Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Seven Voyages of Sibelius: An Appreciation of His Symphonic Cycle

About a hundred years ago, when symphony orchestras still drew large—and young!—audiences, Sibelius’ music featured on many programs, particularly his series of romantic-modernist symphonies. Not since Beethoven and Brahms was a composer’s voice so naturally attuned to symphonic thought, yet without making the listener feel the heavy lifting of contrapuntal development and sonata form. Like his contemporary, Gustav Mahler, Sibelius began with both feet planted firmly in the late Romantic period, yet with each symphony, he ventured further afield into the thickets of Modernism—on his own terms. Sadly, though his music is still often played by orchestras around the world, the average listener knows little of his music beyond orchestral hits like Finlandia, Valse Triste, or an excerpt from a longer suite, The Swan of Tuonela. His symphonies are often seen as derivative of Brahms or Tchaikovsky by some, while others find them too thorny or difficult (particularly the later ones). Many people would much prefer to hear something more familiar and toothsome and call it a night. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

From the Vaults of the Imagination: The Forgotten Short Stories of Clark Ashton Smith

Clark Ashton Smith is a name that exists at the periphery of science fiction and fantasy lore, a name often evoked but rarely read. He is sometimes dismissed as an imitator of Lovecraft; at other times, as a writer whose exotic, hot-house prose often carried him away from his subjects. Yet the titles of his numerous short stories are too tempting to leave to second-hand wisdom: works like “The City of the Singing Flame,” “The Dark Eidolon,” and “Ubbo-Sathla” remind me of long-lost AD&D campaigns and hidden, forgotten evils buried in the appendix of the Fiend Folio. There’s some truth to this, as without Clark’s stories, so much of the modern fantasy mythos would cease to exist. Along with Lovecraft and Tolkein, Smith’s stories were mined for their outlandish visions of Atlantean worlds and unspeakable terrors. What others left behind was Smith’s unique language—he is unparalleled as a crafter of prose in fantasy writing—and his ability to create tension and twist endings. Smith excelled at the short story, and a 10-page tale from Smith often contains more beauty, wonder, and mystery than many a thousand-page tome making lavish promises on its book jacket.