Tuesday, December 22, 2015

THE SCORE AWAKENS: Listening to the Soundtrack to Star Wars VII

The cassette soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back was my first musical purchase way back in 1981. I listened to it until the tape wore out, by which time I had two CDs of the score, each one claiming to be more or less “complete” (yet they never quite have all the music, do they?). John Williams’ scores not only lead me to his other film music, but to classical music itself, becoming a ‘gateway drug’ to Orff, Holst, Mussorgsky, and within a decade, to the entire canon of classical musical from Bach to Bartok. Williams’ music offered me the greatest musical appreciation course of all, since he showed me—and a million others, I imagine—how orchestral themes and colors ‘painted’ the various moods and emotions of a film. After watching the film umpteen times, I could ‘see’ how each piece of music conveyed these ideas to the listener, and before long, I could ‘read’ other music along the same lines, even when there was no story attached. While many composers argue that there is a strict difference between absolute and programmatic music, a keen listener can find the program in anything—even a twenty-second piano prelude by Chopin. So even though I went on to hundreds of more established composers, I always returned to John Williams’ music, particularly when a new film came out boasting his signature themes and orchestration. I still remember the thrill of running to the Tower Records on Wabash Avenue in Downtown Chicago the day The Phantom Menace soundtrack was released (you won’t find that place anymore). New Star Wars music—that was as exciting as a lost symphony by Beethoven or Sibelius! That score didn’t disappoint even if the film did, and his music for the Prequels almost (almost) made those clunky films worth watching. Hell, at least those three films gave us The Duel of the Fates and Anakin’s Theme! 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Composing Jane Austen: The Soundtracks

In Volume II, Chapter VIII of Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine intrudes on a conversation with Elizabeth and Colonel Fitzwilliam on music. Delighted by the subject (or simply the chance to monopolize the conversation), she replies, “Of music! Then pray speak aloud. It is of all subjects my delight. I must have my share in the conversation, if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient...I often tell young ladies, that no excellence in music is to be acquired, without constant practice.”   

Of course, this scene largely convinces the reader that she has absolutely no taste or understanding of music, and that she is far keener to give advice than take it herself. Yet it also underlines the importance of music in Jane Austen’s society: music brought young people together (as it does today), and was a necessary backdrop for all the dances and card playing that gave life to an endless round of social engagements. Young and old, rich and poor, everyone knew something about music, or at least thought it was worth knowing about. Elizabeth herself plays—though very ill, as she informs all her acquaintance—and Darcy complements both her and her sister’s abilities, and takes great pleasure in their performances. In a world without the ability to play pre-recorded music, one had to provide one’s own entertainment, and a skilled musician in the family must have shortened many a long winter’s night. In a famous letter to her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen is willing to take the burden of entertainment on herself, writing, “Yes, yes, we will have a pianoforte, as good as one can be got for 30 guineas, and I will practice country dances, that we may have some amusement for our nephews and nieces, when we have the pleasure of their company” (1808). 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Vote for Shakebags & Co. on Kindle Scout!

Amazon has a new contest running where authors can submit never-before-published novels and have readers nominate them for publication. Books with the most nominations will get a contract with Amazon and considerable marketing support as well. So I've thrown my first novel into the ring, the only one of my 4 novels I've never published (constantly tinkering with it), which got a good deal of notice on Inkitt a few months back. However, I've renamed it Shakebags & Co. and hope some people will find it interesting: it's a humorous fantasy novel about three hapless thieves trying to make their name in the world. You can read the first 3 chapters here and nominate it if you find it worthy. Thanks!


Saturday, November 7, 2015

Composing With a Russian Accent: The Orchestral Music of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

 In some ways, the most “Russian” of all Russian composers is Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (the name alone would place him high on the list!), as he not only jumpstarted Russian orchestral music and opera, but he was deeply connected to the wellsprings of Russian folklore and literature. Rimsky-Korsakov’s work can be seen on some level as an attempt to translate the Russian spirit into purely musical terms, and his innovations have been followed by generations of Russian composers, not to mention film composers in Hollywood. It’s hard to truly pin down Rimsky’s compositional persona, as his greatest achievements—his 15 operas, on a range of fairy tale and historical subjects—are almost completely unknown in the West, while his memory lives on in a handful of orchestral gems which often disguise his Russian heritage, such as Capriccio Espagnol, Scheherazde, and the infamous Flight of the Bumblebee. Ultimately, what distinguishes Rimsky-Korsakov’s art is his masterful orchestration and sense of musical color: he believed strongly in the idea that notes represented colors, and clothed his music in the most lavish tonal raiment. Rachmaninov once said that with Rimsky-Korsakov’s music you could ‘hear’ the seasons, with the right combination of notes and instruments creating snowflakes, driving winds, budding trees, and falling leaves. He saved his greatest orchestral effects for his operas, where sadly few listeners are able to find them, though a few orchestral works betray this talent, even though his heart wasn’t always in ‘absolute’ music. However, even a lollipop of a piece like The Flight of the Bumblebee (a little interlude in his opera, The Tale of Tsar Saltan) is a masterful tone poem of sound and fury, suggesting how with the simplest of means he could conjure up an entire world, large or small.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Free Gothic/Fantasy Novel, Academic Satire, and More!

An Ad for my story made by the editors at Inkitt

Here's a few quick updates about my published novels and stories for those interested:

My third novel, The Winged Turban, published this September is FREE to download on Amazon for the Halloween week. It's a humorous Gothic Fantasy novel and I (think) is the best of my three books. It's been slow getting people to notice it, because there's just so much out there in the Kindle-sphere. Please download it if you get a chance, and if you don't have a Kindle, you can download the free app on Amazon and read it wherever you want. The link follows where you can read a sample: http://www.amazon.com/Winged-Turban-Joshua-Grasso-ebook/dp/B015DQEHMW/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

I also posted my satire of college life, "The Textbook Confessions" on Inkitt to give it an airing as well. It's about the "confessions" of a textbook abandoned in a students' car over the Winter break,  including its laments on life, love, and the state of higher education. It's really short and you can read the whole thing for free here: http://www.inkitt.com/stories/39723

And as always, my other two novels, The Count of the Living Death and The Astrologer's Portrait, both fantasy novels, are available to download for 99 cents on Amazon. You can find links to them on my Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/Joshua-Grasso/e/B00FQLZER2/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0

Thanks and hope you find some of these works worth your while! 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A Look Back at Wells' The Invisible Man (1897)

Strangely enough, Penguin Classics didn’t elect H.G. Wells to the status of “classics” until 2005, when most of his novels entered the fold, including the four early classics, The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds.  The reason for this is the lasting stigma of “science fiction,” which is still seen as somewhat sensational, genre-specific, and of little literary value.  In the same way, the great science fiction novels of Pierre Boulle (Planet of the Apes, etc.) and Asimov (I, Robot, etc.) remain stapes of fantasy and science fiction imprints rather than mainstream classics.  So I was delighted to see Wells get the treatment his novels so richly deserve, particularly with the cool, somewhat retro designs which grace each Penguin volume.  Of all of his books, perhaps The Invisible Man is my favorite, as it is not simply a “science fiction” book, but a book that heralds in a completely new genre of literature in general: the superhero/villain narrative.  Every superhero comic owes something to The Invisible Man, and in every supervillain’s DNA we recognize the familiar pattern of Griffin, the infamous “Invisible Man.”  Of course, the book is not entirely original, as it develops a familiar theme found both in Frankenstein (1818) and the much later Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)—that we all have something within us that can be unleashed, call it our “id” or our primal self, which can do deeds of unspeakable good or evil.  The sense of a dark other haunts all of 19th century literature, but Wells adds a crucial ingredient to lift it out of the realm of Gothic literature: science.  The veneer of scientific possibility that hovers over the book, along with its by-the-minute, journalistic detail, makes us believe in the work in a way that Mary Shelley could neither accomplish or cared to attempt.  In short, it’s hard to read this book and not imagine the terror which its original audience most have experienced when first cutting open its pages (a sense that Orson Wells famously captured in his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds).  

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Unfamiliar Familiar: A Review of Leisl Kaberry's Titanian Chronicles: Journey of Destiny (Book 1)

You are a part of us and our culture because you came to us at such an early age. However your soul and instincts are human. If I were to take a baby leopard and raise him with a flock of sheep he would become like the sheep. He would be placid, maybe timid, would stay with the flock and perhaps eat grass but eventually he would feel the call of the wild and desire to wander away from the flock in pursuit of something more. It is only nature Afeclin, and there is no point in trying to deny it.”

Titanian Chronicles, Journey of Destiny is the Hero’s Journey writ large, using the building blocks of myth and folklore at their deepest roots. All the great stories you’ve half-heard and half-remembered are here, though perhaps in their “natural” form. Reading this work gives you the distinct feeling that you’re turning back the pages of time, or glimpsing between the cracks of so much ancient literature to the ur-story at their source. Clearly the author has done her homework, and asked the most important question a novelist can ask him/herself: how does my story fit into the grand tapestry of literature? Without trying to reinvent the wheel, Leisl Kaberry manages to emulate the great works of fantasy from the past (both the recent and distant past) without telling the same story twice. You don’t know these characters, and can only guess at some of the twists and turns of this story, and yet it all exists in a world that feels familiar and habitable. Indeed, you’ll want to set up camp and prolong your stay in this exotic yet dangerous realm...at least long enough to figure out what a “lawfabex” is.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Translating Shakespeare for English Speakers: An Act of Cultural Survival?

RSC Production of As You Like It

No playwright is more translated and adapted than Shakespeare, as (almost) every culture seems to have an insatiable need to meet his work half-way, inspiring many of the great writers and poets (and directors) to coin their own Shakespearean language. Given this, you would think that English speakers praise their lucky stars to be have this amazing literature born from their mother tongue, which requires no artful translation or extravagant staging. You can simply crack open King Lear or The Tempest and have at it. And yet, so many English-speakers, and chief among them students, groan at the very mention of Shakespeare and his all-but-unreadable language, which they often claim is “old English.” A Shakespeare play no longer draws throngs of eager pilgrims as it once did, as many claim the plays are too remote, too obscure, and require someone explaining all the business on stage. If only he could just speak “English” so it would all make sense! Indeed, many audiences find themselves lost in a labyrinth of language which leads them in circles, at least until they grasp at the coattails of a plot. This has inspired many theater companies to severely edit the plays, removing strange references and shortening lengthy speeches of verse. Some go even further and attempt a complete translation, making Shakespeare’s characters speak “our” language (wherever “we” are at the moment), so the audience can enjoy a simple night’s entertainment without having to pull up Spark Notes on their cell phones.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Read My Book: The Winged Turban is published

In previous posts I talked about my novel-in-progress, The Winged Turban, which I've posted in installments on Inkitt and which won second place in one of their contests. After much revising and hemming and hawing, I decided to publish it today so it can join my other two books on Amazon. It's very much in the high-fantasy vein, though without excessive swordfighting (hell, there isn't any) or battles; it's a quiet, humorous fantasy novel about magic, love, and whether or not any of us are living the "right" lives. I dedicated the book to my Spring 2015 British Science Fiction and Fantasy class, which spent the entire semester reading so many great works--Tolkein, White, Dunsany, etc.-all of which inspired me to finish the book and respond to the great, on-going conversation of fantasy literature. 

Here's the blurb from Amazon: Beatrice is the victim of an arranged match to the Duke of Saffredento, who hastily abandons her to an estate full of forgotten traditions and curses. When the portrait of a strange woman begins turning up in the house, she summons the great sorcerer, Hildigrim Blackbeard, to investigate. The portrait, it seems, has traveled through time to find her—and bring her back by any means necessary. For she can no longer be Beatrice of Saffredento, but a young woman who died two-hundred years ago and must be reborn through the magic of an Enchanted Circle. But no one in recorded history has ever conjured such a Circle, though quite a few have gone mad in the attempt...

You can buy the book here for 99 cents: http://www.amazon.com/Winged-Turban-Joshua-Grasso-ebook/dp/B015DQEHMW/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

Also, my other books, The Astrologer's Portrait and The Count of the Living Death are free to download from Wednesday to Friday:  http://www.amazon.com/Joshua-Grasso/e/B00FQLZER2/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1

Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Death's a Mug's Game": Reading Life and Death in Gaiman's Sandman

[This is a short excerpt from my longer article on Gaiman that will appear in Gale/Cengage's British Writers Series XXIII next year: what follows is a brief reading of two comics from the series, which I hope will inspire people who haven't read them to pick them up!] 

Critics often ask—with all seriousness—why comics writers would write a comic instead of a traditional story or novel. Typically they see comics as a juvenile form of literature, or at best a way station for writers trying to break into more serious work. Gaiman, however, has always embraced the possibilities of what Will Eisner termed “sequential art,” and never distanced himself from the comics community that spawned his greatest success. Partly this is because for him, comics were “virgin territory.” As he goes on to explain, “When I’m writing novels I’m painfully aware that I’m working in a medium that people have been writing absolutely jaw-droppingly brilliant things for, you know, three-four thousand years now...But with comics I felt like—I can do stuff nobody has ever done. I can do stuff nobody has ever thought of.” (Ogline, Wild River Review). One of the things he can do that “nobody has ever thought of” is the sheer range of associations possible in a literary comic book. While a story or novel can allude to this or that work, a comic book can literally have several stories/characters existing simultaneously in a single frame, even in distinct worlds/times/ universes. As Harlan Ellison, the famous science fiction writer, remarked about Sandman, “I remember finishing issues of Sandman and just sitting there trying to catch my breath, saying “What a ride this guy has taken me on. And I’d add, “how brilliantly clever.” I’m a fairly clever guy, and I knew that I was catching maybe a third of the cultural references in each issue that Neil would just casually drop in” (Bender xiii).  

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Pipe Organs of Crom! The Conan Soundtrack Lives Again...

Basil Poledouris' score for the classic (well, it might not be a masterpiece, but it has attained classic status) 1982 film, Conan the Barbarian, is one of the great fantasy film scores of all time. Without a blush, I would rank it alongside the Star Wars trilogy, the Lord of the Rings films, and (to move into science fiction), Horner and Goldsmith's Star Trek scores. Watch the film again sometime and notice how symphonic the movie is: it's almost all music, with hardly any dialogue, or little more than a page here and there.  It's almost a silent film in this regard, though a silent film with a score--making what could be a very stupid movie incredibly beautiful throughout. Certain moments even come close to ballet, such as the famous "Orgy" scene, where Conan and his companions sneak into the palace smeared with white and black paint to blend into the background. Watch how the worshippers sway to the slyly seductive music, while the thieves clamber about the set, always in time with the music. It's stunning stuff--but would mean absolutely nothing without the music.  

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Machiavelli Among The Stars: A Re-Reading of Frank Herbert’s Dune

“How would you like to live billions upon billions of lives?” Paul asked. “There’s a fabric of legends for you! Think of all those experiences, the wisdom they’d bring. But wisdom tempers love, doesn’t it? And it puts a new shape on hate. Now can you tell what’s ruthless unless you’ve plumbed the depths of both cruelty and kindness? You should fear me, Mother. I am the Kwisatz Haderach.”

If someone asked me what my favorite science fiction book was, my immediate instinct would be to shout: “easy, Frank Herbert’s, Dune!” However, my actual memories of the book were hazy, colored largely by David Lynch’s eccentric adaptation of the book (which I still adore). So which Dune was I responding to, book or film? To answer this question, I decided to re-read the first book (at least) to separate fact from fiction, myth from matter. The results surprised me, but largely in the way I expected. For one, the book is much better than I remembered, and certainly a far more complete work of art than the film. In many ways, Dune is the work Machiavelli would write if he was born in the early 20th century rather than the 15th. Indeed, it bears the unmistakable stamp of the Italian Renaissance in its philosophy, political intrigue, and bizarre characters, any one of which might have existed in the courts of Lorenzo di Medici. When I read Dune, I was haunted by memories of not only The Prince, but works such as Castiglione’s The Courtier and More’s Utopia—as well as a subtle perfume of Shakespeare’s darker works such as Measure for Measure or King Lear. I say this not only because of the work’s literary merit, but because it shares age-old themes about power and the sacrifices required to maintain it. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Novels Aren’t Movies: Or, Why The Book is Always Better

We live in an age of film and digital media, which often exists uncomfortably with the world of the book, that wayward child of libraries and cathedrals, thinkers and scoundrels. Since most books today are novels, their direct pedigree goes back to the eighteenth century, when diverse literary forms such as the romance, the travel narrative, and the spiritual autobiography became entangled in a hodge-podge contraption which captured the emerging middle-class’ imagination. Indeed, some of the first novels were dramatic collections of letters detailing the melodramatic pursuit of a young girl’s chastity (Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa), or the no-nonsense journal of a castaway forced to create a replica of England in “savage” lands (Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe).

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Music of Flame: The Orchestral Music of Alexander Scriabin

Imagine this, if you will: a gorgeous, pre-Raphaelite temple (to no particular god) set amidst the sublime landscape of the Himalayas.  You arrive for the performance of a lifetime—namely, Alexander Scriabin’s magnum opus, Mysterium, a work for orchestra, chorus, soloists, dancers, odors, colors, and perhaps the earth itself, which is to last an entire week.  At the conclusion of the work, the audience, along with the performers and the composer himself will die—ascending to the heavens in a state of cosmic bliss. In other words, the end of the world.  A kitschy bit of 21st century avant-garde postmodern performance art?  Hardly...it was a work Scriabin conceived around 1909 and worked on feverishly until his death in 1915.  Scriabin began life as a virtuoso-composer in the mold of Chopin or Liszt, writing conventionally perfumed piano music in traditional forms—Preludes, Mazurkas, Etudes.  After an apprentice period which also saw the composition of two symphonies and a piano concerto, Scriabin immersed himself in the writings of Nietszche and conceived more grandiose ambitions for his music.  This only intensified once he became a member of the Theosophical Society and sought to embody the beliefs of Madame Blavatsky in art.  His piano music all-but departed from tonality, and he invented what he termed the “chord of the pleorma” (later called the “mystic chord”) which became the basis for many late compositions.  [read more about it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mystic_chord].  Indeed, his middle and late music seemed to be as much about sight and smell as music itself, and he developed an elaborate system of colors correlating to each musical note (a system that other contemporaries, such as Rimsky-Korsakov, also espoused).  By the turn of the century, Scriabin seemed poised to be the messiah of a new branch of composition that would change music—and indeed, the world—forever.  But it was not to be: he tragically died of a lip infection at the tragically young age of 43, before many of his ideas could reach fruition.  

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Landscapes in Sound: Seven Composers in Their “Natural” Environment

It seems natural that music would try to emulate nature, since music itself comes from nature: bird song, the howl of wind, the patter of rain, the roar of thunder, and so forth.  Early vocal music often imitated the natural world, though its palette was relatively limited; only with the rise of instrumental music could a composer invoke breezes and storms, rivers and oceans, and the chirpings of a summer night.  It’s fascinating to trace the development of ‘nature’ music in the orchestral repertoire, since a specific delineation of natural elements required increasingly abstract music.  In many ways, the pursuit to make music more than itself led to a breaking point, unshackling music (temporarily) from tonality until it became something totally alien to human ears (the music of Schoenberg onward).  While it might be misleading to say that serialism and twelve-tone music is the direct result of programmatic music, I think nature served as an expressive ideal, tempting artists to capture the ‘real’ music that lives all around us.  After all, what could be more otherworldly than the chattering of icicles on snow-covered trees in the bitter wind of a winter evening?  Vivaldi attempted a rudimentary form of tone painting in his famous Four Seasons concertos, though it remains a gesture more than a true embodiment.  Only the expanded orchestral language of the late 19th century would approach nature as it truly sounds: not always harmonious, and often downright barbaric.  Here are a few unique pieces throughout the 19th and 20th centuries that attempts to paint nature with the brush of the symphonic orchestra, though without devolving into mere scene painting or crude mimicry.   

Friday, May 22, 2015

Simak’s City (1952): The Best Science Fiction Novel You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of

For years I’ve vaguely heard of this novel, considered a lost classic of SF literature, often invoked in the same exalted company as Asimov, Clarke, Stapleton, Bradbury and company.  Yet the book itself is out of print, hard to find, and there are no adaptations to stumble on.  And the name, “City,” doesn’t leap out at you like 2001, I, Robot, or The First and Last Men.  Luckily, my university library teems with old science fiction and fantasy classics (thank you to whatever professor bequeathed them to the library!), including a stray copy from 1976.  The book captured me from the start not only from its beautifully clear (yet at times poetic) writing, but from the sheer scope of its themes.  City communicates on the same level and shares the same themes as works such as 2001 and Planet of the Apes, yet at times seems to go far beyond them, if only in its playful humor which never quite takes itself too seriously.  Written on the heels of WWII, the book deals with some of the great themes left in its wake: the importance of tradition, the persistence of civilization, and the question of racial identity.  Do we have a duty to our “race”—and should we win this race?  Are we doomed to destroy one another?  Can humans truly make a better, more peaceful world?  And if destruction is our fate, who will inherit the Earth?  Do we have time to appoint our successors? 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Read and Vote for The Winged Turban on Inkitt!

Van Weyden's Portrait of a Woman with a Winged Turban 
There's a great new site for posting fiction of various kinds (though mostly fantasy and science fiction), getting reviews, and entering contests: Inkitt.  It's a great company out of Germany which is dedicated to finding new and indie writers and helping them find a voice in an on-line community, as well as possibly tracking down the next big work to take the publishing world by storm (as many works, notably Fifty Shades of Grey , started on-line--and as fan fiction, as that).  I usually avoid sites like this, Wattpad, etc., which are depositories for the worst kind of drivel, but the quality of writing on Inkitt is surprisingly high and the editors have a great eye for talent.  

I recently posted the first 6 chapters of my novel-in-progress, The Winged Turban, as an entry in their current contest, Epic Worlds.  You can read the story here, and if you like it, give it a vote by clicking the "heart" at the bottom.  http://www.inkitt.com/stories/13737

I'm very proud of this story and consider it my best work to date.  The only trick is figuring out how to finish it.  The story is constantly evolving and my original conception of the ending went out the window months ago.  It's a better story now, but it's also a much more frightening one (for the author, that is!).  Any feedback on the first six chapters is welcome!  Thanks!

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Bard of Finland: Jean Sibelius

If you had asked music lovers 100 years ago (around 1915, in other words) which living composers were most likely to stake a claim at immortality, one of the leading candidates would be Jean Sibelius, the pioneering Finnish composer whose works had taken Europe—and then America—by storm.  Along with contemporaries such as Mahler and Rachmaninov, Sibelius represented the last gasp of Romanticism, which both he and Rachmaninov were doomed to outlive.  But whereas Rachmaninov largely held onto the principles of Russian Romanticism, Sibelius found his own way to adapt to Modernism, producing works that are today every bit as bold and enigmatic as they were in the early 20th century.  Strangely, Sibelius quickly lost his foothold after WWII, dismissed as a cheap Romantic, either jeered for his “big hit,” the sentimental Valse Triste, or grudgingly tolerated for his moody tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela.  Serialism and the twelve-tone technique had no place for such a throwback to fin di seicle emotionalism, even if concert halls never entirely banished him to the purgatory of forgotten composers.  Important works such as Symphonies 1, 2, and 5 remained in the repertoire, and occasionally masterpieces such as En Saga, Pohjola’s Daughter, and Tapiola would make an outing.  The advent of CD technology encouraged complete cycles of his symphonies (notably by Simon Rattle in the late 80’s), and forced a reassessment of his symphonic legacy.  For someone considered a purveyor of second-rate Tchaikovsky, Sibelius conjured up works which defied all the “isms” of his day, whether Romanticism, Serialism, or New Classicism.  His stark, introspective Fourth Symphony left most scratching their heads, as did its polar opposite, the sunny, lyrical Sixth (can something so undramatic be a symphony, many asked)?  And what about the Third Symphony, which is neither Romantic, nor classical, nor Modernist, but a strange form which the composer, himself, never really followed up on? 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Does Genre Fiction Need to Evolve?

I was reading Lin Carter’s extraordinary little book on the history of fantasy literature, Imaginary Worlds (1973), and came across an impassioned defense of “Sword & Sorcery” literature, by which he means the subgenre of fantasy dedicated to Conan-like exploits in antideluvian worlds.  Responding to charges that Carter and other practitioners of Sword & Sorcery are merely writing the same thing over and over again, he writes: "Must a school of writing evolve?  I wonder why.  Evolution implies a change into something else.  But mere change for the sake of change, experiment for the sake of experiment—the apparent aesthetic of the New Wave school of science fiction writing...seems to a rather backwards looking conservative like myself a pointless exercise in futility.  Must the sonnet sequence evolve into some form other than that of the sonnet sequence, or opera into something that is not opera?  Must Sword & Sorcery turn itself into something radically different?"  (146)

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Escaping the Cliche of Canon: 5 Lesser-Known Works of Mozart

The music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is as canonical as Shakespeare, no longer a matter of taste but a statement of musical fact.  However, as with Shakespeare, this is a double-edged sword, since once anything becomes a museum piece we begin to lose our connection to it.  The nervous, mercurial energy of Symphony No. 40 becomes background music in Panera Bread, and the bitersweet lamentations of the Requiem floats through a car commercial.  It’s a sad fact that even the most inspired music, if played too often—and in the wrong context—can become a cliche.  So how do we rediscover the Mozart that his contemporaries heard, the one that made Haydn (arguably the greatest composer of his age) to exclaim, “I tell you before God and the world, he is the greatest composer known to me”?  In the end, you have to “unhear” every musical cliche and start from scratch, listening to the music of his contemporaries and work your way forward to the musical masterpieces.  Or, perhaps more simply, you could listen to the lesser-known works of Mozart which, for one reason or another,  have escaped the broad brush of cliche.  Here are 5 works which I think represent every facet of Mozart’s genius: his melody, his harmony, his orchestration, his eccentricity (especially his penchant for the minor mode), and his forward-thinking appeal to modern audiences (at times you really think Mozart is a Romantic).  There is no good reason these works have not passed into the public domain, so to speak, but I’m glad they haven’t.  When you listen to them, you almost go, “my God, what music—who composed it?” and then remember, right, it’s Mozart.  Then you start to realize why great composers become great; not just because your teachers said so, but because you, too, can hear this greatness.  Just don’t tell the people who supply music to on-hold services and Panera Bread! 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Tarzan of the Apes at 100 (well, 101)

Edgar Rice Burroughs published Tarzan in 1914, after successfully serializing it in 1912, and it quickly became a modern myth: radio adaptations and movies followed as soon as technology could catch up, as well as a bewildering 22 sequels from Burroughs himself.  While the character of Tarzan is certainly nothing new, as he is equal parts Caliban, Crusoe, and Mowgli, it goes much further than any of these in its frankness about racial identity and the true meaning of civilization.  Few readers know the ‘real’ Tarzan, as the 21st century has to combat the cultural dissonance of the “Me Tarzan, You Jane” movies (he never says this or speaks like ‘Tarzan’ in the books), or the New Age noble savage we find in Disney.  Probably the closest media depiction of the book occurs in the 1984 film, The Legend of Greystoke, which preserves many of the trademark elements of the book, and interestingly casts Christopher Lambert, a Frenchman, as Tarzan (since Tarzan initially learns to speak French, not English).  What we find in the book is astonishing and quite unusual: a Tarzan who kills indiscriminately (often for the clothes on a natives’ back), yet is capable of compassion and downright maudlin behavior.  The book is at once better than you were lead to believe while at times staying true to its pulp origins.  Is it great literature?  No, but it has the makings of a great myth, and there are moments that match Kipling or Defoe, and at times anticipate the darker worlds of Conrad.  If nothing else, it merits its inclusion as a seminal work of 20th century popular culture, and should be read widely (and by young readers) because, when all is said and done (and making allowances for some of the dated contents of the book), it is full of imagination and delight. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Rachmaninov in St. Louis: the Complete Vox Box Recordings

Leonard Slatkin Conducting Rachmaninov 
When I first started collecting classical music in the early 90’s, I caught the Rachmaninov bug: a piece called The Isle of the Dead enraptured my heavy-metal heart and never let go.  It was darker, more intense, and more exciting than any piece of music I had ever heard—and there was so much of it: 20 minutes of brooding, spine-tingling music!  Not even Iron Maiden could match that!  :) I quickly began investigating everything Rachmaninov wrote, though in the early days of CD, there really wasn’t much available other than two of his three symphonies, the piano concertos, and a handful of piano music.  Until one day I stumbled on a chunky three-disc set of Rachmaninov’s Orchestral Works performed by Leonard Slatkin (a new name to me back then) and the St. Louis Symphony.  Vox Box recordings exciting in those early days, since each one had anywhere from two to four discs, but were economically priced and contained a thick, detailed booklet inside with a wealth of information about the composer and the works included.  This set introduced me to works I had never heard of, many of which still remain rarities.  Besides the relatively familiar Symphonic Dances, Isle of the Dead, and Vocalise, Slatkin included works which really stretched my understanding of Rachmaninov’s orchestral language: the epic, powerful choral symphony, The Bells, which should really have been called his Symphony No.3, the creepy, Mussorgskyian choral piece Spring, the uber-Romantic, Rimsky-Korsakovian tone poem, Prince Rostislav, and an Tchaikovskyian overture, the Caprice Boheme (Capriccio on Gypsy Themes), among others.  Where had these works been, and why did no one else seem to bother with them?  For despite the derivative nature of some of the earlier works, I heard masterpiece after masterpiece, any one of which could have been a concert-hall staple. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Free This Weekend: The Astrologer's Portrait

My new comic fantasy novel, The Astrologer's Portrait, is free to download this weekend on Amazon.  Click on the link to find it: http://www.amazon.com/The-Astrologers-Portrait-Joshua-Grasso-ebook/dp/B00LKQ0DXC/ref=pd_sim_kstore_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=0HN7CV5H6X9EB2KRDD6K

Here is a brief synopsis of the book if you're still on the fence (did I mention it's free?): Prince Harold has fallen in love with a portrait, which he much prefers to his real bride-to-be. However, the portrait may be a hundred years old, and only the greatest sorcerer in the land can verify her existence. Unfortunately, Turold the Magnificent is currently on trial for maliciously impersonating a person of quality and despoiling her family history. Harold gets him off on the condition that they locate his lady love before his wedding to Sonya, who vows to kill him on their wedding night. Along with his faithless Russian servant, Dimitri, the three steal off to locate the true identity of the sitter—only to confront a curse much older than the portrait. To dispel the curse the prince must lead a revolution, fall in love with his wife, and release the centuries-old hands of Einhard the Black, who are eagerly awaiting their latest victim.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Can Writing Be Taught In College?

The Department of English in any university is predicated on the idea that writing is a skill that can be studied, learned, taught, and to some degree, mastered (at the undergraduate level, at least).  We have innumerable theories on how to teach writing, and each teacher does his or her variation on some of these approaches, funneling their ideas into at least two core classes, Freshman Composition 1 and 2.  The goal of these courses is that students leave with a knowledge of writing critical essays using sources, and are able to understand how to write for various audiences by employing different rhetorical strategies to make his or her argument coherent and, perhaps, persuasive.  Sounds simple enough, but it’s a pretty tall order considering students have a very tenuous relationship with writing.  Sure, most have a passing acquaintance with the basics of writing an essay, and if pressed, some will admit that they have at least heard of MLA documentation.  A few even know the difference between primary and secondary sources (but only a few).  However, the idea of making an argument and responding to other ideas and conversations out in the world is completely foreign to most students for one simple reason: the vast majority of students don’t like to read.  They didn’t read as high school students, and they don’t magically read once they come to college.  Sure, they (usually) dutifully read assigned pages in a textbook or a novel assigned for class, but reading is seen as an artificial activity, something remote and academic.  It’s not something “real” that occurs in an organic form out in the world...and if it does, it primarily takes the form of Harry Potter or something they would consider “fun reading.”  

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

THE EARLY DVORAK SYMPHONIES: A Trial Run or a Complement to the Famous Three?

Dvorak’s ‘Early’ Symphonies have a checkered past, even though the final three (Nos.7-9) are considered cornerstones of the symphonic repertoire.  I’ve always found it curious that an audience that embraced one (much less three) symphonies by a great composer wouldn’t be the least bit curious to hear the works that came before, particularly when Dvorak wrote six (!) symphonies that lie in relative neglect.  What separates the ‘early’ symphonies of Dvorak from the three late masterpieces?  Did it truly take him six attempts to hammer out a competent symphonic language?  Conventional wisdom would tell us that, yes, the first six are so-called apprentice attempts, useful for scholars but not the lay audience, that simply wants tunes and dance rhythms in equal measure.  However, conventional wisdom, particularly when it comes to art, is usually wrong.  The Dvorak symphony cycle is (I feel) the most consistently rewarding 19th century symphonic cycle after Beethoven, rivaling for sheer variety and gusto even the symphonies of Brahms and Bruckner (Schubert’s are a near rival, though the early symphonies lack variety for all their charm).  From the very beginning, there is a clear voice that speaks Dvorak’s language, even if the earliest works are a tad verbose and under the spell of Beethoven.  Yet the mastery of form is there, the creativity, and the jaw-dropping orchestration.  Almost every one of these symphonies could be a “greatest hits” piece of a lesser composer, and Nos. 3, 5 and 6 in particular are masterpieces that by some fluke of fate escaped the orchestral canon.  Luckily, in our age of cheap music downloads you can sample these works at leisure, deciding for yourself if history has been unjust to Dvorak’s symphonic legacy.  As you do, here’s a brief rundown of each piece and its chief points of interest (click below to read about them...) 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Review of M.P. McVey's Plod On, Sleepless Giant (2015)

“Could the Maker have underestimated his own creation, Tyriano pondered. Could it be that Temelephas has learned to feel? Could it be, simply—that over time—this great elephant has taught himself to break his own nature? Tyriano’s face brightened as he
continued to explore all the possibilities.  “What could this lead to?” he asked.

All great fantasy/science-fiction novels must ask a question: that question could be simple, dismissed in a mere handful of pages, or it could be complex, requiring volume after volume to ferret out.  As the quote above suggests, M.P. McVey asks a big question in his first book, Plod On, Sleepless Giant.  What is the nature of the world as its been handed down to us?  Do we truly know why we know what we know?  Or even who we are?  By exploring this question from multiple perspectives (both semi-divine and painfully human), McVey not only presents us with a fabulous tale, but he makes us question the nature of stories themselves.  For to read is to come closer to knowing your place in the universe, however large or small; each book is a step closer toward the most profound knowledge of all.  This book might actually count for two or three steps, particularly if the reader takes time to savor the small details hidden along the way.