Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Orchestra: An App Review

The main menu of The Orchestra app.  You can select one of the eight featured pieces of music or tap on the right to enter the instrument section.  The app is highly visual and packed with plenty of facts and information to read as well.
Recently, as part of my birthday celebration, I treated myself to a couple of iPad apps pertaining to classical music. Anyone with any familiarity to this blog knows I have a strong curiosity for the classical music form. I recently completed a cycle of posts on what I consider to be the greatest symphonies ever composed.

But, as I admitted several times throughout those posts (and others on the subject of classical music) I am a musical amateur. I have never received any musical training. I taught myself to play the guitar in college. I am extremely mediocre. I can pick out a few tunes (mostly Christmas carols as it turns out) on an electric keyboard I have in my study. Of course, I have already reviewed the app, GarageBand. So, I dabble with chords and sounds without being able to read a single note of music.

I became slightly better educated with my recent purchase of two fantastic apps, Beethoven 9 and The Orchestra. Beethoven 9 features four masterful performances of the greatest symphony ever composed. The app allows you to switch between the four interpretations on the fly so you can hear how each is unique in some ways. In addition there is an entire section of video interviews and insights by various famous conductors, musicians, and music historians on why this particular composition is the pinnacle of the symphony.

But this post is focused more on the richness of the other app I purchased, The Orchestra. Before I review its many features I want to comment on what apps like this say about the future of education. As hopefully I will be able to convey, the presentation of knowledge in a user-friendly, visual and audio rich environment is an incredible experience. The face of education is evolving and The Orchestra shows us its future.

First of all, when you open the app the main menu offers you cycling music vignettes from the eight orchestral selections meant to exemplify the history of the western classical orchestra. The baroque period is not included because technically the symphonic orchestra (rather than the baroque orchestra) was established by Franz Joseph Haydn. His Symphony No. 6 is not a "towering" composition compared to some of the others on the app but it is representative of the period in which the symphonic form was being created, composed in 1761. It uses a noticeably smaller orchestra than the other pieces presented. With one exception, the app does not offer complete compositions, only representative sections and movements, usually lasting between 5 - 6 minutes each.

Each symphony presented in this app features a short lecture by conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, one of the main reasons I purchased the app. Salonen is someone I have followed for years. He was a knowledgeable conductor and remains a powerful composer of modern classical music. The embedded videos of his commentary on the significance of each piece are highly instructive.

Each featured piece of music also contains a short video lecture by Esa-Pekka Salonen giving the user insights into the unique nature of each musical composition and the various challenges in performing it.  In this case, there is also a video by the solo artist giving the performer's perspective on the composition.
From the birth of the symphony we move to Ludwig von Beethoven's wonderful Symphony No. 5. The Orchestra does not feature this symphony's famous opening. Instead we are treated to the splendid second half of the final movement. In his commentary Salonen points out that Beethoven beefed up certain sections of the orchestra. This delivered what was without question the loudest sound any symphonic audience had heard up to that time. It had a powerful effect on first-time listeners and inspired other composers after Beethoven to create works with big, gripping sonics.

The bigger-is-better philosophy continued in the next orchestral selection, the fourth movement of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. Salonen claims that orchestras really reached that traditional size with this composition by Berlioz and this size is still the standard today with variations, of course, in exact instrumentation.

But an exception to this comes with the next selection, Claude Debussey's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. It features a smaller orchestra, mostly toned-down brass. The piece is chiefly a flute concerto. Salonen says conducting Debussy "is like a little flower" - so delicate and beautiful. This is the app's only complete work, a bit over 10 minutes in length. It is also the first piece that is not a "symphony" by definition. This piece approximates the birth of modern classical music.

Next comes the opening to Gustav Mahler's monumental Symphony No. 6, one of my personal favorite compositions of classical music. According to the conductor, this piece represents the beginning of Mahler's "late period" of composition and serves as an excellent example of his emotional range, from pain to ecstasy and everything in between. There are marvelous moments of solo performances accentuated by the "massive" sound that makes Mahler such a powerful experience.

A five minute excerpt from Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird follows Mahler. Salonen points how complicated the composition is, demanding virtuosity from every player individually. It also makes the greatest demands upon the conductor keeping everything together. An excellent example of how modern compositions make extreme demands on everyone and yet the result is this magnificent work that is strangely macabre and lyrical. Stravinsky struggled with this composition for years after its premiere in 1910, offering slightly different versions of it. Salonen prefers this last iteration, from 1947.

One of the many reasons I chose to purchase this app is that Salonen includes a work by Witold Lutoslawski, a favored modern composer of mine. His Concerto for Orchestra opens with light violins in fast tempo with no pattern, very difficult to play. Many modern orchestral compositions contain multiple keyboard instruments. Here we have a grand piano and a celeste included. Salonen explains how these instruments actually assist the orchestra in defining a sharper quality sound with the blending of other instruments which might otherwise disintegrate into chaos.

We finish this tour with the short second and intensely energetic third movement to Salonen's own composition dating from 2009, his Violin Concerto; almost nine minutes of music out of what is in total a 29-minute work.  This is an outstanding piece of music which I hope to blog about in itself in the future. As far as this app is concerned, who better than the work's composer/conductor himself to explore the sophistication and truly wild, sometimes jazzy, sometimes rock-n-roll sounds? Very insightful stuff to a piece I really enjoy.

The primary performance screen.  You can follow the actual sheet music of the composition in perfect time with the music.  You can display the score in a "curated" view which only shows the instruments currently performing, or you can view the full score and see all instruments.  Four videos at the top give you the ability to watch what the musical notations signify in terms of performance.  From left to right: an overview of how the orchestra is laid out and which instruments are currently playing, next comes the conductor himself, then the primary solo artist, and finally supporting aspects of the orchestra.  The interface is completely customizable.  You can tap on the videos and watch them without the score.  You can drag and rearrange the sections of the screen to suit your tastes.  Finally, notice that you can play (or not) the commentary either by the conductor or the chief performers as you listen to the music, providing additional insight into each piece.
The app contains less than an hour of music altogether. But, considering all the commentaries and features, you easily have over three hours worth of exploration. Beyond this there is another section pertaining to all the instruments of the orchestra. The high-quality retina display of my iPad shows each instrument in great clarity and detail. When you select one from the instrument menu you get to turn it around with your finger and view it in a variety of angles. Meanwhile you can play a short video where a performer with the Philharmonia Orchestra tells you a bit about the history of their particular instrument as well as an overview of various ways the instrument is played to get its range of sound.
The main menu for the instruments.  Each rotates 360 degrees while you decide which one to view.  You may also select the conductor for insights into that important role.  A great overview of the history of the orchestra is also available. 

Here's the history and functionality of the violin.  A video by a Philharmonia performer provides insights.  There is a basic text overview provided along with samples of the individual instruments in the musical selections on the app.  A small keyboard shows you the sonic range of the instrument.  The keyboard is interactive.  You can tap out notes and simple chords to hear how the instrument sounds.

The instrument screen for the (French) horn.  Notice this instrument has a slightly greater range of sound compared with the violin above.
In addition you get a keyboard that is interactive, showing the full range of each instrument. In this way all instruments are musically comparable within the app. Some have wider keyboards than others. When you hit a key, however, you hear the instrument as it would sound in that key. Although the keys are rather small you can still play around with simple chords and notes and experience how the instrument sounds. A long academic text paragraph gives a written overview of each instrument. In this way the app has an encyclopedic quality.

The Orchestra is anything but an encyclopedic type app. As I said it is the future of the transmission of knowledge. It is not linear nor is it a presentation of knowledge by rote. Rather it is a complex array of facts and presentations and art that allows the user of learn and enjoy in whatever their particular preference for learning might be. In this way it accommodates all curriculum and all learning styles. While being directly exposed to what it attempts to teach, it allows the user to interact with the information and the music in whatever style the user prefers. We might all navigate this app differently but eventually all of us would end up with the same information. Again, this is the future of learning.

At $13.99 this is the most expensive app I have ever purchased for myPad. In relation to the price of most apps this seems exorbitant. But, when you consider a night out at the movies or a ball game or other forms of entertainment this is actually a bargain. It is something I can return to and which will bring me many houses of enjoyment as I broaden my appreciation of and understanding of classical music. The Orchestra is an innovative, great value for the investment.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Daises of Our Field

These are photos of the land between my house and the road where we have wild daises growing.  In February and March I walk my fields to find the daises.  Thanks to the precision of my Gravely mower, I miss almost all of them.  The few I fail to miss are noted and I don't mow them in April.  The result in May is a fullness of rich, open-spaced daises of the field. 

Looking south from the northern corner of our property along the road.
Another angle of our lower field.  Notice a few more daises in the distance.

Part of our front yard looking south.

Front yard looking east toward our house.

Front yard looking north back toward the lower field which is hidden by the trees lining our driveway.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Nala Haunts Me

Two weeks ago my oldest dog Nala (see her in an earlier post) turned up missing. None of my neighbors had seen her. I searched my property as best I could, tracing her various paths. She was nowhere to be found.

I have had many dogs during my lifetime. Only a couple of them ever wandered off to die. So, it worried me about Nala. She had grown very old and incontinent. Her bad hips were bothering her to the extent that she could not walk without daily pain medication. She was deaf and had not barked in months. Her peripheral eyesight was failing but she could see clearly straight ahead. She would still go for walks with me though sometimes she chose lay around and sleep.

The possibility of having her put to sleep was very real and near. I was hoping to get her into summer when she seemed to do better in the warmth. Maybe into the beginning of next winter. We'd have to see how it went. It is was ever-present mental debate about how much longer to let her live. She was clearly suffering, her quality of life had deteriorated. But, she loved to be petted and rubbed. She still could be seen walking slowly across our land to the neighbor's houses. They all knew her as well. She had been around this land longer than some of them had. She was part of the place and I was determined (as I did for our dog Parks before) to let her live as long as possible.

Then she vanished. For two weeks we had no clue as to her whereabouts until late on Sunday a neighbor was alerted by buzzards and found her dead. For two weeks she had laid in a fairly deep ditch near the border of my property. I had walked near her body after her disappearance but I did not see her and if she was still alive she did not bark or make any sounds.  She would have had no way to know I was nearby anyway, being deaf she wouldn't hear me calling her name.

Finding her lying in that ditch on Monday was difficult for me. She must have gotten disoriented and fallen into it. It was a section of ditch tangled with privet hedge and briers. There was no way she could have gotten down there, she could barely walk. I crawled down to gauge the condition of her body after two weeks. There were no discernible signs of deterioration from above. Only near the corpse did a faint stench arise.

She was on the edge of a pile of brush I had thrown in the ditch over the years from various chainsaw cuttings and yard work. Her head was twisted with her nose pointing down into the brush between intermingled sticks and branches. I tested her with a small shovel. Her body was rigid and yet had unfortunately already started to liquefy. I could not move her without tearing her apart. The floor of the ditch was rock hard clay. The situation was horrifying to me.

What had I done? Such a terrible condition for a dog I loved and cared for when almost everyone else had either forgotten her or treated her as a nuisance at least. Now, to this end. She could not be moved so I had to cover her body in lime and then with several bags of cheap top soil on top of that to prevent the immediate odor from becoming widespread. Now, Nala is just a rough-made mound in a ditch.  The unlikely location of her body turned out to be only about fifty feet from my house. How was I to know?

The magnitude of my compassion for this dog collided with the stark reality that she had died so near to me, so exposed, perhaps in discomfort, perhaps in fear. Why had she wandered off from her accustomed spots? Why did I let her live so long as to suffer such an end?

I was amazed at the weight of guilt that suddenly descended upon my Being. I was guilty of possibly mistreating this animal when the humane thing would have been to put her down months ago.  Now I rationally understand that guilt is the most worthless human experience imaginable. There is no value in it but to serve as another tentacle for childish religion to sap your life. It has been years beyond my memory since I last experienced any degree of guilt in my life. It is just not how I operate. More harm has been caused by guilt than by murderers in human history.

Yet, from past personal experience I know that life will surprise you with how it affects you out of the clear blue yonder. So it is now with me and my guilt over Nala. I grieve at her loss. No event has saddened me more since I started this blog. I felt I was doing my best but it seems I ended up doing my worst. That line of reasoning is a classic guilt complex. I have to work my way through it somehow.

It won't be easy. This has lingered and I don't sleep soundly. I am not at peace with myself. My life is out of balance. I see Nala lying in the ditch after two weeks of mostly wet weather. Her hair matted with repeated dousing from the rains. Her body in a puppy-like fetal pose. Her face turned inward, mercifully away so I can't see her eyes. Her body decomposing slowly in the cool, wet, and mild spring conditions. I can't get her out of my mind. And I can't help feeling that I failed as a caretaker of this animal. I cannot escape my direct responsibility for this situation.

I am torn between by my sincere attempt to keep Nala alive one more summer and my utter failure to rescue her (if that was even possible) right under my nose a few dozen feet from our house. Like most blogs, I suppose, my posts often project confidence and alleged insight amidst the chaos and weight of existence. In reality, however, such confidence is a temporary thing, such insights often turn out wrong. No matter how much I might rationally understand that guilt is ridiculous and without value as a human experience, that does not mean that guilt will not grab me by the throat and attempt to force me to do its bidding. We are not as much in control of ourselves as we would like to believe.

So I am wrestling with it all now. Wrestling with a carcass I cannot properly bury. Wrestling with this tangle of emotions and the weight of the responsibility. Wrestling, sleeplessly, with what I should have done differently, if anything. This is the condition of my Lifeworld in this moment. Yet, already I see a path toward healing. The very fact that the tragic unfolding of events has surprisingly (to me) affected me so profoundly is indication enough that my imperfect human compassion was fully engaged with Nala. I was all she had left, really. And I stepped up to that challenge, attempting to love her as much as I could. To treat her ailments. To force her to get up and keep moving as much as possible. To be gentle with her ways and to accept her as she was, faltering urine-smelling body and all. I did my best and I loved my best and, ultimately, that is more important than the manner of her passing.

Jennifer told me yesterday morning that she had had a "healing dream." Nala came to her as the puppy she was 15 years ago when we first got her from the county pound. She was happy. Then she turned and walked away following her old self.   Two Nalas retreating.  Jennifer teared up telling me of her dream. For me, the healing still awaits.

Monday, May 13, 2013

An Artsy Space Oddity

This was released on the internet yesterday.  Astronaut Chris Hadfield does really nice work with this David Bowie classic presented for the first time in its intended surroundings.  Pretty cool stuff.  For the record (so to speak), the first rock album played in space in its entirety was Delicate Sound of Thunder by my all-time favorite rock group, Pink Floyd.  That happened aboard a Soyuz spacecraft mission in late 1988.  On the back of the neck of a couple of Pink Floyd t-shirts I own there is an antennae symbol commemorating this historic first with the words: "Still First In Space."

Friday, May 3, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty Wins My Best Picture

By now I have seen a large number of films released in 2012. Argo was the Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards. I have previously devoted reviews to The Dark Knight Rises, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, The Hobbit, Silver Linings Playbook, and Prometheus all of which I saw on the big screen. Here’s some short thoughts on several other 2012 movies that I chose to watch outside of the theater.

The Master featured acting on the level of Lincoln in every way.
Joaquin Pheonix was as brilliant as Daniel Day-Lewis in 2012 and proved conclusively that he is one of the world’s best actors. He completely disappears inside his character. Philip Seymour Hoffman almost matches him with a powerful supporting role. Hoffman deserved to win the award for Best Supporting Actor in my opinion.  I really like both of these actors. They have some very intense and satisfyingly written scenes featuring just the two of them. Truly captivating performances. Unfortunately, The Master builds a marvelous complexity and ends up doing nothing with any of it in the end. That was deflating to me. Why ask me to invest myself in this puzzle and do nothing with what I invest as a viewer? Pheonix’s character just runs away, as he was running away when he stumbled into the world of Hoffman’s L. Ron Hubbard-style character to begin with. So, it is on par with Lincoln in acting and in execution. It is a good film. I give it a 7.

Django Unchained is one of the better movies I saw from last year. I am a
Quentin Tarantino fan. There is no such thing as an "uncool" Tarantino film. Django is cool.  Jamie Foxx in the title role dons wire-framed sunglasses in his western gunfighter’s attire as an antebellum plantation house blows up in a ridiculously massive dynamite explosion at the end of the film. That’s Dirty Harry caliber cool. Django features the classic Tarantino witty, smartassed dialog.  Quirky characters abound while ridiculous situations emerge. The music choices are all fantastic (Tarantino’s use of music puts him a class with Stanley Kubrick, my favorite director of all time). The story moves fast and it is 2:45 in length so it is a complex story. Tarantino deserves his Best Screenplay award. Django is well written. The acting and direction are first-rate with several entertaining performances.

The movie’s one obvious flaw is its convenient “melding” of historic time frames. The film is torn between being set in the 1850’s with guns and outfits from the 1880 American west. In this movie one shot often is all it takes to kill something. Bam!  He’s dead in spectacular
Sam Peckinpah exploding body style. Bam!  That horse’s head just splattered in several directions. Those few wounded left gorily screaming in pain and agony are quieted. Bam! Tarantino kills a lot of people again just as in his Kill Bill movies. No shortage of gratuitous violence here.

But, Tarantino takes the edge off with extensive use of the ridiculous. Western hat styles, guns and accessories from the 1880’s are presented in pre-Civil War America.  In pre-KKK times a raiding party spends five minutes of the movie arguing amongst themselves about not being able to see through the holes in the bank bags cut to cover their heads. The scene is hysterical. I doubt if you will see another movie attempt a western style shootout set to rap music while Django fires his gun and kills 2-3 men in one aim…in the 1850’s. Yeah, right. Ridiculously funny. I give this film an 8 and recommend it to my friends.

Though I could name you a half dozen great musical movies, The Sound of Music being the greatest, I generally do not care for films of this genre. The Daniel Day-Lewis musical Nine (2009), for example, would earn a 5 in my book. It is a mediocre film and it is a worse musical.  A dreadful viewing experience. Moulin Rouge! was all the rage in 2001. I thought it was a 7 at best.  Les Misérables is not that good though it has a few strengths.  Russell Crowe has a stronger singing voice than I would have thought. Anne Hathaway deserved her Best Supporting Actress award. Her performance, though brief in the film, is still gritty, lyrical, and powerful. The film is simply a translation of the successful Broadway musical. Several individual characters sing solos to the main theme, different lyrics depending upon their circumstances. Many of them die during the course of the story. They all come back to life to sing  in unison the triumphant main theme with words of inspiration in the film’s final scene. A feel good movie about democracy. I was bored during long stretches, as I am with most musical films.  This one gets a 6.

Argo was lame. For the life of me I do not see how this movie gets Best Picture. It is in no way of that calibre. Ben Affleck walks through the film like a mannequin. The raging intensity depicted in Iran is covered in a detached manner. I do not care for any of the 12 hostages that were actually freed. They are featured on a few cutaway scenes in the movie but there is no effort by the script nor the direction to make me care for any of their lives. The movie fails to fully express the danger and threat to their lives as they experienced it. Argo is a big flat something that is never quite enough. It is an observer's film you need not seek for emotional investment, you won't find very much compared to the magnitude of the events depicted.  Argo is a classic 6 of a film, despite its critical success.  Blah.

Life of Pi at times rivals Avatar in terms of digitized visual experience. It is a feast for the eyes and a wonderful family film in my opinion. The storybook tale is great for older children.  Teens will find the cinematographic eye candy worth watching. Still, for all its visuals there's not much of a story to hold it all together. In the end, the film fails to deliver a narrative punch the size of its grand visuals. Life of Pi is a 7, however, because it is not a bad film, just not that great.

At one point in the film Hitchcock, the famed director (played superbly by the great Anthony Hopkins) declares that his new film Psycho is "stillborn." According to the movie, the film is rescued when Hitch, as he was known, and his wife (a terrific performance by Helen Mirren) decide to edit the film together. It is an interesting premise. It's historicity is generally correct. Hitchcock was indebted to the creative input of his wife in many of his films. At any rate Hitchcock is another great example of a 6. The acting is very good, Scarlet Johansson and James D'Arcy are perfectly cast respectively as Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. But the film introduces many complex elements, Hitch's erotic obsession with blonds, his wife's need for creative input to the point of seeking it in another man, the artistic desire that drove Psycho inside both Hitchcocks. Nevertheless, it only postulates these situations without any depth. For that reason the film feels empty to me. Well-made to a point but it does not stay with me after it is over at all.

Of all the films I saw I would say Zero Dark Thirty was the best of 2012. I think it is a shame Jessica Chastain did not win a Best Actress award. Django Unchained is a close second, though neither film is great in the larger context of film history. In truth, as with most years, there were no truly great films made, to my knowledge. That the Academy (and most critics) uplifted the mediocre Argo while some members supported a boycott campaign of Zero Dark Thirty leads me to believe that the Academy decided to stiff ZD30 by voting for a different film in the same historical genre. Argo’s choice only makes sense to me as a protest vote.