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2015/05/31

I Hear America Singing: Charles Ives' Symphony No. 2

by John Bloner, Jr.


I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else - Walt Whitman

I'd wanted to like the music of American composer Charles Ives for a long time and listened intently to the few records that our local library possessed in its collection. I knew of the great European composers, but wanted to embrace an American classical music composer. Surely, one continent or country couldn't have an exclusive claim on greatness. I hoped that Ives would fit the bill.

No matter how many times I turned my ears to Ives, they were not ready to receive, as conductor Michael Tilson Thomas describes it in the video below; the "savage chaos" served up in his music. I was not prepared, as Ives himself once said, to "stand up and take [my] dissonance like a man." Charles liked to quote his father, George, a Civil War-era bandleader, who told his son:

"You won't get a wild, heroic trip to heaven on pretty little sounds."


I wanted those "pretty little sounds" though. I did not want to be savaged by dissonance.

I've known plenty of dissonance in my day-to-day. I wanted to relax into music; instead, Ives kicked the back of my chair each time I found a small slip of comfort. I told myself that I would take a "wild, heroic trip to heaven" but only if I could do it in a first-class seat, with fair skies and a pretty flight attendant plumping my pillow.

I was like a Christian neophyte who had begun his Bible education by reading The Book of Revelation. I wanted an Eden before the Fall and to know Noah before the Flood. The storms in Ives' later work needed to wait. My ears were not ready to receive them.


I'd confessed all of this to a friend, who, by providence, had established a kinship with an Ives' admirer. She shared my interest in the composer with him.

"Listen to the Second Symphony, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra," was his advice. I've been in his debt ever since. (Thanks, Martin.)

Bernstein had recorded this piece of music three times, first with the Philharmonic in 1958, then with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1987, and finally in 1988. Whereas the inaugural recording was taken at a brisk tempo, Bernstein's final outing with Ives' Second clocked in several minutes slower. What the '58 version lacks in audio quality, it makes up for energy, particularly in the final movement.

Conductor and composer, Leonard Bernstein
It's fitting that Bernstein's name is synonymous with this work. In 1951, he and the Philharmonic were the first to perform it, even though Ives had written it 50 years earlier. Other works by the composer had also taken decades to be heard.

The Second Symphony is an autobiography, told with notes instead of words, of a young Charles Ives, who's sharing the sounds of the marching bands, collegiate anthems, barn dances, parlor pianos, Stephen Foster songs, and church hymns that stirred his senses when he was a boy in Connecticut, and he's combining them with the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Wagner.

The result is much, much more than the sum of its parts. Its breadth is like an evening walk with a friend, where you're exposed to many sounds such as the neighbor's girl practicing the piano, boys at play in the park, a mother calling for her child to come home, or a baseball game just getting underway.

Charles Ives (left), captain of the Hopkins
Grammar School baseball team
"Listen, closely," you might say to your companion. "Can't you hear the high school marching band practicing for the July 4th parade?" To which, she could reply, "I was listening to the church bells. Their sound always brings me peace."  

When you're listening to Charles Ives, you're not hearing Bach, even though his music is contained within his score. You're not hearing a fiddle tune or a hymn, even though those are there, too. You're hearing the world of Charles Ives made manifest in music.

The first 15 minutes of this symphony, ending abruptly in the video with "Bringing In The Sheaves," appears directly below. The remaining 30 minutes may also be seen and heard in separate segments in this article.


Irena Grafenauer
Haunting the hills, the stream, the wild,
Swallow and aster, lake and pine,
To him grew human or divine --
Fit mates for this large-hearted child.
Thoreau's Flute by Louisa May Alcott

Charles Ives was drawn to Henry David Thoreau, the writer and the man, beginning in his youth and continuing through his life. New England as seen through Thoreau's eyes was a canvas on which he could paint his thoughts on nature and the conduct of life.

Henry David Thoreau
In his solitude, Thoreau played a wooden flute. This fact and its relevance to Ives' Second Symphony only occurred to me after viewing the video of Bernstein's concert several times, fascinated, as the camera appears to be equally fascinated with the ethereal quality of the silver flute, as played in that performance by Slovenian flutist Irena Grafenauer.

Amidst the blare of the brass, the pounding of the tympani, the lowing of the cello, Grafenauer's flute weaves through it all, as a quiet man (or woman) would finding their way through a forest. A good example of this is seen just before the thirty second mark in the video below, when the orchestra is hushed so Grafenauer may introduce a sea shanty, "What Shall We Do With A Drunken Soldier," before handing it off to the oboist beside her.

Another example occurs in the third movement, starting at the four minute mark, when Bernstein slowly unveils the musical line--O, beautiful, for spacious skies--from "America The Beautiful." There is a tremendous ache in this music. For me, it washes away all cynicism, just as viewing "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" can renew hope for humanity. There is a sacred shiver to it.


Have you ever run down a hill and felt both the terror and the thrill when your momentum takes over and you cannot stop running, even if you tried? That sensation describes the final moments of the Second Symphony, when the score seems to gathers up almost everything that has come before and takes the listener on a fast gallop, while Reveille calls from the horns, "Columbia" is reprised, the minstrel tune, "Wake Nicodemus," comes to the fore, and if a thousand horses rushed the aisles in this moment, you would not be surprised at all.

Witness the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, beginning at the 10 minute mark of the video below, as the music evokes a late summer's afternoon on the veranda before the tempo abruptly changes and a sonic goulash is created.

My favorite part occurs at about the 11:30 mark when a grin stretches over the conductor's face and he pumps his arms to the beat of the music.

Also, no matter how many times I've listened to this symphony, I'm forever surprised by its final note--as if a painter had finished his masterpiece by snapping his wrist to see all of the oil that had collected in the bristles of his brush cast onto his canvas.

Charles Ives added this ending to his symphony many years after he had originally composed the work. Some critics refer to it as a "raspberry," as if Ives is sticking out his tongue at his audience. Others have referred to it as akin to the end of a fiddle tune, when the fiddler draws up the bow. I think of it as a comment by Ives on the industrial age with its noise and dirt. In his book, "Mad Music," author Stephen Budiansky writes that Ives "was never truly at home in the twentieth century. He hated airplanes, was suspicious of telephones, went for years without reading newspapers." That final blat from the orchestra could be the blare of a car horn or any other vulgar sound that shakes you from your bliss.


Charles Bernstein's production became my gateway into the world of Charles Ives, one that I celebrate each year as spring turns into summer, the high school bands rehearse for the big parade and neighbors unfurl the Stars and Stripes.

I hear America singing in his music; I've come to love his dissonances, too. I feel like Leonard Bernstein when I listen to the Second and his other symphonies, string quartets, songs and piano sonatas. Through his work, he can remind us of where we've been, who we are, and what can be possible for the human spirit. I'm fortunate to have finally found my way into his music and invite you to spend some time with it, too. Find out more about the composer at the Charles Ives Society here.


2015/05/24

Museums, With a Mouse Click

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

International Museum Day was observed on May 18th, and it just so happens that when we launched 2nd First Look, the very first article that I wrote was about an experience that I had in the incredible Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain. Ever since my visit there and to the Louvre in Paris years and years ago, I’ve wished that I could get back. Luckily, these days I can do that every single day, if I want to, and not have to spend any money on a plane ticket or other travel expenses. Granted, it’s definitely not the same as being at these extraordinary art museums in person, but until I have the chance to hop over “the pond” again, let me tell you about some of the special features of the websites of the Prado, Louvre, and the Tate that allow you to visit without having to leave home. Keep in mind that I’m sure there are many, many more sites that have fantastic features like the ones I’ll mention, and that even for these three that I’m highlighting, this probably won’t be a comprehensive list of all that their websites have to offer. There are times when I’m having technical issues and curse technology, but then things like these sites and their special features make me stop and reconsider.

Museo Nacional del Prado

Museo Nacional del Prado—Madrid, Spain

Even though art is a “universal language,” one of the first, most helpful features of the Prado website is that it has options to translate the pages into a variety of languages, so that there’s no need to try and muddle through navigation of the site. Along with photos of the inside of the museum itself that help you feel like you may have stepped inside for a look, the Prado also offers an online gallery that allows you to peruse some of the museum’s collection. There’s also a feature called “In Depth” that showcases a handful of works and goes into great detail about them. For example, for a painting by Rembrandt, there are options to click on to learn more that include topics like compositional elements, iconography, the history of the painting, the historical and artistic context, technical information, and a video. Even viewing this piece at the museum itself, you may not get such an in-depth overview.

Another feature that I've found really fascinating is "Restoration", under the Research tab. There's a list of almost a dozen works, and if you click on any one, a drop down menu gives you the option to see photos and videos of the process of restoring these pieces. It's interesting to see what a fine line they have to walk between restoration and trying to prevent future deterioration, and still maintaining the integrity of the original work of art.

My favorite feature of the website is probably “Pradomedia” though. This page has different tabs to explore: exhibitions, collection, education, research, and games, and each one contains videos that you can watch to find out more about that specific subject. I’ve been able to watch a few of the special talks about objects in the museum, hosted by museum staff, and it’s been wonderful to be able to do this. These have been public events that were held at the museum and recorded, so it gave me a chance to be part of the audience, even from over 4,000 miles away. I had to rely on my shaky knowledge of Spanish to understand what was being said, but thankfully I know enough that I was still able to get quite a bit out of it. The games tab is a lot of fun too. As of now, there’s only one option listed, a puzzle game, but in the past there have been more to choose from. Some of them seemed to be geared more towards children, but I didn't care; I played most of them anyway, and had fun.

The Prado website is nearly as extensive as the museum itself, so hop on over and take a look.

Louvre

Louvre—Paris, France
Website: www.louvre.fr

Like the Prado, the Louvre has options to translate their website into different languages, allowing users to take full advantage of all of the information it gives. It also has a feature, called “Selected Works” (under the Collection & Louvre Palace tab), that has work available to look at online. It’s divided into categories, covering subjects like masterpieces, jewelry, the French Revolution, Napoleon, major events in history, and more. Also under the Collection & Louvre Palace tab, there are descriptions of rooms within the Louvre, and virtual tours that website visitors can take. Right now there are two tour options available: Egyptian Antiquities, and Remains of the Louvre’s Moat.

Under another tab, Learning About Art, there are categories such as “Through Children’s Eyes,” where Louvre experts answer questions about some of the museum’s pieces from children aged five to eleven, “A Closer Look,” which allows you to see details of select art through a virtual magnifying glass and includes commentary and animations, and my personal favorite, “Tales of the Museum.” This interactive animation features an illustrated Dominique-Vivant Denon, the museum’s first director of the Louvre back in 1802, and his workshop. By clicking on objects in the workshop, choosing from a list, and/or using an index, there are about fifty anecdotes and five longer stories about the Louvre and its artwork available. For example, by clicking on an illustration of the bust of what looked like an ancient-era woman, I was led to a short video called “The Divided Couple,” about the statue of an Egyptian royal couple that broke into several pieces. Part of it came up for auction in 1926 and was acquired by the museum. What a fun way for kids—and adults!—to learn about the history of some of the museum’s collection. Just like the Prado site, there’s much more to explore than what I’ve mentioned here, so I highly recommend setting aside some time to check it out yourself.

Tate Britain

Tate—London, Liverpool, and St. Ives, England
Website: www.tate.org.uk

The Tate in England has four major locations: Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool, and Tate St. Ives. The main website offers separate tabs for all of these locations; if you click on them, it mostly gives information about the specific location and its hours, how to get there, tips for visitors, and so on. It’s the main site where all the “action” is though: along with tabs giving general information, there are options titled Art and artists, Blogs and channels, Learn, Research, and Albums.

Art and artists provides a glimpse not only into the museums’ collections, but over 2,500 pieces of art by Joseph Mallord Williams Turner from other collections. It has a handy glossary of art terms too, and gives you the ability to order custom prints of artwork from the collections. Blogs and channels gives site visitors the opportunity to read articles and watch videos through features like “20 minute tours” and “Tate staff: Behind the scenes.” Some of the topics of these include art movements (pop art, surrealism, performance art, etc.), sculpture, photography, cinema and film, and much more.

I’ve explored the Learn tab a little bit, and to me, it’s one of the most appealing. It features articles and videos too, but then there are really cool options like Tate Kids, which caters to children by providing not only age-appropriate games, videos, and access to the kids’ collection of visual art, but has dozens of writing and craft/art activities and even art-related homework help available as well. There’s nothing saying that grown-ups can’t check out these features too, but so that we don’t feel left out, there are other things to check out under the Learn tab too, such as a link to Khan Academy, the Tate’s free online courses.

Research takes you to information on their archive, library, reading rooms, and print and drawing rooms, which, unfortunately for those of us outside of England, you have to physically visit to access. But the Research tab also has a link to research publications, some of which can be read online.

One of the last features I wanted to highlight on the Tate website is the intriguing Albums tab. This is a beta feature that allows visitors to the site to create an album by adding Tate content, their own content, and then share it with others. The site cautions that this is “brand new and (they’re) still working on it. All the basics should be there, but sometimes it might be a bit cumbersome, not look very pretty or not update as quickly as you might expect. But (they’d) like to have your feedback…Please have a go at creating an album and let (them) know what works or doesn’t.” I haven’t tried it out myself yet, but it sounds interesting and potentially lots of fun.

And of course, like the other two websites, this is just a fraction of what’s available and at your fingertips online. Take a look.

Your turn, readers; are there other museum websites with awesome interactive features that you’d recommend? If so, leave a comment and let us know which ones.




2015/05/17

Johnny Cool

by Dave Gourdoux


Sometimes, a film comes along that defies all reason and is remarkable, in spite of itself.

In the 1960s, William Asher was one of the most prolific directors of television sitcoms, with many episodes of "I Love Lucy" and "Bewitched" under his belt. Occasionally, he'd venture beyond the confines of the small screen and direct films on the big screen - films like How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and Beach Blanket Bingo. Reading his filmography, you get the impression he was a hard-working hack, responsible for an impressively long list of mediocre entertainment.

In 1963, the actor Peter Lawford, best known as a member of Frank Sinatra's "rat pack," produced his first movie, having bought the rights to a little known novel, "The Kingdom of Johnny Cool," by John McPartland. Lawford, operating on a small budget, hired Asher as his director and a cast of largely unknown actors, spicing things up with cameos by comedian Mort Sahl and Rat Pack friends like Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop. Davis even sang the theme song.

Johnny Cool stars the great character actor Henry Silva, fresh off of his chilling performance as a Korean heavy in The Manchurian Candidate, starring Sinatra. My guess is that Silva got his opportunity in Johnny Cool from working alongside Sinatra. In any case, Johnny Cool would stand as Silva's first and only lead role in a Hollywood production.

Henry Silva as Johnny Cool
The movie opens in World War II Sicily in 1943. After witnessing his mother's murder by the Nazis, a boy named Salvatore Giordano joins the local mob. Later, he is groomed by Johnny Collini, a mob head who was exiled from the Unites States back to Sicily, to assume the identity of Johnny Cool and exact revenge on all the men who turned on Collini.

The movie is about Cool's arrival in America and the subsequent war he starts. As played by Silva, Cool becomes a great anti-hero, ruthless and brutal, and far superior in his brutality than anything even the mob bosses he goes after have seen. In this respect, the movie is years ahead of its time, as Silva's character invites comparisons to the leads of recent revenge movies, like Mel Gibson in Payback and Liam Neeson in the Taken films.

One by one, Silva bumps off the targets on his list, and it's the combination of glee and brutality with which he goes about his business that is jarring and so ahead of its time. To be clear, there isn't really any blood or gore shown, but it's implied, and Silva never feels a pang of conscience. He truly enjoys his work.

Elizabeth Montgomery
Shortly after coming to America, Cool meets a beautiful divorcee played by a young Elizabeth Montgomery, who, in real life, was already married to Asher, a year before Asher would produce and direct her in the sitcom "Bewitched." In Johnny Cool, she is very sexy, and she gives a great performance as a woman who thinks she's more worldly than she is. She quickly falls for Johnny, and her attraction to his hard edges and darkness is completely believable. She is very desirable, and has to be for us to believe that Silva/Cool, who is so single-minded in his evil, would allow himself to fall in love with her.

A recipe for effective revenge movies has emerged in recent years. The best revenge movies feature an anti-hero, a character who is so lost in his need for revenge that he becomes nearly inhuman. He is so traumatized and emotionally scarred that he loses perspective. Yet we root for him, for two reasons: one, he has enough charm and charisma that we become emotionally invested in the tragedy he's experienced, and two, in his blind pursuit of vengeance he develops skills and an attitude that transcend the normal limits of human capability and he becomes superhuman.

Some of the best revenge movies include Clint Eastwood's 1975 western epic, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films and Django Unchained, and Brian Helgelen's 1999 Payback. All of these films have the vengeance-lusting antihero as the primary character who develops superhuman skills - Wales becomes a superior gunfighter after experiencing the death of his family, in Kill Bill Uma Thurman is almost ridiculously skilled in martial arts, while in Payback Mel Gison becomes so single-mindedly obsessed with retrieving the $7,000 he is owed that he becomes a killing machine.

In Johnny Cool, the same storytelling techniques apply (albeit on a shoestring budget). As a child, Cool endures his share of tragedy and violence, and as an adult, he has enough charm and charisma to make his conquest of Montgomery completely believable. And he also becomes a killing machine, executing complicated and unexpected plans to murder his targets. It's in the brutal nihilism that Cool executes his murders and in the way the film gets us rooting for him that Johnny Cool is ahead of its time.


Johnny Cool has the look of a cheesy, low budget, early '60s film. It's in black and white, and is loud and crass. But stay with it and you'll be pulled into a story and characters that transcend the budgetary limitations and stand on their own.

It's almost blasphemous to say, given Asher's unimpressive filmography, but Johnny Cool looks like what I imagine a Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese movie might look like had they had to operate with the same budgetary and censorship restrictions. In terms of attitude, Johnny Cool has plenty enough to compare to Goodfellas or Kill Bill.



2015/05/03

AMC's Halt and Catch Fire

by Jav Rivera

On April 10, I spent hours binge-watching Marvel's "Daredevil," which was released exclusively on Netflix that same day. The series raised the bar not just for Marvel, but also for television in general. It's gritty, dark, and entertaining. After binging on all 13 episodes over two days, my eyes felt like mashed potatoes. I looked around my apartment and thought, "Oh wow...I haven't breathed fresh air in a while." I stepped onto the balcony and enjoyed a cup of coffee.

A little later, I turned Netflix back on and noticed a show starring one of my favorite actors, Lee Pace. I read the premise and was intrigued. Then I saw that it also starred Scoot McNairy, another actor that always knows how to get it right with all of his roles. The show? AMC's "Halt and Catch Fire". I added it to my queue with the intention of starting it on Monday night. I was curious but needed a break from watching so much television. As I dilly-dallied around my apartment, I couldn't stop thinking about the show. Curiosity got the best of me and I eventually played the first episode. A few seconds in, I was hooked. Of the ten episodes in season one, I ended up watching seven from late Saturday night and early Sunday. Despite mushy eyeballs and melted brain cells, I just couldn't resist.


Created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, "Halt and Catch Fire" is set in the early 1980s and follows Joe Macmillan (played by the ever-handsome Lee Pace) as he infiltrates Cardiff Electric, a small computer company in Dallas, TX. He tricks his way into high position and begins to build a small team with the idea of creating the fastest computer on the market. He also has high hopes for the future of computing, and little by little begins to push his team into more elaborate concepts for his new computer. He's not concerned with how it gets done nor if it's actually physically possible, but he's going to achieve his goal.

Lee Pace as "Joe MacMillan"
The '80s is known as the era of greed and excess, and this show uses that as an underlying theme. But greed isn't exploited as much as other shows and films set during this time; "Halt and Catch Fire" focuses more on manipulation and people over-promising impossible things. From the very beginning, Joe is in a constant battle with head honcho John Bosworth (Toby Huss). Is Joe trying to upgrade Bosworth's company into something more modern, or is he just a control freak? Either way, Bosworth knows full well that he's being pushed into a direction he never planned, but can't quite get back his company from Joe.

Toby Huss as "John Bosworth"
Joe MacMillan is a salesman at heart and knows how to make people follow him. He quickly cons a college student software developer named Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and a once passionate engineer, Gordan Clark (Scoot McNairy), into joining him, somewhat blindly, on his ambitious project. It's this main trio of actors that first hooked me. The writers/creators have taken three different stages of a career and personified them in these three characters. Cameron is the young prodigy ready to change the world of computing. Gordon is a brilliant engineer whose best years and opportunities may have already slipped past him. And Joe is the salesman stuck underneath the shadow of his father, trying to break away from the middle and make a name for himself. In other words, all three have something to prove, even if it's just to themselves.


The show is labeled as drama but fortunately the cast is wise enough to know when to add a bit of humor. Additionally, each of the three main characters have ego issues, but they show enough humility in their failures that you can't help but care for them. At times it feels like three elementary misfits getting into predicaments, then trying to find ways to get out of trouble. But overall these three are trying to innovate while hurdling everything, including their pasts.

Scoot McNairy ("Gordon"), Mackenzie Davis ("Cameron"), and Lee Pace
Though the series focuses mostly on Joe, Gordon, and Cameron, there's enough room in the storyline for strong supporting characters. Two of  the more prominent being Kerry Bishé as "Donna Clark," Gordon's intelligent wife, and the always-great Toby Huss as "John Bosworth", the president of Cardiff Electric. Both are integral to the story and to Joe's project. Bosworth, though fully aware of being fooled by Joe, knows that his best move is to support the team. And even though there's some animosity towards Joe and the gang, he does indeed support his team. Donna, a superb engineer in her own right, realizes that her husband was duped into the project and is there to support Gordon at home and, at times, in his office. As Gordon stated in one of the episodes, he knew she was smarter than him the moment they met.

This is what makes these female leads (Cameron and Donna) unique to most television programs. Both are strong and brilliant without being the power-hungry stereotypes that befall most women characters. I have no doubt that this is in large part due to the excellent writing staff and the actors' decisions to make round, interesting characters.

Kerry Bishé as "Donna Clark"
Compelling enough for someone with mashed potato eyes and tired brain cells to continue binging, "Halt and Catch Fire" is a unique interpretation of the computing world of the 1980s. I'm happy to learn that there's already a season two, and if all goes well, more will follow.


For more information visit their IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt2543312 or on AMC's site: www.amctv.com/shows/halt-and-catch-fire

TRIVIA: According to Wikipedia, the term halt and catch fire refers to several computer machine code instructions that cause a computer's CPU to cease meaningful operation.