Sunday, November 12, 2017

20th/21st Century Classical

Some of the best classical music of the last century is, not surprisingly, film scores.

In the 1800s, composers we admire, like Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, composed music to accompany moving images, like the ballets "Swan Lake" and "Scheherazade". A century before, Handel composed the evergreen "Music for the Royal Fireworks" to accompany just such a display of pyrotechnic images. And of course modern opera can trace its roots back at least as far as Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo", from 410 years ago.

Good film music, like all famous classical music, contains either an emotional connection, or a wildly catchy hook. Typically it can paint a very specific, easy-to-relate-to, image evocative of a time or place. For my purposes I'm only selecting one work by composer, and strictly classical - so no jazzy scores like Lalo Schifrin's "Bullitt" or Alex North's "A Streetcar Named Desire". So whether you've seen the movie or not, here are ten film scores I think will persist into the centuries to come:

10. "Gone with the Wind" – Max Steiner

Tara's Theme is pure manipulation. Catchy, schmaltzy, manipulation.

09. "The Godfather" – Nino Rota 

This famous tune evokes the same feel as the descending notes in the Habenera from Carmen.

08. "Inception" – Hans Zimmer 

Zimmer's output is vast, and generally mediocre. This piece so perfectly represents the early 21st century, though, I think it will be the one to survive - often imitated, etc.

07. "The Pink Panther" – Henry Mancini 

Personally I prefer "Breakfast at Tiffany's"... but that has a lot to do with "Moon River". "The Pink Panther Theme" is arguably the catchiest cinema hook yet, and will be a hallmark of the sound of the sophisticated side of the 1960s.

06. "The Magnificent Seven" – Elmer Bernstein 

It's so high-energy, so widely-copied. This piece has the most typical feeling for an orchestral suite. It's optimistic, American, Western - at home somewhere between a trite composition like Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" and a masterful work of emotional resonance, like Copland's "Rodeo".

05. "Beauty and the Beast" – Alan Menken 

From the vast archives of Disney film music, and Alan Menken in particular, this work sticks out. The frequent problem of Disney film scores is a certain doofy, kid-friendliness (consider "Under the Sea" or "Friend Like Me"). "Beauty and the Beast" would have fit in nicely with the ballet scores of an earlier era.

04. "Lawrence of Arabia" – Maurice Jarre 

If Steiner, above, is the schmaltzy version of what a film score can do with strings, "Lawrence of Arabia" is the properly romantic. It is inherently romantic, foreign (no native instruments or arrangements here), and tragic - as befits a fading, and problematic view of the world that Lawrence inhabited.

03. "North by Northwest" – Bernard Herrmann 

"Psycho" will be Herrmann's "Ninth Symphony", but "North by Northwest" will be his "Fifth Symphony", just as recognizable, if not quite the magnum opus. (I guess that leaves "Vertigo" to be "Eroica"?) It's so obviously post-Stravinsky, a modernism that's daring, dynamic, unsettling, and most importantly suspenseful.

02. "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" – Ennio Morricone 

If Copland and Bernstein capture the excitement of the West, Morricone shows us the existential loneliness of a desert landscape, and a circling buzzard up in the sky. It's opening, the eponymous main title, is universally known, and "The Ecstasy of Gold" has become nearly as famed due to it's marvelous emotional vividness. 

01. "Star Wars" – John Williams

Of course Williams' "Star Wars" is the top spot. It's already in our collective psyches as a suite we've heard it so many times. The triumphal sound which opens the score, followed by the menace of the march, a romance for a bridge, and a final, and distinct, triumphant end in "The Throne Room". Critically the incidental themes capture the vast emptiness and alien nature of outer space, a sonic relfection of a species who was for the first time, beginning to explore other worlds.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Higher Standard

I recall as a college sophomore looking at Nietzsche with my philosophy professor, who said something almost offhand to me I’d not ever considered before: “You can’t pick and choose. You can’t just take the parts of Nietzsche you like and dismiss the parts you don’t like, like his sexism.”

Up to that point in time, and frankly since, that’s precisely what I’d done with philosophers – creating a mix-and-match of the aspects I liked from various sources. Why couldn’t I just cherry pick, and only focus on the parts that were agreeable to me?

In the last couple of weeks, increasingly, women (and in the case of Kevin Spacey, men) are coming out and demanding justice for abuse, rape, and harassment. It feels like a turning point in America for women’s rights.

Remember when Hugh Grant and Rob Lowe had sex scandals in the 90s, and we never ever heard from them again?

That era of tolerance seems to have passed. The ‘apologize and lay low before your critically-praised comeback’ days seem over. Which is a good thing. Yet as a historian it brought up really, a very troubling consideration:

How many of the great artists of the past were rapists?

Since the 1800s the sex lives of our artists are relatively-ish well-known, from Edgar Allan Poe to Fyodor Dostoevsky. Or at least we think they are – who can really say? But go back further and the waters become brackish in the 1700s, muddy in the 1600s, and nigh-imperceptible prior. All clarity is lost.

Statistically, I’m pretty sure some of them were. But how do I know which ones? Was it Beethoven or Voltaire? Caravaggio or Cervantes? I’m presuming male.

The question which arises, is what next? What can we do about it? Do those older historical figures get a pass? It seems unlikely, and arguably unwise, to throw them all out – knowing, with  near-certainty, that some of them were sexual predators and, by modern (not to mention moral) standards, criminals.

We return then to the old chestnut of separating the art from the artist, or as my prof would have it, the philosopher’s better angels from his demons. Can we allow it? Once it’s known, established, a part of their character – can or should it be set aside in the consideration of their talent, contributions, or even genius?

Contemplating this I returned to Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ but even her Judith Shakespeare doesn’t address this topic: Some of the men we praise, whether the Whitmans or Warhols, did unspeakable things, and we sing their songs in ignorance.

In five hundred years will the monologues of Louis CK or Bill Cosby be separated from their actions? Will Woody Allen and Roman Polanski’s films be elevated, or reviled? As our globally self-aware civilization moves forward, will we simply adopt a higher standard, and those now on the cusp will be the last generation of artists and entertainers to have made it this far with these skeletons in their closets? I hope so. But those from the past remain deeply unsettling.

De Tocqueville. Erasmus. Raphael. Shakespeare. We may never know. Dante. Bach. Swift. Monet. Statistically it’s almost certain. Goethe. Mussorgsky. Tennyson. Plato. What do we do about it?

I don’t have an answer. Maybe we just need to live with the disquieting consideration in our minds. Forever. For all of them:

Sophocles. Chaucer. Mozart. Montaigne.

Moliere. Euripides. Verdi. Wordsworth.

Stravinsky. Twain. Descartes. Camus.

Rodin. Rabelais. Wagner. Aquinas.

Vermeer. Donne. Tchaikovsky. Emerson.

Wilde. Tolstoy. Virgil. Socrates. 


Sunday, October 29, 2017

RS Immortals' Albums

So Rolling Stone came up with 100 Immortals back in 2004, I think, and then promptly (2011) updated that list and kicked a bunch of them off. Not so "immortal" after all, I guess.

All the same, with a few exceptions I have an album (studio or live) by each (and for the ones I didn't I've put in whatever Hits or Anthology of their work I have). So if you pick the best work of each you could arrive at a top 100 list. Except it's 108, since, as I said, they changed it around. Regardless, the following wouldn't be a terrible way to start compiling a record collection:

1. The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band *also #1 artist on RS list both years*
2. The Beach Boys Pet Sounds
3. Marvin Gaye What's Going On
4. James Brown Live at the Apollo
5. Miles Davis Kind of Blue *artist removed 2011*
6. Van Morrison Astral Weeks
7. Stevie Wonder Talking Book
8. Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin IV
9. David Bowie The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
10. AC/DC Back in Black
11. Guns n Roses Appetite for Destruction
12. The Who Who's Next
13. Allman Brothers At Fillmore East
14. The Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street
15. Talking Heads Stop Making Sense *artist added 2011, ranked #100*
16. The Clash The Clash
17. The Kinks The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society
18. Elvis Costello This Year's Model
19. Bruce Springsteen Born in the USA
20. Radiohead The Bends
21. Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols
22. Queen A Night at the Opera *artist added 2011*
23. Joni Mitchell Blue
24. The Doors The Doors
25. The Velvet Underground The Velvet Underground and Nico
26. Bob Dylan Bringing It All Back Home
27. Plastic Ono Band John Lennon
28. Simon and Garfunkel Bridge Over Troubled Water
29. The Band Music from Big Pink
30. U2 The Joshua Tree
31. Neil Young After the Goldrush
32. Roxy Music Avalon *artist removed 2011*
33. Curtis Mayfield Superfly
34. Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon *artist added 2011*
35. Prince Purple Rain
36. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Damn the Torpedoes *artist added 2011*
37. The Eagles Hotel California
38. The Jimi Hendrix Experience Electric Ladyland
39. Patti Smith Horses
40. Black Sabbath Paranoid
41. Jay Z The Blueprint *artist added 2011*
42. Buddy Holly 20 Golden Greats *highest ranked non-album*
43. Nirvana MTV Unplugged in New York
44. Madonna Ray of Light
45. Phil Spector A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector
46. Little Richard Here's Little Richard!
47. REM Automatic for the People *artist added 2011*
48. Fats Domino Greatest Hits: Walking to New Orleans
49. The Yardbirds Roger the Engineer
50. Elton John Goodbye Yellow Brick Road *ranked at #49 on RS list. Spooky.*
51. Chuck Berry The Great Twenty-Eight
52. Cream Fresh Cream
53. Aretha Franklin I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You
54. Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
55. James Taylor Sweet Baby James
56. Creedence Clearwater Revival Cosmo's Factory *artist added 2011*
57. Otis Redding Otis Blue
58. Booker T and the MGs The Very Best Of
59. Beastie Boys Paul's Boutique
60. Santana Abraxas
61. Muddy Waters At Newport 1960
62. Jerry Lee Lewis Live at the Star Club, Hamburg
63. Ray Charles Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
64. The Stooges Raw Power
65. Everly Brothers All-Time Original Hits
66. The Byrds Mr. Tambourine Man
67. Metallica Master of Puppets *artist added 2011*
68. The Police Ghost in the Machine
69. Sly and the Family Stone There's a Riot Going On
70. The Ramones Ramones
71. Big Brother and the Holding Company Cheap Thrills *Janis Joplin*
72. The Grateful Dead Live/Dead
73. Parliament Mothership Connection
74. Michael Jackson Off the Wall
75. The Drifters All-Time Greatest Hits and More: 1959-1965
76. Louis Jordan Best Of *artist removed 2011*
77. Roy Orbison The All-Time Greatest Hits
78. Ike and Tina Turner Proud Mary: The Best Of
79. The Temptations Anthology
80. Jackie Wilson Mr. Excitement!
81. Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison
82. The Supremes Anthology
83. Ricky Nelson Greatest Hits *artist removed 2011*
84. The Shirelles 25 All-Time Greatest Hits
85. Martha and the Vandellas The Ultimate Collection *artist removed 2011*
86. Frank Zappa The Best Band You've Never Heard in Your Life
87. Lee Scratch Perry The Arkology *artist removed 2011, had been #100*
88. Elvis Presley Elvis Presley *lowest rank of RS' top 10 artists*
89. Bob Marley and the Wailers Natty Dread
90. Aerosmith Rocks
91. Al Green Call Me
92. Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral
93. Derek and the Dominoes Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs *Eric Clapton*
94. Lynyrd Skynyrd Second Helping
95. NWA Straight Outta Compton *artist removed 2011*
96. Eminem The Marshall Mathers LP
97. The Four Tops  Second Album
98. Run DMC Raising Hell
99. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles Going to a Go-Go
100. Hank Williams Turn Back the Years
101. Etta James At Last! *artist removed 2011*
102. Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club
103. Carl Perkins Original Sun Greatest Hits
104. The Flying Burrito Brothers The Gilded Palace of Sin *Gram Parsons*
105. Bo Diddley Go Bo Diddley
106. Howlin' Wolf Moanin' in the Moonlight
107. 2Pac All Eyez on Me
108. Dr. Dre The Chronic

Monday, October 23, 2017


I like completing lists.

When I get near the end of one I tend to make a mad dash to the finish line, and I'm engaged in a few such dashes at the moment.

A few years ago my dad got me '101 Sci-Fi Films to See Before You Die' and I slowly made my way through most of it. In the past couple of months, though, I've been steadily plugging away and now I'm down to the final baker's dozen. Unfortunately a couple are not easy to find, so it may be a while until I can finally knock this one out. The movies still left to see are:

The 10th Victim (1965)
Who Wants to Kill Jessie? (1966)
Time After Time (1979)
Le Dernier Combat (1983)
The Brother from Another Planet (1984)
Dune (1984)
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988)
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
Open Your Eyes (1997)
Code 46 (2003)
Primer (2004)
The Host (2004)
Attack the Block (2011)

(Admittedly I could watch Dune, but I'm going to read the copy on my shelf first.)

Another list, which will take a bit longer, is the Nobel prize winners. I've finally hit 75% completion, however, since reading epic novels takes lots of time, I won't be able to claim victory over this list for a while yet.

Sticking to the realm of literature I'm also one book shy of completing the Penguin Great Ideas series, but that last book is Edward Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'. I'm around 675 pages in - or half way. Some months to go, then, I suspect.

Finally there's a list of  1,001 Recordings to Hear Before You Die by Tom Moon. A graduation gift from my sister this excellent collection has sustained me since 2009, but I am finally getting into the last stretch - only 60 recordings to go. Not surprisingly they are not easy to find, as I have been unable so far to track them down in collections ranging from the UC Berkeley music library to YouTube or iTunes or a score of libraries and music stores around the country.

Nevertheless, the whole point of lists is to help organize one's life. I wager it'll only take a few years, at most, for all of these lists to reach completion (and that's mainly due to the Nobel's remaining length). Then I can focus on one of my older on-going lists, such as the best 20th century English language novels (only 45% complete as yet)...

Sunday, October 22, 2017


So, quite a few years ago I was considering doing a mural in college. Or rather, a painting on a very large piece of canvas someone had mounted but chosen not to use. I got to the stage of drawing the preliminary forms on the canvas when it was ignominiously discarded in the dumpster by the maintenance folks. Lots of hours, wasted.

But now that I have a classroom of my own, I'm considering the idea anew. Time and again I've made lists of various people I consider inspirational, but here I wanted to narrow the focus to Americans, and, perhaps selfishly, make them the ones I agree with. So, although Ronald Reagan is in inspiration to many, he wouldn't show up in my painting.

I grouped the people into rough categories, and came up with the following:

Great Americans – Personal list

Civil Rights Leaders, Humanitarians, and Labor Leaders

1.      WEB Du Bois
2.      Frederick Douglass
3.      Dolores Huerta
4.      Saul Alinsky
5.      Harry Bridges
6.      Fred Korematsu
7.      Martin Luther King Jr.
8.      Henry David Thoreau
9.      Alice Paul
10.  Harriet Tubman
11.  Helen Keller
12.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton
13.  Susan B. Anthony
14.  Ida B. Wells
15.  Margaret Sanger
16.  Harvey Milk
17.  Cesar Chavez
18.  Jane Addams
19.  John Brown
20.  Gene Sharp

Politicians and Legal Figures

21.  Robert Ingersoll
22.  Bernie Sanders
23.  Eugene Debs
24.  Norton I
25.  Woodrow Wilson
26.  Lyndon B. Johnson
27.  John F., Robert, and Ted Kennedy
28.  Theodore Roosevelt
29.  Eleanor Roosevelt
30.  Franklin D. Roosevelt
31.  Dwight Eisenhower
32.  Abraham Lincoln
33.  George Marshall
34.  Elizabeth Warren
35.  Barack Obama
36.  Earl Warren
37.  Robert Reich
38.  Jerry Brown
39.  Rut Bader Ginsburg
40.  Al Gore
41.  Hillary Clinton
42.  Clarence Darrow

Authors and Journalists

43.  Mark Twain
44.  Edward R. Murrow
45.  Flannery O’Connor
46.  Willa Cather
47.  Herman Melville
48.  Walt Whitman
49.  Ralph Waldo Emerson
50.  Nellie Bly
51.  James Baldwin
52.  Allen Ginsberg
53.  Joan Didion
54.  Ernest Hemingway
55.  Howard Zinn
56.  Langston Hughes
57.  Jane Mayer
58.  Hunter S. Thompson
59.  Toni Morrison


60.  Mary Blair
61.  Louis Comfort Tiffany
62.  Julia Morgan
63.  Maxfield Parrish
64.  Frank Lloyd Wright
65.  Ansel Adams
66.  Dorothea Lange
67.  Bill Watterson
68.  Gary Larson
69.  Aaron McGruder
70.  Winsor McKay
71.  Dr. Seuss
72.  Roy Lichtenstein
73.  Buckminster Fuller
74.  Philip Johnson
75.  Thomas Nast
76.  Will Eisner
77.  Art Spiegelman
78.  Edward Gorey
79.  Keith Haring

Performers and Entertainers

80.  Duke Ellington
81.  Miles Davis
82.  Martha Graham
83.  Jim Henson
84.  Aaron Copland
85.  Louis Armstrong
86.  George Carlin
87.  Lin-Manuel Miranda
88.  Bob Dylan
89.  Pete Seeger
90.  Phil Ochs
91.  Joan Baez
92.  Michael Moore
93.  Stanley Kubrick
94.  Aaron Sorkin
95.  Rod Serling
96.  Jon Stewart
97.  Harry Houdini
98.  Penn and Teller
99.  Orson Welles
100.                      Francis Ford Coppola
101.                      Robert Johnson
102.                      George Gershwin
103.                      Don Hertzfeldt
104.                      Bob Newhart
105.                      Taylor Mac
106.                      Matt Groening

Educators and Academics

107.                      Booker T. Washington
108.                      Horace Mann
109.                      John Dewey
110.                      Carl Sagan
111.                      Jared Diamond
112.                      Amory Lovins
113.                      Paul Krugman
114.                      Clark Kerr
115.                      Ken Burns
116.                      Daniel Quinn


117.                      George Washington
118.                      Thomas Jefferson
119.                      John Adams
120.                      Benjamin Franklin
121.                      Thomas Paine
122.                      James Madison

Scientists and Naturalists

123.                      John Muir
124.                      Rachel Carson
125.                      Frederick Law Olmsted
126.                      Stephen Mather
127.                      Wright Brothers
128.                      Nikola Tesla
129.                      Thomas Edison
130.                      Willard Libby
131.                      Claire Patterson
132.                      EO Wilson
133.                      Carl Akeley
134.                      Thomas Hunt Morgan
135.                      Jonas Salk
136.                      Grace Hopper
137.                      Diane Fossey
138.                      Richard Feynman
139.                      Edwin Hubble and Milton Humason

Native Peoples

140.                      Geronimo
141.                      Tecumseh
142.                      Ishi
143.                      Zitkala-Sa
144.                      Sitting Bull

145.                      John Ross

Maybe I will make the painting - maybe not. The choice, after all, is not entirely mine. But just to be on the safe side, I took the first step and started cartooning it out, to get an idea of layout and particular juxtapositions / contrasts I would want: