Thursday, May 28, 2009

Subtitles and Explanations

     Our most bizarre subtitle experience had to be watching "Rigoletto" at the open-air Herod Atticus theater in Athens. The opera was sung in Italian and had subtitles in Greek, the words running along a rail which separated the orchestra from the audience. Of course, with opera, you can pretty much tell what is happening without the captions.
     This is not the case with the BBC mysteries Nicodemus and I watch on television. There will be long monologues which are completely incomprehensible to me. N provides a running commentary, interpreting West Country and Scottish accents and Brit slang. Lately, on some shows, the BBC furnishes its own subtitles for rapid dialogue.
     Sometimes we will watch a movie just to be together without conversation, the way some people play cards, and the last two films we saw have required a different kind of commentary.
"No Country for Old Men" and "The Dark Knight" are probably the most violent movies I have almost seen.
     During the first of these, N had read the book, so he was able to explain the story to a mystified and somewhat repulsed me. During the second, an endless saga of murder and mayhem, I had to excuse myself many times for urgent errands. N would fill me in on who or what had been destroyed while I was brushing my teeth, feeding the cat, looking at tomorrow's calendar. At the end of the film, I was exhausted.
     "I'm sorry," Nicodemus said.

(Photo: Opera-goers at Herod Atticus, with the darkened Parthenon in the background.)

Monday, May 25, 2009


     At a garden party yesterday, we wore winter coats in fog and 52-degree Coastside springtime weather. Someone asked me what I had been writing lately. "Well, there's my blog," I said, "though I don't think many people read it."
    "Oh. What are you complaining about?" he asked.
     There was a time at Skyline College where the voice teacher I worked with thought I groused and grumbled entirely too much. He began calling me Moana. The students thought that was my name. For a couple of years after that, students would greet me with "Hi, Moana!"

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Going Deaf

                   In 1802, Beethoven wrote to his brother Carl: "I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness; when I at times tried to forget all this, O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf."
      Although Beethoven's musical genius overcame his disability, certainly he did not have a happy life. J. W. N. Sullivan in his book, Beethoven, says "His deafness and solitariness are almost symbolic of his complete retreat into his inner self."
      My friend Tedi dissolved in tears when we were studying Beethoven in Keyboard Literature at San Francisco State. "I would give all 32 sonatas," she said, "if only he could have had one happy day."
      I am concerned about noise levels and deafness. Motorcycles, chain saws, vacuum cleaners and leaf-blowers assault our ears every day, and I can no longer watch a movie without earplugs. Twice in the past few weeks, I have had to fish out the earplugs at restaurants because of shrieking and shouting which passed for normal conversation.
      In my college piano classes, the students used earphones and I monitored what they were playing and hearing. Routinely, I circled the room and turned the volume down on their keyboards. I am worried that all of us are being deafened by increasing sound levels, some of them perfectly avoidable.
      Regular exposure to sounds above 100 decibels for more than one minute can cause permanent hearing loss. Motorcycles, power saws, power mowers, and leaf blowers all produce sound at 100 decibels or more. OSHA's permissible noise level exposure for 100-decibel blasts is two hours per day, but they recommend only a half-hour per day for 110 dB (motorcycles, power saws.)
    The sound volume on iPods and other devices with receivers close to the ear or actually in the ear has not been published anywhere  that I can find, nor has the usual level of movie sound tracks. One chart said a Walkman on level 5 out of 10 produced 94 decibels. I doubt there are many Walkmen still functioning, but I also doubt that the volume on most iPods is set halfway down.
      There is an application for iPhones and iPods simply called dB which measures sound levels and I would be interested in learning where, for instance, most movies and souped-up cars rate on the volume scale.
     We know that Beethoven's hearing loss involved nerve damage, but that it came on in his adult life. It is unlikely that environmental noise contributed to Beethoven's deafness in the 18th century, but it is a prime suspect in much hearing loss in the 21st century.
     The incidence of hearing loss in classical musicians has been estimated at from four to 43 percent. At the Symphony recently, I noticed plexiglas sound baffles in front of the brass players, and my brother tells me this is common practice now, to protect the hearing of the other players. Hearing loss in rock musicians ranges from 13 to 30 per cent. Symphonic music at its peak can reach 120 to 137 decibels, but only for short periods of time. 
     Rock music heard from four to six feet can reach 120 decibels for a longer period of time and can even reach 150 dB, which is more than the loudest recommended exposure even with hearing protection.
    It's not worth it. Turn down the volume. Get rid of the leaf blower. Wear ear plugs.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Price of Literacy

            Some 40,000 people attended the University of Southern California graduation ceremonies May 15 in Los Angeles. All available seats near the speaker’s podium and the two large video screens were taken an hour before the beginning of the ceremonies, which featured a speech by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. As the USC Triojan Band began the processional music, we sat on some concrete steps around the corner from the action. On the step in front of us, a small man holding a large pile of papers sat down gingerly.

            It was easy to imagine that the man was a non-custodial father attending his daughter’s graduation. He wore a creased but dapper striped suit, a white shirt, scuffed brown loafers with tan socks, the outfit of a man used to wearing jeans and flip-flops.

During ceremonial introductions and speeches which included the conferring of a Doctor of Humane Letters degree for the governor, the Dad went through his papers, page by page, writing notes, initialing, bookmarking.

            We watched a parade of late-arriving bachelor’s degree candidates, mostly young girls in black robes, mortarboards and four-inch heels, scurry past, clutching tote bags and teddy bears. Flower sellers peddled orchid leis at $20 apiece, $30 for double-strung. A woman in her thirties, dressed as a fifties starlet, blonde, strapless taffeta, ringlets, looked for a missing companion. An African family in full tribal regalia marched together away from the ceremonies.

            Our candidate, splendidly arrayed in doctoral robes ($900), velvet tam ($150) and academic hood, sat around the corner, about a city block away, with some 4800 other graduates.

            When Governor Schwarzenegger began his speech, the Dad in front of us laid his sheaf of papers on his knees, gazed vaguely in the direction of the loudspeakers, and smiled sweetly. The Governor, whose current budget contains deep cuts to education, said “Maybe now that I’m a doctor, they’ll listen to me in Sacramento.” Schwarzenegger, whose daughter is an undergraduate at the university, gave his advice for success: Come to America. Work your butt off. Marry a Kennedy.

            Undergraduate tuition at USC was about $37,693 this year, according to the Daily Trojan, the student newspaper. The average student is said to graduate with a $23,800 debt.

            When the recessional music began, the Dad went back to his papers. We couldn’t resist peeking. At the top of each page was written Bankruptcy Court.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Orphan, Ready for Strings

This violin once belonged to the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania School District, but wound up in a garage sale, covered with red paint. The school district, contacted by telephone, said they hadn't had a string program in many years and that they didn't want the violin back. The label inside says "Antonio Curatoli" and "copy of Amati".

No Strings Attached

The world of violins is a strange obsessive place where costly instruments are borrowed, lent, given away, pondered, played and discussed. The 1742 Guarneri del Gesu violin called the "David" was donated by Jascha Heifetz to the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco, but is presently being played by the San Francisco Symphony's concert master, Alexander Barantschik. Many instruments played in orchestras across the world are borrowed instruments.

Our house as well has been full of bows and violins lately, many of them garage sale items, some of them in pieces. It all started with the resurrection of Violin Number 1, which had been painted with polyurethane, soaked in paint thinner, taken apart, and finally given to Nicodemus as a hopeless and possibly bad-luck case.

In the months-long process of stripping, sanding, scraping and revarnishing the violin, N acquired something of a reputation as an amateur luthier or instrument repairer. Two more violins with minor dings came his way with pleas for first aid. Another person gave him a violin she didn't want any more, and another passing violinist liked it, took it, and left his own old Sears fiddle in its place.

Then came the Frankenfiddle, assembled from parts by N for a young violinist who was playing on a half-size instrument and needed something larger. A second garage-sale violin found by the young violinist's father has been freed of its paint (yes, some wicked person painted over ebony and birdseye maple). Beautifully revarnished with amber, it is ready to go to the City to be restrung.

N began making cello bows for himself, since he can barely play the violins he has been repairing. The wood blanks and the fittings are costly. When the bow is finished (and it takes weeks of patient sanding, bending, and drilling), it has to go elsewhere to be haired. I estimate that these handmade bows cost $500 and upward for materials alone.

In String World, players will hand bows and instruments around without a mention of money: "Try this for a while. Tell me if you like it." Although these are not usually million-dollar instruments like the David, a good Brazil wood bow could still cost two thousand dollars or more, and a decent (as opposed to plywood, carbon fiber, or "student") violin would probably be that much and more.

I only know of one lent violin which went astray. It wound up in Mexico, painted yellow, but was retrieved by InterPol. Its maker was very disappointed that the Violin Code of Honor had been broken. He put the violin away in a closet because he didn't want to see it any more.

N was looking at the Sears fiddle the other day. "I think I'll fix that one up for Quinn (a student member of our community orchestra)" he said. It is a strange place, the world of violins: No strings attached.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Some Constellation

Surprised by a sudden squall,
she stood under the eaves of the barn,
hoisting a basketful of apples,
unsure whether to wait it out
or make a dash for the house...

when she saw him coming
out the back door,
wearing his woodsman's shirt
and baggy pants with suspenders,
holding a pink umbrella,
ready to see her dryly home.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Sirens: Poems of Irresistible Longing

"I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me."
T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

I just finished a collection of poems dealing with longing. Here are the notes and the painting by John William Waterhouse, 1891.

What song could the sirens sing which would be irresistible?

The sirens have long since left mythology and permeated every form of artistic expression. Though the sirens in art have been given many names and origins, all the stories agree that the maidens, two, three or five of them, once tempted sailors with their song, usually with fatal results.

In the Odyssey, though the witch Circe attributes dark deeds to the temptresses, Homer insists that the sirens appealed to the spirit rather than the flesh and says that once Odysseus heard their song, he sailed on, a wiser man.

Homer, Ovid, Virgil, Pliny the Elder and Leonardo wrote of the maidens. Jesuit writers of the 17th century asserted the actual existence of the Sirens. Sirens intruigued Kafka, who loved a dark story. He wrote of the temptresses in 1917, saying that the silence of the sirens was more ominous than their song.

Aglaopheme, Thelxiepeia, Thelxiope, Thelxinoe, Molpe, Aglaophonos, Aglaope, Pisinoe, Peisinoe, Parthenope, Ligeia, Leucosia, Raidna and Teles are the various names that have been given the sirens.

They may have lurked on an island called Sirenum scopuli, or on Anthemusa, Cape Pelorum, in the Sirenusian islands near Paestrum, or in Capreae. Their father may have been the river god Achelous or the Roman sea god, Phorcys; their mother is variously the muses Terpsichore or Melpomene, or Sterope or Chthon, the earth.

There is some question about whether mermaids and sirens are the same creature. In Spanish, French, Italian, Polish, Romanian and Portuguese, the words for mermaid are Sirena, Sirene, Sirana, Syrena, Sirena and Sereia. Most artists, however, seem to agree that mermaids and sirens are not the same, mermaids being not sinister but rather appealing enough to merit a ballade by Chopin, an opera by Dvorak, an iconic fairy tale, a statue in the Denmark harbor, and a Disney film which lamely gilds the lily of Hans Christian Andersen.

The idea of temptation incarnate has taken a thousand forms. In Poems of Irresistible Longing, I wanted to suggest some themes which might lure the contemporary traveler.