White Election

Okay, maybe that was a little too snarky. But I think Gordon Getty’s song cycle White Election would be a sharper and more effective piece if it were half the length. There didn’t seem to me to be enough going on in either the words or the music to justify a song cycle that’s long enough to include an intermission. I have to admit that I’m not much of a lover of Dickinson’s poetry, though. After a while it sounds to me like they all begin, “How sweet to never live your life!”

Lisa Delan sang very beautifully but with so-so diction and without finding a way to make the 32 songs into some kind of progression; they came across as a long string of pleasant but mostly rather similar songs. Mikhail Pletnev was at the piano, and it was fun to see him in action relatively close up.

I Crept into a Yellow Church

I crept into a yellow church
And folded there my wings
And heard, as blossom hears the day,
A cycle spun from songs.

The poems were by Dickinson
And one by one they came
Till two and thirty stood in line,
Their meters all the same,

Until the sound of anapest
And dactyl seemed as far
As ancient lute or mandolin
Played on a distant shore.

Mere two and thirty daffodils
Could never be enough.
With verses, though, by Dickinson,
They might have stopped at five.

The Russian National Orchestra at Zellerbach

Dave and I went to hear Mikhail Pletnev conducting the Russian National Orchestra at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley Friday night. The program began with a short cycle of three songs composed by Pletnev himself, based on Yeats poems. The music seemed rather ordinary to me, no surprises in how the words were set, and the poems by Yeats are not particularly exciting subjects to begin with, but the orchestration was clear and full of vivid colors. The soprano, Lisa Delan, was very good. The best of the three was the last, a setting of the poem “When You Are Old”.

Next was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, with a young violinist named Stefan Jackiw as soloist. Jackiw has plenty of technique and it was a very showy performance, lots of dazzle but not much heart. However, he looks very young, so one can hope he’ll grow into it. The second half of the program was Shostokovich’s Ninth Symphony, a piece I don’t think I’d ever heard before. Even without knowing anything about the musical codes that I gather are said to be planted in the melodies, it wasn’t hard to figure out why Stalin thought Shostokovich was flipping him the bird.

Pletnev’s conducting throughout was extremely low-key, often barely keeping time, yet the orchestra was always very crisp and polished in their playing. The encores were two more pieces by Pletnev, very jazzy and a lot of fun; once again the orchestration was startlingly bright and colorful, while the melodies and harmonies seemed much less inventive.

“Printer’s Devilry”

I put the last letters into yesterday’s Listener puzzle around 12:30 am this morning and then fell asleep. It’s called “Printer’s Devilry” and it actually felt to me like it was too complicated, that there was too much going on — and I’m not one to say that lightly when it comes to a puzzle. There are three kinds of clues: some contain one misprinted letter (you have to find out which one is misprinted and what it should be); in other clues, a letter has to be dropped from the answer wherever it appears before you put it in the grid (in other words, REFERENCE might be entered as REERENCE or EFEENCE or RFRNC and so on, depending on which letter you had to drop); in still others, the answer had to be encoded before being entered. Individually these are all interesting twists to put into a puzzle, but the combination was less fun to solve than I thought it was going to be. And in spite of several very enjoyable discoveries along the way: Finally figuring out the two-word phrase that the puzzle is organized around was a pleasant surprise, and the final grid turns out to be more orderly that it first appears — really a remarkable piece of construction, in fact.

I was mostly frustrated by the misprinted clues. I’ve most often seen this gimmick used in cryptic crosswords where the instructions said that the misprint was always in the definition part of the clue, and it has seemed to me that this is the most satisfying way to use it. (Thus the definition part of the clue might be, oh, “word from a quilter”, and the answer might turn out to be UNCLE and you’d have to figure out from the rest of the clue that “quilter” should be “quitter”.) In this puzzle, though, the misprinted word could be anywhere in the clue. In one case it was the anagram indicator that was misprinted, and I could think of at least three possible words that the “correct” (that is, before the misprint) word could have been. In another case it was in a two-letter word and there are two clearly valid possibilities for the correct word. Since you’re supposed to be keeping track of the changed letters and using them to spell out a message, it turns out that the only way you can actually figure out what the correct words are supposed to be is to guess the message without the help of those clues and then back-solve from the answer. This seems inelegant to me.

There were also cases where the “correct” wording of the clue seemed awfully tenuous and contrived to me. Probably because of the restrictions imposed by that very message spelled out by the changed letters. Both the original and the changed letters were involved, which may have been too much of a constraint for the constructor. It’s one thing to come up with an interesting clue for UNCLE using the misprint gimmick; quite another when because of all the other constraints you’ve worked into the puzzle, the clue must involve specifically, say, the letter N being misprinted as an I. Going to be tricky enough to find any valid clue at all under those circumstances, let alone a really satisfying one.

The rest of the puzzle, though, was mostly sharp and fun to solve. Learned a couple of bizarre new words, too.

Unusual Sight

A great egret wading up in the creek in Twin Pines Park in Belmont, poking its beak into the grass here and there at the water’s edge as it strolls. Must be stopping for a cool break on its way to somewhere else.

“Quartet” Finished

After a lot of slow chipping away at the blank grid, I finished the Listener puzzle tonight. I broke into the puzzle at last when I got four answers from Set 3, which was just enough answers to enable me to hypothesize that, unless there’d been a fluke and the answers were all across or all down, there was only one way to fit them into a quadrant with valid crossings. That hypothesis turned out to be the right one, and from there I was able to complete the quadrant. I finished the rest of the puzzle one quadrant at a time, too, and put the last letter into the grid just as the house lights were going down a few minutes after eight for the evening of ten-minute plays Dave and I were in the audience for.

Speaking of which, we were pleased to find that our friend Martha had written what was easily the best-crafted playlet of the evening, one of the two best in both Dave’s and my opinion. And fortunately not the one containing the line that really set my editorial teeth on edge. No, no, no, the name Zoë does not have an umlaut, it has a diaeresis. A certain naïve writer may want to coöperate in some preëmptive reëducation.


It’s Friday, so I have a new Listener puzzle for the commute home. This one, “Quartet”, looks pretty hard. It’s one of those puzzles where you have to figure out where in the grid to put the answers, so I won’t be able to put anything in till I have a lot of answers. So far I have two.


I’ve been a member of the Times of London Crossword Club three weeks now, mostly to get the weekly Listener crossword. The three new ones since I’ve joined have been relatively easy (for Listener crosswords, that is). But yesterday I worked on the crossword from January 16, which is called “Conversion”, and it’s more the crazily difficult puzzle I associate with the Listener. The instructions are bewildering, to start with:

In 18 clues, the definition has undergone a conversion and contains a single misprint that must be corrected before solving. In clue order, the correct letters give a thematic introduction. All answers must be amended prior to entry; the across answers according to the part of the introduction given by down clues, and vice versa. These include two entries that are clued without definition, both of which are professions that were found wanting.

On locating the subject of the puzzle in the grid, solvers must carry out a conversion (the source of which was itself a conversion). This completes, in the shape of the subject’s place of work, a thematic quotation that must be highlighted.

The clues were pretty tough, with a lot of obscure words involved, and it took a good while before I had enough pairs of crossing answers to come up with a hypothesis about how to enter them to make the crossings work. Fortunately my guess was pretty close to being right, and once I could enter words in the grid and get help from the crossings, things started falling into place more quickly. The breakthrough came when I had finally enough of the 18 changed letters to figure out the first half of the “thematic introduction”. I didn’t know the phrase, but I googled it and that told me what the theme was. Figuring out the significance of the two “professions that were found wanting” narrowed down the subject of the puzzle, which indeed was located in the grid — it was startling to realize that it had been staring me in the face, really. That made it clear what was meant by all the uses of “conversion” in the instructions, with a nice unexpected surprise at how many different but perfectly appropriate twists of meaning it had.

And then the final surprise was finding the “thematic quotation” in the nearly completed grid (I still had a few unsolved clues in the upper left corner). Not a particularly short quotation, either. It could not have been easy for the setter to construct the grid, what with all the limitations: (a) the subject being hidden in the grid, (b) the quotation being hidden in the grid, (c) the across and down answers being modified in accordance with a phrase that is appropriate to the theme of the puzzle, and (d) the whole thing still having to work as a valid crossword puzzle grid with the right numbers of crossings in all the words. Just amazing, a wonderful piece of work and a very tough and satisfying puzzle to solve.

Rambling Thoughts About Writing in the Commedia Dell’Arte Style

Dave and I went to see a staged reading of a new play last night. Overall, it wasn’t really very good — the characters were well drawn and funny in the commedia dell’arte style (which basically means what you might call “comedy of types”, in the sense of simple, easily recognized character types). But they never really got very far beyond their basic types — the gay men were flamboyant, catty, temperamental, creative, and sex-driven; the wealthy woman spent outrageous sums without thinking to get whatever she wanted; her daughter was spoiled and shallow; and so on. Don’t get me wrong, they were stereotypes but pretty well-written ones, almost always funny and only occasionally edging into possibly borderline offensive territory (that line about cucumbers, for example).

But there was a predictable paint-by-numbers quality to it, too, with very little to make the characters particular to this play, and after 15 minutes or so I wanted to tell them all that, okay, I really and truly get who you all are, so now can we do something with this information rather than just continue spinning out further variations, however well crafted, of the same eleven or twelve jokes?

There seemed to me to be no genuine conflict until about ten minutes before the end of the play. I think those two things are the same issue, actually. The way you develop a character in the commedia dell’arte style, as everybody is a “type” and there are no psychological depths to be explored, is to start with the archetype and then give each principal character one clear goal to work toward, something vitally important to that character, something that seems at the start to be impossibly difficult to attain, yet that he or she will go to extraordinary means to pursue. Then the character is particularized by this desire and by the manner in which he or she goes after it. (A common variation is to define a character in terms of what he or she desperately wants to avoid. Best of all, if you can do it without cluttering things up too much, is one of each: The central character desperately wants to get the woman he’s smitten by while staying far away from the mafiosi who are after him, or she desperately wants to rescue her boyfriend from pirates while not being herself kidnapped and bedded by the pirate captain.) In a nutshell that’s the classic basis of both strong melodrama and strong farce, depending on whether your tone of voice is serious or comic.

If an archetypal character doesn’t have an all-consuming desire to go after, though, he or she doesn’t have anywhere much to go, and that was the problem with last night’s play. Until quite late in the play, nobody had anything that they wanted so badly that they’d go to extraordinary means to get it; there was nothing that anybody was trying to avoid at all costs; nobody had any serious obstacles to getting what they wanted. There was no real conflict, just a lot of bitchy talk. Very funny bitchy talk, most of the time, but with never anything much at stake. It was like weak sitcom writing, everybody working very hard at swapping zingers to cover up the fact that nothing much was happening.

Near the end, though, a plot finally appeared, when the wealthy woman secretly bribed someone to try and sabotage her own daughter’s engagement. This never really led anywhere, though — it was too late in the play, the man never actually did anything to try and break up the couple, and the couple ended up breaking up on their own, just from their own incompatibility.

Then the sentimental ending in which all the seemingly cold and hypocritical (and therefore theatrically interesting) characters are revealed to have hearts of marshmallow after all. Everybody stops squabbling, drops the bitchiness, and makes up with everybody else, the sort of sitcom ending that is supposed to be heart-warming but always seems to me to be underlining how really unimportant the situation has been all along.

It’s always irritated me when a character who throughout the story has only been drawn in one dimension for perfectly legitimate comic or melodramatic purposes suddenly turns sweet and gooey in the last scene just because the playright thinks it’s time to make the audience go “aww!” In the final scene, Regina Giddens admits with tears in her eyes that she really always loved Horace, and she and her brothers are moved to make up their silly little misunderstanding, realizing that the love of family is what really matters after all; Sweeney Todd suddenly decides to let bygones be bygone and tells Mrs. Lovett to pack her bags, because he’s taking her away this very afternoon to that little cottage by the sea she’s dreamed of for so long; Lady Bracknell embraces Jack warmly, confesses that she has disapproved only because her own heart was once cruelly broken in her sensitive youth, and we see for the first time that under her lovably crusty exterior, all she ever really wanted was for Gwendolen to be very, very happy.

No, no, no, I just don’t get how you can even want to make the entire play depend for its working on the presentation of a character as single-minded and archetypal, and then in the last five minutes suddenly give this character a heart and soul and expect me to do an about-face and feel instant sympathy. If this has been the character’s nature all along, then what on earth has the rest of the play been about? If he or she is really that flexible and forgiving, what exactly have we been fretting about the whole evening? If the characters can shrug off so easily and nonchalantly in the final scene the conflict that has been driving the whole play, then aren’t we in the audience now being told that any emotional engagement with the story and the characters that we may have felt up to this point, based as it was on the now-exploded idea that anything has ever really been at stake for anyone, was all just a matter of ha-ha-fooled-you-into-caring?