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Archive for February, 2009

Vintage Books: Part I

paperback ulysses

Ulysses in its paperback glory

I wish my parents had read more. Actually, that’s a pretty heartless thing to say given that my father came to this country as a Vietnam war refugee. With barely a word of English and with barely a cent in their pockets, my parents had larger problems on their minds than literature. But when you are the first generation son, who has discovered for himself that his future is in tracing books to their textual and cultural sources, how can you wish any differently?

Today, the classics—the classics of all things—are made so cheaply, that they yellow or fall apart within a year. The most egregious case I’ve come across has to be the Gabler edition of Ulysses, an edition which purports to be authoritative, but whose integrity is undermined by its ramshackle construction. Ulysses is a literary liner that should have never ventured into the perilous waters of paperback fiction, but because it did, I have a poorly glued edition that sheds pages like a cat sheds hair. Fortunately, I found some time ago a 1960 edition by Modern Library. I want to say it was dedicated to a girl named Molly, but that would be stretching the truth. Wherever you are Mel, I have your book.

The story of this grad student is that of the kid who goes to a candy store, only to discover that the lollipops have already been licked and the chocolate bars gnawed. Doesn’t mean, however, that the candy is bad. I’ve rummaged through enough used-book stores to know now that you will never find that perfect artifact. There’s always going to be some flaw, or rather, mark of character: clipped dust jackets, dented boards, imperfectly aligned book plates, shelf wear, remainder marks, and yes, dedications you wished you had never read. To be continued…

February 15th, 2009

Vintage Books: Part II

Big Table 4, the Chicago based little magazine, featured the work of America’s avant-garde poets in the sixties: the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, the New York School, and the Black Mountain School.

For every mark of ownership is depressing. I imagine something awful must have occurred for someone to sell their books, books that were expressly dedicated to them. What if I’m holding in my hands the article of a person who just died last week? Or what if that person, or perhaps their children, sold that book, with its loving dedication, to pay the rent? And then I get home and realize that that this book is something that will never belong to me, because I was not born into this culture of preserving and collecting and handing down books. This is how V.S. Naipaul must have felt before writing “A House for Mr. Biswas.” After living all his life in the homes of relatives and reading so many used books about this wonderful place called London, Mr. Biswas, who will never have the chance to see London, is so desperate to own his own home that he uses his life savings to build a home he doesn’t have enough money finish. The irony of the novel is that a tar paper home that you can call your own is a small victory nonetheless, though it be in poorer shape than his books.

My online search for older editions of the classics, has produced mixed results.
You never know what your getting when you order something without seeing it first. No matter how promising the description sounds, very good means “average” and “good” means as clean as the walls of a toilet stall and as usable as the paper in it. The longer and more detailed the quality assurance, the better your chances of success, but you really need to read carefully. Library copies are okay, but not desirable. In any case, the excitement of ripping open a book package is untainted by the uncertainty that the book you just bought is a dud. To be continued…

February 15th, 2009

“I have not made my opera unnatural throughout”: The Beggar Skewers Italian Opera

Reposted from a blog entry I wrote for an English course that I was TF’ing.

In the introduction to The Beggar’s Opera, a beggar steps forward to say “he has not made my opera throughout unnatural like those in vogue; for I have no recitative.” What does he mean by this?

He’s poking fun at the Italian opera convention of recitative, a form of declamation which is halfway between speaking and singing and is characterized by bare-bones accompaniment. Italian opera composers would use recitative when they wanted to advance the plot, usually by setting dialogue. They would use arias (airs in English) to freeze the action and expand on what the actors were feeling (love, heartbreak, joy, anger), very often through the Petrarchan “similes” mentioned by the beggar: “the swallow, the moth, the bee, the ship, the flower, etc.”

Below is an excerpt from one of the more extreme examples of accompanied recitative, which is half way between recitative and aria, and accompanied by orchestra. It’s taken from Gay’s earlier libretto for Handel, Acis and Galatea.

Download Handel/Gay: “I rage—I melt—I burn!” (0:25)

And here’s a straighter example of recitative used to set dialogue between two characters, also taken from Acis and Galatea:

Download Handel/Gay: “Whither fairest, art thou running” (0:20)

How does Handel convey each of the three verbs in the first example? What do you think English audiences might have found “unnatural” about recitative? Feel free to leave a comment.

February 8th, 2009

Music for Thieves: The Beggar’s Opera and its Sources

Reposted from a blog entry I wrote for an English course that I was TF’ing.

***for your listening pleasure***

What is the musical equivalent of thieving? Contrafactum, and John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera is a good example of it. Contrafactum is just a fancy word for taking a preexisting song on the public radar and supplying it with new lyrics (Weird Al does it too). By taking highbrow songs (or religious ones) and giving them lowbrow lyrics (and vice versa), librettists like Gay could create ironic relationships between the original and its echo.

Below are some excerpts from The Beggar’s Opera and the sources from which Gay and his arranger, Johann Christoph Pepusch, cribbed. What do you think people found so funny? Feel free to share your response in the comments below.

From Act I of the B.O.

Source: “What shall I do to show how much I love her?”, from Purcell’s opera, Dioclesian (0:30)


In fair Aurelia’s arms leave me expiring,
To be embalm’d by the sweets of her breath;
To the last moment I’ll still be desiring;
Never had hero so glorious a death.

B.O. (A1.S7, Air 6): “Virgins are like the fair flower in its luster” (0:30)


But, when once plucked, ’tis no longer alluring,
To Covent Garden, ’tis sent (as yet sweet),
There fades, and shrinks, and grows past all enduring,
Rots, stinks, and dies, and is trod under feet.


February 8th, 2009

The Gulliver Suite (1728)

Reposted from a blog entry I wrote for an English course that I was TF’ing.

Two years after Gulliver’s Travels was published, it was set to music in Germany. Georg Philipp Telemann’s Gulliver Suite is one of twenty five “lessons” serialized in The Steadfast Music Teacher for the enjoyment of music makers at home. The suite, written for two violins, became an instant sensation. After all, who wouldn’t want to follow Gulliver on his exciting journey?

Like Swift, Telemann was interested in the body human, and in particular, the body in movement. Swift’s satire gave Telemann the idea for a programmatic dance suite, each of whose movements imagines Swift’s characters in terms of musical gestures. Some short excerpts follow.

More bold than stately, the opening procession sees Gulliver off on his voyage.

Download Intrada (0:10)

The chaconne has music as sprightly as the little people it depicts.

Download Lilliputian Chaconne (0:17)

By contrast, the gigue imitates the clumsy steps of giants. Gigues are typically fast-moving dances. This one, not so much.

Download Brobdingnagian Gigue (0:20)

The music of the Laputans is precious to the point of sleep-inducing, hence the title, reverie.

Reverie of the Laputans and their attendant flappers (0:10)

The fifth and final dance, a loure, sets the civilized against the barbaric.” Can you guess which violin is which?

Download Loure of the Well-Mannered Houyhnhnms and Wild Dance of the Untamed Yahoo (0:25)

Lastly, here is what score for the Lilliputian Chaconne and Brobdingnagian Gigue looks like. You don’t need to know how to read music to understand the visual joke being played here.

February 4th, 2009


February 2009


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