Playing the piano is damnably hard. I have accepted that I will never practice consistently or wisely enough to reach my original wildly unrealistic goals of competence and am contenting myself with slow progress and occasional discoveries. Coaxing a good sound requires talent, coordination, flexibility, and freedom of movement. There’s nothing that can be done about the first item but occasionally something in the joints unsticks enabling a small improvement in the rest. I feel kinship with weekend athletes who get that occasional moment of grace amid hours of futility.
One of the many frustrations is pressing a key in the same place with the same pressure five times in a row and hearing no sound two of those times. The hammer misses the strings by a fraction of a millimeter and flops back with a click and a dull thud. This makes any kind of phrasing next to impossible for the duffer. He either settles for good enough or goes nuts trying to adapt as the instrument itself changes with the time of day and the weather. It never bothers the professionals who figure it out on the fly.
The piano action itself is a bizarre marvel of wood, felt, physics, and prayer. It is surprising that it works at all and there are eighty eight of the bloody things that have to work consistently. It is a lot to ask, perhaps too much. Robert Grijalva of the University of Michigan explains it in painstaking detail using a model of his own invention. For those with less time, a Dutch animator posting as Hoe Ishetmoegelijk (hoe is het moegelijk = how is it possible) has a concise summary.
We now have some sanity in the ship of state and can hope that any honeymoon lasts long enough to get people vaccinated, businesses restarted, and the arts out from under hiding. Even before COVID, anything on the finer side of life was ignored at best and ridiculed at worst under the moron of Mar-a-lago. Many of us who eagerly awaited 20 January and some sign of support to the better things woke up to surprise and not a little disappointment at the overwhelmingly pop-culture besotted inauguration that actually occurred. The shark sandwichplaylist promised much and delivered nothing.
“Whether you are a country soul, a jazz enthusiast, a hip hop head, a classical sort, or just love that old-time rock and roll, music clarifies, inspires, unites, and heals.”
— Inaugural Committee CEO Tony Allen
What galls about the 46-0 shutout is that the United States does not lack for options. Copland and Gershwin are overplayed but we have Ives, Joplin, and Gottschalk. Dvorák was inspired in Iowa, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky lived out their lives here (as did Schoenberg but let’s stay within realistic limits). Hell, John Williams or Peter Schickele could have done something if asked. And, if all of that is still too off-the-radar, there’s good ol’American John Philip Sousa transcribed by good ol’ American Vladimir Horowitz. One pianist, one piano – saves on cost and brings everyone to his or her feet. Regardez from the Hollywood Bowl in 1945.
The US smugly denounces corruption in other countries, the poorer the better for the sanctimony. Yet in the hopeful coda to a cancerous career, 45 is expected to issue some 100 pardons on his last full day of his unsanctified, cursed term. His remaining handlers are said to be profiting handsomely from many paying top dollar to get their cases reviewed.
Some 42 years ago, WKRP in Cincinnati featured another corrupt, smarmy con artist – an ex-wrestler now in religious raiment fleecing the faithful. The staff ultimately manages to get the Reverend Little Ed Pembrook off the air until he promises to reform. Which he does, only to find another angle as grifters large and small usually manage to do.
The story canters on and it doesn’t end well for our redcapped protagonist. There’s a rough (and admittedly forced) parallel in Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’ where a King-in-mind-only abdicates to eventual academe, a hapless assassin, and his own hand.
He never would have reached the western coast had not a fad spread among his secret supporters, romantic, heroic daredevils, of impersonating the fleeing king. They rigged themselves out to look like him in red sweaters and red caps, and popped up here and there, completely bewildering the revolutionary police. Some of the pranksters were much younger than the King, but this did not matter since his pictures in the huts of mountain folks and in the myopic shops of hamlets, where you could buy worms, ginger bread and zhiletka blades, had not aged since his coronation. A charming cartoon touch was added on the famous occasion when from the terrace of the Kronblik Hotel, whose chairlift takes tourists to the Kron glacier, one merry mime was seen floating up, like a red moth, with a hapless, and capless, policeman riding two seats behind him in dream-slow pursuit. It gives one pleasure to add that before reaching the staging point, the false king managed to escape by climbing down one of the pylons that supported the traction cable.
Regrettably our national fire is more of the Wolf stripe. The mill burns to the ground with untold consequences to the many where Nabokov’s paler flame is shaded to only take the life of Kinbote/Botkin. We are left to wonder and fear whether a “a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus” is in our futures.
Hear Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Gerald Moore perform it below with evocative added graphics and translation followed by a rehearsal of the same piece with Richter.
Look at The Martian Chronicles. At the height of American optimism, Bradbury wrote a bittersweet novel about the failures of science, technology, and progress. Humanity makes it to Mars, but the triumph is illusory. Mars becomes a landscape of ghost towns. The novel was an extraordinarily fertile moment in American imagination. He suggested the notion of unlimited positive progress was an illusion. His wasn’t the dystopian vision of Orwell or Zamyatin but something gentler and more elegiac. H. G. Wells could write about the end of civilization from a global perspective. Bradbury made the vision personal and lyric.
— Dana Gioia on Ray Bradbury
I’ve read a lot of Bradbury recently, that is to the extent that I can focus long enough to read much of anything. The Illustrated Man was better than the The Illustrated Woman contained in the uniformly depressing Machineries of Joy which I am struggling to finish. There can be no question though that The Martian Chronicles deserves the accolades and adaptations.
I struggle with Bradbury’s categorization as a science fiction writer. Chronicles aside, he is a breed apart from Asimov and Clarke who briskly get down to business peddling a bright future for one and all enabled by the latest in vacuum tubes and servomotors. Bradbury doesn’t fit that mold and through his thick glasses he saw a grimy future broken by the ones who people it. He is lyrical, almost to excess in fact, and it takes a special frame of mind to deal with his unusual rhythms and devices. His observations on technology are profoundly gloomy. Not for him the boundless optimism and things coming out well in the wash. Long before Sputnik, Gagarin, or their Americancounterparts, he saw that a future world, a spacefaring one, would eventually have to send the worst of the species after the best had paved the way. The Chronicles are full of careerists, louts, and brutes going not to explore but to exploit.
In recognition of the Bradbury centennial, Hawthorne expat and recent state Poet Laureate Dana Gioia speaks to Bradbury’s wide and ongoing cultural impact in dialogue with his biographer. The discussion does locate Bradbury firmly as a Los Angeles writer, a thing that still surprises many as that which does not, can not, or at least ought not to exist in the heart of the entertainment industry. Gioia acknowledges that “major mainstream journals published [Bradbury’s] fiction, and producers adapted his work for movies, radio, and TV.” He leaves out the stage apart from a brief mention in another list and more’s the pity. The lyricism, the elegiac odes to humanity’s perpetual folly is what allowed the Pandemonium Theatre Company to bring so many of those stories to life with humans speaking to humans and not through effects in post-production. Pandemonium was another Bradbury creation nurtured by others until its demise in the early 2000s. The Falcon hosted an uneven Fahrenheit 451 in 2002 with other, more successful productions at Theatre West and the lovely yet now defunct Court Theatre. He often appeared in the audience and, when asked, would say a few words before curtain to an appreciative audience sufficiently steeped in LA etiquette to applaud yet keep a respectful distance.
It is trivial to hang present day realities on deceased authors but there is no doubt that it is the pessimistic futures Bradbury foresaw decades ago that have played out and not those of his compatriots. We don’t have energy too cheap to meter, we aren’t in control of our robots, and ubiquitous telecommunications has served to narrow, divide, and power the slide into darkness. We are the same desperate creatures that came out of the caves only with flashier and deadlier toys.
45 isn’t a king but acts like one on television. L’état c’est lui, a petulant whiny child beheading his enemies with multiple wives and obsequious servants flattering before fading into the desperate end.
More pressing is the matter of 45’s head henchman, lap dog, and supposed top law man in, of, and for the country. He joins a long and sordid list of ejecta – a mob of serfs and idolaters that sullied the nation’s house and halls before getting the heave-ho for being insufficiently abject, corrupt, or both. The problem before us is that every one of these jackholes from Tillerson to Bolton to Esper has been replaced by someone worse. On top of that, the dearly departed suddenly become forgiven and their rationalizations smoothed over into recantations. Mea culpa, mea ass. They are still the same sleazebags that they were status quo ante only butthurt that their craven agendas ran into 45’s excrementally bigger ones. There are still five weeks to go until regime change is formalized through inauguration. We cannot breathe easier until then and possibly after.