Talk About Vaporware

That wail of despair you heard yesterday morning was the sound of geeks all over the country discovering that the latest update to Norton Anti-Virus was falsely identifying their TiddlyWiki files as containing the W32.Feebs virus and immediately deleting them. Argh!

TiddlyWiki is a notetaking program that takes the form of a .html file, so you don’t have to install it; you just open it in whatever browser you like (it plays best with Firefox but works okay with others too). I use it so that I can shuttle my notes back and forth between my own Mac laptop and my office’s Windows computer. I keep my TiddlyWiki file on a USB stick and move it from work computer to laptop as needed.

There are other possible ways of doing this, but as I don’t have admin privs on my work box, and our IT department is too overworked to have time to check out and install software I want to try out, I have to go with what will run from a USB stick. This lets me take my laptop into meetings and access my notes, take meeting notes on my laptop and access them later on my work computer, work on organizing and updating my notes on my laptop during the train ride to or from work, cut and paste info from my work email into my notes, and so on.

I worked on my work notes this morning on the way to work, as it happens. Fortunately I had not forgotten to drag a copy of my notes onto my laptop’s hard drive this morning before moving the stick to my work box, or I would be much more bummed right now than I am. Apparently we installed the Norton update sometime last night, because when I plugged my stick into my work box and opened up its window, my notes file vaporized a few seconds later, right before my eyes.

I understand Norton has quickly issued an updated update that corrects the problem. Hopefully we’ll get that installed here very soon.

People’s

My favorite hangout in downtown Berkeley these days is People’s, on the east side of Shattuck, first block south of University, same block as Ichiban and Mandarin Garden and Mount Everest. Nice college-y atmosphere and free wireless. I’m sitting here drinking a pot of licorice mint tea right now as I write this.

August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Last night Dave and I went to see Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Lorraine Hansberry Theater. Somehow I have never seen or read it before. I liked the acting, I liked the production, I was interested all the way through, and yet somehow I never felt much of an emotional connection with the play. I’m not sure why. Some of it may have been that I was having difficulty catching a lot of the dialogue, possibly because of my being deaf in one ear and possibly because some of it seemed to be in a strong dialect I’m not used to. Some of it may have been that I know just about nothing about the black culture of the period — the 1910s. There are, for example, many references late in the play to the Joe Turner of the title, and unless I missed something (certainly a possibility) it was never really explained who he was or how it was that he was still allowed to enslave people decades after the end of slavery, and it may be that this is something in American history just about everyone but me knows about. Some of it may have just been that I was very tired after several long days of work in a row. For whatever combination of reasons, I had trouble following parts of the play.

And that was frustrating because the play is colorful, the characters are interesting and lively, the acting was good, but somehow I just never connected with the spiritual journey at the heart of the piece. I think I understood it intellectually but it didn’t touch me emotionally. I felt I was watching it happen as a detached observer rather than taking the journey vicariously along with Herald Loomis.

I can give dramaturgical reasons for why that might be, I’m just not sure whether the fault lies in the construction of the play or with my own limitations in concentrating last night, or just my limitations in general. I mean, this is not exactly a play that has lacked for acclaim, and the audience around me certainly appeared to be completely caught up in it.

Still, it occurred to me while thinking about it today that, in terms of usual dramatic structure, the real protagonist is Herald Loomis — the emotional breakthrough at the climax of the play is his, and it is the direction of his life far more than any other that is going to be forever changed by it.

Structurally, that ought to make him the central character. Yet he’s not treated as the central character. Far more prominence is given in the first half or two thirds of the play to Seth Holly, who owns the boardinghouse, his wife Bertha, and Bynum Walker, a boarder who practices some kind of voodoo that I didn’t understand very well but who enables Herald to make his breakthrough. (It was Bynum, by the way, whose lines I had the most trouble catching, which is a shame since he seems to me to the most interesting character in the play. I did notice with some annoyance that some of his longer scenes were blocked so that he was turned three quarters away from the audience, so that I was looking at the back of his head while trying to make out what he was saying. Frustrating.)

These three are truly wonderful and distinctive characters and they completely engaged my interest, and then there are several lighter subplots working themselves out among the other boarders and capturing my interest as well, and then into this vivid, lively world Herald Loomis enters looking for all the world like the cardboard villain of a melodrama, and we learn very little about him for a very long time. The play is more than half over before he does much more than pace gloomily and glower at people; only in the last five minutes or so of the first act do we start to see him from the inside and begin to understand his suffering in his heart. And as a result, when events reach their climax near the end of the second act, we don’t — well, at least I didn’t — feel that I’ve spent enough time getting to know him so that I can follow along with him in his spiritual breakthrough.

By the usual principles of dramatic construction, this is weak. A play is structured around conflicts, the most important of those conflicts is the one that is resolved at the climax of the play, and the character whose conflict it is, is the protagonist. The playwright’s job is to create empathy (note: not the same as sympathy) in the audience for the protagonist, so that the listeners identify with the protagonist’s situation and share vicariously in his or her transformation at the climax. August Wilson, though, spent more than half the play leading us — and very skillfully, too — to identify with just about everybody but Herald Loomis. He starts only very late in the play to change course and put more emphasis on Loomis, and for whatever reason, it didn’t work for me last night.

But I hate to say it’s because of the construction, because the play has clearly worked for so many people and because I know very well that sometimes an unorthodox dramatic structure is precisely what is needed to create a powerful play.

So maybe it’s because I wasn’t hearing very well and missed some important points, or maybe I was just too tired to concentrate enough. I’m not sure.

Farm Boys Again

Sunday afternoon was the final performance of Farm Boys, except that it wasn’t because it’s been extended a week. It was the second trip for Dave and me, and the third for Terry, and we’re all even thinking of seeing it one more time.

This time around, I knew better what to pay attention to in the characterizations, and I found the piece really compelling — I think I was tearing up all the way through the second act. Part of what I was responding to this time was that John’s feelings about the homophobic midwestern farming town he grew up in reminded me of my own feelings about growing up in Orange County and my own experiences in visiting the place as an adult and being vividly reminded all over again of the pain that I left the place precisely to get away from. The homophobic culture I was too young to escape from and too young to know how to endure, the terrible habits of feeling helplessness and terror and hatred that I fell into in response and which I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to break. The pain of having to confront the conflicted, angry, fearful, and all in all not very admirable young man I used to be, and figure out how to forgive myself for who I once was.

In the play, the young John responded to his environment with rebelliousness and even physical violence, while in my own life I responded in the opposite direction by turning inward and withdrawing from the world around me. I used to have a certain envy for those who could openly rebel like that, but from where I sit now, in my late 40s, it doesn’t seem like as much of a difference as it used to. In both cases we did a lot of conscious harm to others and conscious harm to ourselves. When you’ve been hurt so often and so deeply by others, it’s a tough thing to forgive yourself for having made the conscious choice to hurt someone too, whether it was physical or emotional hurt, and whether it was yourself or someone else you hurt — and more likely than not, it was plenty of both.

I continue to think the play is somewhat underwritten, and that more could be done to emphasize the especially important moments and themes. It’s a rich play with a lot of subtleties, but the main points could be made to stand out a little more strongly. This seemed true of John, in particular — he’s the central character, and yet we don’t spend much time learning what’s making him tick. Granted, he’s a loner and tends to be uncommunicative, but we still want to find our way into his head so we can understand and empathize better with his difficult journey.

John’s having to face up to his own adolescent act of violence, for example, seems like an important moment to me now, but it’s mentioned almost in passing and the moment goes by quickly, and the first time around I didn’t pay much attention to it. Seeing it a second time, now it seems crucial, and I’d have liked to have stayed with that issue just a little longer and seen it developed a little more. The moment when John admits that he had the wrong take on the older man’s character (why am I blanking on his name all of a sudden?), and must confront the fact that he deeply hurt both his lover and himself with his recklessness and naivete, that likewise seems to me now like a moment that it would have been good to stay with a little longer.

In the many years I spent in writing workshops, I came to find that this sort of thing is a common problem with talented but inexperienced playwrights — in playwriting, less is generally more, and someone with talent will have figured out the power of understatement, of saying the minimum necessary to get the point across, letting the audience infer the larger picture from as few deft strokes as can be gotten away with. But at the same time, because you’re writing for a diverse group of people in your audience, and because their attention is also being drawn by the visual elements, writing on stage has to be bolder and more emphatic than writing on the page to make the same effect. Yet on the page is where one writes, and where one reads over what one has written. It takes a lot of actual experience seeing what you’ve written read before an audience, a lot of writing something that you think is going to have a certain effect and then seeing it performed without its making that effect, and rewriting it and seeing what happens then, maybe many times until you figure out how to get it right — it takes a lot of that before you develop a good sense for how big is just big enough.

It seems to me to be sort of like learning to paint murals — you have to do your painting up close, there’s no other way to do it, but you can’t accurately see what the effect is of what you’ve painted except by backing up quite a ways, so it takes some practice just to learn the right degree of exaggeration to put into your painting up close to create an unexaggerated effect from further away. Just in that way, something that sounds like exactly the right degree of nuance and subtlely when you read it out loud in your study will often be far too subtle to make its impression on the audience when spoken on a stage.

This is not to say that a play shouldn’t have enough richness and enough layers that you see more in it with a second or third viewing — it certainly should. A play’s staying power is all about being rich enough to reward seeing several times. But a play also needs to make a good first impression or few people will give it a second look, so you want a play’s main themes and basic structure to be strong and clear enough that an audience will perceive them even on a first seeing.

A Night at Thrillpeddlers

Last Thursday Dave and I went to see Thrillpeddler’s latest show, The Hypnodrome’s Night of Erotic Appetizers, subtitled “A Grand Guignol Shockfest”. The shocks were not abundant, and it’s not the best stuff we’ve seen from them, but it was fun all the same.

The program started, curiously, with a performance of Cobra, an essentially aleatory piece of music by John Zorn, a composer I’d never heard of before (though Dave of course had), that was probably terribly avant-garde 50 or 60 years ago. The conductor stood behind a table full of face-down cards, and the musicians improvised and interacted with each other in various ways that seemed to be determined by which card was turned up at any particular time. At various times the musicians seemed to be communicating with the conductor by hand signal as to what card he should turn up next — holding out two fingers to indicate the second card, and so on — though as far as I could see they didn’t know where the cards were and had no particular goal in any of this, so it was essentially random selection. The piece had some amusing moments but it was shapeless and didn’t go anywhere and after a while it just ended.

Next on the program was an interesting talk on the decadence of Weimar Germany by Mel Gordon, author of some terrific books on Grand Guignol and Weimar Germany that I’ve enjoyed a lot. He’s a likeable speaker, too, knowledgeable without being insufferably academic about it, down to earth and good-humored and with an agreeable sense of humor, dry but not cynical — he clearly has a sincere human enthusiasm and affection for his subject.

As he talked, I was struck at how little some of what he was describing about Weimar Berlin differed from life in the United States today, and not just in the big cities, either. For example, he talked about a huge restaurant in Berlin that had some eight or so areas devoted to the foods of different countries (like the food court at any mall today), each with its own live entertainment (not all that unlike the music piped into every restaurant to set the atmosphere). An artificial river flowed through the restaurant (like the Blue Bayou restaurant at Disneyland), and every hour there would be a short artificial thunderstorm (like the restaurant at the Peppermill casino in Reno where we eat sometimes when we’re visiting Dave’s mother, or for that matter, like the produce section at most any Safeway).

He also talked about the craze for nudist camps, and showed a short black-and-white exploitation film from the 1930s about one. A hoot, though not very erotic or scandalous when you already live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have several beaches readily available when you feel in the mood to get naked in the sun and open air.

Mr. Gordon then talked a bit about modern dancer Anita Berber, who seems to have been on a quest to soak up as much drugs and alcohol as she could, and then not too surprisingly died in her late 20s. We were served a variety of aphrodisiacs made from recipes from Magnus Hirschfeld’s Sexology Museum (the herbal drink was tasty but I could have skipped the plate of aphrodesiac hors d’oeuvres, which were heavy on the stomach and neither interesting nor effective enough to be worth the sampling). Bijou O’Keefe then performed an interpretation of one of Anita Berber’s dances, Morphine.

The final piece on the program was the one true piece of Grand Guignol, a one-acter called Orgy at the Lighthouse. Dave and I saw Thrillpeddlers do it once before. In some ways it was done better this time, too, though it’s one of Thrillpeddlers’ weaker pieces in any case. Four young people have a drunken party, including sex, when one of the two young men is supposed to be on duty at the lighthouse, and when a storm rolls in suddenly, grisly things happen as a result. So it’s fun and creepy and titillating, and has a fair number of shocks along with all the exposed flesh and stage blood. But even for a sordid melodrama, it isn’t really all that well or imaginitively constructed a piece and it doesn’t build up a lot of suspense. We’ve seen other Grand Guignol pieces at Thrillpeddlers that were more genuinely unsettling.

So all in all, a pleasant and interesting but not extraordinary evening.

Limerick of the Day, Plus Further Musings About the Joyce Hatto Affair

On the blog University Diaries:

The critics’ acclaim for Joyce Hatto
Had reached an impossible plateau,
And her falling from grace
Was quite clearly a case
Of her spouse over-egging the gateau.

— Rex Lawson

But: “Quite clearly”?

Most people seem to be partial to the theory that the fraudulent recordings were entirely the work of Ms. Hatto’s husband, and that she herself was either already dead or too sick to realize what was going on. That seems likeliest to me, too — but then I wonder whether I’m giving in to the same sweet tooth, the same desire to connect the available dots in this affair in such a way as to create a sentimental story I would enjoy believing — The grief-stricken widower, bitter about the rotten deal his wife got out of life, madly tries to recreate the career he thinks she should have had! How human! How forgivable! — that same desire to believe that caused some music critics never to question the legitimacy of her 120 CDs, a discography that looks in 20/20 hindsight to be just begging to be questioned. Without knowing the first thing about Joyce Hatto, I find myself not wanting to believe that she had any part in the fraud, but where does that come from? Why do I prefer to believe that an artist of any merit could not be capable of this, when I know perfectly well that plenty of artists, some of them quite great, have been perfectly capable of worse fraud than this? Really, for all I can tell right at the moment, Joyce Hatto may have been in on every detail of the scheme. Or not. No way of knowing.

Yet I want to believe she didn’t know. Why? Sweet tooth, maybe.

Joyce Hatto

A sad hoax in the classical music world is unfolding right now. Dave has been following it on the newsgroups.

The British pianist Joyce Hatto retired from public performance in the late 1970s because of cancer. According to most sources, she died last June. However, in the last few years of her life, her husband — a recording engineer who owns his own studio — began issuing a series of recordings that he said had been made privately, mostly in the 1990s.

Since then, Dave tells me, there has been steady debate in the classical music newsgroups, some heralding her as nothing short of miraculous and others skeptical at the quantity of recordings (over 120) and the unlikelihood that someone would make that many recordings and wait so long before releasing them. Granted, the technology to issue ones own CDs is recent, but you’d think that a man who owned a recording studio would have tried to use his connections to interest a major record company, and you’d some label would be ecstatic to contract a pianist this spectacular.

A 2005 Boston Globe article about Joyce Hatto begins:

Joyce Hatto must be the greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of.

Hatto, now 76, has not played in public in more than 25 years because of an ongoing battle with cancer. She was once told that it is ”impolite to look ill,” and after a critic commented adversely on her appearance, she resolved to stop playing concerts.

Instead she has focused her prodigious energies on recording an astonishing collection of CDs — 119, so far, on a British label called Concert Artists. A few years ago, Arthur Rubinstein’s lifetime legacy of recordings filled 94 CDs, but he recorded many works several times. Among Hatto’s discs, 95 survey most of the standard repertoire for solo piano, along with many rarities, and an additional 13 document her performances of the concerto literature. And she is still going strong. Future projects include Ravel, Granados, Hindemith, Messiaen, and the complete Haydn Sonatas.

An excerpt from a long swoon on the site for online CD store MusicWeb International:

Joyce stopped playing in public in 1979. Hospitalisation, near-death encounters, and alternative therapies followed — to become the pattern of her existence. She returned to the studio, 3 January 1989, playing Liszt. Since then she has maintained an annual recording schedule, reaching a peak of intensity in 1997-99. No discernible pattern or progression of repertory is apparent. Rather a mêlée of works, of stark emotional juxtapositions, of dramatically differing linguistic, spiritual and style states seemingly as the mood and impulse takes her, of projects begun, taken up again, or completed. In the five days between 4th and 8th January 1998, for example, she ranged from Chopin (four ballades) and Beethoven (Hammerklavier) to Prokofiev; in the corresponding period the following year, 3rd-7th, from Saint-Saëns (Fourth Piano Concerto), late Beethoven, Mendelssohn (the two piano concertos [CACD-9070-2]), Rachmaninov (B flat minor Sonata [CACD 9079-2]) and Schumann to Schubert (last sonata) and Liszt, and back again to Beethoven (middle period sonatas). Prodigious. … Impossible, many cynics would uphold.

Impossible indeed. Just a week ago, a reviewer for Gramophone magazine put one of Hatto’s CDs — Liszt’s 12 Transcendental Studies — into his computer. iTunes, of course, as it always does, compared the tracks against the GraceNote database. It correctly identified the music as Liszt’s 12 Transcendental Studies but came up with the information that the pianist was in fact Lászlo Simon. The reviewer then listened to the Simon recording and Hatto’s, one after the other, and found that they sounded identical in every detail of performance. Computer analysis has confirmed that they might as well be different issues of the same performance.

Since then, investigation has identified several more of Hatto’s recordings that exactly match recordings issued by others, sometimes major labels and major artists. On Pristine Classical’s website you can read the details, look at the matching waveforms, and even listen to combinations of two recordings at the same time, Hatto on one track and the earlier release on the other, and hear how exactly alike they are. The Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music has also investigated.

Sometime yesterday, all the text disappeared on the website of Concert Artist Recordings, the label under which Joyce Hatto’s recordings were issued. It was there yesterday morning; by afternoon there were only blank template pages.

Today there is discussion on the newsgroups of the possibility that a woman named Joyce Hatto who died not in June 2006 but back in 2002 may be the pianist herself. The recordings issued by her husband began appearing in 2003. Someone in the group is traveling to the town in question today to check the official records.

Later: It occurred to me to wonder, if Joyce Hatto died in 2002, who gave the interview to the Boston Globe reporter in 2005. On reading the article more carefully, I see that it was a phone interview with both Ms. Hatto and her husband, and that the writer says that “[t]he pianist has a high-pitched, girlish voice …”. Oh dear.