Tuesday, 4 September 2001

Bach and Oscar Wilde

Listening to:

Bach, concerto for harpsichord and strings in G minor, BWV 1058. The CD on which this piece appears is part of a five CD set of Bach concerti. It’s very well documented. In particular, there’s a nice chart at the back of booklet explaining how Bach reused music from a variety of sources to write his harpsichord concerti. It appears that there is no extant harpsichord concerto of his that didn’t start out as something else. What’s more, even if the “something else” no longer exists, it’s apparently possible to figure out what it was. So, while this concerto (BWV 1058) corresponds to an existing violin concerto (BWV 1041, in A minor), the concerto in A major, BWV 1055, is based on a concerto in A major for oboe d'amore that is now lost.

The musical detective work that goes into this process of reconstruction and discovery is described a little in the booklet. There’s enough there to make me think that, one, it must be pretty neat, and two, it’s yet another of those jobs I am never going to manage to fit into my life’s schedule. That’s another to add to the list that already includes astronaut, conductor, and TV sports director (that last one might require further explanation later). Incidentally, the code for the CDs I’m listening to is Archiv 463 725-2, all the recordings feature The English Concert with Trevor Pinnock and date back to the early 80s.

Just read:

Oscar Wilde, The picture of Dorian Gray.

I read this over the weekend, and rather enjoyed it. It’s written in just the style I expected from Oscar Wilde, though this is the first thing I’ve ever read of his, and I’ve never seen any of his plays. (I did see the film of The perfect husband a while back and quite enjoyed it.)

The tone is definitely melodramatic, and over-the-top. There’s lots of description of rich surrounds, flowers, ornaments and general upper class trappings. There’s also quite a few witty asides, and epigrams, mainly due to the character Lord Henry. He is rather enigmatic in a “the devil is a gentleman” kind of way, and should probably be held responsible for Dorian Gray’s downfall.

In basic form, this novel is essentially a tragedy: Dorian Gray is seduced by eternal youth and comes to a sticky end. I don’t know that Wilde was entirely convinced by the requirements of the form though; I couldn’t help but feel that he didn’t really want to have to tell the tale of a downfall. It’s well done, and apart from a longish section in the middle that details a variety of pursuits that Gray takes up in order to give himself something to do with his life, reads very quickly.

I can’t help but wonder what a S/F author might do with the basic story. Has anyone ever written the story of someone who is given eternal youth, and then thinks hard about putting this unique opportunity to work? How would you conceal the fact of your immortality from the rest of the world? In an age of increasing centralisation and bureaucratisation, it might be quite hard to escape the notice of the state. I know I’ve read stories about people who have somehow managed the trick of establishing themselves, and who turn up in the 20th century having been born in the 15th, but this is less interesting. (From the film Interview with a vampire, I guess Anne Rice’s books might go on about this, but I don’t think all that vampire baggage is necessarily very helpful.) Such a story wouldn’t have the moral and dramatic oomph of Wilde’s novel, but done well, would surely be mentally stimulating. (For those that like that sort of thing, of course.)

To read next:

Another book with art in the title, James Joyce’s Portrait of the artist as a young man.

Thursday, 6 September 2001

Entry #212

Listening to:
Prokofiev, symphony no. 3 in C minor, op. 44.
Some links today:
  • An article about the US policy of fining citizens who travel to places like Cuba, and how it has been recently applied to Ry Cooder, who arranged the recording of the Buena Vista Social Club album, and was also involved in the film of the same name.
  • An amusing piece about Scott Adams (the guy who draws the Dilbert cartoon) designing a comfortable cubicle.
  • The Aegis software configuration management system. The author of this package (which is the sort of thing that I feel I should try to use, but can't quite bring myself to) also has a persuasive article about the dangers of recursive make. Techy or what?!

Monday, 10 September 2001

Entry #213

Listening to:
Sabri Brothers, Tanam Farsuda Jan. This is one track of a compilation CD called The Rough Guide to the music of India and Pakistan. I think the CD is a reasonable selection of a variety of styles, and I like them all; but I haven't yet got around into actually going out and getting anything more. So many CDs and not enough time in which to figure out which ones to buy next.
Just read:
James Joyce, Portrait of the artist as a young man. I finished this yesterday, and I'm still not sure what exactly to make of it. Superficially, it's the story of a boy, Stephen Dedalus, growing up in Ireland around the turn of the 20th century, going to school, and then onto university. It's apparently very much an autobiography, and there are a number of clues within the text that suggest this is the case. Stylistically, it's quite a mixed bag. Some of it is stream of consciousness, it finishes with a small section written like a journal or diary, and it also includes two long disquisitions, nominally natural speech, on the nature of hell and beauty.

The story is initially quite vivid, laced with the smells and slang of life at a boys' boarding school. Things gradually become more sterile (typified by the two miniature essays mentioned above), and it becomes that much harder to gain a sense of the Stephen's motivations. He has one evocatively described epiphany on a windy sea-shore that tells him that his role in life is to become an artist (this is after the first essay), but is subsequently rather a cipher. He holds forth on the nature of beauty, thinks typically disparaging, but occasionally admiring, thoughts about his peers at university, and obsesses over a woman he thinks he loves (and whom he has known since childhood).

The crux of the book really seems to be the crisis that comes upon Stephen while still at school. Perhaps because he can't connect with his great love, or perhaps because he is just a horny teenager, he starts visiting brothels. He is committing the sin of fornication at the very least, and when the school has a religious retreat over a week (prompting the first essay, a sermon on the horrors of hell), his guilt really catches up with him. This is the novel's most powerful section.

As a document of the period, I found it quite an eye-opener. The control which the Catholic Church had over Ireland's population is something I knew about abstractly, but the early sections of the book made this ``fact'' really come alive. However, the story after the religous retreat at the school is relatively dull, both because nothing much happens, and also because we seem to have a so much more incoherent picture of Stephen's inner thoughts. I wondered if Joyce meant us to compare the sterility of the religious dogma that Stephen consumed at school, to what seemed to me to be the equally sterile stuff Stephen spouted at university.

The autobiographical nature of the novel is apparent in the way that there are far too many characters. Joyce may well have had vivid pictures in his head of real people behind Cranly, Davin, Dixon, Temple and Lynch, but there's barely enough material to distinguish them all in the novel. Another weakness, I felt, was the odd ending, with Stephen resolved to leave the country. Truth is stranger than fiction of course, and this is what Joyce did too, but it seems a motive-less act in the book.

To finish positively, I think the novel's great strength is the way in which it does seem true to life. The students' conversations, life at school, the physical surrounds in Dublin; everything seems quite real.

I've just discovered this website about Joyce and his works; I'll be able to check up on Portrait of the artist, and see what I should have thought.

To read next:
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.

Wednesday, 12 September 2001

Educational games

Listening to:

Shostakovich, 24 preludes and fugues, op. 87.

I don’t think I can possibly add anything useful to the reams of newsprint and all of the web opinion about the disaster yesterday, so I think it’s best to leave that to others, and to keep on as usual.

I’ve got loads of work on, so I provide just a single link:

Monday, 17 September 2001


Listening to:

Elgar, Falstaff—symphonic study.

Just read:

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein. (Complete text (~450KB))

This is one of those books that you expect you know all about just because it’s been the basis for so many films, stories and whatever else. Of course, you know that Frankenstein is the name of the mad scientist that created the monster, not the monster itself. You also probably know that the monster's attitude to life is initially not a hostile one, and you know he suffers from being misunderstood by the world around him.

Well, I knew all that anyway, but it was good to sit down and actually read it. Now that I have, I’m trying to articulate my reaction to it. It’s not a very long book, and the plot is not at all complicated. A fair bit of it was also quite predictable, particularly given the prior knowledge I had of it. The characters are also quite flat, and unbelievable, with the honourable exception of the monster himself. But then, these things don't really matter if you're willing to read the book for its message. I’d say that there are two major themes in Frankenstein. The first is anti-science, the idea that there are some things which should be left well alone, no matter the intellectual curiosity which leads to investigating them. The second, more significant, and to me, more acceptable theme is comment about the hostility and willed ignorance with which the world greets people who are superficially different from the norm.

I enjoyed reading Frankenstein. It has its share of tedious prose and could be a deal shorter than it is, but the basic plot is a good one, the story is told well, the monster is sympathetic, and there are interesting questions raised about the relationship between creators (parents) and offspring.

To read next:

James Joyce, Ulysses. This will take me a good long while to read, I’m sure.

Thursday, 20 September 2001

Sex, music and politics

Listening to:

Ella Fitzgerald singing Just one of those things, by Cole Porter. I saw what I assume is a new pop album by Kylie Minogue being advertised in a record shop’s window on the way into town this morning. The poster was a side-on view of her in a skimpy outfit displaying a lot of leg. Well sure, say I, if you can add a bit of sex to your product, you may make that little bit more appealing and sell a little more. But really, what’s on sale here, the body or the music?

I’m sure Kylie Minogue doesn’t feel that she’s being exploited, and being exploited is really in the eye of exploitee, so all power to her. However, it is a comment on the superficiality of the pop world. Just how many unattractive women pop-singers are there? (In the boy band world, all the men are smooth-faced and good-looking, but elsewhere there doesn’t seem to be much restriction.)

At least Ella Fitzgerald established her (well-deserved) reputation in the era before TV.

A couple of links on last week:

  • Should the WTC be rebuilt? A negative view from a couple of architects who are convinced that skyscrapers are outmoded and generally bad for the world.
  • A British perspective on “fighting terror” from Salon. The author points out that dealing with terrorists is not easy, and takes a good long time. Finishes with: Do Richard Perle or Ann Coulter believe that we Brits would have won our war [in Northern Ireland] if we’d bombed Dublin, Boston and New York?

    By way of context, Ann Coulter famously said We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity, but I don’t know what Richard Perle may or may not have said.