Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Too much information

From The Omniscient Mussel, via MMMusing, an irresistible meme:

(or view in the Wordle gallery here)

This isn't my iTunes library proper, but a selection of my recently played pieces, and so a couple of multi-movement works I've listened to recently are skewing the results somewhat. Anyone care to guess which ones?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Because when you're a great composer, you're allowed to have iconoclastic opinions

Every moment in Mozart's music we come across passages from which something can be learnt; and I have no doubt at all that, when the wheel of time has turned a few more cycles, the best of Mozart's symphonies will remain standing while most of Beethoven's will fall, for the simple reason that, in Mozart's art, the lyrical - the subjective and the epic-artistic - are more evenly balanced than in Beethoven's works. Beethoven, for all his great compositional power, is really only a lyrist. We may feel more on hearing Beethoven's works, but people a hundred years hence may feel quite differently, and art based chiefly on emotion becomes redundant unless it is universal in the sense that there will always be something to learn from it. And in a purely artistic, musical sense there is far more to learn in Mozart than in Beethoven.
Carl Nielsen, Living Music, 21.

Two years ago I would have strenuously disagreed with anyone that dared to place Mozart on a higher pedestal than Beethoven. Now, I'm not so sure.

And, from the department of Bizarre Bus Stop Encounters:

Complete Stranger: (approaching Osbert with enthusiasm, rubbing his hands together) Yessirree! Which bus are you waiting for?

Osbert: I'm waiting to catch the #6.

Complete Stranger (visibly crestfallen) Oh.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Harrumph

I suppose that when the Toronto Star decides to run a profile of organist-composer Andrew Ager, complete with a video of Ager demonstrating the organ at St. James' Cathedral, it's a bit unsportmanlike for me to spend a blog post complaining about it. After all, without articles like these most people would be completely unaware of Ager's work at the cathedral, or of his well-crafted compositions.

But what's this:
Under his watch, the cathedral has abandoned the old men-and-boys choir tradition that was past its best-before date. He composes tuneful, tonal music in an age when atonality rules. His pieces are in regular performance, unlike the one-off creations of so many contemporary composers.
This is a collection of tired cliches, and none of them pass logical scrutiny. Viz:
  • 2008 is only "an age where atonality rules" in the imagination of journalists. Aside from the more esoteric repertoire offered by the Esprit Orchestra, New Music Concerts and their ilk, the Toronto music scene is fairly conservative. When the orchestra or opera company features twentieth-century music, it's more likely to be music of the more conservative ilk (Janacek, early Messiaen, Takemitsu), rather than anything truly atonal or, God forbid, serial. The Canadian composers prominent today generally write broadly tonal music with subtle touches of contemporary harmony. Even university music programs, for crying out loud, the last bastions of old-fashioned musical styles, have embraced the new tonality, with student compositions showing the influence of Reich and Adams rather than Stockhausen and Maderna.
  • Perhaps in 1970s and '80s academia, atonality was pushed down students' throats - and I've heard enough stories from that era, including Ager's own recollections, to believe that this is true. But today the pendulum has swung in the other direction, to the point that the vast majority of orchestra programs are totally uninteresting to fans of hardcore modernism. For journalists to continue talking as though orchestras were programming Xenakis and Finnissy at every concert is ridiculous. Stop.
  • To me, "tuneful" is off the mark in describing Ager's music. His sacred works that I've heard are characterized by careful craftsmanship, Renaissance-inspired counterpoint, and a certain emotional distance. It's this studied seriousness, I think, that sets him apart from the many other Canadian composers who write choral music in a tonal idiom (Eleanor Daley, Mark Sirett, Ruth Watson Henderson, etc.), and which puts him firmly in the tradition of solid, unpretentious liturgical music, rather than in the camp of the choral-industrial complex.
  • But the absolute most irritating thing in the article is the gloating over the demise of the "old men-and-boys choir tradition". Never mind that the men-and-boys choir at St. James was dismantled long before Ager took up his position - this horribly misrepresents a very complicated situation. Adult women simply cannot blend with unchanged boy's voices, or with the voices of male altos, so there is no halfway measure - either you have a traditional SATB choir with adult female sopranos and contraltos, or else you have an English-style men-and-boys choir. The majority of North American church choirs choose the first option, and understandably so - male altos are thin on the ground, and training boy choristers is time-consuming and expensive compared to simply hiring experienced sopranos. But in a very few churches, the English tradition is still maintained, and with good reason - the sound is incomparable for performing the traditional English repertoire, and the training it provides for a young singer is top-notch. Political correctness, however, rules that this is a smokescreen for sexism, and that our society is tainted as long as even one church in the country has an all-male choir. And so a centuries-old tradition dies, and parents looking for a good choral education for their children must instead enroll them in a children's choir where they can look forward to a steady diet of Rutter and other unmentionables.
Natter, natter, natter. I notice that the feature author is John Terauds, who I railed against for similar issues in his review of the recent Turangalila-Symphonie performance, so this seems to be par for the course. But it's still annoying. And I'm going to go listen to late-period Tippett until I calm down.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Hundredth post!!!1

This is the hundredth post to appear on This Blog Will Change the World. Yay, I guess?

I've posted before about my difficulty with the works of Brian Ferneyhough. There are plenty of composers I don't enjoy, but he's the only one whose music I feel totally unable to comprehend in any sense. Perhaps I need to hear more of his music.

It's an interesting testament to his personality, however, that he seems to have actually responded to a series of discussion questions on his music appended to his Wikipedia article - despite their oversimplified language and sometimes aggressive tone. Indeed, his demeanor in interview makes me really want to like his music. Perhaps someday I will.

Happiness is exciting

The latest football being kicked around in the music blogosphere is this David Byrne article condemning the supposed excesses of musical modernism, apropos of the recent New York performance of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten. Of course, music bloggers as a species are generally fairly welcoming toward modernist music, and so Byrne's article has been subject to fairly widespread attack. (The Rambler's counterargument is irrefutable: "How many nights do you need to sell out at up to $250 a seat before critics stop calling you perversely obscure?")

While my natural inclination is to come out on the modernist team and attack people like Byrne as Philistines, I feel a certain reservation about doing so if it means defending, say, the academic twelve-tone music of Milton Babbitt. Kyle Gann at Postclassic makes the welcome point that not all complex modernist music is great music, but that much of it is worthwhile, and that people have every right to enjoy it. His caveat, however, is that searching for a simpler style, one which communicates more directly with a broad audience, is a valuable and challenging exercise for any composer, and that composers should not cultivate complexity for its own sake. Total common sense, but much-needed. Read the whole thing. I am reminded of Edmund Rubbra's Fifth Symphony, which I listened to recently - the orchestral texture is based entirely on tonal, two-part counterpoint, but the notes are so carefully chosen that this becomes incredibly powerful when played expressively. And when you listen to his First and Second symphonies, you realize that to reach this point, he had to learn to strip away every unnecessary note. His reward was to be told by his colleagues that it was 1947 and he should be writing serial music.

One of my projects recently has been to add dates to all of the pieces of music on my iTunes library, which allows me to sort my music by date instead of alphabetically by composer. For example, if I'd let the Bartok string quartet finish, it would have gone on to play Britten's Te Deum in C, also written in 1934. I find these little coincidences really interesting; they show the sheer variety of music being written at various points in history. For another eye-opener, let's look at what was written in 1969, a year which was supposedly a high point for the European avant-garde:

Arnold - Concerto for Two Pianos, Three Hands
Berkeley - Symphony No. 3
Bryars - The Sinking of the Titanic
Carter - Concerto for Orchestra
Howells - Magnificat and Nunc dimittis "Hereford Service"
Ligeti - Ramifications
Mathias - Ave Rex
Messiaen - La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ
Milner - Roman Spring
Shostakovich - Symphony No. 14
Tippett - The Knot Garden
Yttrehus - Music for Winds, Percussion, Cello and Voices

The avant-garde is represented by Ligeti and Elliott Carter, but we also have academic serialism (Yttrehus), conservative liturgical music (Howells and Mathias), relatively straightforward neo-tonality (Arnold), a sort of British tonal expressionism (Berkeley and Milner), early minimalism (Bryars), and three geniuses following their own unrepeatable paths (Messiaen, Shostakovich and Tippett). The same pattern recurs anywhere you look - there's never a consensus on musical style, but always different voices. Not everyone will like every piece on the list above, but I doubt that even the most dyed-in-the-wool conservative would have much trouble with the Arnold or Bryars pieces.

My contention is that the same pattern persists anywhere you look in music history; if you scroll up a bit in my music library, you find that Schubert was writing some of his simplest Lieder while Beethoven was at work on the Grosse Fuge. And so perhaps the issue has less to do with a crisis in modern music, and more to do with a continual balance between simplicity and complexity. Otherwise, you're left with the nonsensical conclusion that Gesualdo is a more audience-friendly composer than Vaughan Williams.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

What organists do on Saturdays

They practice, is what. Tomorrow morning is an all-Willan Sunday, with preludes by the late composer on the plainsong melodies "Ecce jam noctis" and "Aeterna Christi munera". A little background: Healey Willan emigrated from Britain to Canada in 1913, where he became organist at the parish of St. Paul's, Bloor Street, a cathedral-sized church with a huge acoustic and an enormous Casavant organ. St. Paul's, however, is a decidedly "low church" parish, and after 8 years of service there Willan jumped ship to the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, where he had the opportunity to build an Anglo-Catholic music program from the ground up - based primarily on Gregorian chant and his own choral music. It's a sign of Willan's wry sense of humour that he then wrote a set of preludes of plainsong melodies and dedicated them to Charles Peaker, the new organist of St. Paul's - because Peaker's church, unlike Willan's, would never use plainsong in its services. Like Peaker, I serve at a fairly "low church" parish, and so the closest I can get to accompanying an Anglo-Catholic service is performing Willan's music.

Unfortunately, one of the hymns the rector has selected for this week is Marty Haugen's "Bring forth the kingdom", which is about as far from Healey Willan as you can get without dropping a hymnbook on the console. What's worse, the congregation has never sung it before, and there will be no choir this Sunday to pull them along. So during the administration of the Eucharist, I will be improvising a chorale partita on "Bring forth the kingdom", in the hopes that some people will remember the tune when we sing the hymn. On the one hand, my conscience tells me to make the hymn tune as clear as possible so that the congregation will be able to hear it - on the other hand, my aesthetic sense tells me to disguise the tune as much as possible, because it's terrible. Will it work in inversion? Can we transpose it into the octatonic? Would it help the effect if I do drop a hymnal on the console?

Right. What other things do organists do on Saturdays? They donate blood, if they're me. My blood type is O negative, so now that Canadian Blood Services has my contact information, they practically chase me down the street with syringes. The whole experience is somewhat surreal, beginning with filling out a questionnaire asking whether I have ever held a job which involved handling monkeys, whether I have had a brain covering graft (??!!) in the past 12 months, and when my last dental appointment was. Then, when it's all over, you sit at a table and eat cookies, and they give you brochures that explain what your blood type says about you. Turns out that as a type O, I should have been an accountant, a caterer, or a "businessperson"! They also inform me that my blood type makes me more likely to be a talented writer, a hypothesis which is being quickly disproved by this blog post.

What else? They listen to Pierre Fournier play the Bach cello suites, if they're me. Folks, this is some of the best Bach playing I've heard on any instrument. It's too easy to play Bach's pages of running sixteenth notes as though they were just pages of running sixteenth notes. Here, every phrase goes somewhere. Yay.

Friday, July 18, 2008

An amazing accomplishment

TBWCTW is currently the #1 Google result for the search "bizarre activities". On the strength of this, I get about a half-dozen visitors a week who have decided to search for that particular phrase. None of them stay for more than a few seconds, giving me the distinct impression that things like moving house and learning twelve-tone organ symphonies are not the sort of bizarre activities that the average person is looking for. I suppose that I am Insufficiently Bizarre for a mass audience, but I can't help it.

Liner notes as aesthetic experience

Ineluctable modality of the financial. Organists' pockets being, unlike their musical horizons, distinctly finite, they are thought wisest who scrutinize their pocketbooks with untiring perspicacity before purchasing compact disc recordings on impulse. Yet this one called out to me in seductive tones - a twentieth-century Mass setting I've never heard, and the wonderfully titled "Seven Pious Pieces", which set amazing poetry by Robert Herrick. Ergo, on my doorstep yesterday sat a box containing these two works, and without delay up sprang my conscience and declared thus:

"You've never even heard of those two composers! Why would you buy more CDs when you still have recordings you've barely listened to?"

Whereupon the bishops of York, Durham, Toronto, Seattle, Buenos Aires, Huron, Trent, Denial, Truro, Kent, Southeastern Northern Ireland, Northwest South Dakota, Metropolitan Ivan, New York, Old York, Newest York, Fad Dieting, Capetown, Organology, Cambridge (UK), Cambridge (ON), Cambridge (NC), Cambridge (WA), Cambridge (GA), Cambridge (XQ), Cambridge (6$), New Cambridge, Westphalia, Carolingian Dynasty, and Peterborough, each in full vestments, bearing their symbols of office and attended by a train of deacons, archdeacons, secretaries, organists, suborganists, archorganists, assistant subarchorganists, vergers, chancel guild secretaries and sidespersons, did pass through in solemn procession, attended by six thousand thurifers, eighty-one acolytes and three hundred thousand, five hundred and ninety-four members of parliament, and carried away my conscience to a high rock atop a mountain, where it wailed and gnashed its teeth to no avail, for the crinkle of shrinkwrap being peeled off my new CD drowned out its piteous cries. And thus it was that the liner notes were freed from their plastic imprisonment, and spoke even unto my hungry eyes, dicentes:
The trip down Church Street has not, in this century, been felicitous for the sort of music one might call American Serious. In regard to use of tonal art, the Church continues to worry deeply about the wide range of possible effect posited between static and "all-is-flux" concepts. For the needs of the Church (in the spirit of argument choose any denomination, though this statement applies in particular to the old-line corporates with the most highly evolved rituals), music history functions more than as study of static past; rather it appears too as Dream Image, a stupendous moving picture, with sound at the center, produced at great existential cost, starring all the biggies strutting, and other abutters, wryly bred for lesser tasks, interfaced in a massive dithyramb-bam-crackle-poppity-pop of substantive chaos - hoo-wee - instructional all the more.
And so did my Conscious Mind emerge from the depths of my skull vacated by Conscience, and it did speak unto the liner notes, and its speech follows:

"Say what?"

And after the bishops of York, Durham, Toronto, Seattle, Buenos Aires, Huron, Trent, Denial, Truro, Kent, Southeastern Northern Ireland, Northwest South Dakota, Metropolitan Ivan, New York, Old York, Newest York, Fad Dieting, Capetown, Organology, Cambridge (UK), Cambridge (ON), Cambridge (NC), Cambridge (WA), Cambridge (GA), Cambridge (XQ), Cambridge (6$), New Cambridge, Westphalia, Carolingian Dynasty, and Peterborough did applaud with wild enthusiasm at the speech of Conscious Mind, hoisting it onto their shoulders and parading it through town with great ceremony, Conscious Mind was left once again alone with Liner Notes, who quothed once more, dicentes:
Holy Moses, the little touch at the end is frank and merry and well follows the ground, rounds the form, continues the trip. Pleni Sunt Coeli. And blessings follow. After the Mass there is O, O, O, O, That Shakespeherian Rag (1958), the secular voices, bard on Avon, joined by jazz combo.
Tight boots? No! She's lame! O! And so Conscious Mind thought to itself that these liner notes are not liner notes at all, but a rather lacklustre pastiche of Joyce and T. S. Eliot, and so began to skim through the booklet hoping to find some basic information on the works, such as their dates of composition. Riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation to the liner notes to the Martino "Pious Pieces", which are by the composer and in the sort of Academic English that one expects from twentieth-century American composers:
At no time before Seven Pious Pieces (1971). . . have I written or been tempted to write music even remotely tonal sounding. . . Even my very early student works were conceived as atonal or at least nontonal.
After what preceded this, I welcomed Martino's prose style with delight as something resembling actual English. You see, only Joyce can do Joyce, which is why your eyes are rolling alarmingly in their sockets as you read this blog post. It was only later that I realized how ridiculous it is that a composer could go through their entire career without once being "tempted" to write a piece "even remotely tonal sounding". Schoenberg and Stravinsky certainly didn't share this strange pathology, and I doubt that even Webern or Varese thought this way. I suppose the gap of two generations is sufficient to turn conventional wisdom into a bizarre neurosis.

The actual music on the CD? Doesn't grab me at all - the form seems diffuse and Martirano in particular seems set on setting his texts in the most bizarre way possible, for no apparent reason.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Organological Excitement

So after several months in this medium, I think I'm starting to figure out the secrets of being a good blogger. My guess is that it has something to do with actually writing blog entries! Let's try that.

My excuse this time is that I spent most of this week in Kitchener-Waterloo, attending this year's RCCO conference. In case you didn't attend, here's the convention in the form of a series of disconnected comments and images:
  • Four (!) Brunzema portative organs on a stage at one time! Accompanied by a rather flat orchestra (which is unusual - string players usually go sharp).
  • David Briggs is a better stand-up comedian than a Bach player. Luckily, he is a better improviser than any of these other things.
  • More Barrie Cabena works than you've ever heard in your life. Thankfully, he's a really good composer.
  • On the other hand, there was only one work by Denis Bedard and one by Eric Whitacre performed in the entire festival. That was enough.
  • I am endlessly impressed by carilloneurs.
  • And, with apologies to David Sinden: Three of Kitchener's downtown churches are located on Duke Street. Therefore, it seems likely that Duke Street is regularly performed on Duke Street.
  • And speaking of "peculiar honours", I was far more entertained by the RCCO convocation than is probably healthy. Academic robes! Speeches! Quasi-liturgical formulae of pretended great antiquity!
  • I really should be practicing. Nothing gets in the way of your improvement as an organist like spending a week talking to other organists.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Early morning horror


After setting aside today to sleep in and have a relatively quiet, unproductive morning, I was awakened at 5:45 by a loud, intermittent buzzing noise. After setting aside the other possibilities (too early for a lawn mower, too loud for any piece of electronic equipment, too irregular for the refrigerator) I realized that the source of the sound must be some sort of insect trapped in my room. After turning on the lights, throwing open the blinds and staggering clumsily around the room for ten minutes I finally found the source - an enormous greenbottle fly, lying on the floor behind my desk and writhing as though in the throes of death. All the while keeping up its ear-piercing buzzing.

I put the creature out of its misery and was tormented by guilt almost immediately - after all, I and some fellow Russophiles had been watching Prokofiev's War and Peace that evening, in which the mortally wounded Prince Andrei sings as loudly as possible for ten minutes before finally dying, and is rewarded with tumultuous applause. Who could blame an intelligent greenbottle for assuming that this is the usual way for a dying person to behave? It is us, the humans, who should be attacked for maintaining such a vicious double standard - applauding opera stars for singing a swan song before dying, but responding with anger and violence when blowflies try to do the same.

In my defense, Prince Andrei's demise occurred at the more reasonable hour of 11:30 PM.

Wikipedia tidbit: apparently the larvae of greenbottle flies were used in a process called "maggot therapy" in the days before antibiotics!

Monday, July 7, 2008

From the Intriguing Coincidences dep't


You get a (virtual) dollar if you've ever heard of Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960), an Australian-born British composer. Even during his lifetime, articles on the composer began with little apologies for his obscurity. Usually, articles on his life begin by explaining that his best-known work is an orchestral miniature called "Jamaican Rumba", but orchestral repertoire of that sort has been out of style for years. Or the article will begin with an appeal to older listeners, by mentioning his double concerto that was recorded by Heifetz and Primrose. More honest writers realize that the vast majority of musicians have never heard a Benjamin work at all, and mention that he also had a remarkable career as a pianist, including giving the British premiere of Rhapsody in Blue.

I've heard a few of Benjamin's occasional orchestral works, which are well-crafted and enjoyable, but the piece that knocks my socks off is his Symphony. There are two recordings in the catalogue, but the piece is almost unknown, and I cannot fathom why. It's a Romantic symphony in the best sense of the word, firmly in the English tradition, but set apart by unusually engaging thematic material and an unerring sense of pacing, so that the listener's attention never wanders through the work's 45-minute length. As far as I'm concerned, it's a better piece than many symphonies by better-known British composers - including Vaughan Williams, Bax and Arnold. In a sane world, it'd be performed all the time. But, alas, musicians have no discrimination and value name recognition above musical quality, &c.

I just discovered, however, that this composer has an intriguing Canadian connection*. Benjamin visited Canada as an adjudicator during the 1930s and moved to Vancouver in 1939, staying in Canada for the duration of the Second World War. In fact, it was in Vancouver that he wrote his symphony! Google turned up the additional nugget that Benjamin was the first conductor of the CBC Radio Orchestra.

But wasn't John Avison the first director of the orchestra, like it says on the CBC webpage? Yes and no. And here we move into even more obscure facets of Canadian broadcasting history: the CBC Vancouver Orchestra was the brainchild of Ira Dilworth, a conductor and teacher who joined the Corporation in 1938. It's little-known today, however, that he actually started two radio orchestras - the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Avison, and the CBR Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin. Avison's chamber orchestra, comprising only 25 musicians, was the one that lasted, eventually expanding to become today's CBC Radio Orchestra - Benjamin's orchestra, presumably full-size, didn't outlive the 1940s. But for a few years, the city of Vancouver had not one, but two radio orchestras. That's pretty cool.

Looking back on it, it's hard not to see this 1940s period as a golden age of CBC radio programming, one which quickly passed. The CBR Radio Orchestra folded quickly enough. Its sibling, the Vancouver Radio Orchestra, is now on the chopping block, to the chagrin of some Canadians and the indifference of most. Arthur Benjamin went back to England and took his symphony with him - I can find no reference to a Canadian orchestra ever performing it. And the visionary Ira Dilworth's job as head of CBC's English-language programming has been taken by Richard Stursberg.

It may be too late to pick up the rest of the pieces of this puzzle, but Canadian orchestras could do worse than to pick up Benjamin's Symphony as a part of their repertoire. Sure, he wasn't born in Canada, but he loved the country - and the Canadian orchestral repertoire is conspicuously missing a big Romantic symphony.

*The book that set me on this particular chase was British Composers in Interview by the young R. Murray Schafer, then a young music student working as a journalist to pay his bills. Today, we can't imagine a radical like Schafer interviewing arch-conservative composers like Benjamin or Edmund Rubbra, but he does so with such good taste and asks such good questions that his own antipathy disappears. Read it the first time to find out how your favourite British composers tick, including Tippett, Britten, Lennox Berkeley, and Walton; read it the second time to get inside the mind of a young genius before he was famous.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Finished!

Those of you who read this blog will remember my doubly fortuitous decision to start reading James Joyce's Ulysses. This afternoon, I sat down to the "Penelope" episode - Molly Bloom's famous unpunctuated sixty-page monologue, the last in the book - and read it at a sitting. I have now read Ulysses! I am prouder of this accomplishment than of some recitals I've given.

Looking back on it, I'm surprised I didn't read it earlier. A book like this, with its stunningly virtuosic wordplay, would seem like a natural for me. Each chapter is its own world. "Oxen of the Sun" is, for me, the greatest technical accomplishment, taking us through the entire history of the English language, beginning with repeated, quasi-Latin chanting and progressing through imitations of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry, Middle English, the styles of various prominent English writers up until Joyce's time, and ending in a wash of incomprehensible slang. But this isn't an end in itself - in the action of the story, a child is being born, and the stages of English mirror the stages of the baby's development.

Other chapters are more conventional in prose style, although equally unique. "Ithaca" tells the story in the form of a catechism (What parallel courses did Bloom and Stephen follow returning? Of what did the diumvirate deliberate during their itinerary? Were their views on some points divergent?). "Circe" shows us the Kafkaesque hallucinations of the drunk Leopold Bloom, lost in Dublin at night; Joyce's choice to cast this nightmarish story in the form of a drama, complete with stage directions, turns it into something resembling an absurdist play by Ionesco. "Aeolus" is peppered with newspaper headlines - sometimes summarizing the action, sometimes commenting ironically, and often apparently unrelated to anything else in the book. "Cyclops" is laugh-out-loud hilarious, as Bloom's exploits are punctuated by wild digressions by the narrator, including lists of names that last for over a page. (And after came all saints and martyrs, virgins and confessors: S. Cyr and S. Isidore Arator and S. James the Less and S. Phocas of Sinope and S. Julian Hospitator and S. Felix de Cantalice and S. Simon Stylites and S. Stephen Protomartyr . . . and S. Anonymous and S. Eponymous and S. Pseudonymous and S. Homonymous and S. Paronymous and S. Synonymous and S. Laurence O'Toole. . .)

Ulysses is a book that many people feel intimidated to read, because of its length and because of Joyce's reputation as an icon of modernism. People are convinced that they won't be able to understand the prose style, that they'll need six reader's guides and the help of a tenured English professor to make any sense of the novel. That may be true of Finnegans Wake (which I have yet to attempt), but it is certainly not true of Ulysses. Anyone willing to invest the time to the novel can read it, and anyone who is interested in modernism in the arts should read it - not only because it's a Very Important Work of Literature, but because reading it is enjoyable. Joyce is a good enough writer that his book meets you where you are; if you know what "agenbite of inwit" refers to, then you're ahead of the game, and if you don't, the novel will make it clear soon enough.

When you read Ulysses, read straight through. Set aside time in your day to read a chapter at a sitting - otherwise you're sure to lose your place in the stream-of-consciousness by the time you pick it up again. Do not stop when you don't understand something - go back and read a sentence again if you have to, but it's more important to move on in the narrative than to struggle over a complicated page. You won't understand everything on the way through - entire chapters may slip over your head - but you can go back later and read through individual episodes to pick up more of the details. Have a synopsis at hand and check it every few chapters to make sure you haven't missed a key plot event. But the most important thing is to get a sense of the work as a whole, read it through, and enjoy it without getting hung up on the details. That's what the rest of your life is for.

(As an added bonus, everything I've written above would also apply if you were going to listen to the Concord Sonata, or a comparable modernist musical work, for the first time.)

But folks! Listen up. You really should read Ulysses. Buy a copy. Take it home. Finish any other books you're working on. Read.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Wonderful things

One of my latest discoveries is the hilarious series of cartoons by Canadian artist Kate Beaton (available at her website here, or her blog here). Regular subjects are Maritime culture, obscure facets of history (particularly Canadian), and Shetland ponies.

Things that make this cartoon for me: the wonderful corpulence and bulging eyes of the pony, the mustache and unamused expression of Clipboard Man, and the king's gravity-defying beard.

Why are you still on this blog? You could be reading cartoons!