Sunday, August 30, 2015

Pipe Organs of Crom! The Conan Soundtrack Lives Again...

Basil Poledouris' score for the classic (well, it might not be a masterpiece, but it has attained classic status) 1982 film, Conan the Barbarian, is one of the great fantasy film scores of all time. Without a blush, I would rank it alongside the Star Wars trilogy, the Lord of the Rings films, and (to move into science fiction), Horner and Goldsmith's Star Trek scores. Watch the film again sometime and notice how symphonic the movie is: it's almost all music, with hardly any dialogue, or little more than a page here and there.  It's almost a silent film in this regard, though a silent film with a score--making what could be a very stupid movie incredibly beautiful throughout. Certain moments even come close to ballet, such as the famous "Orgy" scene, where Conan and his companions sneak into the palace smeared with white and black paint to blend into the background. Watch how the worshippers sway to the slyly seductive music, while the thieves clamber about the set, always in time with the music. It's stunning stuff--but would mean absolutely nothing without the music.  

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Machiavelli Among The Stars: A Re-Reading of Frank Herbert’s Dune

“How would you like to live billions upon billions of lives?” Paul asked. “There’s a fabric of legends for you! Think of all those experiences, the wisdom they’d bring. But wisdom tempers love, doesn’t it? And it puts a new shape on hate. Now can you tell what’s ruthless unless you’ve plumbed the depths of both cruelty and kindness? You should fear me, Mother. I am the Kwisatz Haderach.”

If someone asked me what my favorite science fiction book was, my immediate instinct would be to shout: “easy, Frank Herbert’s, Dune!” However, my actual memories of the book were hazy, colored largely by David Lynch’s eccentric adaptation of the book (which I still adore). So which Dune was I responding to, book or film? To answer this question, I decided to re-read the first book (at least) to separate fact from fiction, myth from matter. The results surprised me, but largely in the way I expected. For one, the book is much better than I remembered, and certainly a far more complete work of art than the film. In many ways, Dune is the work Machiavelli would write if he was born in the early 20th century rather than the 15th. Indeed, it bears the unmistakable stamp of the Italian Renaissance in its philosophy, political intrigue, and bizarre characters, any one of which might have existed in the courts of Lorenzo di Medici. When I read Dune, I was haunted by memories of not only The Prince, but works such as Castiglione’s The Courtier and More’s Utopia—as well as a subtle perfume of Shakespeare’s darker works such as Measure for Measure or King Lear. I say this not only because of the work’s literary merit, but because it shares age-old themes about power and the sacrifices required to maintain it. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Novels Aren’t Movies: Or, Why The Book is Always Better

We live in an age of film and digital media, which often exists uncomfortably with the world of the book, that wayward child of libraries and cathedrals, thinkers and scoundrels. Since most books today are novels, their direct pedigree goes back to the eighteenth century, when diverse literary forms such as the romance, the travel narrative, and the spiritual autobiography became entangled in a hodge-podge contraption which captured the emerging middle-class’ imagination. Indeed, some of the first novels were dramatic collections of letters detailing the melodramatic pursuit of a young girl’s chastity (Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa), or the no-nonsense journal of a castaway forced to create a replica of England in “savage” lands (Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe).

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?