Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Threepenny Opera (1931) d.Georg Wilhelm Pabst

Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper in a recent revival of The Threepenny Opera/Beggars Opera

Movie Review
The Threepenny Opera (1931)
 d.Georg Wilhelm Pabst
Criterion Collection #405

  The addition of sound to film was actually a set back for the art of film, in that recording sound with a motion picture required using a huge, immobile apparatus that prevented the movie camera from moving around the set, making the resulting sound pictures very static and uninteresting in terms of the film art.  While The Threepenny Opera by Georg Wilhelm Pabst is an example of expressionist cinema, the film is based on Brecht's adaptation of a 1920s revival of the 18th century work "Beggars Opera."  Originally meant as an iteration of the "Penny Dreadful" genre in the late 18th century, a revival in London in the 1920s made it way to Germany via the English speaking mistress of Bertolt Brecht.

  Brecht used Kurt Weill to write the music for his version, and it would be these tunes that would end symbolizing the Weimar Republic for generations of Audiences.   The most famous song is of course, "Mack the Knife" a song which topped the US charts in the 1950s during the Rat Pack era.
So yeah, it's a German expressionist version of a Brecht version of a 1920s English revival of an 18th century English popular opera.  What else do you need to know?  Oh, and it is close to 2 hours long, and there is a fifty minute documentary that Hulu Plus has thoughtfully included.

  It is the musical numbers that stick with you, the impressive quality of the sound in 1931 and Pabsts' expressionist camera techniques- shadows and all that.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

None, One & One Hundred Thousand (1926) by Luigi Pirandello

Book Review
None, One & One Hundred Thousand (1926)
 by Luigi Pirandello
  None, One & One Hundred Thousand very much reads like a predecessor of later writers like Borges or Umberto Eco.  Pirandello is obsessed with the "relativity" of social existence, to the point where Vitangelo Moscarda, the protagonist, ends the novel in an insane time.  Pirandello wrote None, One & One Hundred Thousand over a period of 15 years, plus, and the language has the feel of something closer to poetry then conventional narrative fiction.   Pirandello is not much for action, most of the text consists of Moscarda agonizing over several "every day" encounters as he realizes that everyone sees the world differently.

  Put another way, None, One & One Hundred Thousand is "post-modernist" before such a thing existed, the fracture of narrative consistency being a hallmark of such books.  It is hard to quantify the impact of translation on the quality of the prose, considering the poetic figures of speech and the fact that I read an early translation from the 1930s, I'm inclined to think that someone else could do better, but I'm not going to hunt down a more recent translation to find out.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Indo-European Poetry and Myth by M.L. West

South Ossetia today.

Book Review
Indo-European Poetry and Myth
 by M.L. West
Oxford University Press, 2007

 This title has been on my Amazon wish list for half a decade.  It's a cornerstone text in the field of Indo-European comparative linguistics.  Considering the role that Indo-European languages (English, French, Spanish, German, Slavic, Armenian, Farsi, Hindu) have played in the development of comparative linguistics as a FIELD, that is almost like saying the field of comparative linguistics comparative linguistics.  Most (if not all) of the concepts that describe the relationships of languages and families of languages is imported directly from studies of Indo-European languages.

  Indo-European Poetry and Myth appears to follow directly in the path of How to Kill A Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics by Calvert Watkins.  I'm guessing that West was a student of Watkins because much of Indo-European Poetry and Myth appears to be an academic strengthening of many of his observations via additional support in different literatures.  Notably, West is seemingly familiar with the ins and outs of Ossetian Mythology, the Ossetians being an obscure Indo-European linguistic group from the Caucasian geographic region.  West also expands the practice of using personal names from the Hittite world to illustrate that certain words or phrases exist across cultures, on the theory that people name themselves after specific things, and those words get imported into the name.

  West also shows a much greater grasp of lesser known mythologies like those of the Slavs, "Old Russian" and the Baltics.  The Baltics play an important role in Indo-European linguistics because they are "conservative" languages that have experienced less change over time.  West is also not afraid to call something NON Indo European, which is a refreshing tendency in a field given to rampant over-speculation. Most notably, tales involving items like Chariots or Swords are always going to be NOT original Indo European because those things were invented after the initial dispersal of the people from their ancestral homeland, called "Euro-stan" by the author.

  Since this is an academic book, you won't be able to really grasp the underlying arguments unless you can literally read the Greek alphabet, but his summaries of what are and aren't Indo European ideas is useful indeed. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Quarter Notes and Bank Notes: The Economics of Music Composition in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries by F.M. Scherer

Quarter Notes and Bank Notes: The Economics of Music Composition in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Princeton Economic History of the Western World)
Princeton University Press, 2004
 by F.M. Scherer

  This is a very interesting, unfortunately dry book about the economic history of music composition in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.  This was a critical time and place for the role of music in the West, and many of our "received ideas" (a favorite term of the Author) about art and artists and their relationship with their Audience come from some of the people included in this book: Mozart, Bach, Beethoven.

  The method employed is that of a trained social scientist, and the hypotheses tested are those that come from other disciplines (history and pop social science.)   Scherer looks at other commonly accepted ideas about this subject- the idea of the "star system,"  the idea that better transportation led to increased wages in this system, the idea that the "arms race" among German principalities in terms of having choruses and orchestras.

  It's hard to detect any bias or agenda other then the method itself- using quantifiable data sets (Composers) and then creating graphs comparing changes over time and trying to explain change by using "multiple regression" analysis.  The main reason I didn't pursue graduate level social sciences was because I'm not a huge fan of the academic side of statistics, but it's hard not to think that statistics is having a kind of renaissance in the form of "analytics" or "big data" and its easy to look at this book and think of other similar experiments to run using the Google Ngram tool.

   Scherer keeps the heavily academic stuff in a series of appendixes that can remain unread by a general interest reader.   While not a text for the general reader, it is a must for anyone who is interested in ways to make data talk about art in an intelligent, intellectually sophisticated fashion.  Graduate students, writers, cultural reporters, bloggers etc.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced by Stephanie Dalley

This is a drawing of what Stephanie Dalley believes the Hanging Garden of Babylon, actually the Garden of Nineveh really looked like.

The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced
 by Stephanie Dalley
Oxford University Press
Published August 1st, 2013

  The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were recognized by Greek and Roman writers as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  When the ancient population centers of Mesopotamia were rediscovered by western Archeologists/Adventurers in the mid to late 19th century, folks immediately started wondering when they would discover traces of this ancient wonder.  After ancient Babylon was located, and no garden seemed to be forthcoming, attention turned to the now deciphered languages of this area.  More shock when there seemed to be no mention of any such Hanging Garden in Babylon.  This absence has been a source of much trouble for the author, a noted professor and expert in reading ancient cuneiform script, since any lecture she gives to a general audience about Babylon ends with people asking her "But what about the Hanging Garden of Babylon?"
Map Showing the Ancient Empires of the Near East: Egypt, Hittite, Assyria and Babylon

  Dalley set out to answer the mystery using her unique skill set as a reader of ancient languages and her over-all knowledge of the both the Ancient Near East AND the sources that interpreted this area to the west before the rediscovery of the ruins and language in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Dalley uncovers confusion on several levels.  First, writers, both ancient and modern, had a tendency to confuse Babylon with Assyria.  Babylon was essentially "South Mesopotamia" and Assyria was "North Mesopotamia."  This confusion was understandable: Both empires conquered the Middle East, both sacked Jerusalem, Assyria conquered Babylon, etc.   And whereas the Babylonians had one capital city (Babylon) the Assyrians had several, eventually settling on Nineveh.

  Babylon was an unlikely location for any kind of Hanging Garden, because it is located on a flat plain in the middle of a desert, whereas Nineveh is up in the mountains, and has a river running beneath.   Dalley constructs her case carefully, arguing that the Hanging Garden of Babylon was in fact the Hanging Garden of Nineveh.   Her argument is a mixture of reinterpretations of old ancient western sources, new interpretations of archeological discoveries in the mid to late 20th century and a deeper understanding of the cultural understandings of the ancient near east.

  All these sources both explain why the West believed that the Hanging Garden was in Babylon, and why it was actually in Nineveh.  The city of Babylon actually meant of "Gate of Gods" and the Assyrian monarchs (and others) would copy that design for their own cities, making other cities "A" Babylon (think of the way Las Vegas has an Eiffel Tower.)  Over time, references to cities being "a" Babylon were confused with references to Babylon itself.

  Dalley also corrects many misconceptions about what the Garden of Babylon looked like.  The drawing at the beginning of the post is what she came up with (the actual drawing was done by a guy who specializes in such historical reconstructions.)   This is in contrast to the many popular representations that show actual hanging plants, a garden planted on the ledges of ziggurats and more fanciful designs with little basis in any kind of reality.

 Dalley also contends that there is no reason to think that the Nineveh and its garden abruptly disappeared after the conquest of Assyria by the Persians.  Generations of scholars have relied on the apocalyptic language of the available post-destruction texts, but Dalley points out that such language was ritualistic and likely overstated the extent of the destruction.  Thus, the idea that people could have actually seen the gardens or their remnants hundreds of years after the fall of Assyria is in no way fanciful or unrealistic.

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