dealer (or a Magnolia Street) where Google Maps said it should be. And when I went back to Magnolia & Kingshighway, not only wasn't there a piano store there, but the house numbers were about a mile off the address I was looking for. So I drove east on Magnolia until I found the correct address. It was a pretty brick house with yellow trim, facing Tower Grove Park, in a residential neighborhood. There was absolutely no sign that a piano store was, or ever had been, sited there. I rang the phone number and got one of those "This number is not in service" error messages.

Now, you're probably wondering why I didn't just call all four of those numbers up front, and spare myself the frustration that you know is coming. By asking this question, you're revealing how little you understand the complexities of being a Fat, Stupid Jerk. If I had called ahead, I could have saved myself miles of driving and tons of frustration. But then I wouldn't have this hilarious story to tell, would I?

The second stop on my route was a few blocks south of a restaurant I had been meaning to dine at. So I forged ahead, way down Grand Blvd. (which, after all, was only a few blocks east of that brick house with yellow trim) to the southern tip of the city, near Bates Ave. I stopped to eat first, ordering enough food for two people at the Chimichanga Mexican restaurant, so that I could take a bunch of it home and enjoy a second helping later. I drowned my sorrows in a lime margarita, medium size, which is bigger than a pint but smaller than a bathtub. Then I hopped in my car, drove about a block, then swerved onto a side street (going the wrong way on a one-way) to park because the store was right there! Yes!

But wait - no! It was closed! It had a sign in the door saying that pianos could be viewed by appointment only. I called the number and spoke to a guy who, after listening to what I wanted, patiently informed me that he didn't sell (or rent) it. So that was no good.

Store number three was back in the bad neighborhood where I had tried to find Lacefield a few weeks ago. This time I had an exact house number, but the store wasn't there. Their phone number wasn't in service. The only thing I got out of my visit was an opportunity to run down a man in a stressed-out wifebeater, who ran out into the street heedless of traffic while wildly gesticulating and shouting and the women in the house he was leaving. Unfortunately, I missed him. But that's all right; the last time I was in that neighborhood, another driver almost hit me. Near misses seem to be a way of life on Cherokee St.

I turned around and went back down Gravois toward home, knowing that my last potential piano dealer was somewhere along there between Gustine and Chippewa - or so the Google Maps directions seemed to indicate. I was getting a bit disillusioned with Google Maps, though. The last address (on Cherokee) hadn't been anywhere near the block Google had flagged. This time was no different. I didn't start looking at house numbers until I passed Gustine, and immediately I could tell that I was in the wrong stretch of Gravois and heading the wrong way. I tried to turn around, but that's the part of town where the streets defy all conventions of Euclidean geometry, so that it takes (for instance) six right turns to get back to the street you started on, if you can get there at all.

Eventually I got back to Gravois and turned in the correct direction, but nothing resembling a piano store existed in the range of street numbers I was looking for. And though it's not unprecedented for a street number to turn up way out of sequence, I decided not to press my search any further. I did pull over and try the phone number, but I only reached a voicemail box with a generic "The party you are trying to call is not available, please leave a message" message. At this point, I frankly don't care if they're still in business or not. If they're that hard to find when you're really looking for them, they don't deserve the sale.

Or maybe that's just my headache talking. It's back for Day Two.

Gladly Tacky

The lighted sign at the Lutheran Church of the Tacky Sentiment, just down the street from my house, currently declareth:


This claim may seem highly dubious, until you realize that it's an example of Riddle-Me-Tacky. And once you understand what it's really trying to say (something akin to "Fix your eyes on Jesus" and "Know nothing except Christ and Him crucified", etc.), and it's actually kind of an encouraging thing to hear a Lutheran church say these days. Because, most of the time, you can get the impression that our church regards those who have eyes like the one pictured here as leaders with "true vision."

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Headache Day

I've been having a headache day all day. I took an Ibuprofen tablet before I went to church this morning. I popped an Advil after early service and spent the first few minutes of the Bible study sitting in the pastor's office with my eyes closed. After that I felt well enough to join the rest of the class.

By the time I got home after late service, my headache was back. I didn't want to take another Ibuprofen so soon, so I choked down an Acetaminophen. I hate those things. Every time I swallow one, there's a moment when I'm sure it's going to get stuck in my throat and kill me. I feel like I'm rolling the dice with my life. But I was desperate to try something different. And being the type of sufferer who will go through an entire drugstore's stock of remedies before accepting affliction, I chased the Acetaminophen with a little red nasal decongestant pill. After all, I was at the mouth-breathing stage of nasal stoppage, and I figured sinus pressure might have something to do with my headache.

The relief was faint and short-lived. By a couple hours past lunchtime, the headache was back in full force, plus my stomach was upset from the Acetaminophen. So I took an Alka-Seltzer. I love those things - aspirin and antacid in one dose. Truly a miracle drug! Plus, switching from one drug to another has often helped me batter down a stubborn headache in the past.

This time, however, I found no relief. I couldn't rest lying down. I couldn't concentrate sitting up. My head was throbbing. Eventually I gave in and had my third Ibuprofen pill of the day. And now, blessedly, I feel OK. Except my digestion is probably messed up for the rest of the week...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Monk Week

This past weekend, members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra & Chorus (including yours truly) were privileged to take part in the world premiere of a still-untitled "New Work" by experimental composer and performance artist Meredith Monk. Saturday night's program also included Monk's Panda Chant II, in which I also sang, and her piece for chamber orchestra and eight vocal soloists titled Night (nope, I wasn't in that one). Plus, the show opened with Stravinsky's Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa ad CD Annum, a late work based on the vocal music of the ahead-of-his-time 15th century master (and murderer) Carlo Gesualdo. And it ended with Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, one of my favorite 20th century masterpieces, as this poem bears witness.

Friday night's concert for the corporate donors cut the Stravinsky and added a crowd-pleasing performance of Beethoven's 5th at the end, but I wasn't there to hear it, having left after my bit was over. I was embarrassed for the cultural elite of St. Louis that night. We had a ball performing Panda Chant - which, admittedly, is as much an act of "performance art" as of music - some forty of us clapping and stamping and making a variety of weird vocalizations for about two minutes at the front of the stage, while the orchestra sat quietly behind us - but, in the presence of the composer (who was on stage performing it with us), the audience's brief, light applause was not so much a polite acknolwedgment as "damning with faint praise."

Then, after being the first audience in the world to hear the New Work, which (for all that the lyrics are neutral syllables and the soloists are amplified) is still a very attractive and intellectually satisfying piece, they almost failed to keep the applause going long enough for Monk to get on stage for her bow. It was just plain rude. I had been thinking of staying for the whole conscert until this point, but as I left the stage my thought was, "I can't be part of such a stupid audience. I spit on your Beethoven's Fifth."

I heard later that, after responding with bewilderment to Night (and I'm not sure the Bartók happened at all), the audience of corporate donors went nuts over Beethoven's Fifth. This just blows me a way. I had heard Night during rehearsals and thought it was a marvelous piece. Inspired by the violence in Sarajevo during the 1990s, it creates a series of palpable atmospheres. It uses orchestral and vocal colors to good effect. And, perhaps most important for a contemporary work seeking audience acceptance, it had intelligible themes and was pleasing to the ear. When I heard it in rehearsal I thought I must be listening to something by one of the powerhouses of the 20th century, not the experimental author of Panda Chant II and such whimsies. It immediately struck me as a profound, great, and beautiful work. And Friday night's crowd just tolerated it with a shake of the head before leaping to their feet for Beethoven's Fifth. What a shameful commentary on the inner life of my city!

Don't get me wrong. I don't think modern music is better than Beethoven. I still count Bach, Haydn, and Brahms as my favorite composer (a three-way tie). I still loathe Scriabin, Webern, and music that doesn't sound like music. I am impatient with banality, tedium, and melodramatics. I think Beethoven is awesome, and I could listen to his music for hours at a time without growing tired of it. But I am learning something about myself that I never expected to find out. Just as I can't stand cheese that doesn't have a sharp, distinctive taste (otherwise I might as well be eating rotten milk); just as I can't stand drinking beer that doesn't cut a firm flavor profile (otherwise it's only good for getting drunk on); even so I cannot interest myself in a concert of 100% old favorites. Why would I spend money on tickets to something I have heard a hundred times before? Why would I dress up, drive through Grand Center gridlock, pay a premium for parking, and endure leg cramps and the sharp elbows of my neighbor for three hours when I can just pop the CD into the player and enjoy the same music at home? What I want to hear, when I invest that much time, money, and trouble in attending a concert, is something I haven't heard before. Something new, something exciting, something perhaps dangerous... something that will enrich my inner life.

What I heard on Friday night, in the flaccid applause accorded Panda Chant and New Work, was an act of music criticism on the order of "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." Frankly, I don't understand how you can know what you like if you haven't experienced art. How can you tell whether you like or dislike a piece of music when you have never listened to it? And when I say "listen," I don't mean the same as "hear." How can you listen to a piece when you have already made up your mind that you don't like it? And how can you make up your mind when you haven't listened to it - except by sheer, willful, bloody-minded stupidity? Ignorance I can excuse. Willful stupidity, in my opinion, is a sin.

In his book of essays titled Cultural Amnesia, Clive James makes a powerful case for his theory that, as authoritarian regimes replace democracy, as people's freedoms are curtailed, the result tends to be a net loss of variety and richness in a society's cultural life. In effect, a vibrant and diverse community of arts and letters can only thrive where people are free, and where their freedom is protected by a just rule of law. I now wonder whether the converse couldn't be true. Could it be that the more richly our thinkers, creators, and artists engage us, the more justice and freedom will thrive? If so, Friday night's audience at Powell Hall, in demonstrating against newness and vitality in their own artistic tradition, may have been casting a vote against personal liberty and the common good.

I heard Night on Saturday. It was spectacular. I stayed up late - even with "Spring Forward" Daylight Savings Time and an early start on Sunday morning still ahead of me - to hear the Bartók. It's a wonderful piece. Saturday's audience, a regular paying crowd who were there because they wanted to hear this program, responded more favorably. "This is more like it," I said to my neighbor onstage as they gave New Work a standing ovation - though it only extended through one curtain call.

There was nothing wrong with any of the music on that program. On the contrary, it was intelligent music, stimulating, moving, thought provoking. The program revealed unique beauties to the ear, the heart, and even to the eyes, such as the pleasure of watching a fugue theme spread through the sections of Bartók's double string orchestra, the surprise of seeing the celesta player joining the pianist on his bench for several piano-four-hands passages, the intrigue of the harpist swishing up and down the strings and of percussionists darting from one instrument to another. Night unfolded a strange and varied emotional landscape, here haunted by sadness or terror, there animated with uninhibited energy. In one night we heard folk dancing, madrigal singing, and patterns of shifting light; we heard human voices used as instruments, and instruments used as voices; we heard nonsense syllables given meaning by the texture and character of the music, and most importantly (for this is more a review of the audience than of the concert), we heard genuine delight in the voices that cheered these marvelous works of human creativity.

B5 Season 4

Season 4 of Babylon 5, titled "No Surrender, No Retreat," originally aired between November 1996 and October 1997. The opening voiceover, featuring contributions by each of the main cast members, explains: "It was the year of fire… the year of destruction… the year we took back what was ours. It was the year of rebirth… the year of great sadness… the year of pain… and the year of joy. It was a new age. It was the end of history. It was the year everything changed. The year is 2261. The place: Babylon 5."

Season 4 was almost the year that ended it. The show's home network (PTEN) sank under it, and with no guarantee that another network would pick it up, series creator and show-runner J. Michael Straczynski (a.k.a. Joe, a.k.a. JMS) was forced to move up his timetable for ending the meticulously-planned series. So it was at the end of this production season that the series finale ("Sleeping in the Light") was filmed. Then, luckily, TNT picked up the show's fifth and final season. "Sleeping in the Light" was transferred to the end of Season 5, and a new Season 4 finale was filmed (see below).

Season 4 is noteworthy for many reasons. This was the second season in a row for which JMS wrote all 22 episodes. It was the year that ended the Shadows storyline (early in the season) as well as the conflict surrounding the Earth Alliance under President Clark's fascist regime (towards the end). Both Sheridan and Garibaldi came back changed men from their experiences in Season 3's "Z'ha'dum" - a change that, particularly in Garibaldi's case, would keep fans of the show on the edge of their seat for most of the season. A civil war nearly rips Minbari culture in two. The Vorlons go Old Testament on everybody's ass, then exit the stage forever. Vir becomes an assassin and kingmaker. Londo becomes an emperor. The Narn become free, thanks largely to G'Kar's willingness to lose an eye without all the fun and games. Londo, amazingly, shows signs of redeeming himself and renewing his friendship with G'Kar. The season builds to a climactic battle, with a side of torture, an act of sacrificial love, and a glimpse into the near and distant future following the establishment of an Interstellar Alliance.

"The Hour of the Wolf" opens the season with these three ladies (Lyta, Delenn, and Ivanova) searching the ruins of Z'ha'dum for signs of Sheridan's fate. They need him badly, because without him the Alliance is starting to fall apart. Isn't it creepy how Lyta's eyes turn black whenever she scans the Shadows? Meanwhile, Londo learns that the Centauri emperor he helped put on the throne is a psychopath who collects the heads of people he has executed and talks to them. Emperor Cartagia has decided to give the Shadows (and their radiation-burned spokesman Morden) a defensive base on Centauri Prime, in exchange for godhood. Londo realizes that Cartagia must be assassinated for the good of the people, but the only person he can trust with the conspiracy is sweet, innocent Vir. The episode ends with a tantalizing hint that Sheridan has somehow survived his death-plunge into the depths of Z'ha'dum.

"Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi?" is the question nobody seems to be asking except G'Kar, who cannot forget that the security chief was a friend to him when no one else was. So, at the risk of being captured by Centauri forces and executed as a war criminal, G'Kar leaves his sanctuary on Babylon 5 to look for Garibaldi. Marcus comes along to help, but when he leaves to follow up on a lead, G'Kar gets captured and delivered to Emperor Cartagia (pictured, played by Wortham Krimmer). The Emperor makes a gift of him to Londo. The latter, in turn, recruits G'Kar into his conspiracy to kill Cartagia, promising to set the Narn people free. Meanwhile, we see glimpses of Garibaldi being held prisoner, interrogated, and drugged. And back on Z'ha'dum, a mysterious alien named Lorien (recurringly played by Wayne Alexander for the first half of this season) informs Sheridan that he is caught between life and death, thanks in part to a piece of Kosh that the late Vorlon Ambassador left inside him.

"The Summoning" is the episode where both Garibaldi and Sheridan come back to B5 after two weeks M.I.A. - Sheridan literally risen from the dead, and Garibaldi ejected from an exploding spaceship in a "rescue" that, even to Zack Allan (pictured here with Garibaldi), seems anticlimactically easy. Their return comes none too soon. The alien alliance that has enabled B5 to stand up to the Shadows is teetering on the brink of breaking apart when Sheridan makes his dramatic reappearance. And now the Vorlons' mysterious plans have finally became clear. Armed with a "planet-killer" weapon, a fanatical Vorlon fleet begins purging the galaxy of the Shadows, along with every world the Shadows have touched.

"Falling Toward Apotheosis" carries the Vorlon crisis even further, as the Vorlon fleet cuts a planet-killing swath across the galaxy. Londo knows that he has only a few days to rid his planet of Shadow influence, including Morden and an entire island full of Shadow vessels. He cannot convince his Emperor to throw out the Shadows, because the insane Cartagia actually wants to see his world destroyed at the moment he ascends to godhood. Nevertheless, Londo cleverly manipulates Cartagia into moving the site of G'Kar's execution to the Narn homeworld, in order to facilitate the assassination on which both worlds' future depends. Meanwhile, Sheridan knows that he has to get rid of the new Vorlon ambassador if his alliance has any chance of halting the genocide. After a security team unsuccessfully attempts to escort not-Kosh off the station, Lyta lures him into a trap. Blown out of his encounter suit, the Vorlon reveals his true appearance, attacking everybody in sight with tentacles of light and bolts of energy. Luckily, Sheridan still carries a piece of the old Kosh in him, a piece which comes out and wrestles the bad Vorlon off the station and onto a Vorlon ship, which then explodes. The episode ends with Delenn learning that, even after Lorien (pictured here) has done all that he can, Sheridan only has twenty years to live; and with Emperor Cartagia, having agreed to hold G'Kar's trial on Narn, flippantly deciding to have one of G'Kar's eyes put out.

"The Long Night" is the suspenseful episode where Londo and Vir finally carry out their plan to kill Centauri Emperor Cartagia, with an assist from a rampaging prisoner G'Kar and a syringe full of neurotoxin. As a result Narn becomes free, Londo becomes the Prime Minister, and Vir is forced to live with the knowledge that his hand struck the fatal blow. Meanwhile, the Shadows have begun to retaliate against the Vorlons' policy of wiping out entire worlds that have harbored them. Now, with all the galaxy's "younger races" caught between these super-powered antagonists, the board is set for Sheridan's desperate last move: luring both hostile forces into a face-to-face confrontation, thanks in part to a suicide mission by a Ranger named Ericsson (pictured here, as played by Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston of "Malcolm in the Middle" and "Breaking Bad").

"Into the Fire" ends the Shadow War with a huge, final battle involving the Shadows, the Vorlons, and an alliance fleet led by Sheridan. This fleet is supported by a full set of "First Ones," ancient alien powers who have been recruited for one last stand by Lorien, the eldest of all. Meanwhile, racing to rid Centauri Prime of any Shadow influence that could provoke the approaching Vorlons into destroying his world, Londo nukes the island where the Shadows have their base and fulfills Vir's wish of being able to wave daintily at Morden's severed head. So yes, folks, this is the end of the ride for that recurring villain... almost. In the end, Sheridan persuades the First Ones (Shadows, Vorlons, Lorien and all) that the younger races no longer need them to guide their evolution. So the ancient powers pack it in and head out beyond the Rim, into the unknown darkness between the galaxies, where (one gathers) all the fully-evolved races are moving these days, and maybe the humans (and Minbari, Centauri, Narns, etc.) will join them there someday. At bottom, the idea of this episode seems to be that on a given date in Anno Domini 2261, the sentient races of the galaxy will finally realize that they don't need their gods anymore; and the gods, simultaneously reaching the same conclusion, will leave them alone to take care of themselves. How ironic! In a show that, in contrast to Star Trek, frequently treats the long-term survival of traditional religion in a positive light, JMS may have passed the clearest sci-fi message that, in the fullness of time, people will progress beyond their need for God.

"Epiphanies" is an episode foreshadowing conflict to come. In the brief pause after the end of the Shadow War, Psi Cop Alfred Bester comes aboard with news of a new Earthgov plot to discredit Babylon 5. The idea is for a shipful of Psi Corps telepaths to ambush an Earthforce patrol blockading one of the hyperspace jump-points on the trade route between B5 and Earth. If the attack is made to look like the work of Sheridan's forces, President Clark can then use it to inflame public opinion against the alliance. Bester offers to betray his own people in exchange for an opportunity to save his sometime lover Carolyn, whose brain has been altered by Shadow technology in a way that only the Shadows know how to undo. But when Bester and Lyta travel to Z'ha'dum to see what they can scavenge from what the departing Shadows left behind, Lyta purposely triggers the planet's self-destruct defense system in order to keep Shadow technology out of Psi Corps hands. Meanwhile, the rift between Sheridan and Garibaldi continues to widen, so that the latter quits his job. And finally, the still-unnamed Centauri minister (pictured here, as played by Damian London), appointed as regent to the imperial throne, is revealed to have something nasty growing on his shoulder. From a previous episode's "flash-forward" we gather that this creature is something called a "Keeper." As we will soon learn, it belongs to one of the alien races that used to serve the Shadows, races seen in this episode evacuating from Z'ha'dum.

"The Illusion of Truth" is Babylon 5's bitterest depiction of the way the press can be manipulated to serve government interests. A reporter from ISN news persuades Sheridan to let him and his crew film interviews during an otherwise uneventful day on B5. Even expecting that what they say and do on film will be twisted into propaganda against them, Sheridan and his crowd are shocked to see the use ISN makes of their footage. This is one of several B5 episodes that demonstrate aspects of the Orwellian nightmare of what an authoritarian regime can and will do to maintain its control over the lives and thoughts of its citizens. As an extreme exercise in manipulating information, it deserves to be studied by anyone working in the government, the media, or the commercial sector. Someday, perhaps rather sooner than you expect, your freedom may be threatened by people who use tactics similar to those shown in this episode. Henry Darrow (The High Chaparral and a three-time Trek guest) appears as a psychiatrist who speculates on Sheridan's mental health.

"Atonement" guest-stars Reiner Schöne (pictured here, also a guest on TNG) as Dukhat, the Minbari leader of blessed memory. He appears in "the Dreaming," a Minbari ordeal Delenn undergoes to examine her motives for becoming half-human. Delenn's dreaming reveals her background as Dukhat's star pupil, her role in starting the holy war against humanity triggered by Dukhat's tragic death, and a clue from Dukhat's whispered last words indicating that Delenn was never "pure" Minbari in the first place. Rather, she is one of many descendents of Valen who, after all, was the very human Jeff Sinclair halfway transformed into a Minbari. While objections to Delenn's plans to marry Sheridan are thus mooted, Marcus and Stephen travel to Mars as unlikely partners in a crucial, secret mission.

"Racing Mars" introduces Marcus and Stephen (pictured here) to a resistance cell on Mars led by "Number One" (played by Marjorie Monaghan, next picture down). They have a hard time convincing the Mars resistance to think of B5 as an ally, since the Earthgov communications blackout and a steady diet of ISN propaganda has left folks on Mars ignorant of, for example, the entire Shadow war. It doesn't help that their guide, "Captain Jack," is possessed by the first Keeper our guys have ever seen; his last act, before blowing himself up, is to make an attempt on Number One's life. Meanwhile, back on B5 (my synopses sound more and more like voice-overs from "Bonanza"), Garibaldi sets himself up as a hardboiled detective. A wise guy named Wade (played by Mark Schneider, two pictures down) hires him to help his shady employer smuggle pharmaceutical specimens past customs. And Garibaldi and Sheridan have a tense confrontation over the growing differences between them, each more convinced than ever that the other has changed for the worse.

"Lines of Communication" features the Mars resistance leader Number One (pictured here) agreeing to work with Sheridan against Earth Alliance Pres. Clark. A growing chemistry between Number One and Dr. Franklin may have something to do with this; there is one scene, for instance, where Marcus listens with chagrin as Stephen and Number One make an alliance of their own ("Ohhh, Stephen!"). Ivanova sets up B5's former War Room to broadcast the "Voice of the Resistance," an alternative to the steady stream of anti-B5 propaganda on ISN. But first, she must visit the Great Machine on Epislon 3, where another Zathras (there seem to be 9 or 10 of them, all identical, all with the same name) helps her obtain the type of transmitter needed to reach everybody with her broadcast. Ivanova's scene with Zathras #2 is one of the season's lighter moments. And, in time for the obligatory "meanwhile," Delenn leads a White Star fleet to meet the Drakh, a race that formerly served the Shadows and is now looking after itself. In their bizarre first appearance, the Drakh are digitally manipulated to appear to shimmer, as if not quite tuned to the same frequency of space-time as the rest of us. Nevertheless, as Delenn finds out, their ships are just as capable of killing and being killed as the next enemy.

"Conflicts of Interest" pulls Garibaldi deeper into the criminal world of William Edgars, the boss behind Wade (pictured here). His current job is to bodyguard Edgars' wife, who turns out to be Garibaldi's ex-girlfriend Lise, as she hand-carries another top-secret experimental drug through B5. It's the kind of thing that mustn't be noticed by Customs or Security. For some reason, however, a bunch of telepaths are after Lise, leading to an intense scene in which Garibaldi, Wade, and Lise flee through the air ducts. It doesn't help that Zack Allan is gradually becoming convinced that his old boss isn't coming back, and he starts taking steps to limit Garibaldi's freedom to move throughout the station. Ivanova begins broadcasting as the Voice of the Resistance, and Sheridan becomes concerned about the Drakh attacking alien transport ships.

"Rumors, Bargains, and Lies" shows Sheridan to be a master of Macchiavellian tactics when he manipulates first Londo and G'Kar, then the League of Non-Aligned Worlds, to allow the Rangers to patrol their borders. Meanwhile (there's that word again!), Delenn tries to enlist the cooperation of her Warrior-Caste rival Neroon to stave off a civil war on Minbar. Members of her own Religious Caste, however, misinterpret Delenn's overtures as an attempt to surrender. In a desperate act of betrayal, the Religious sabotage Delenn's ship with a canister of toxic gas aimed at their air circulation system. Lennier saves the day but nearly pays with his life. In spite of Delenn's efforts to stop the civil war, Neroon betrays her and runs back to his own caste with information that will deliver the Minbari capital city into their hands.

"Moments of Transition" closes the arc of the Minbari civil war, and brings John Vickery's recurring role as Neroon to an end. As the Warrior Caste presses the Religious Caste into a corner from which it can only emerge by surrender, Delenn finds a way to restore the balance of her society. It involves a test of leadership called the Starfire Wheel (pictured here), an iris-like opening that admits a focused beam of sunlight into the Minbari temple where Valen established the Grey Council. Whoever stands in the Wheel while the iris is fully open will die a hideous, burning death - but whoever steps out of it in time to survive, thereby shows that his caste is unfit to rule. Delenn challenges Shakiri, leader of the Warrior Caste, to this ordeal, but after all his talk about honor and sacrifice he is unwilling to put his own life on the line. At the last moment, Neroon sacrifices himself to save Delenn, declaring in his last words that he now considers his true calling to be religioius, and urging his people to follow Delenn. She sets up a new Grey Council in which 5 of the 9 members belong to the often-overlooked Worker Caste. Meanwhile, Garibaldi gets a warning from his new boss Mr. Edgars, forbidding him to employ Lyta or any other telepath. Lyta, who has been going broke since her Vorlon protectors left the galaxy, is forced to accept Bester's offer of a way back into Psi Corps. The scene where Garibaldi fires her, followed by a shot of Lyta weeping as she pulls on the black gloves of the Psi Corps, is one of the series' most moving instances of dialogue-free storytelling.

"No Surrender, No Retreat" follows up on Sheridan's decision, at the end of the previous episode, that "Enough is enough!" It's time to go on the offensive against Pres. Clark and forces loyal to him, now that Earthforce is attacking civilian targets. Their first battle is over the breakway colony Proxima 3, which has been blockaded to the point of starvation by Earthforce ships. The trick will be to distinguish between the ships that have fired on civilian targets and those that have avoided doing so -- and between those captains who will join Sheridan's rebellion against Clark, vs. those who will fight to the last man standing. One of the latter captains, pictured here, is played by Ken Jenkins, late of "Scrubs" and TNG's third-season episode "Evolution." Also, this is the episode where Garibaldi - fed up with what he perceives as Sheridan's delusion of being "the second coming" - makes up his mind to leave Babylon 5, possibly forever.

"The Exercise of Vital Powers" features no less a guest star than Efrem Zimbalist Jr., late of "77 Sunset Strip" and "The F. B. I." Zimbalist plays William Edgars, Garibaldi's secretive employer who until now has been heard but not seen. Edgars reluctantly allows Garibaldi to visit him and his wife Lise (Garibaldi's ex) on Mars. Garibaldi's opening and closing voice-over ("I can't believe I'm back on Mars...") is like the narration of a hardboiled novel or a noir film, and it gives this episode a certain memorable quality that makes it stand out as a series classic. On the other hand, when I first saw it in 1997, I thought: "What the heck is going on? Garibaldi has broken up with Sheridan and left B5?? Is this for real???" But then again, it was the only episode of this season that I saw back then. It's no wonder I was confused. A lot had happened, especially to Garibaldi. Nevertheless, you could well watch everything up to this point and wonder, "Is Garibaldi undercover? Could he really be considering this?" This being helping Edgars' ruthless plot to prevent telepaths from taking control of Earth. This having something to do with a bio-agent that causes telepaths to die horrible, excruciating deaths. This, finally, involving the betrayal of Garibaldi's former friend Sheridan as proof that he is committed to their cause. Speaking of experimenting with telepaths, back on B5 Lyta stumbles upon Stephen's latest experiment in unhooking his 100 frozen telepaths from the Shadow implants in their brains. In a classic "You've got your chocolate in my peanut butter" moment, they discover that Lyta can somewhat control these folks -- which brings Sheridan a step closer to using them as a weapon against Clark's forces.

"The Face of the Enemy" is a huge episode; there's just so much going on in it that it's hard to summarize briefly. Let's see if a list does the trick. (1) Sheridan pushes his forces closer and closer to Earth, in spite of heavy resistance made desperate by Pres. Clark's propaganda that Sheridan kills the crews of ships that surrender to him and replaces them with aliens. Things start to go more smoothly when the Earthforce captains who have crossed over to Sheridan's side speak out and explode that myth. Meanwhile, (2) at Sheridan's orders Stephen, Marcus, and Lyta ferry 30 frozen, Shadow-implant-affected telepaths to Mars to prepare for their part of the final assault. (3) Also on Mars, Garibaldi gives up information Earthforce needs to capture Sheridan's fugitive father, then offers Sheridan help saving his Dad. But it's a ruse, enabling Earthforce to capture Sheridan and potentially to cripple the resistance. But then we learn (along with Garibaldi himself) that (4) Bester has been using Garibaldi all along as a way to get to William Edgars and his anti-telepath virus. After Bester removes the telepathic suggestion from his mind, Garibaldi becomes himself again for the first time this year - and is left fully aware that he can never go back to B5, where everybody knows that he betrayed Sheridan. For example, (5) as Ivanova takes over command of the fleet, she orders anyone who sees Garibaldi to shoot to kill. And finally, (6) Wade and Edgars are found dead, but no one knows what happened to Lise...

"Intersections in Real Time" guest stars Raye Birk, who had recurring roles in the Naked Gun movies, "Due South," "Nightcourt, "Cheers," "The Wonder Years," "Silk Stalkings," "L.A. Law," and "Coach," and who also appeared more than once on Star Trek. Oddly, I always tend to remember him as the ridiculous Mr. Pinsky in Throw Momma from the Train. There is nothing ridiculous about his role in this episode as an interrogator who physically and psychologically brutalizes Sheridan. It's an intensely focused episode, playing out in "real time," almost like a stage play that has been filmed in a single take, and nearly all of it is a two-character drama between Sheridan and Birk's "William." Like "The Illusion of Truth," this episode is a rich study of the nature and tactics of a totalitarian regime, and it is among the darkest and grimmest episodes of an already deadly serious series. Wayne Alexander (who previously played both Sebastian and Lorien) returns as a Drazi torture victim whose willingness to cooperate with his interrogators ends (along with his usefulness to them) after Sheridan gives him a pep-talk.

"Between the Darkness and the Light" guest stars Bruce Gray as Sheridan's new interrogator, who favors the use of telepaths and hallucinogenic drugs as a method of extracting information. Current American viewers would probably recognize Gray as the actor who plays the ghost of Patricia Arquette's father-in-law on "The Medium"; he has also made multiple appearances on Star Trek, co-starred in Starship Troopers, and played the groom's father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. For all that, his role is relatively brief, since Garibaldi - on the point of being executed by Number One's resistance fighters - proves his innocence in Sheridan's capture by submitting to Lyta's mind-scan, then turns around and leads a daring mission to rescue Sheridan from his torturers. Meanwhile, G'Kar and Londo work together to get all the alien races on B5's council to send ships to support Sheridan's fleet. And Ivanova clings to life after receiving a paralyzing injury - one that must soon become mortal.

"Endgame," guest-starring frequent Trek guest Carolyn Seymour as Senator Crosby, brings the war to liberate Earth from the tyranny of President Clark to its ultimate climax. The fleet led by Sheridan batters down Earth's fierce, final resistance - then joins them in rushing to destroy the planet's defense grid before it turns against Earth. Found by the president's side, after his suicide at the point where surrender becomes imperative, is an eerie note saying, "Scorched Earth." Marcus, meanwhile, deserts the field of battle and rushes back to B5 with Ivanova's paralyzed and dying body. While en route, he ransacks Dr. Franklin's medical files, following the trail of a hunch to the alien artifact first seen in Season 1's "The Quality of Mercy" (Remember, the alien healing/killing device used by June Lockhart?). The episode ends with both Marcus and Ivanova both hooked up to the machine, the one sacrificing his life to save the other, and whispering "I love you" as he loses consciousness....

"Rising Star" is the episode where everybody figures out what to do about Sheridan after his resistance force successfully put an end to the Clark regime on Earth. Now that civil order has been restored, Sheridan's mutiny is an embarrassment - not least because it was both necessary and successful. The new President (pictured here, as played by Beata Pozniak) offers amnesty to everyone who followed Sheridan's orders, in return for his resignation from Earthforce. At the very meeting where this deal is publicly announced, however, Ambassadors G'Kar, Delenn, and Mollari make an announcement of their own: They, together with the non-aligned worlds, have voted to create an Interstellar Alliance, policed by the Rangers, and for their first president they have chosen... John Sheridan! After this earthshaking announcement, and a bit of ISN news coverage of some political fallout, Earth's application to join the alliance, the independence of Mars, the marriage of Sheridan and Delenn and their return to B5, we find Ivanova mourning the loss of Marcus just as she realized he was Mr. Right. The episode closes with the newly-promoted Captain Ivanova leaving the station and with an epilogue narrated in Delenn's voice, foretelling the Drakh War still to come, and apparently tacked on at a point when the fate of Season 5 was yet unknown. This episode marked Claudia Christian's last appearance as Ivanova except for the series finale, which (after all) was filmed right after this episode.

"The Deconstruction of Falling Stars" is the Season 4 finale that was filmed during the fifth production season, after TNT picked up B5 for its final year. In a break from the ongoing storyline, this episode shows glimpses of Earth history from 100, 500, one thousand, and one million years after the founding of the Interstellar Alliance. Each moment in history is viewed in terms of how succeeding generations remember Sheridan and his role in Earth history. It immediately becomes clear that an Earth-first fascist party, inspired by the late Pres. Clark's ideology, continues to run a full-court press against the politics of Sheridan, Delenn, and the Alliance. By 100 years in the future, when Delenn is still living but extremely aged and reclusive, historical pundits and biased journalists have already demonized Sheridan. It's wonderful, for a moment, to see them struck speechless when Delenn appears to shame them and to tell the world, one last time, that Sheridan was a great man. Then we see, 500 years on, a breaking point between Earth and the rest of the Alliance, fueled by xenophobic ideology that has continued to fester. An appalling attempt to use holographic, AI replicas of Sheridan, Delenn, Franklin, and Garibaldi to separate "goodfact" from "realfact" ends badly for the operator (played by Eric Pierpoint, pictured above), who doesn't take into account the resourcefulness of even a hologram of Garibaldi.

1,000 years on, Earth seems to be just starting to re-emerge from a technological dark age. Pictured here, Roy Brocksmith plays Brother Alwyn, one of an order of monks who study illuminated manuscripts of the legends of Babylon 5, passed down since the "Great Burn" 500 years before. Alwyn and another monk spend their part of the episode debating whether or not the legends are true, rather as today's scholars debate whether or not Beowulf or Arthur were historical persons. Finally, at the million-year mark, we glimpse Earth at the moment our sun goes supernova, by which time humanity has evolved to the level of the Vorlons and taken to the stars again. This certainly isn't as hopeful an outlook on mankind's future as, for example, Star Trek's. Some might even say it's a big let-down, considering the point reached at the end of "Rising Star." On the other hand, don't forget that the human colonies Mars, Proxima 3, Babylon 5, and perhaps others, were independent of Earth. So... I don't know. It isn't really over until the fat lady sings. Or in this case, until I've seen Season 5 and perhaps also the spinoff series Crusade. But I have to be honest: this season finale, daring though it was, left me bummed.

See also my review of Babylon 5 seasons one, two, and three. For comparison purposes, see also my season-by-season reviews of Star Trek, including TOS seasons one, two, and three; of TNG seasons one, two, three, four, and five; and of DS9 seasons one, six, and seven.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Self Publishing Update

At the urging of some friends, I have decided to stop waiting for a certain Lutheran publishing house to get back to me on some organ preludes I submitted to them about a year ago. Instead of spending my hard-earned money printing more copies of my music and shipping it to other publishers, I have decided to plunge into self-publishing!

Over the past few days, when I could spare a moment or two, I prepared the project. First I rounded up 22 Lutheran hymn-based keyboard pieces that I had worked into close-to-printable shape. I had used Finale 2007 to create the scores, but I could not make that program do what I wanted in terms of page format, or compile them into a book format. So my second step was to print each number as a PDF document. Thirdly, I used Adobe Acrobat 8 to export each PDF to a JPG image file. Fourthly, I created a desktop-publishing document in Adobe Indesign CS2 and "placed" the JPGs in its pages.

Thanks to Finale's perversity and my own inefficiency, the scores contained a number of elements I didn't want. So I used Photoshop (also from Adobe CS2) to paint those bits out where necessary. Back in InDesign, I was able to tweak the layout in ways Finale would never allow. I added a title page and table of contents (via a Microsoft Word document that I printed as a PDF, then exported from Acrobat as a JPG, then dropped into the InDesign file). I typed a title page and an author's note straight into InDesign. When I finally had the book set up to my satisfaction, I exported it as a PDF and saved it onto a flash drive. Then I went to Kinko's.

For the use of a Kinko's computer terminal and printing one single-sided copy of my 64-page magnum opus, plus cover page, on their black-and-white printer, I paid about $39. This copy I gave to the folks behind the counter, who printed, collated, and spiral-bound 5 "duplex" copies, plus one "dry run" copy that had the pagination messed up. I kept the latter so I could mark it up with errors to be corrected in the Second Edition. My bill for the printing and spiral-binding was about $60, before taxes.

That comes to $100 for an initial print run of 5 bound copies and one bound "proof," plus the theoretically reusable originals - though some of those pages will change before I print another batch. I suppose the more copies of an"edition" I run, the farther I can stretched my investment in the initial one-sided printout, the "plates" as it were. As it is, I would have to price my first 5 copies at $20 apiece to recoup what I spent on printing them. It looks like future editions may cost a bit over $10 per copy.

I reckon I'll give the first batch of five gratis to a select group of musical friends, together with a page or so of errata. After that I'll see about getting the Second, Corrected Edition printed and build up a small stock of them. What with shipping costs, I could sell them for $15 apiece and not make a penny of profit. But who's going to pay more than that for an unknown work by an unknown composer? Who would pay even that much?

Well, I hope someone reading this will consider it.

My new book is titled Lutheran Chorale Arrangements for the Saturday Night Organist, Volume 1. Not counting the title page, TOC, author's note, and one page left blank for ease of turning, it contains 60 pages of music accessible to a moderately proficient organist who practices only a few hours a week. These pages include keyboard works based on 22 hymn tunes, some of them adapted from my choral works. Some of the works require two manuals and pedal; others can be played entirely on one manual or on a piano. There are pieces in two, three, and four voices, ranging from single-page hymn harmonizations to multi-stanza chorale fantasies that go on for several pages. The collection includes hymns appropriate to many seasons of the church year, including Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter, as well as hymns for Communion, closing of service, consolation of the afflicted, and other purposes.

The hymn tunes include:
  • ACH BLEIB BEI UNS (Where wilt Thou go since night draws near),
  • ALLEIN ZU DIR (In Thee alone, O Christ my Lord),
  • ALLES IST AN GOTTES SEGEN (All depends on our possessing),
  • AUS TIEFER NOT (From depths of woe I cry to Thee),
  • CHRIST LAG IN TODESBANDEN (Christ Jesus lay in death's strong bands),
  • DER AM KREUZ (Jesus, grant that balm and healing),
  • ES IST DAS HEIL (Salvation unto us is come),
  • ES WOLLE GOTT (May God bestow on us His grace),
  • FRED TIL BOD (Peace to soothe our bitter woes),
  • ICH STERBE TAEGLICH (I come, O Savior, to Thy table),
  • JESAIA DEM PROPHETEN (Isaiah, mighty seer),
  • JESU KREUZ, LEIDEN UND PEIN (Jesus, I will ponder now),
  • LASST UNS ERFREUEN (A hymn of glory let us sing),
  • LOBE DEN HERREN (Praise to the Lord the Almighty),
  • O LAMM GOTTES (Lamb of God pure and holy),
  • O MENSCH BEWEIN (O sinner, come thy sin to mourn),
  • VOM HIMMEL HOCH (From heaven above to earth I come),
  • WARUM SOLLT ICH MICH (Why should cross and trial grieve me),
  • WAS FRAG ICH NACH DER WELT (What is the world to me),
  • WIR GLAUBEN ALL (We all believe in one true God),
  • WO SOLL ICH FLIEHEN HIN (O bride of Christ, rejoice), and
  • WUNDERBARER KOENIG (Wondrous King all-glorious).
As the collection's title suggests, LCA for the SNO is dedicated to all "Saturday Night Organists" who love Lutheranism's historic liturgy and its heritage of fine-quality hymns and chorales, but who don't have the luxury of time to prepare a master's level recital every week. They are written in a 20th-21st century musical idiom. They are designated as "Volume 1" because I have plans to decorate many more hymn tunes in the next few years. And when I say "I have plans," I mean I actually have, on paper, a tentative Table of Contents for Volumes 2 through 5. Four of the pieces for Volume 2 have already been written, but they still need editing. So, if God gives me time and if anyone out there is interested, there will be more where Volume 1 came from.

If you're one of those Saturday Night Organists who loves a good Lutheran chorale, contact me. Tell me how many copies you want and where I should send them. I'll tell you where to send your check for, oh, let's say $15 per copy for now. As soon as the Second, Corrected Edition rolls off the press (i.e., Kinko's spiral-binding machine), I'll ship it to you.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Alice in Underland

Tonight I took in the new Tim Burton/Disney movie, Alice in Wonderland. It's not exactly a film adaptation of the Lewis Carroll classic. Actually it's kind of a sequel, showing Alice (Mia Wasikowska) approaching age 20, faced with the narrow range of choices open to a young lady in Victorian England, confused by a horse-faced bore's proposal of marriage, and plagued by what she regards as hallucinations straight out of the recurring dream she has had since childhood. So she runs away from it all, follows a waistcoated white rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen, late of Frost/Nixon), falls down a rabbit hole, and gets caught up in a quest to save Underland (not Wonderland) from the Red Queen.

The characters she meets are an indiscriminate blend of those the younger Alice met both in Wonderland and through the looking-glass. The villain, for example, is a cross between the Queen of Hearts and the Red Queen (played by a big-headed Helena Bonham Carter), and her henchman is both a knight and a knave (played by Crispin Glover). The red queen's nemesis is quite simply the White Queen (Anne Hathaway in a blonde wig). She also meets a blue, hookah-smoking caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), a talking dog (Timothy Spall), a dodo bird (Michael Gough), and most importantly the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp).

While we're having a cast-gasm, anyone who has seriously considered who would win in a duel between Gandalf and Dumbledore will be interested to note that Alice's father is played by Marton Csokas (lately Celeborn, Galadriel's significant other in The Lord of the Rings); the March Hare is voiced by the same Paul Whitehouse who played the equally mad Sir Cadogan in Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban; daffy Aunt Imogene is played by Frances de la Tour (Madame Maxime in Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire); the talking flowers are voiced by Imelda Staunton (Delores Umbridge in Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix); and of course, everyone will recognize the voice of the Jabberwocky as belonging to Christopher Lee (lately Saruman the wizard in LOTR). It's like a fantasy film franchise reunion here. And that's still not all the familiar faces in this flick - IMDB it yourself!

Anyway, in this sumptuously cast, part-live-action, part-CGI-animation twist on the classic nonsense tale, young Alice slowly works out that the world she has dreamed of since childhood is really there. And the denizens of that world slowly recognize that she is really "the" Alice, who is prophesied to wield the Vorpal Sword, slay the Jabberwocky, and restore the White Queen to her throne, which has been usurped by her grotesque sister who has roses for hair, valentine-shaped lips, and a habit of chirping "off with his/her head" as regularly as Grape Ape says his own name. (Full disclosure: Grape Ape does not appear in this film.)

Luckily, after the first seven minutes or so, no one is expecting this movie to be anything like a faithful adaptation of the nursery favorite. Instead, it's a joyfully bizarre, visionary adventure in a world full of danger and magic. The only bit I object to is the end, where Alice goes back to the real world with an anachronistically feminist outlook. Sorry, I read too many books from and about that time to believe that any girl in Alice's position could have thought, let alone said and done, what Alice does at the end of this movie -- nor, even if she had, been allowed to go on so doing. Not that it isn't a happy ending. It's just the type of happy ending that broadcasts what I consider to be the clearest message of this film: "Few people living today understand what the world was like before the late 19th century. The rest of us shouldn't even bother trying."