THOMAS MAY on the arts

The Misinformation Age

Originally posted on MEMETERIA:

Dame Edna Jeunehomme
Dame Edna or “Miss Jeunehomme”?

We all know about the paradox of the New Media Age: information everywhere, our memories now downloaded onto our phones, instant access to any fact, but…is this overflow of info making us less critical? Just which of those “facts” are actually true?

Nowadays it’s not just the ocean of information that’s the problem: it’s how much bad information is out there, from dangerously misguided “medical” advice to half-baked assertions and those incorrect/half-correct little memettes on which music writers rely far too much — and in the process keep in circulation.

This is where the new media ironically end up working against the diffusion of knowledge. The problem is that certain factoids that sprouted up somewhere eons ago, in a seriously outdated book or note, might have represented the best knowledge back then (or sometimes just a brazen guess), but these end up getting repeated thanks…

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Filed under: Uncategorized

Shakespeare at 450


“Time … thou ceaseless lackey to eternity.” Today, by convention, the world celebrates Shakespeare’s birthday.

Here are some ways to pay tribute to the Bard:

–Take a look at a list of familiar phrases that may have been coined by Shakespeare. A sample:

A dish fit for the gods
A plague on both your houses
fair play
good riddance
salad days
love is blind
set your teeth on edge
up in arms

–Take a Shakespeare quiz

–As the Globe Theatre launches its ambitious Globe to Globe Hamlet initiative, enjoy this portfolio of 45 Hamlets selected by Michael Billington. Some of his choices: John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Richard O’Toole, Ralph Fiennes, Sarah Bernhardt.

–Listen to the Sonnets:

Filed under: Shakespeare

Earth Day 2014

Two musical selections for this day:

An overview of the world of John Luther Adams:

and a journey with Beethoven:

Filed under: Beethoven, nature

The Golden City and Its Opera

photo by  Mike Hofmann

photo by Mike Hofmann

My cover story on San Francisco Opera and how it reflects the city’s love affair with the art is now online in the Spring issue of Opera America magazine.

On October 15, 1932, while the country was sinking deeper and deeper into the quicksand of the Great Depression, San Franciscans took time out to ignore the prevailing gloom and celebrate the official opening of the long-coveted home for their new opera company, the $5.5 million War Memorial Opera House. The Naples-born conductor and cultural impresario Gaetano Merola, who had founded San Francisco Opera and inaugurated its first season nine years previously with La bohème, turned once again to Puccini for the occasion and led a performance of Tosca. Addressing the packed audience during intermission, Wallace M. Alexander, the company’s new president, proudly announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your opera house, your own rich heritage.”

[Reprinted by permission of Opera America, the quarterly magazine of the national service organization for opera.]

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Filed under: American opera, essay, San Francisco Opera

Music for the Day: J.S. Bach/Easter Cantata

Der Himmel lacht, die Erde jubiliert, BWV 31: Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus musicus Wien :

Filed under: Bach

Poem for the Day: “Redemption”



Having been tenant long to a rich lord,
Not thriving, I resolvèd to be bold,
And make a suit unto him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancel th’ old.

In heaven at his manor I him sought;
They told me there that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possessiòn.

I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts;
In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts;
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth

Of thieves and murderers; there I him espied,
Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.

–George Herbert

Filed under: poetry, spirituality

John Adams’s Gospel


Since my essay is included in this recording, I have to recuse myself from offering a review, but I can say that I consider The Gospel According to the Other Mary among John Adams’s most profound accomplishments. It certainly probes new ground for this ever-evolving, brilliant musical mind.

As for the critical reactions I have seen, nothing yet has come to my attention that seriously grapples with the full complexity of this score.

A curious note: Gospel was among this year’s Pulitzer finalists. I think it’s a safe bet that this year marks the first time two composers sharing the same last name were up for the same prize, which in this case was taken by John Luther Adams for Become Ocean.

If you haven’t had a chance to explore this Adams/Peter Sellars collaboration, do yourself a favor.

Filed under: American music, directors, John Adams, new music, spirituality

Stéphane Denève and Paul Lewis with the Seattle Symphony

Stéphane Denève; photo by J Henry Fair

Stéphane Denève; photo by J Henry Fair

My review of this week’s Seattle Symphony program, with guest conductor Stéphane Denève and pianist Paul Lewis, is now live on Bachtrack:

This week’s Seattle Symphony programme brings the third and last of the current season’s co-commissions — all of which are United States premières — with The Death of Oscar by James MacMillan. Music director Ludovic Morlot led the SSO in the previous two (Pascal Dusapin’s violin concerto Aufgang and Alexander Raskatov’s piano concerto Night Butterflies); for the MacMillan, Stéphane Denève, a champion of the composer since his tenure with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, was on hand as guest conductor. Denève had also premièred The Death of Oscar in November in Stuttgart, where he currently helms the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra.

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Filed under: Beethoven, commissions, conductors, review, Seattle Symphony

Poem of the Day: “Carrion Comfort”


“Carrion Comfort”

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

–Gerard Manley Hopkins

Filed under: poetry, spirituality

Writing Biography in the Digital Age


Another letter found buried in the archives: think of how the discovery of a little slip of paper covered in a quirky scrawl can suddenly light fires and get a bevy of scholars toiling away to reconsider an already-much-dissected literary life. So how do biographers cope with the overload of information in this digital age of electronic communication?

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin has published an interesting essay at The Millions, “You’ve Got Mail: On the New Age of Biography,” which takes up the issue of “the sudden digitization of the self, and the behavioral changes that have followed.”

How to decipher tone, often a challenge in conventional correspondence anyway, can require real virtuoso skill when it comes to the easily tossed-off exchanges of emails — particularly with a literary mind at work. “How does the rise of email change our understanding of great minds and great works. And why?” Ní Mhaoileoin ponders. Not to mention the data from social media — what a rabbit hole opens up when certain writers take to the Twittersphere…

But there’s also a loss:

The loss of handwriting, with all its eloquent untidiness, is a recurring anxiety for biographers and scholars, who have for so long relied on scratchings out, doodles, marginalia, and edits as clues to the author’s mind-set and process. Benjamin Moser described seeing in his subject’s handwriting, as one never could in an email, “how feverishly Sontag, given what looked like a death sentence when she was barely 40, sketched out the meditations on cancer that would become Illness as Metaphor.” Word processing, no matter how daring your font choice, erases individuality.

And the new data themselves aren’t necessarily as failsafe in “a digital fortress” as is often assumed: “[E]lectronic content actually faces far greater threats than traditional materials like diaries, files, and letters” from phenomena like “bit rot, unstable storage devices, technical failures, or systemic obsolescence…”

Ní Mhaoileoin once again turns to the example of Susan Sontag, noting the quirky tone she adopted in e-mails (sometimes sent with the subject line “Whassup?”). This apparently left her correspondents “unsure of how to interact with the iconic critic on such casual terms.” How should a potential biographer approach Sontag’s “playful, tender, slightly wacky” attitude when sorting through the evidence of her emails? Take them as confirmation of hints from her diaries — “that her intellect and reputation prevented her from receiving the love and tenderness she craved?”

The task of the biographer is to answer questions like these, with whatever sources are available. Lytton Strachey, who carried the genre from the stodgy tomes of the 19th century to the insightful explorations of the 20th, suggested in his preface to Eminent Victorians that the good biographer can “row over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up the light of day.” The rise of the e-mail may generate a host of practical and technical challenges, but the art of biography, as cherished by [Michael] Holroyd, need not suffer as a result.

Filed under: aesthetics, biography, literary criticism

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