Monday, February 27, 2012

life and life

I was just talking with someone about the fact that Bach had 20 children. She said, "Well, he didn't have them." Assuming that he didn't take as active a role in their upbringing as their mothers did, it's easy to imagine that if it had been up to the ladies there might not have been so many.

On the other hand, only half of those twenty made it into adulthood at all. It was a perilous time, almost unimaginable to us now. Bach lost both his parents when he was nine years old, and lost half of his children early: ten of them died. What does it do to the soul of a parent to see that much death? What does a parent think at that child's birth? Our joy at a kid's birth is by this point nearly unalloyed by anxiety, the kind of anxiety that kept another composer nameless: Billy Strayhorn's mother didn't name him till he was five.

Of course, you have no idea what someone is going to contribute to the world, even after that person has been gone a while. Dietrich Buxtehude was assumed by many to be more influential than Bach, but fortunes rise and fall. Bach's fame lasted and spread to some small extent, but it wasn't till nearly a century after his death that he began his delirious ascent, which shows no sign of abating. The Beatles bragged that they were more popular than Jesus, but they were short-sighted in that claim. Here in 2012, looking back on it all, it's unavoidable that Bach is far more popular than the Beatles.

John Eliot Gardiner just released his twenty-second volume of Bach cantatas, part of his gargantuan effort to do them all. And his way of recording them was compelling: beginning in Advent, he traveled around to churches all over and recorded them as they fit into the liturgical calendar, which was how they were written. Fantastic idea, not least because these pieces were intended for spaces like this rather than concert halls in the first place. This twenty-second volume was recorded in Eisenach, Germany, in the church where Bach himself was baptized.

The music writer Alex Ross says that as he was listening to Christ lag in Todesbanden — a highlight of the cantata, and of Bach's career, and of classical music, and of the art of humankind — "I pictured Bach's parents looking on at the baptism of the infant and wondering whether he would live. They had no idea."

Friday, February 24, 2012

what people love about their job

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

a word from the monster who is coming to get you

My brothers and I, watching old horror movies, used to scorn those scenes where a girl was frantically running from a lumbering beast of some sort. The camera would show a mummy clumping along, then cut to the girl racing and racing, then the clumping mummy, then the racing girl, and then they'd show it from the front, with the girl in the foreground and the mummy right behind her. How on earth do these mummies catch up so quickly if they're going so slowly?

We chalked it up to shoddy moviemaking. But that was then. Now, of course, it's obvious: if something fast chases you and catches you, it may as well be a really fast murderer, or a cheetah, or a gunman in a car. That's the stuff of normal experience, especially for those of us who weren't all that great at team sports in elementary school. How much scarier, though, is a supernatural being who, despite being lumbering and slow, nevertheless can still catch you no matter how fast you run. That's the stuff of nightmares.

I wonder how much that common trope owes to the experience, albeit joyful, of running away from one's parent as a small child. You're running as fast as you can possibly go, and it can't escape a child's notice that the parent isn't even really trying very hard, but still can come catch you. It's a blast when you're the kid: it's actually pretty hard when you're the parent, trying to walk-run the line between thrill and believability.

Friday, February 17, 2012

social laughter

You've been in a situation where you're near a group of people and can hear everything they say, and one person says something really funny. They all burst into laughter — it seems uncontrollable, like a natural reflex. You think it's very very funny too, but you don't burst into laughter. You smile and keep pretending to read your Harry Potter book for the fifth time, thus proving that laughter is not a natural reflex at all.

In fact, laughter is a social activity. I've been aware of this, as you have, for some time, but it's recently been drummed into my head again and again in the funnest way. Greta! She'll be around when Catherine and I begin laughing together at something, and she'll pipe up from the back seat, or come closer and join in, like a dog who has sensed something festive is going on and wags into the middle of things. Greta understands that you laugh not because you can't help it; you can. You laugh because you belong.

It's the most fun in the world. She has an infectious laugh, full of delight and pure joy. She's very very socially aware. I just love watching her develop bit by bit, into — who knows who? I can't wait to hang out with her and share a good laugh over something really funny, that she said.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

a trade-off

Valentine's Day. Catherine's at home and I'm at Baylor deep in rehearsal. She and I have spent a total of two Valentine's Days together since we met.

So, is the musician's life worth the trade-off? Valentine's Day in exchange for Valentine's Year? I think so.

Monday, February 13, 2012

things i did in 11

I started off doing this yearly thing on Valentine's Day 15 years ago: it gives me enough time to digest the previous year and see what may be worth remembering.

things i did in 11

Saturday, February 11, 2012

an oncological milestone.

The other day, nine years after I was in chemotherapy, I went to the oncologist for the last checkup. From now on it's regular checkups with my regular doctor.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

that's looking forward

I just read a fascinating thing about one of my favorite movies, the colorful and beautiful The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I always love to hear stories about how people look ahead. One of my favorites concerns the massive oak beams in New College, Oxford. In the early twentieth century, they became infested with beetles. Folks in charge panicked because after all where are you going to find such huge oak trees in the twentieth century? Never fear: the college's Foresters had been planning for this day since the college was founded in 1379. They knew that the beams would rot eventually, so they planted a grove, with the expectation that Foresters over the centuries would protect them. Miraculously, they did.

On a somewhat lesser scale, Jacques Demy, director of Umbrellas, shot the film on Eastman negative stock. The problem is that, besides the fact that the copies sent to theaters lose their luster with use, the original stock itself fades quickly, and eventually decays completely. For a colorful film like Umbrellas, this is a disaster. The movie rests on three pillars of cinema: Catherine Deneuve's face, Michel Legrand's sparkly-sweet score, and the insanely bright colors that can make you a different person just from seeing them. Take away any one of those things, and the movie just isn't the same.

Demy must have felt the same way about his masterpiece, because he went to the trouble and expense of having color separation masters made. That is, the three colors that go to make every other color in film — yellow, cyan, and magenta — he printed separately in black on black-and-white negatives. Since black-and-white negatives don't fade, the information stays intact, and then you can go back and print number 1 in yellow, number 2 in cyan, and number 3 in magenta, then combine them on fresh full-color film.

A generation or so passed, and in the 1990s they did just that. Now, instead of seeing a faded or off-color version of the movie (as you often do with old films), you see the original, vibrant Cherbourg of Demy's imagination.

And it's worth seeing. If you've never seen it, do yourself the favor. It's simply one of the most beautiful pieces of cinema ever. It's a great technical achievement, with superb music and sound editing to go along with all that color. And it's got heart. Demy can bring French tears to any eye.

Let's be glad that he can also plan ahead. Man. I'm doubly committed now to transferring all my 90s music off DAT.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Thursday, February 2, 2012

translation problems

I was just reminded of a frustrating and funny experience, something that probably every traveler has encountered in some way.

I remember in China going to a restaurant we'd been to several times, and every time I'd ordered the fried rice. "Chǎo fàn." I went once without the translation page, and ordered it: "Chǎo fàn." The guy was completely gobsmacked. Couldn't understand it at all. He looked at me like I'd ordered a tin can. (I probably had.) So I said "Chǎo fàn? Chǎoo fànn? Chǎo! fàn!" over and over. At least 100 times, no exaggeration.

I drew some pictures which weren't very helpful either. (How do you draw rice?) Finally I went into the kitchen and pointed to the ingredients. He was still puzzled, as was his staff. The entire staff and much of the neighborhood were now on the case. "Chǎo fàn? Chǎao fàan? Chǎo fàn? Chǎo fàn. Chǎo fàn. Chǎo fàn!" No one could understand that I wanted chǎo fàn, a basic staple of Chinese restaurants. They couldn't hear it in what I was saying.

Finally, a light dawned on the restaurant owner's face, and he rushed back into the kitchen, bringing back a bowl of rice and an egg. He showed it to me triumphantly.

Chǎo fàn!

I naively assumed that he meant that he would fry the rice and serve it with egg in the traditional manner of fried rice. Fortunately, my naivete was rewarded, and, after 5 minutes (plus half an hour of "Chǎo fàn? Chǎao fàan? Chǎo fàn? Chǎo fàn. Chǎo fàn. Chǎo fàn!"), he brought out a beautiful platter of fried rice.

What on earth was happening? I guess you've just got to say that if some Japanese person came up to you and said, "Miruk? Meerook? MI-Ruk. Mi-doook? Meeedook?," you might never guess that they were asking for milk. That's just as close as they can get. I'm quite sure that I simply could not hear the huge difference between what I was saying and what the word actually was.