Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Music of Flame: The Orchestral Music of Alexander Scriabin

Imagine this, if you will: a gorgeous, pre-Raphaelite temple (to no particular god) set amidst the sublime landscape of the Himalayas.  You arrive for the performance of a lifetime—namely, Alexander Scriabin’s magnum opus, Mysterium, a work for orchestra, chorus, soloists, dancers, odors, colors, and perhaps the earth itself, which is to last an entire week.  At the conclusion of the work, the audience, along with the performers and the composer himself will die—ascending to the heavens in a state of cosmic bliss. In other words, the end of the world.  A kitschy bit of 21st century avant-garde postmodern performance art? was a work Scriabin conceived around 1909 and worked on feverishly until his death in 1915.  Scriabin began life as a virtuoso-composer in the mold of Chopin or Liszt, writing conventionally perfumed piano music in traditional forms—Preludes, Mazurkas, Etudes.  After an apprentice period which also saw the composition of two symphonies and a piano concerto, Scriabin immersed himself in the writings of Nietszche and conceived more grandiose ambitions for his music.  This only intensified once he became a member of the Theosophical Society and sought to embody the beliefs of Madame Blavatsky in art.  His piano music all-but departed from tonality, and he invented what he termed the “chord of the pleorma” (later called the “mystic chord”) which became the basis for many late compositions.  [read more about it here:].  Indeed, his middle and late music seemed to be as much about sight and smell as music itself, and he developed an elaborate system of colors correlating to each musical note (a system that other contemporaries, such as Rimsky-Korsakov, also espoused).  By the turn of the century, Scriabin seemed poised to be the messiah of a new branch of composition that would change music—and indeed, the world—forever.  But it was not to be: he tragically died of a lip infection at the tragically young age of 43, before many of his ideas could reach fruition.  

Saturday, June 27, 2015

My First Video Interview: Live with Inkitt

I recently had the opportunity to discuss my reviews, my teaching, and my writing with the nice people at Inkitt, which is one of my favorite websites.  Check out the live interview below (it's about 25 minutes, but you can skip around easily) and is very well conducted, even if I insist on ruining it with all my blinking and nose scratching(!).  I enjoyed the opportunity and many of the sentiments in this interview have appeared in some form or other on this blog--and certainly in my classroom!

Also, check out the Inkitt website below to read the stories I discussed in the interview and/or find some favorites of your own:

You can find my second-place winning story, The Winged Turban, on the Inkitt site here:

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Landscapes in Sound: Seven Composers in Their “Natural” Environment

It seems natural that music would try to emulate nature, since music itself comes from nature: bird song, the howl of wind, the patter of rain, the roar of thunder, and so forth.  Early vocal music often imitated the natural world, though its palette was relatively limited; only with the rise of instrumental music could a composer invoke breezes and storms, rivers and oceans, and the chirpings of a summer night.  It’s fascinating to trace the development of ‘nature’ music in the orchestral repertoire, since a specific delineation of natural elements required increasingly abstract music.  In many ways, the pursuit to make music more than itself led to a breaking point, unshackling music (temporarily) from tonality until it became something totally alien to human ears (the music of Schoenberg onward).  While it might be misleading to say that serialism and twelve-tone music is the direct result of programmatic music, I think nature served as an expressive ideal, tempting artists to capture the ‘real’ music that lives all around us.  After all, what could be more otherworldly than the chattering of icicles on snow-covered trees in the bitter wind of a winter evening?  Vivaldi attempted a rudimentary form of tone painting in his famous Four Seasons concertos, though it remains a gesture more than a true embodiment.  Only the expanded orchestral language of the late 19th century would approach nature as it truly sounds: not always harmonious, and often downright barbaric.  Here are a few unique pieces throughout the 19th and 20th centuries that attempts to paint nature with the brush of the symphonic orchestra, though without devolving into mere scene painting or crude mimicry.   

Friday, May 22, 2015

Simak’s City (1952): The Best Science Fiction Novel You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of

For years I’ve vaguely heard of this novel, considered a lost classic of SF literature, often invoked in the same exalted company as Asimov, Clarke, Stapleton, Bradbury and company.  Yet the book itself is out of print, hard to find, and there are no adaptations to stumble on.  And the name, “City,” doesn’t leap out at you like 2001, I, Robot, or The First and Last Men.  Luckily, my university library teems with old science fiction and fantasy classics (thank you to whatever professor bequeathed them to the library!), including a stray copy from 1976.  The book captured me from the start not only from its beautifully clear (yet at times poetic) writing, but from the sheer scope of its themes.  City communicates on the same level and shares the same themes as works such as 2001 and Planet of the Apes, yet at times seems to go far beyond them, if only in its playful humor which never quite takes itself too seriously.  Written on the heels of WWII, the book deals with some of the great themes left in its wake: the importance of tradition, the persistence of civilization, and the question of racial identity.  Do we have a duty to our “race”—and should we win this race?  Are we doomed to destroy one another?  Can humans truly make a better, more peaceful world?  And if destruction is our fate, who will inherit the Earth?  Do we have time to appoint our successors? 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Read and Vote for The Winged Turban on Inkitt!

Van Weyden's Portrait of a Woman with a Winged Turban 
There's a great new site for posting fiction of various kinds (though mostly fantasy and science fiction), getting reviews, and entering contests: Inkitt.  It's a great company out of Germany which is dedicated to finding new and indie writers and helping them find a voice in an on-line community, as well as possibly tracking down the next big work to take the publishing world by storm (as many works, notably Fifty Shades of Grey , started on-line--and as fan fiction, as that).  I usually avoid sites like this, Wattpad, etc., which are depositories for the worst kind of drivel, but the quality of writing on Inkitt is surprisingly high and the editors have a great eye for talent.  

I recently posted the first 6 chapters of my novel-in-progress, The Winged Turban, as an entry in their current contest, Epic Worlds.  You can read the story here, and if you like it, give it a vote by clicking the "heart" at the bottom.

I'm very proud of this story and consider it my best work to date.  The only trick is figuring out how to finish it.  The story is constantly evolving and my original conception of the ending went out the window months ago.  It's a better story now, but it's also a much more frightening one (for the author, that is!).  Any feedback on the first six chapters is welcome!  Thanks!

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Bard of Finland: Jean Sibelius

If you had asked music lovers 100 years ago (around 1915, in other words) which living composers were most likely to stake a claim at immortality, one of the leading candidates would be Jean Sibelius, the pioneering Finnish composer whose works had taken Europe—and then America—by storm.  Along with contemporaries such as Mahler and Rachmaninov, Sibelius represented the last gasp of Romanticism, which both he and Rachmaninov were doomed to outlive.  But whereas Rachmaninov largely held onto the principles of Russian Romanticism, Sibelius found his own way to adapt to Modernism, producing works that are today every bit as bold and enigmatic as they were in the early 20th century.  Strangely, Sibelius quickly lost his foothold after WWII, dismissed as a cheap Romantic, either jeered for his “big hit,” the sentimental Valse Triste, or grudgingly tolerated for his moody tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela.  Serialism and the twelve-tone technique had no place for such a throwback to fin di seicle emotionalism, even if concert halls never entirely banished him to the purgatory of forgotten composers.  Important works such as Symphonies 1, 2, and 5 remained in the repertoire, and occasionally masterpieces such as En Saga, Pohjola’s Daughter, and Tapiola would make an outing.  The advent of CD technology encouraged complete cycles of his symphonies (notably by Simon Rattle in the late 80’s), and forced a reassessment of his symphonic legacy.  For someone considered a purveyor of second-rate Tchaikovsky, Sibelius conjured up works which defied all the “isms” of his day, whether Romanticism, Serialism, or New Classicism.  His stark, introspective Fourth Symphony left most scratching their heads, as did its polar opposite, the sunny, lyrical Sixth (can something so undramatic be a symphony, many asked)?  And what about the Third Symphony, which is neither Romantic, nor classical, nor Modernist, but a strange form which the composer, himself, never really followed up on? 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Does Genre Fiction Need to Evolve?

I was reading Lin Carter’s extraordinary little book on the history of fantasy literature, Imaginary Worlds (1973), and came across an impassioned defense of “Sword & Sorcery” literature, by which he means the subgenre of fantasy dedicated to Conan-like exploits in antideluvian worlds.  Responding to charges that Carter and other practitioners of Sword & Sorcery are merely writing the same thing over and over again, he writes: "Must a school of writing evolve?  I wonder why.  Evolution implies a change into something else.  But mere change for the sake of change, experiment for the sake of experiment—the apparent aesthetic of the New Wave school of science fiction writing...seems to a rather backwards looking conservative like myself a pointless exercise in futility.  Must the sonnet sequence evolve into some form other than that of the sonnet sequence, or opera into something that is not opera?  Must Sword & Sorcery turn itself into something radically different?"  (146)