Sunday, April 29, 2018

A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano by Katie Hafner

My son, Derek, graduates from college in a couple of weeks.  I needed to find an appropriate photo for his graduation announcements to send to family and friends.  I looked at a couple of his head shots but they just didn't seem right.  Then I found a photo he took of himself to promote a short film he made for his Senior project.  Since he is a Cinema/TV major, I thought the photo below would do.  As you may surmise, Derek's specialty is in film editing and special effects.

Today you can listen to Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach.  He made this recording when he was twenty-three. 

A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect PianoA Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano by Katie  Hafner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a delightful book. Not only do we get a history of the piano, of Steinway, and tuners and their job. We get to learn about the tuners who kept Glenn Gould's pianos in shape.

Glenn Gould, like all concert pianists, was absolutely persnickety as to what piano best suited his needs. He wanted a highly responsive, light-actioned keyboard with a harp and soundboard that would give him the rich, robust sound to deliver exactly what was going on in his head. Not just any piano would do. He finally found the love of his life in a Steinway, known as CD 318. He had it taken everywhere he performed and recorded.

We learn of a nearly blind tuner, Vern Edquist, and how he became Glenn Gould's personal tuner. His life is interesting in its own right. We learn of the technical challenges that keeping a piano perfectly tuned involve. I get my piano tuned a couple of times a year. Gould had his tuners on standby to keep his piano up in between songs or even during songs (while recording, not live performances) if he perceived that strings were going off.

Frankly, I wish I had the means to do that because pianos go out of tune so easily. I was also gratified to know that it is not just me who has a hard time playing on certain pianos. Some pianos never sound right; others don't feel right. It is a delicate marriage between the aural and tactile experience. And every piano is different. We learn a little about other concert pianists, like Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubenstein and the physical action and tone they demanded in a piano.

We learn how Steinway started their business, moved to the USA and how they make their pianos. Also how they changed the way they make them and why artists today prefer to perform on Steinways made in the 1930s.

Maybe not everyone cares about the construct of concert pianos or the artists who played them, but I loved this book!

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Derek looking mean and menacing.  Because of his size he gets to play a lot of bad guy roles.  Maybe one day I'll see him on the big screen getting trounced by Tom Cruise (who is half his size).

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Murder Up My Sleeve by Erle Stanley Gardner

I really should mow my back yard.  I'm not going to before Saturday, but I really should.  Last Saturday when I was sitting on my swing, I picked up a bunch of leaves to put next to me.  Hercule loves to chew up leaves.  Cheapest parrot toy ever.  

Except this time I picked up more than just leaves.  

Yes you saw that right.  Hanging from the leaves was:

I do not know my snakes so I texted a photo to everyone I knew.  The answer was that it was a Garter Snake.  What a relief.  And what a cutie!

Of course I let him go after his photo shoot.  I hope he's not around when I mow this Saturday.

Here's some fun music from Bizet's opera Carmen. Itzhack Perlman is the violinist.

Murder Up My SleeveMurder Up My Sleeve by Erle Stanley Gardner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The storyline was pretty straightforward and common: a black mailer is murdered. But who did it? The most likely suspects are the people he blackmailed. That includes quite a host of characters. Terry Claine, freshly back from China, is the first suspect because he owns a bamboo sleeve gun, which he brought back with him from Asia. Our murder victim just happened to be killed with a bamgoo sleeve gun. In fact Claine's is missing. It turns out that Claine's is the murder weapon, but does that mean he did it?

Claine claims innocence and begins his own investigation because some of the other suspects are personal friends of his. In particular a couple of gorgeous women. One is in love with him. Does he return her affection? The other one is not in love with him, but the reader soon finds out she's a lot more interesting.

The writing is quite dated and the way the Chinese characters are described can be cringe worthy at times and annoying at other times. They are either shuffling about speaking painfully pidgin English or they are mysterious and enigmatic, as if they were aliens from another planet.

Nevertheless it's a fun pulpy weekend read to go along with that bag of potato chips you really shouldn't be eating, either.

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So far I have not found Gardner's stories that do not include Mason or Cool and Lamb to be as successful.  Are there any authors out there that you find have mastered one genre or character type but not any other?

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Aztecs by Nigel Davies

The flute is one of my favorite instruments, especially music written for it in the last century.  There is something reflective and ephemeral about it.  Here is C.M. Widor's Suite for Piano and Flute.

Empires of Early Latin America (The Maya, the Aztecs, the Incas,) 3 Boxed SET Folio SocietyEmpires of Early Latin America (The Maya, the Aztecs, the Incas,) 3 Boxed SET Folio Society by NORMAN HAMMOND NIGEL DAVIES

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have reviewed the Maya earlier and I have not yet read the book about the Incas. This review is about the second book, The Aztecs.

This book was a rewarding read and more enjoyable than the first book on the Mayans. Probably because we have so many more written resources about the Aztecs while the writers of the Mayans had mostly to rely on speculation from what they could glean from artifacts. Consequently their history is sketchy at best.

The Aztecs, however, are well documented and we are treated to how beautiful, sophisticated and also how awful and barbarous these early inhabiters of Mexico and Central America were.

The Aztecs had a large, complex religious system with many gods, but all pointed to a sun god who had to be appeased through human sacrifice. Hundreds of thousands of victims were sacrificed to ensure the sun's daily rising. Most of these sacrifices were conquered people and prisoners of war.

The Aztecs were not a peaceful people and war was a constant necessary, not just for economic reasons, but because the religion and values of the their culture demanded constant glory which was accomplished through warfare, conquest and the sacrifice of humans to their gods.

While there is no doubt that the Aztecs were barbaric, they also possessed an elaborate mythology expressed through poetry, which is as beautiful and sophisticated as anything the ancient Greeks composed.

Nigel Davies does a good job writing in a fluid style that brings the Aztecs to life as well as documenting the succession of leaders, ending with Monteczuma (his spelling) and the final confrontation with the Spanish.

Cortez' diplomacy, where he achieved so brilliantly and where he failed so abysmally is worthy of a book all to itself. The impression the Spanish made to this heretofore cloistered race was astounding. The Spanish did many things right and also many things wrong. People today love to refer to the "Black Legend" which attributes all sorts of atrocities to the Spanish conquistadores. One need look only at how the Aztecs and particularly Monteczuma treated their own people as well as the tribes enslaved in their empire and it is easy to see the Spanish as some sort of judgment passed by God. At least the human sacrifices stopped.

The missionaries also did much good and earned the trust and devotion of many of the tribal members. Not all were perfect as not all the Spanish soldiers were perfect, but howsoever, complicated humans acted in complicated situations, it is now history and Mexico today would not exist as we know it if it did not happen.

In fact, would it exist at all? Was the birth rate of the ancient Indians fast enough to replace the thousands that were daily sacrificed, or would the population have been ultimately self-annihilated?

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Sunday, April 15, 2018

Paris, A Love Story: a Memoir by Kati Marton

I probably should not write negative reviews but this book did leave an impression on me so I cannot say that did not have its merit.  In the past I have mostly only read books where I knew I would agree with the authors world view.  I think this is narrow of me so I decided to read a book by someone I would not normally care for.  Here is the result.  Hopefully the cheerful sounds of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik will smooth over any dissonance one may experience when reading my review.

Paris: A Love StoryParis: A Love Story by Kati Marton

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was interesting in certain respects. It gave me an insight into the life and culture of people who run with the big dogs. Kati Marton is a writer and journalist who was married for several years to Peter Jennings. She met him as she was an up and coming news reporter. After their divorce, she married Richard Holbrook, an American diplomat.

One would hope that getting a book titled "Paris: a love Story" the story would be largely about, uh, well, Paris for one thing and love for another. This book is about neither. What it is about is one woman's relentless ambition to be a Very Important Person. The entire story is fueled by ego.

We first hear about her last moments with her husband Richard shortly before he dies. She chooses to write this in present tense, perhaps to give it an existentialistic flavor. It worked for Jean-Dominique Bauby in his memoir "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", which he wrote to a scribe by blinking one eye, the only part of his body he could move after a stroke. It does not work for most writers and it does not work for Marton.

They are in Paris, true, and she writes about living in Paris as young woman studying there after escaping Eastern Europe with her family. She faintly describes her surroundings, some student revolts, but I have been numerous times to Paris. She does not paint Paris; not the Paris I know.

Marton describes her rise in her career where she rather glibly mentions an abortion she had because "it just wasn't the right time"; her career, you know...

She then proceeds to inform everyone of just what a horrible person Peter Jennings was. They had two children (after the first one) and she tried to be a good mother, but Jennings seemed to think she should stay home and raise the children. This seems to be where his horribleness lies, preferring a family life over a career. One wonders what Jennings feelings were about her abortion since it was also his child.

She could not take the lack of support and after an affair with a man who "understood" her, she finally divorced him. Interestingly Jennings did not want a divorce, even after she confessed her infidelity. Her children begged her to stay with their father. She found that hard to take, but not too hard apparently, because after she met Richard Holbrook who "left Diane Sawyer for her" she divorced Jennings and married Holbrook.

We then get a dissertation on how very, very wonderful Richard Holbrook is and also a list of all the famous politicians and celebrities they met at parties (others and their own).

Yet she cheats on Holbrook as well. She feels terrible about it but it was like in the movies. She met a drop dead gorgeous man from Hungary, her home country, and, well, one thing led to another. I'm surprised she didn't write that "it was like it was happening to someone else", a popular movie line.

But you know how wonderful Holbrook is. He did not care and did not even want to know the name of the man and he never asked her any questions about the episode. Ever.

Methinks Ms. Marton is keeping something from the readers,or maybe Holbrook was keeping something from Ms. Marton.

Other than what restaurants they ate at in Paris (and the aforementioned celebrities) we never learn much about who Holbrook was as a man, aside from the subjective terminology that tells us how loving and supportive he is.

In the end we learn very little about the men in Marton's life, her family, her friends are non-existent, unless you count the parties with famous people, but we learn nothing about them either (well, Hillary was a great gal. She cried when she hugged Marton at Holbrook's funeral.).

The people in this book are as thin as its pages. Marton, narcissistic personality aside, is the thinnest of them all.

Now, narcissism does not prevent a book from being good. After all, look at Joan Didion's books about the deaths of her daughter (Blue Nights) and her husband (The Year of Magical Thinking). Didion's writing is extremely self-centered, but it is also poetic, which makes it worth reading even if it is all about herself disguised as grief for her family.

Marton's writing is surprisingly wooden. For someone who has made her living as a journalist, she does not write with much color or flow. Every sentence dead ends and the reader must mentally pick up each successive sentence. It gets tiring. And boring.

Well, the perceptive reader will pick up that I did not really care for this book, but that doesn't mean you should not read it. Especially if you want a career in the media. It will help you realize just how aggressively egotistical you need to be.

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Sunday, April 8, 2018

Wondrous Strange: the Life and Art of Glenn Gould

I had a couple of hours between rehearsals so I thought I'd grab some lunch at a local restaurant but I must have something to read while I eat.  I forgot my book back home (which is forty minutes away from where I work) so I thought I'd pop over to the local library which usually has some books to sell.  Below is what I left the library with.  How much did they all cost?  At ten cents a book, I came out a dollar poorer.  None of these are brilliant reads but they will be quick ones and I may or may not review any of them but at least they will go toward my book reading goal, which, according to Goodreads I am lagging behind by seventeen books.

 Like the yellow film on my car?  It's pollen season here.

I once tied in a piano competition because I played a Bach Toccato in a manner inspired by one of my heroes, Glenn Gould.  The judge informed me "I don't like Glenn Gould."

I love Glenn Gould.  Here is William Byrd's Sixth Pavan and Galliard played more beautifully than you will every hear it by any other pianist.  When my son graduated from high school, we played this work to his life slide show.  We also played it to my life slide show at Josh's and my wedding.  It is also the ring tone to my son when he calls me. Yes, I really, really love this song.  As played by the master.

Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn GouldWondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould by Kevin Bazzana

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my first and so far only biography of one of my favorite pianists but I do not know how it could be improved upon.

Kevin Bazzana gives a thorough and balanced account of one of the more controversial concert pianists of the twentieth century.

Bazzana documents his subject in a variety of ways: he gives us a chronology of Gould's life, his development as an artist, his concert years and finally his recording years.

Gould was a child genius and had the good fortune to have indulgent parents with the financial resources to give him everything he required in order to cultivate his unique talents. This included changing his piano every couple years. Gould's quest for a perfect piano was a life long journey for him and he spent scads of money making sure his beloved Steinway was in impeccable working order until it met with a tragic accident (it was dropped in transit and ruined).

There has been speculation whether Gould was autistic or had Asberger's. The author does not offer any conclusion but simply presents Gould as honestly as he can with all of his idiosyncrasies. These included a largely anti-social personality, hypochondria, and many, many rituals and demands that hampered his concert career which he finally abandoned in favor of studio recording.

Love him or hate him Gould was an utterly fascinating individual but that would not matter to the world so much if he was not a truly incredible musician. Watching him sit at his low chair (it was his chair and he would sit only in it, even when the seat deteriorated away and he was sitting on the frame), reaching up to the piano (he felt this physical approach determined the exact sort of sound he wanted to produce).

Gould was fascinated by Arnold Schoenberg and his twelve tone compositions and he was also obsessed with Bach and other Baroque composers. His performances of the Hindemith Sonatas are as wonderful as they are unique. His performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations are legendary (and you can buy them on Amazon for a mere $100.00 - or like me download them from Spotify).

He was interesting to watch, too, as he conducted himself from his chair, as he played and sang. Yes he sang and the record technicians earned their pay trying to filter out Gould's voice on his recordings. They did not always succeed.

This was a great read and I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end. If I were to find some complaint it would be that Bazzana tended to jump around on the time line. We would be discussing Gould's final years in the 1980s and then we'd be back in the 1960s.

This is, however, a minor complaint and I am glad I have gotten to know better a personally well-loved pianist.

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