Sunday, October 30, 2005

Wrong About the Right

This week's issue of The Nation has an important article by Jean Hardisty and Deepak Bhargava analyzing the success of conservatism in the United States over the past few decades. It's unfortunately not available online to non-subscribers, so if you see the Nov. 7 issue of The Nation on a newsstand, it's definitely worth your three bucks. Hardisty and Bhargava astutely point out the principles which allowed right-wing conservatism to grow so successfully in this country. For example, allowing ideological diversity rather than a monolithic movement. An emphasis on serious ideas, not "framing." Grassroots active listening rather than hierarchical control. Electoral politics as a means, not an end. And most importantly, the fearlessness to take what might be considered extreme positions at the time.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Dr. Atomic: The Opera

To summarize: Good opera. Not sure if I entirely liked it.

Dr. Atomic is definitely a successful opera. It is coherent, it worked well, the audience was into it, and I see no reason it shouldn't enter the standard repertoire. But I'm not sure if I actually...enjoyed it. I really like John Adams, and prepared for this trip by listening to recordings of Nixon in China and Death of Klinghoffer, both of which I really like. But Dr. Atomic didn't totally do it for me.

I think the main problem was the vocal writing. A lot of it seemed rather arbitrary--large amounts of text was just kind of spit out, pitched in vaguely atonal melodic lines that seemed designed to just spit large amounts of text and nothing else. The few moments that I found really beautiful, like the John Donne aria at the end of Act 1, were the moments where the music seemed to be driving the text, not vice versa. What's the point of being postmodern if you can't have pretty tunes?

That said, the orchestral writing was great. Adams has no problem with that, beyond a slight tendency to have little minimalist quotations that made me yearn for some actual hardcore minimalism.

Let's see, what else...the libretto had occasional tendencies towards annoyingness. We all agreed that the love scene between Oppenheimer and his wife was pretty stupid, although to be honest during that moment in the opera I was expending most of my energy supressing a sudden coughing fit, and so was not really appreciating anything. Unlike several of my friends, and some restless audience members, I found the last twenty minutes to be really compelling. The twenty minutes are actually a prolongation of the five minute countdown to the first detonation of the bomb. Throughout, the entire chorus is spread out on the stage lying down, assuming the prone position the scientists were supposed to take just in case the bomb was more powerful than expected, but also summoning up images of dead bodies littered everywhere.

That was I think the best part of the opera--these brief, powerful moments that carried with them enormous resonance. Like when Mrs. Oppenheimer (I think--we were in the cheap seats, so it might have been her housekeeper) was singing to her baby in its crib, unaware of the gigantic bomb hanging Damocoles-like over her head. Or the John Donne aria, where the bomb was covered in white silk sheets lit from within so that Oppenheimer was silhouetted in front. And the rather sad, frail, moment, where the General talks about his struggle to lose weight as a small boy.

The thing is, looking back at my favorite moments, none of them have anything to do with music. The only musical moments I really remember well, a week later, is that the Donne aria was pretty, and that the last twenty minutes were appropriately loud and ominous. Everything else is mostly visual.

Hopefully they will release a recording soon, or with any luck maybe even a score. I'd really like to think about this opera some more.

P.S. Alex Ross, he of New Yorker glory, has an interesting roundup of Dr. Atomic critical opinion.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Dr. Atomic: The Trip

I returned last night from a hectic but fun trip up north to see the closing night of Dr. Atomic, the new John Adams-Peter Sellars wizbang which had its premiere at SF Opera this fall. I'm going to review the opera in a separate post, but here I just wanted to recount the trip for posterity's sake.

We left Friday afternoon after everyone was done teaching sections. Thanks to various logistical issues, there were five of us crammed into my little car. Fine with me, as I was driving, but I suspect a little uncomfortable for the three in the back. It went easily enough however, with only one little pause in Dublin, where we slowed down enough for Pete to roll out of the car and catch the freeway-side BART train into the city. We spent the night in the Oakland Hills, where Elizabeth's mother made us a later dinner and we forced Kelsey to watch Amadeus--an embarrassing movie for a musicologist never to have seen.

Saturday we had a late and lazy brunch, again courtesy of Elizabeth's mother, at Rick and Anne's in Berkeley. It's a classic Berkeley restaurant, one which Elizabeth informed me I should be ashamed of never having been to. Then we headed into the city to meet up with the other half of our gang. It was a beautiful sunny fall day in the city. Sitting in Dolores Park, watching packs of dogs tussle with one another in front of palm trees and the San Francisco skyline, signing left-wing petitions and seeing a man try to sell musical instruments to sunbathers (accordion? ukelele?), it all makes it difficult to believe that one can't actually live here at the moment.

Some book-shopping in the Mission, dinner at a cheap Indian restaurant, a quick change of clothes in a friend's apartment, and we were off to the opera.Afterwardss the night was spent at an apartment in the Haight, which had the most beautiful hardwood floors I have ever seen--a deep luscious red wood that I was afraid to step on

Sunday was The Race. Elizabeth has been training for a marathon for the past few months. It's the Nike Women's Marathon, benefiting leukemia research. Sunday was the big day, so we dragged ourselves over to Golden Gate Park to cheer as she ran by. We were a little slow in getting out of the house, so we ended up missing her at mile 16, but managed to find her at mile 21, threw her a power bar, and cheered as she went past.

Then, it was back to the Mission for brunch with the some former Stanford classmates of Nikki's, at an extremely greasy little diner. Then back to the car, and six hours later, home! I am almost always really glad to be back in Los Angeles. Coming back to LA from New York, London, Washington, DC., Boston, Philadelphia, or really almost anywhere, I consider myself very fortunate to live in a wonderful city. Coming back from San Francisco, however, was a little....disappointing.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Please Please Me

I have a difficult relationship with the Beatles. Growing up, I was always a Beach Boys partisan, mostly because my parents like them better and had most of their albums on vinyl. (The only Beatles LP I remember seeing was the White Album, which kind of mystified me.) Plus, "Kokomo" came out when I was in elementary school, and although my friends and I weren't old enough to see the movie it was written for (remember Cocktail?), we loved the song and memorized all the words. Seeing the reunited Beach Boys perform live at a local amusement park put a bit of a damper on my Beach Boy love (60+ year old beach boys + bikini clad go-go dancers=horrifying), but I still remained--and remain--partisan.

But anyways, this quarter I am forced to listen to the Beatles twice a week, in the presence of 140 undergraduates who want both an easy A and the affirmation that the Beatles are The Greatest Band Ever. This should be a recipe for me to hate the Beatles even more, but I am growing oddly ambivalent.

Their downsides:
1. Way too cute for their own good.
2. Single-handedly destroyed the careers of dozens of black r&b artists by giving white America a clean-cut simulacrum of rock n' roll to listen to.
3. Early and unfortunate homophobia and gay-bashing by certain members. (I'm looking at you, John)
4. Some very unfortunate covers early on in their careers.

The upsides:
1. Please Please Me is actually a pretty great album.
2. Their entire image and career was carefully stage-managed by an effete gay Jewish upper-class British manager. Hence the trendy haircuts, Pierre Cardin suits, and the snazzy record contract with EMI.
3. John Lennon and the aforementioned effete gay Jewish upper-class British manager once went on a trip together. Alone. For two weeks. To Spain.
4. It's not really their fault that those early covers were really bad. If I become a famous academic someday, and somebody digs up my high school papers, I would be pretty embarrassed.
5. Point number 2 above is actually much more complicated than it is often represented. But that would be a whole 'nother post.

So we shall see! Downside # 1 still remains however.

Friday, October 07, 2005


Apologies for not posting more frequently, gentle reader. I fear the advent of the school year will be putting a damper on such things.

But, I have some exciting news. Some of you know that my building has a swimming pool. That sounds fun, but it is this bizarre little pool in the middle of the courtyard formed by the two halves of the apartment building. Not only is it usually rather debris-laden, but to go swimming in it requires swimming right in front of all these big windows where you can see neighbors peering down at you. And since the residents in my building are either Russian mobsters or snobby gay male model-actors, it's just not very appealing. Very occasionally the manager's 14 year-old daughter and her friends splash around, and occasionally at 2 a.m., when the bars close, you will hear a drunken splash or two. But no right-minded person actually uses the thing in any seriousness.

Yesterday, however, Elizabeth and I went for a run. Or rather, she, being someone currently training for a marathon ran six miles, picked me up, and we ran another six miles together. We got back to my apartment at about 8pm, were hot and sweaty, and decided that it was finally time to baptize the pool. So we did! It was dusty, it was freezing cold, I saw lots of strange eyes peering down, but we did it!