Monday, December 30, 2013

Loose Ends 2013

The Dow and S&P are near all-time highs.  Stock markets all over the world have enjoyed significant gains this year.  Gold was hammered in its worst year since 1981.  The economy remains sluggish, perhaps unusually sluggish.  Where is the employment? 1.3 million Americans just lost their unemployment benefits. Where is the strong middle class?  Is everybody debt-free and fully liquid?  LOL.  Are you kidding me?  Despite persistent optimism, this nation's economy is precarious at best

History will record that Obamacare started on the day the government shut down.  That is remarkably metaphorical, I think.  Although the major health insurance carriers all seem to be betting on Obamacare, the biggest expansion of the welfare state in America since Medicare itself is off to a woeful start.  In fact, Obama is off to a stumbling final term as president.  He looks even more ridiculous and unskilled than George W. Bush at the start of his horrible second term.  This may reflect a deeper weakness in politics as an effective force in the world.  I might blog more on that topic in 2014. 

Gerhard Richter set a record again this year for a living artist when his 1968 painting sold for $37 million.  This follows a $34 million sell last year.  Richter continues to inspire and fascinate me, as does Art overall.  I recently purchased a couple of iPad apps on Renoir.  Renoir HD features the many highlights of his career, most (not all) are rendered with vibrant color and sharpness.  The Renoir Museum features about 1500 Renoir's and is well worth the $3.99 price tag despite the fact that his greatest work is not in this collection and the collection as a whole is not in alphabetical or chronological order.  Nevertheless what is presented is exceptionally well-done, a feast for the eyes and mind. 

Pope Francis is Time Magazine's Person of the Year.  I like the "new pope" but I find Elon Musk more interesting.  Musk has the potential to revolutionize things like Steve Jobs. Technology seems to make being human less relevant but that is where most of our innovation goes.  Musk has a Martian colonization vision, which I blogged about a year ago.  Can he and others like him discover new economic territory that will bring stronger demand for human labor? 

About 120,000 human beings have died in the Syrian Civil War.  What a complex, messy situation.  2013 also saw wars in Mali and, as always it seems, Congo.  The Sudan has also erupted on the conflicted African continent. Add rioting in Egypt and Thailand into the mix.  Thousands of US troops remain deployed in Afghanistan.  The US is sending aid to beleaguered Iraq which is no closer to peace today than when the US was there in force.  Saddam Hussein, with his Stalinist ruling tactics, kept the lid of the pressure cooker of warring factions in Iraq.  Removing him from power created a vacuum that still exists in that country.  Throwing Hussein out of power and killing him might have been justice on some scale but it has done nothing to change the death and suffering inside Iraq. In France, the country with a higher concentration of Islamic immigration than anywhere else in the West, there is still talk of a "clash of civilizations"

Meanwhile, in China the quality of breathable air is the worst in the world.  In absence of any meaningful relegation, industrial and automotive smog is a huge problem throughout Asia, particularly in Chinese manufacturing areas.  8 million agricultural acres are too polluted to farm. The Communist government in China, true to the long-tradition of propaganda in a controlled press, has the audacity to proclaim the "benefits" of smog to the Chinese people.  Hopefully, this does not reflect a "get used to it" attitude among one of the world's great polluters. For years I have argued that any reduction in CO2 emission by the West would be more than off-set by China and India belching pollution into the atmosphere at record levels. Although the idea of Global Warming has become more controversial in 2013, my bet is that these unprecedented levels of CO2 in Earth's atmosphere won't happen without significant global consequences

Personhood is the news again in 2013.  While it is (ridiculously) still a matter of debate regarding whether or not the human fetus is a person, scientists have (ridiculously) tried to extend personhood to chimpanzees and dolphins and other animals.  Apparently, the intent is (perhaps) noble enough, to grant ethical and legal rights to non-humans.  The genuine distinction in my opinion is that, while these are all obviously sentient beings, sentience itself is an insufficient basis for personhood.  A person must be an animal capable of higher language, either body gestures or utterances that are meaningful enough to help sustain, create and perpetuate culture.  Man is the only animal who exhibits truly complex culture, culture that measurably impacts other humans and the Earth itself.  This is a distinctively human realm but it does not extend to human forms that cannot communicate, in my opinion.  Someone in a coma is not a person; probably not a popular opinion. 

A big news event in America is the homophobic comments by Phil Robertson, one of the stars on the Duck Dynasty reality TV show.  I have never watched the program.  I would bet it is a great example of why I refuse to pay for television programming.  A popular manifestation of kitsch and simple crap.  Mr. Robertson is as free as any American to say whatever he damn well pleases.  Speech is absolute.  It is, in fact, unalienableUnalienable rights override all political agendas and witch hunts in particular.  An open society is going to be a messy, competitive one where people will often feel insulted.  The fact is Mr. Robertson is sincere and he speaks through his faith not in malice toward anyone, however it might be taken.  I have gay friends and acquaintances.  I hope they are tough enough to dismiss Mr. Robertson's opinion with tolerance rather than seek to dictate whether he has a "right" to his speech.  Many liberals consider Robertson's speech act should not be protected under the constitution.  Quite frankly, they feel their opinions are "better" than Robertson's. This only magnifies the tragedy. As I blogged before, freedom is not measured by what I am free to do but, rather, by what others are free to do with which I do not agree.

The NSA became a part of the public sphere in 2013.  The spying agency has many privileges that were formerly reserved only for tyrannical powers.  The Federal Government deems that it all makes perfect sense in the scheme of things, with a world of terror out there awaiting us.  Apparently. Edward Snowden could be person of the year.  He made public something that was wrongly kept classified by the government.  He restored some semblance power to the public in this matter.  Something heroic, really.  Did George Orwell envision that a singular quasi-public entity would be able to read your emails, track your telephone calls, and even report movement around the country?  This is Kremlin and Gestapo stuff.  Your government should never know that much about you.  It is madness.  Welcome to Amerika, land of the terrorized. 

But let's keep all this in perspective.  Voyager One became the first man-made space craft to enter interstellar space this year.  The Solar System is home to wondrous and specific forces of the universe.  There is no need to stay small in your mind.  There is no need to accept Amerika as valid or even important.  There is so much more.  Out there.  The 45th anniversary of the Apollo 8's historic "earthrise" photograph reminds us of the majesty. 

Surprise listening for Jennifer and me in-between Christmas and New Year's:  David Crosby's It's All Coming Back To Me Now...

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Sunday, December 15, 2013

My Year with Wolfgang Rihm

Most of my many classical music purchases in 2013 featured the work of Wolfgang Rihm. I went OCD on Rihm in 2013. Before this year I only owned three CDs by him, one of which features his excellent but difficult turn-of-the-century avant-garde composition Jagden und Formen (Hunts and Forms). Another CD offers his interesting composition from 1983 entitled Silence to be beaten, where he uses the piano in its pristine form as a percussion instrument (a single key is hammered vigorously for extended periods). My third Rihm CD contains his beautiful and accessible Music for Oboe and Orchestra (2002) among other pieces.

I have had an interest in exploring Rihm further but did not get serious about it until this year, when I purchased another ten Rihm CDs. This only puts a dent in the possible purchases out there by Rihm, who is one of the most prolific living composers in the world. He has apparently written three times the amount of music Beethoven composed in his lifetime. In fact, many of his compositions have yet to be performed let alone recorded. Much of his vast array of music exists only on paper scores and in the heads of those who can read music.

Rihm is known for tinkering with "finished" pieces. Much of his work has multiple composition dates, sometimes decades apart. Jagden und Formen, for example, was composed between 1995-2001. Even this extended composition period failed to settle the matter. Currently the work has been tinkered with in 2007 and 2008. Rihm's website lists the work as in "state 2008" currently. A good portion of what was released in the past 15 years or so was composed in the 1970's and 1980's. Perhaps the best example of this is an enormous orchestral work entitled Tutuguri (1981/1982) which weighs in at over 115 minutes, audaciously surpassing Mahler and Bruckner in sheer length. This composition is an (as yet) un-choreographed "dance poem" that received its world-premiere in 2000.

Tutuguri is magnificent even without the dancers. It is a vigorous, rhythmic work that engages the mind and takes the listener on a series of fantastic sonic experiences that are interwoven throughout its extended and diverse presentation. A fairly detailed compositional analysis of Tutuguri can be found here. I will merely point out that this work is an excellent example of how Rihm fuses the styles of John Cage, Anton Webern, and Gustav Mahler all into one extraordinary hyper-modern orchestration. The piece is punctuated throughout by periods of utter silence. Often there are winds softly performing some anxious theme, contrasted with powerful, almost annihilating, percussion.

It seems to me that the percussion generates massive energy which feeds the orchestra as it growls and broods and exhibits moments of stunning coloration. The first 78 minutes of the work is a balanced combination of all these elements. The final 38 minutes is a spectacular, driving and bombastic movement by six percussionists, augmented by occasional choir and a speaker shouting. In size and scope Tutuguri is perhaps a pretentious and somewhat decadent composition, but that does not deter me. Rihm is at is most outlandish self in this work that contains just about everything and yet sounds quite like nothing you've ever heard before. Again, the "dance poem" has never been choreographed but the listener can easily visualize dancers in modern mode and attire accentuating the rich, lively sounds to be experienced here.

Another large scale premiere recording from 2000 is Morphonie which was composed for orchestra and string quartet in 1974 when Rihm was only 22 years old. It is 40 minutes mostly influenced by the Schoenberg school with a touch of Mahler for grandeur. This was Rihm's major breakthrough work when it was originally performed (but not recorded) and it is worth a listen though it strikes me as purely experimental and overly complex without being particularly moving or lingering. It is accompanied on the two CD set by three orchestral pieces entitled Klangbescheibung (Sound Description). Once again, Rihm exhibits a preference to give rather poetic titles to his work in rebellion against the traditional concerto or symphony designation.

Klangbeschreibung One - Three (K1, K2, K3) were composed in 1987 and exhibits a type of experimentation in sound slanted toward the deep register. Wind instruments are most frequently performed on the lowest of keys, sometimes barely audible, reminding me at times of large frogs croaking in a lush soundscape without melody. K1 (20-minutes) is actually composed for three orchestra groupings, not for the orchestra as a whole. K2 (28-minutes) is the most ethereal of the three pieces and features four female voices singing fragments of a poem by Friedrich Nietzsche. K3 (38-minutes) completes the tri-partite "sound description" with a full orchestra. This is the most satisfying piece on the CD though it remains complex listening. Rihm is experimenting with sound here on a scale far beyond anything Arnold Schoenberg or Alban Berg or Webern (or even Elliot Carter) attempted. It is admirable but its experimental nature makes it seem too fragmented to leave more than a passing impression. It does not strike me as a holistic work but as, rather, a series of sophisticated musical doodles.

Percussion is a bedrock to many of Rihm's early compositions. Dis-Kontur is a 23-minute piece for large orchestra. Composed in 1974, it shows the young composer fascinated with juxtaposing dominant percussion against a huge orchestral sound. This piece pre-dates Tutuguri by almost ten years and is interesting in the context of his evolution even though it is not as satisfying as Tutuguri. On the same CD is the 27-minute work, Sub-Kontur for Orchestra. I really like this work which is much more Mahlerian and sounds more cohesive and mature even though it dates from 1974-1975 as well. There is a lot to appreciate here from the solo drums at the beginning through the complex yet often melodic strings and horns to as much of a triumphant conclusion as one is likely to experience from Rihm. The work is at times filled with anxious energy and in other moments is highly contemplative allowing you to feel the space in the music - a common experience with Rihm. Sub-Kontur is perhaps my favorite early Rihm composition. This is another example of a late world premiere recording from the Rihm catalog, coming out in 2007, fully 33 years after work's composition.

The earliest work in my Rihm collection is his somewhat oddly designated 1 Symphony from 1969. He was a mere 17 years old at the time but it shows outstanding expressive promise even though the audaciously labelled "symphony" lasts only 10 minutes. 2 Symphony is only 14 minutes in length and dates from 1975. It is for a larger orchestra and I hold it as a superior composition as it possesses a far more dramatic effect. Also on that CD is a work from 1992-1995 entitled Vers une symphonie fleuve III. This is a great example of Rihm's never-ending compositional lifestyle. Apparently, this 23-minute piece is intended as the "adagio" for a much larger symphonic work that has yet to be completed/performed.

Rihm seems fond of juxtaposing the orchestra with a string quartet. His 26-minute Concerto Dithyrambe (2000) is such a piece, which, according to the liner notes in this CD, is not in the concerto form at all. Once again he shows how loose and carefree he is toward traditional classical music concepts and designations, reflective of the general trend among contemporary composers. No matter what how it is labelled this is a highly energetic and entertaining work. The liner notes express Rihm's entire approach to music more expertly than I can in the sentence: "Rihm refrains from following any predetermined architectural concept; the musical architecture develops step-by-step from interplay of intuition and strategy." Quoting the composer: "I can't tune out my dialectic, intellectual thinking, but I also can't ignore my intuition. There is no recipe for my methodology. For me, music is a living being. Even its very 'stasis' is of a nervous nature." In that way his "concerto" is a kind of summation of his life's work and another favorite piece of mine by him. No relaxed listening here. This is music that is on the move to a powerful effect.

This CD also contains two pieces for piano and orchestra, Sotto voce Notturo (1999) and Sotto voce 2 Capriccio (2007). These are a nice contrast to the Dithyrambe in that they are more relaxed and provoke a contemplative mood making the entire CD one of Rihm's best in my opinion. The listener gets to experience both Rihm's light touch and his heaviness in a rewarding way. Rihm is traditionally more interested in orchestral and string compositions so it is nice to listen to how he handles the piano gracefully nested in an expressive orchestral piece.

Fetzen is a CD from 2011 featuring Rihm's 14-minute String Quartet No. 12 (2000/2001) as well as eight short string quartet pieces (1999/2004). Fetzen means "scraps", in this case ranging from 2 minutes to 5 minutes in length. This is an interesting addition to my collection in that it is an example of how Rihm tirelessly tinkers with his own works and his prolific musical ideas. The scraps are wide-ranging in sound and effect and serve as possible addendum's to the "finished" (one always wonders if anything is final with Rihm) quartet. Some of scraps have an accordion thrown in, which fits just fine with the string instruments. These are more doodles by Rihm, interesting musical ideas and experiments that are probably as completed as they will ever be.

A piano quintet completes the CD, called Interscriptum (2000/2004), which the composer rebelliously insists is a "Duo for String Quartet and Piano". It begins with the exact same phrase as the Quartet No. 12 and is another fine example of how Rihm tinkers, this time mixing (or contrasting) a piano with the quartet to produce a wonderfully contemplative 14-minute work. Given how Rihm considers the string quartet as a duo with a piano or even with an orchestra it might be safe to say he composes the quartet holistically, as if it were a singular instrument instead of four.

As we move further into the 21st century, Wolfgang Rihm is composing in a new style. His compositions since 2002 are largely more lyrical and accessible while remaining unique and sophisticated. This is shown clearly in the four wonderful orchestral pieces known as Verwandlung (Metamorphisis). V1 (2002) borrows a theme from his Music for Clarinet and Orchestra (entitled Uber die Linie II, 1999) and is my personal favorite of the four works featured on this CD. V2 is from 2004 while V3 and V4 were completed in 2008, making them some of the most recent works I have in my collection. All are different. They do not "fit" together as, say movements of a symphony. Knowing Rihm the series might not even be finished.  In 2013 he composed an as yet unrecorded V5. Nevertheless, I would recommend this CD as a good way to get into Rihm's latest (less dissonant and avant-garde while still remaining rich and complex) style.

This evolution in style seems to have began around the time of his Uber die Linie II (basically a clarinet concerto in all but name), which I hold to be the best in all recent classical music, counting strong efforts for clarinet and orchestra by Elliot Carter (1996), Magnus Lindberg (2002) and Kaija Saariaho (2010). This magnificent 37-minute work is a beautiful tapestry of tones and resonances that rewards the listener in a satisfying and unsentimental way. At times introspective, at times silent, at times boisterous and driving, this is one of my favorite contemporary classical compositions. The work is coupled on this CD with a 29-minute violin and orchestra piece from 2008 entitled Coll'Arco - again a concerto by any other name. This is a highly romantic yet modern composition that shows a lot of Berg's influence. It is a splendid accompaniment to the clarinet piece though it not as strong as Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto in my opinion. Still, the two pieces are powerful together making this CD highly recommended for any modern collection.

Similarly, his CD featuring Quid est Deus for Choir and Orchestra (2007, 33-minutes) is quite accessible to any listener. Rihm has received criticism from some contemporary classical critics for producing music that, so they claim, sounds more like at it belongs to the beginning of the last century than the beginning of this one. I am not musically trained so I can't comment on how closely his compositions stray or remain rooted in hyper-modern musicology. I only know that I find the older Rihm to be of great interest as evidenced in this post. But the recent Rihm speaks more deeply to me and much of it sounds just as complex (though far more melodic) as his earlier works. The piece for choir is amazing, rich with a garden of accentuating orchestral support for the soft yet forceful lead taken by the choir.  It seems like a natural extension of his vividly expressive style. Those preferring his more radicalized compositions can enjoy Ungemaltes Bild (1994, 16-minutes) and Frau/Stimme for Soprano and Orchestra (1989, 20-minutes) on this CD, each of which exhibits a kind of fascinating, seemingly random, sonic experimentation or sound painting that made Rihm famous.

It is a challenge for someone such as myself living in the countryside removed from high culture to keep up with what is happening in classical music with the same ease as I keep up with, say, Neil Young or Coldplay. I often discover new CDs by my favored living composers a year or so after they are available and, even then, when a classical CD is finally produced the music itself is often years old. But in 2013 I managed to acquire Rihm's latest orchestral CD as an import from the United Kingdom - a collection of four "pendant" pieces intended to be performed before the four symphonies by Johannes Brahms.

Each pendant (ranging from 10 to 12 minutes in length) is inspired and composed in the general key of its corresponding Brahms symphony. Although Rihm insists that he never quotes Brahms directly, my own experience of these pieces is that you can clearly hear echoes of phrases and themes from the corresponding symphony in each pendant. It helps if you are familiar with Brahms' four wonderful symphonies. You can more readily see how Rihm simultaneously incorporates elements of each while also breathing fresh, modern life into their musical ideas. Collectively, Rihm released them as Symphonie "Nahe Fern" ("proximate distance"). They were composed in 2011-2012. As a "symphony" Rihm placed a short piece for baritone based upon a text by Goethe. There is nothing especially stunning about these works. They represent a continuation of Rihm's more recent lyrical style, a combination of flowing melody and precise technique that yields a balance between the rigorous sonics of Rihm's earlier style and the emotional resonance of the majority of his recent compositions.

It is impossible even in a post of this length to go through all the Wolfgang Rihm available out there. There are numerous CDs and DVDs I did not acquire and most likely never will. There is only so much money I am willing to invest in one artist and Rihm's offerings are numerous. Of these, most significantly, there is Rihm's recent opera based loosely on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. My interest in that composition and its subject matter might eventually lead me to add it to my collection even though, as long-time readers know, I have little taste for opera. Another piece that has been performed but has yet to be officially recorded is Rihm's 13th String Quartet which was composed in 2012. You can enjoy it in this YouTube video.

Rihm is obviously a prolific, energetic force in contemporary classical music. As I mentioned, most of his compositions have yet to be performed let alone recorded and his present output exceeds almost any other living composer I know. His style is dynamic and ever-changing from new simplicity to expressionism. His influences range from Brahms and Mahler to Berg and Webern to Carter and Cage, truly a unique convergence of many artistic streams. His command and competence along with his diversity makes him most appealing to me. I will be keeping a keen eye out for whatever comes next from this outstanding classical composer. He enriches my life, which is what music is all about.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Reading At the Mountains of Madness

I have previously blogged about my fetish for weird fiction author H.P. Lovecraft (see here, here, and here).  I recently finished re-reading his longest novel published in his lifetime (a novella, really, coming in at a bit over 100 pages) At the Mountains of Madness.  It is one of his finest achievements and an excellent example of how Lovecraft was able to inject mood and effect upon the reader without much actually happening or even being fully described.

When I last posted on Lovecraft this story was under consideration by Guillermo Del Toro and James Cameron as a possible film.  Unfortunately, that project is now suspended.  Lovecraft remains trendy and fashionable, however.  He is an acceptable fringe author with a cult following. There is discussion as to whether his writings might actually belong to the elevated status of "literature" instead of "pulp fiction".  I obviously side with the former as I have read, been entertained, and found fascinating, the mind and prowess of prose possessed by Lovecraft since my college days.

At the Mountains of Madness is filled with terrible and vivid descriptions as well as classic horror that is mostly inferred. The exquisite, if antiquated, prose can be either exacting or evasive in its descriptive power depending upon where we are in the story.  By evasive I do not mean nebulous.  Lovecraft's evasiveness is powerful in a menacing metaphysical sense. The great monsters of the novel are long dead, only the ruins and remnants of this horror remain yet that, in and of itself, is profoundly and cosmically foreboding.  It grips the reader while simultaneously leaving the full implications of what is depicted in the narrative up to each reader's mind.

The story is told from the perspective of one member of a multi-man scientific team.  Although the narrator personally witnesses incredible things and events, he rarely sees anything truly horrific.  The horrific happens when the narrator is either not present at the location or is not looking the right direction in the brief moment that some mind-blowing evil is glimpsed by someone else.  He does, however, witness incredibly high mountains of ice and structure where a large city perhaps 150 million years old lies in gigantic ruins.  But, as you will see, even these horrible peaks, higher than Everest, are not the true mountains of madness.

In 1931 a team of scientists ventured to explore Antarctica. Using airplanes they went deeper into the continent they anyone ever attempted.  Soon they split into two teams with the forward team led by an archaeologist named Lake, making discoveries suggesting revolutionary ancient life and relaying information back to the second team, which contains our narrator.  This team is in communication with the main base and out into the world.  The wireless broadcasts of Lake's forward team go into great anatomical and biological detail.  In this way Lovecraft creates a realism to his fantastic world.

There is foreboding in that the dogs sent to pull sleighs in the forword team do not like the advanced, large body life form specimens that Lake dug-up and brought into camp for further analysis.  The dogs have to be pinned up away from where the specimens are kept.  Lovecraft's strong prose speculations about their size, shape, nervous systems, their winged nature, their partly-vegetable-mostly-animal molecular structure, totally sells the believability and alien nature of what is discovered in the story.

Lake's camp is at the foot of another discovery, the tallest mountains on planet Earth, far taller than Everest.  A gigantic blast of wind smashes into both the forward and secondary camps the night of Lake's great discovery.  The next day there is no word from Lake.  The narrator's smaller party decides to fly in to investigate.  Apparently, the winds were far more severe at the foot of these monstrous and historic mountains. Lake's camp was ripped apart.  There were no survivors.  But, of the specimens taken by Lake, Lovecraft explains:

" surely looked like madness to find six imperfect monstrosities carefully buried upright in nine-foot snow graves under five-pointed mounds punched over with groups of dots in patterns exactly like those on the queer greenish soapstones dug up from Mesozoic or Tertiary times.  The eight perfect specimens mentioned by Lake seemed to have been completely blown away." (all quotes from the definitive edition, page 32)

Vanished along with the eight perfect specimens were various instruments, fur coats, sledges (sleighs), scientific books, fuel, etc. and the body of one team member (Gedney, see below). After the pieces of the dogs are collected it was apparent one was missing.  It was a mystery how Lake's camp could have met with such destruction by the fierce wind, leaving behind strangely mangled parts both human and canine, and yet six partial specimens were intentionally buried in a specific formation that mimicked markings found earlier by Lake on soapstone engravings.  Of the horror of the bodies, Lovecraft writes:

"The crowning abnormality, of course, was the condition of the bodies - men and dogs alike.  They had all been in some terrible kind of conflict, and were torn and mangled in fiendish and altogether inexplicable ways. Death, so far as we could judge, had in each case come from strangulation and laceration.  The dogs evidently started the trouble, for the state of their ill-built corral bore witness to its forcible breakage from within." (35)

Where was the missing team member?  Was the sheer force of the Antarctic wind alone responsible for horribly dismembered state of the other bodies? Why (and by whom) were the imperfect specimens so carefully buried amidst the chaos?  The reader is left to ponder these questions as the narrator's team burns the body parts and as much of the wreckage as possible.  Meanwhile, pure scientific ambition motivates the narrator and, Danforth, his pilot and closest companion, to take a single plane over the peaks of these massive mountains to catch a glimpse of what lay on the continent beyond.

Climbing over 23,500 feet the two scientists manage to sneak between the higher peaks and behold something that challenged their rational mind beyond the artifacts and specimens unearthed by Lake's deceased team.  It was the dark, bleak, but unmistakeable ruins of a great complex of caves and possible constructions, sculptures and dot-groupings similar to the arrangement of damaged specimens buried back at the camp.  All of this was millions of years old. Danforth skillfully managed to land the plane for a closer look.

"As a whole, it had been a complex tangle of twisted lanes and alleys; all of them deep canyons, and some little better than tunnels because of overhanging masonry or overarching bridges.  Now, outspread below us, it loomed like a dream-phantasy against a westward mist through whose northern end the low, reddish Antarctic sun encountered denser obstruction and plunged the scene into temporary shadow, the effect was subtly menacing in a way I can never hope to depict.  Even the faint howling and piping of the unfelt wind in the great mountain passes behind us took on a note of purposeful malignity." (49)

As our two scientists set out on foot to photograph the landscape and take a few samples they discover that the ruins are in fact more intact than originally thought.  The enormity of everything seems oppressive, the perspective, contours, and dimensions suggest an inhuman origin.  Everything is based on a bizarre five-point symmetry, same as the dot groupings discovered back at Lake's camp and, of course, the orientation of the (now implied) intentionally buried specimen bodies.

Here Lovecraft works in his Cthulhu Mythos and the Necronomicon, which are central to about a third of his overall catalog of written stories.  Sculptures and engravings discovered near the plane (a little too easily deciphered in such detail but it is pulp fiction after all) tell of how the Old Ones built this massive city millions years ago after interstellar flight here.  They fought many wars against various other invading races as they altered the landmass of the Earth.   They used fantastic powers to manipulate energy. To be their slaves and do most of the physical labor the Old Ones bred a race called shoggoths.  Shoggoths became servants to the ruling race.

All this is told with a constant sense of foreboding.  As incredible as all this seems to the two scientists, something more profound is suggested by the artifacts.  "I have said that these peaks are higher than the Himalayas, but the sculptures forbid me to say they are the earth's highest.  That grim honor is beyond doubt reserved for something which half the sculptures hesitated to record at all, whilst others approached it with obvious repugnance and trepidation.

"If the scale of the carvings was correct, these abhorred things must have been much over 40,000 feet high - radically vaster than even the shocking mountains we had just crossed.  They extended...less than 300 miles away from the dead city, so that we would have spied their dreaded summits in the dim western distance had it not been for that vague opalescent haze." (68)

Lovecraft uses the word "decadent" a great deal during this portion of the story.  The Old Ones long-spanning, powerful and oppressive rule over the earth became excessive and ruinous.  In these passages Lovecraft shifts gears.  While the immediate sense of horror is maintained, the overall effect becomes more disturbing on a grand scale.  The reader, like the narrator, is almost suffocated with the implications of all this.

The carvings suggest that much of the city is actually underground and our two heroes discover one of the cave-like openings.  Armed with a couple of strong flashlights their scientific curiosity overcomes all sense of dread and they willingly descend into a dark labyrinth to discover what might await there.  They encounter many interesting, archaeologically plausible, artifacts in the ruins below.  Then we get that especial Lovecraft descriptive prose:

"Let me try to state the thing without flinching.  There was an odor - and that odor was vaguely, subtly, and unmistakably akin to what had nauseated us open opening the insane grave of the horror poor Lake had dissected."  (76)  This refers to earlier when team two was dealing with the mess the winds (only?) had made, stitching the story together, connecting the underground realm with the disaster at Lake's camp.

The two venture deeper.  Remember Lovecraft wrote this many years before Moria was published in J.R.R. Tolkien's writing.  This labyrinth is not unique in the adventure literature genre but it is a pioneering metaphor for what Lovecraft is trying to achieve.  Danforth's sharp eye spots many interesting details.  They enter vast halls, sometimes stumbling from fallen rubble.

This distancing from the plane and Lake's camp, this isolation, is accentuated by the decision to use only one flashlight at a time to preserve power and light.  "Then as we picked out way cautiously over the debris of the great floor, there came a sight which for a time excluded all other matters.

"It was the neatly huddled array of three sledges in that farther angle of the ramp's lower and outward-projecting course which had hitherto been screened from our view.  There they were - the three sledges missing from Lake's camp - shaken by hard usage which must have included forcible dragging along great reaches of snowless masonry and debris, as well as much hand portage over utterly unnavigable places." (82)

"The really great shock came when we stepped over and undid one tarpaulin whose outlines had peculiarly disquieted us.  It seems that others as well as Lake had been interested in collecting typical specimens; for there were two here, both stiffly frozen, perfectly preserved, patched with adhesive plaster where some wounds around the neck had occurred, and wrapped with patent care to prevent further damage.  They were the bodies of young Gedney and the missing dog." (83)

Suddenly, there is no isolation.  There is no place to hide. The horror is everywhere.  Our two scientists have flown and hiked with difficulty right into the middle of it.  Lovecraft immediately capitalizes on this by going "boo" with strange movement in the labyrinth.  This turns out, somewhat comically, to be large six-foot albino penguins who live and actually thrive in this underground world.  For a time, our heroes are amongst the penguins as they follow them deeper into the realm, once more trapped in the lure of the unknown in form of an odor.

I won't spoil everything that the two discover down in the depths.  Depths seemingly as vast as the heights outside.  But, I will tell you how it all ends.  It is a wonderful genre story so if you do not want to know how it ends stop reading here.  My opinion, however, is that knowing the ending does not detract from reading it.  I have read At the Mountains of Madness many times through the years because it is a fairly quick read and I enjoy a bit of Lovecraft every winter.

"'Tekeli-li!  Tekeli-li!' That, I may admit, is exactly what we thought we heard conveyed by that sudden sound behind the advancing white mist - that insidious musical piping over a singularly wide range." (93). Finally, animal fear overcomes scientific curiosity.

"Once more came the sinister, wide-ranging piping - 'Tekeli-li!  Tekeli-li!'  We had been wrong.  The thing was not wounded, but had merely paused on encountering the bodies of its fallen kindred and the hellish slime inscription above them.  We could never know what that demon message was - but those burials at Lake's camp had shown how much importance the beings attached to their dead.  Our recklessly used torch now revealed ahead of us the large open cavern where various ways converged, and we were glad to be leaving those morbid palimpsest sculptures - almost felt even when scarcely seen - behind." (94)

This unseen but clearly heard monster approaches our heroes.  It temporarily gets confused by all the penguins and turns down another hallway, moving away from the scientists.  But, soon it is back on the path of Danforth and the narrator.  It is closing in.

"We were on the track ahead as the nightmare plastic column of foetid black iridescence oozed rightly onward through its fifteen-foot sinus, gathering unholy speed and driving before it a spiral, re-thickening cloud of the pallid abyss-vapor.  It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train - a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter.  Still came the eldritch, mocking cry - 'Tekeli-li!  Tekeli-li!' And at last we remembered that the demonic shoggoths - give life, thought, and plastic organ patterns solely by the Old Ones, and having no language save that which the dot-groupings expressed - had likewise no voice save the imitated accents of their bygone masters." (97, emphasis is Lovecraft's)

But our heroes manage to escape, though by now both of them are severely shaken.  They stumble back to the plane and take off, sneaking dreaded glances westward as the plane rises, toward where the other, larger mountain range supposedly lies 300 miles away.  "For a second we gasped in admiration of the scene's unearthly cosmic beauty, and then vague horror began to creep into our souls.  For this far violet line could be nothing else than the terrible mountains of the forbidden land - highest of earth's peaks and focus of earth's evils; harborers of nameless horrors and Archaean secrets; shunned and prayed to by those who feared to carve their meaning..." (98)

In the end Danforth breaks down suddenly into a screaming fit.  He has to turn control of the plane over to the narrator, who makes the final landing safely.  By now Danforth is close to insanity.  His nervous condition is precarious.  He glanced back one last time and beheld something in those distant mountains, mountains that even the Old Ones themselves "shunned and feared."  The reader is left to determine the exact cause of Danforth's madness.  He is left crazily babbling the very utterances of the shoggoth the two had briefly encountered in the mountain depths.

The narrator returns us to the present tense, the story has been told to us in retrospect.  New expeditions to Antarctica are being planned and the narrator hopes that his photographic evidence along with some artifacts brought back will be enough to dissuade anyone from returning there. Who knows what may be awakened if more scientific teams probe the mountain ranges to understand.  In Lovecraft's world the cosmic nature of things is indifferent to our humanity and chillingly menacing.  The reader is left disquieted and somewhat disturbed by the powerful, twisted and bizarre prose.  Are we safe?  Lovecraft's answer is clearly no, you are not safe and it is far better that you don't know why.