Sunday, May 25, 2008

Computer History Museum

Today I ventured outside The City to visit the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Being a techie myself, I've wanted to visit for some time. It's located in an impressively large new building.

The big draw for the next year is the modern incarnation of Charles Babbage's legendary Difference Engine No. 2, built by the Science Museum of London. Nathan Myhrvold is responsible for the version on display, which is destined for his private collection. If you want to see this, time your visit for one of the live demonstrations. The machine calculates 7th order polynomials to 31 decimal places & is cranked by hand! It's massive, & there's definitely a certain romance to it as you watch columns of disks rise & fall, hear rhythmic ker-chunks, & become mesmerized by the carry-over wheels, which corkscrew up like rotating DNA molecules.

I took the tour of Visible Storage, which is a large warehouse space filled with all sorts of calculating machines, from abacuses & slide-rules to Crays & microcomputers. The layout is wonderfully informal & has lots of random surprises. I saw core memory for the 1st time. There's a rack of hilariously sagging motherboards from an early Google server. A tangle of wires used to program an early IBM plugboard gives a new meaning to the phrase "spaghetti code." The whole thing tells the story of the rapid replacement of old technologies by new ones. As the tour guide said, "Electronics constantly eats its young."

It also inspired a certain amount of nostalgia in me. I saw a teletype machine, which took me back to my 1st contact with computers, back when I was about 12. Visible Storage starts with a huge shelf full of microcomputers dating back to the 70's, & I was surprised by how many of these machines I had once used. & now they are museum pieces!

Octopus at The Magic

I was at the Saturday night performance of Steve Yockey's new play Octopus at the Magic Theatre in Fort Mason. It's a joint production with Encore Theatre Company. First things first: the big attraction of this show is the 1st scene, depicting some serious group sex flippantly orchestrated by the play's anti-hero. 4 male actors appear completely naked, & the foreplay is explicit. Fortunately our cast is fit, trim &, in at least one case, unusually pretty. It does the shower scene from Take Me Out one better. Come to think of it, Take Me Out was the last play I saw, so I guess we now know what it takes to get me out for an evening of theater...

The come-on of this 1st scene quickly gives way to catastrophic consequences. More likely to be talked about than the sex scene are the increasingly fantastical turns the action takes. A telegram delivery boy shows up dripping wet for no apparent reason. Characters vanish. Water seeps into apartments from no discernible source. A fearful monologue is set at the bottom of the sea. & the water in this production is real. As if we were about to see Shamu the Killer Whale, a sign at the box office warns us that the first row is likely to get wet.

It's an angry story about gay relationships, AIDS, simple consideration for others & love. The tone & focus sometimes shift strangely, but the dramatic situations always had my attention. The play feels like it's one re-write away from being brilliant.

There's a lot of physicality, & the characters' distress quickly becomes extreme. The cast does a terrific job with all this. I liked Patrick Alparone's pretty boy looks & expressive face. It's perfect casting. Rowan Brooks is at first lightly comic but then frighteningly potent.

During the curtain calls, they announced that the run has been extended, so check it out. It's a compact, intermissionless 80 minutes, & it will give you something you'll want to talk about.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

SFS Brahms Festival

San Francisco Symphony Brahms Festival
Thursday, May 22, 2008 at 8:00pm

Pre-concert Chamber Music
Brahms String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat major, Opus 67
Chen Zhao violin
Amy Hiraga violin
Nancy Ellis viola
Peter Wyrick cello

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Laura Claycomb, soprano
Matthias Goerne, baritone
SFS Chorus

Brahms Geistliches Lied
Brahms Four Songs for Women's Chorus
Brahms A German Requiem

When I purchased my ticket early in the day, the box office told me that there would be chamber music at 7:00pm, so I returned in time for this very nice extra. We were asked to sit as close to the stage as possible, & the house lights were kept up for the 1/2 hour performance. The quartet sounded great. There was good communication between the players, the ensemble was taut, & they looked like they were having a great time. It even managed to feel intimate, as chamber music should. I ended up enjoying this unexpected treat more than the concert itself. The quartet seemed to like it too. We heard one of them give a victorious whoop once he was off-stage.

The concert itself belonged to the chorus. Indeed, for the short 1st half, MTT was standing in front of a nearly empty orchestra. The contrapuntal Geistliches Lied was an appropriate mood-setting curtain-raiser. The Four Songs for Women's Chorus, however, seemed not quite a good fit for the rest of the program. They are a bit frilly, & the music didn't seem to match the melancholy texts. The women's chorus is accompanied by 2 horns & a harp, all nicely played.

The Requiem had 2 excellent soloists. Laura Claycomb was steely voiced, & Goerne gave us his smooth, solid sound. Aside from a chance to hear the Requiem, he was the main reason I attended, even though I knew his contribution would be brief. Goerne was confident enough to use no music. There was some beautiful orchestral playing as well, especially from the woodwinds.

I sat in the side terrace, overlooking the orchestra. I'd never sat here before. The balance was sometimes odd, but it was fun to see the conductor from the orchestra's point of view. I felt like I was a behind the scenes. I was also close enough to wave to someone I recognized in the chorus.

From my vantage point, I caught the Mark Ruffalo lookalike violinist, though hidden behind the organ console, getting lost & bowing the wrong way in the final bars of Herr, lehre doc mich. He seems to be a chatty guy too.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Michael Chabon at Stacey's

At lunch time today local literary rock star Michael Chabon gave a reading at Stacey's Bookstore. I'd say there were about a hundred fans in attendance, half of us standing & jockeying for viewing spots. He read 2 selections from his new book of essays, Maps and Legends. He'll be happy to know that I found both his readings entertaining.

There's something very engaging about him as a person. He's funny & even a bit sweet. You feel like he would make a good friend. The first thing he said was, "I hope you all had lunch already!" Obviously he's done a million of these readings, so before taking questions, he preempted the most obvious ones by first giving us the "The Author's FAQ", stuff like:
  • Status of the Kavalier & Clay movie: unplugged by the studio at the last minute.
  • His process: he writes 5 days a week, 10am - 3pm & 10pm - midnight.
  • Favorite authors: Poe, Raymond Chandler, Roth, John Cheever.
  • Advice to young writers: live now, write later; read everything, even stuff you don't want to read, if only to prove your judgment correct.
  • The movie version of Wonder Boys: liked it.
He described his own reading tastes as catholic, & indeed seems to read & enjoy everything from comic books to Proust. He gave a nice remembrance of the recently passed Oakley Hall, who was his teacher at Irvine. At the end of the Q & A session, a woman got a laugh when she commented, "I didn't realize you were so funny." She then got a bigger laugh by asking him if he had chosen his own shirt or his wife had picked it out for him. Chabon pulled at his shirt with white & pale pink stripes & admitted that he liked pink. He recounted how he had once gone out wearing a shirt that contained a pink stripe, & a woman came up to him & told him he was "brave." I don't think anyone could have scripted such an endearing way to end the event.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Matthias Goerne Recital

Saturday, May 17, 8:00 pm
Herbst Theatre
Matthias Goerne, baritone
Alexander Schmalcz, piano
SHOSTAKOVICH: Suite on Verses of Michelangelo, Op. 145 (Truth, Morning, Love, Separation, Anger, Dante, To the Exile, Creativity, Night, Death, Mortality)
WOLF: Michelangelo Lieder (Wohl denk' ich oft; Alles endent, was entstehet; Fuhlt meine Seele)
BRAHMS: Four Serious Songs, Op. 121

I was back at Herbst Theatre for this much-anticipated song recital. This time they didn't open the doors until 8:15, reportedly because they were still tuning the piano. I wonder if the late start in the morning had pushed everything back, like a late patient at the dentist's office causing a back-up for the whole day.

I'm not an aficionado of song recitals or even that knowledgeable, but Goerne is one performer who makes it easy to appreciate this rarefied art form. For me, his appeal starts with the beauty of his sound. I have some recordings of him, but there is something about that voice that does not come across in recordings. It flows out of him like it's a viscous material. & then there's the way he gets to the heart of the emotion so quickly. I feel like I barely need to refer to the texts to understand what's going on. As soon as he launched into the Wolf songs that began the 2nd half, I got so swept up in the music that it was impossible for me to be critical of the experience. I was discretely wiping away tears during the Brahm's song "Ich wandte mich".

Goerne gave his accompanist a big hug when he was done, & he had good reason to be so appreciative. Schmalcz was a truly supportive collaborator. He would set up the mood for each song efficiently, stay close to Goerne, then maintain the mood at the close, all without drawing particular attention to himself.

Our audience reaction was far too subdued, I thought. This was an exceptional evening, but the applause didn't last long enough for Goerne to give us an encore. Perhaps part of this is due to Goerne's austere stage presence. He simply walks out on stage & does his thing without attempting to be charming or wanting to win us over. He gives us the illusion that we are being moved solely by the music.

Mission Bazaar

05.17.2008 Mission Bazaar at the ArmorySince I was in the neighborhood, after the previously reported concert, I walked to the other side of Market Street to check out the Mission Bazaar. Actually what I really wanted to do was get inside the Armory building The place is pretty run-down, in a romantic kind of way. The entry-way made me think of a 1950's high school. Some of doors still have the old signage on them, which is pretty cool. The fair was held in a huge indoor space like an airplane hangar that probably takes up half the building. It definitely has performance space possibilities.

I wasn't interested in any of the clothes or jewelry on sale, but I did have a nice chat with a woman involved in creating these beautiful crop-circle-like Playa Paintings with Andres Amador on Ocean Beach.

Alexander String Quartet & Robert Greenberg

Alexander String Quartet & Robert Greenberg
Saturday, May 17 10:00 AM
Herbst Theatre
Franz Schubert, String Quartet No. 14, “Death and the Maiden”
George Crumb, Black Angels (Images I) for electric string quartet

I think 10:00am is too early for audiences & musicians, & apparently it's too early for the venue as well. The doors to the auditorium didn't open until barely 5 minutes to 10:00, due to "technical difficulties". The stage was encumbered by microphone stands, extra chairs, a huge tangle of power cords, 2 gongs & a grand piano, most of this clearly for the Crumb piece. Already it made me think that what was state-of-the-art & avant-garde in 1970 now looks quaintly dated.

The format is for Greenberg & the quartet to come on stage together. Greenberg speaks for about 25 minutes before each piece. The quartet provides musical excerpts at appropriate moments. There was a grand piano on stage for the 1st half, just so Greenberg coudd play a few chords from the lieder version of Death & the Maiden. The entire concert lasted almost 2½ hours, including intermission, so it's perhaps a bit longer than a typical chamber recital.

For the Schubert, Greenberg provided a brief biographical sketch of the composer & related the quartet to the context of Schubert's long illness & death. For the Crumb, Greenberg pointed out the quartet's explicit connection to the Vietnam War, its long quotation from the Schubert quartet, & some of its unusual performance requirements.

The quartet's ensemble certainly feels like a conversation among equals. I liked the bite of the 1st violinist's playing. A quartet has to be pretty game for the Crumb piece, & one is kept busy just watching them. The are asked to hit gongs, bow on tuned glasses, play maracas & do left hand pizzicato at the same time, shout & play at the same time & even bow on the fingerboard on the "wrong" side of the fingering hand. This last effect is supposed to sound like a concert of viols. There's also selective amplification of the instruments. The quiet end of the piece left the audience uncertain it was safe to applaud until the 1st violinist closed his music.

This was definitely an older audience. I was in the middle of a row that had an elderly woman seated at each end. Since neither one of them seemed inclined to moved after the end of the performance, we were trapped for a considerable amount of time afterwards.

Greenberg himself is very much the image of the New York baby-boomer. He made a parallel between the Vietnam War era & today, & he got applause for expressing an election-time wish for a new administration based on truth & decency. As far as his musical commentary, I think I got just as much background from the printed program notes. I was glad to have a chance to hear the Crumb piece, though. It's wide-ranging in both its technique & emotional range, going from the strident & violent to the eerily beautiful.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Raj Patel at Stacey's

There was a sizable SRO crowd at lunch hour at Stacey's Bookstore today to hear Raj Patel. With the global food shortages recently in the news, his new book about the global food economy, Stuffed and Starved, has good timing. He's a terrific speaker, lively, funny, full of ideas, a little indecent & happily on the side of the working class. Plus he's good-looking & has a great English accent. He's got the kind of personality that can make communism seem sexy again.

I was laughing out loud at times. He compared the World Bank to John Cleese's patronizing & malicious Robinhood in The Time Bandits, performing his own rendition of this scene from the movie. He finds the Slow Food movement a bit too bourgeois, describing it as an "olive oil circle-jerk." He told us about bunny chow, a South African convenience food consisting of a loaf of white bread hollowed out & filled with Indian curry. He interprets this as a "miscegenated" food. He slammed fair trade goods for reducing democracy in this country to the conceit that we can make this a better world by shopping. He reminded us that in a democracy we own the political system.

Patel had me completely fired up to buy his book, only Stacey's hadn't anticipated such a big turn-out & actually ran out. If you get a chance, check him out.

P.S. (05.15.2008)
He's appearing at Cody's Books in Berkeley on Friday, May 16th at 7:00pm. You can see the man in action on CBC television here & here.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Transforming Art

Today I walked through the small exhibit at the Presidio Officers’ Club entitled Transforming Art Exhibition: The Art of Chris Hardman. The exhibit is presented by Antenna Theater. Mostly stuff with mirrors & wood & the modest use of optical illusions. It's nothing earth-shattering, but it's free & part of a visit to the building.

I knew that the Officer's Club building was old, but I didn't realize it dated to the 1st decades of the 19th century. I also learned that part of the motivation for building these garrisons in the 19th century was that the Russians also had colonies on the West Coast then (hence the name of Russian River). I had no idea there were Russian settlements here way back then. What were they doing? What happened to them?

Godard's Contempt; KFOG Fireworks

At the invitation of a friend, last night I saw Godard's Contempt at the Castro. I went in knowing nothing about it. It's a 1963 wide-screen technicolor movie & superficially looks like a Hollywood movie of the era. The cast includes Bridgette Bardot, frequently nude, & Jack Palance. However, it keeps doing unconventional things, starting with the opening credits, which are read in voice-over while we watch the movie itself being filmed, the camera eventually turning toward the audience itself. So I guess it's really an avant-garde classic. The print looked great, which is especially important because of the use of primary colors in the design. I found myself paying a lot of attention to the movie's settings, but I was not much engaged by the characters or the plot. Even Godard seems pretty flippant about the plot, considering the arbitrary way he dispatches 2 of the main characters at the end. The most emotion I felt was in the middle section in the apartment, when I could identify with the frustration, annoyance & disdain of the writer's wife.

Immediately after the show, I rushed into the Muni Metro to catch a train to the Embarcadero for KFOG's beautiful fireworks show. Sadly it took 20 minutes to get out there, so it was well under way by the time I got there. Still fun, & the best show fireworks show in the City. I could not believe how massive the crowds were.