Monthly Archives: February 2013

086: Lanternfish

Noun: lanternfish (plural lanternfish or lanternfishes) – any of small, deep sea fish of the large family Myctophidae, named after their conspicuous use of bioluminescence.

I must have screamed for twenty seconds straight after logging on to Facebook this afternoon: a friend of mine had set his status to bid Van Cliburn adieu.

I cannot say that I was especially attached to him. I have never heard him in concert (he was famous before I was born), and I have never actually looked far into his recordings. He occupies a fair amount of space in the classical section of Rasputin’s, and I think I will help trim that down tomorrow before they’re all bought by mourners. We have maybe ONE CD of his but it was jumpy and laden with noise, so I never learned to enjoy it. I may dig it up when I next go home.

I’ll try to get everything out of my system now, and be frank, little as it matters. I have long thought Van Cliburn to be overhyped. An AMERICAN pianist actually triumphing over the Soviet Musical Army! An AMERICAN pianist forced Khrushchev himself to concede defeat! An AMERICAN pianist caused this enormous upset in Moscow! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this historical 1958 victory for America was really something at the height of the Cold War.

Is it still relevant today? Yes, because American Exceptionalism. Because culture. Because VAN CLIBURN.

But I judge too hard. His value is decided neither by rampant nationalism nor period politics. I know better than that. I have long since learned that technique isn’t everything, and that heart is one of those things that actually matters in music, irrelevant as it is to many other areas of business. And Van Cliburn, of all people, most certainly had heart. Sure, after his death, all we can hear about him are the good things: but from the little reading I did about him before today, I conclude honestly that he was a good man whose life and self were well-defined and well-tempered. More than his self, but his music, too, was something that was pure and whole and good.

I have not heard enough of his playing to judge his music. And what right have I to judge it, even after hearing it? I’m hardly qualified to break apart Blechacz, but Van Cliburn … ?

If for nothing else, let the American people – pianists, philistines, and all in between – mourn together for the loss of this great man. He stood strong for the American people when they needed a hero; he stood strong for music all through his life, for everybody to enjoy. And not just the Americans – for the loss of his musicianship, the world will mourn him.

It would be boorish to make comparisons to other pianists. It will suffice to say that today we lost one of the greatest maestros of the century. Though nobody will ever replace – perhaps never even come close to emulating you – thousands, if not millions of other pianists will endeavor to carry on in your footsteps. Nobuyuki Tsujii, whom you admired so ardently, is one such figure. Take your hard-earned rest with satisfaction, knowing that your legacy is continued and broadened by those who follow you.

For the umpteenth time, I don’t believe in God. But were I Baptist like Van Cliburn, I would surely believe that some small corner of heaven (the size of a concert hall. Heaven is pretty big) with the most beautiful piano ever crafted is reserved for Cliburn to settle down in. And every week he’ll give concerts for the angels and the people of Heaven – and maybe God himself will stop in and listen and give his approval.

Rest in Peace, Van Cliburn; God bless you.


085: Minibreaks

Noun: minibreaks – Plural form of minibreak.

TODAY on flaglock: Julian ponders aimlessly and continues to profess his love for Rafał Blechacz in a completely heterosexual way.

I often think about just how small I am. It’s not a sexual thing: it’s an existential thing. Earth is dwarfed by our sun, which is dwarfed by our galaxy, which is dwarfed by the bigger system, which is dwarfed by the sheer size of the whole kaboozle of a universe.

And then everything seems so petty and trivial. The pursuit of philosophy, which is a moving target; the study of mathematics and sciences, which will someday end in the complete truth and cease to develop…

We won’t be around for very long. If we don’t kill ourselves first, then the earth will someday be unable to support us; and if we get around that, the sun will eventually go out and leave us cold and dark.

This is not some “don’t-worry-about-it” thing that we throw into the future to deal with. We begin dealing with it NOW, or never do, meaning that we consign ourselves to certain death.

Suddenly my GPA doesn’t seem all-important.

I don’t know how my internal views coexist so well. There’s one side of me that hates myself for a variety of reasons, and then there’s this side that’s almost conciliatory and soothing, assuring me “Nothing matters. Whatever you do, it’s insignificant and useless. It’s all right.” My emotional health balances on a tight-rope between these two, with some weird scary abyss hanging out far below.

I look within myself with horror. Not the Mister Kurtz deal, but more of a “I can’t identify myself.” If you uncoupled my soul from my mind and stuck it in a lineup, I probably couldn’t identify which one it was. And that wouldn’t be any good, because I’d be stuck as a gray lump of brain tissue wandering around.

Answer me this: why do I matter? Don’t give me the usual garbage. “Everybody exists for a reason.” Be specific, please. “God’s designs.” NO. “Everybody is unique, and everybody is special!” So you’re telling me that I exist as one of trillions and trillions of possible permutations of genetics and circumstance that could mold a human being? That’s rather depressing. “You came here to make people happy.” Ha, ha-ha. Hahahahaha! That’s rich. For whom exactly was I made to please? “You’re you and you are a valuable person.” You’re repeating yourself. I’m still just a mathematical endgame.

I’d never seen Mom and Dad and Sis all dressed up in black at the same time, and definitely not bright and early on a Saturday morning. As per my wish, the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G Minor was played. There were no mourners. Dad knew better than to get the paid ones; that would have made me mad, dead as I was. Nobody gave speeches; I hated empty flattery, especially the postmortem variety. In fact, nobody was in attendance at the sad affair, save the family. That was not unexpected; my spirit wasn’t roused by this. I hadn’t left behind many fond memories in anyone’s minds.

My gravestone was a carefully carved rectangular prism, bearing my name in boldface. It was subtitled “Gdzie Skarb Twój, Tam i Serce Twoje.” That was a meaningless statement for the dead, but a powerful one for the living. 

How strange, I thought, to be the only species that actively mourns its dead. Bemused, I nonetheless passed on without complaint. 

I’m still in the bad habit of pessimism, and verbosity to boot.

NOW PLAYING: Maurice Ravel – Piano Concerto in G – I. Allegramente (8:35); by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Philharmonia Orchestra, Ettore Gracis; Piano Concertos – Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli – Track 1/9

Music: it heals all wounds. I’ll talk about good ol’ Rafał Blechacz instead.

At last, almost three years behind the curve, I’ve laid hands on Rafał Blechacz’s new (er, old?) recording of the two Chopin concertos.

Some preliminary material: we’ve long since established that Blechacz has the technical chops for attacking a great many pieces; enjoying his music-making then becomes a matter of whether or not you agree with his emotional interpretation.

In my opinion, there is no such thing as too fast or too slow for Blechacz: he goes exactly at the pace he wants to, as he thinks the music requires. As I’ve said before, Blechacz does not need to resort to cheap tricks to elicit excitement. His playing is not plagued by bravura or excessive virtuosity. You can HEAR his skill in every note, but he doesn’t flash it like a shiny badge.

I would also like to praise Jerzy Semkow and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam for their exemplary performance: the pairing differs quite a bit from Antoni Wit with the Warsaw Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra; and different is good. Both conductor and orchestra (and concert hall – this could validate a trip to Amsterdam) have been showered with praise. I approach them, however, with a clean slate, having never heard of either before now (and I hang my head for that).

Some additional credit for the piano technician Michel Brandjes and the Tonmeister (recording engineer) Rainer Maillard. My layman’s ears make me think that they have done their jobs well. The tone quality seems true enough to life.

The album consists of the two piano concertos (as published, not as composed – heh) and nothing more, nothing less. No Rondo la Krakowiak. No Fantasy on Polish Airs. No Variations on something-something. No Grande Polonaise in E-flat. (I can dream, can’t I?)

In fact, Blechacz has already recorded the Concerto in E minor before – he did so late in 2005 at the finals of the Chopin Competition XV with (as mentioned) Antoni Wit conducting the Warsaw Philharmonic. That performance will probably live on in history for the audience reaction: after the pianist finishes one last shining run up the piano, the orchestra is tasked with closing the work with a few chords in E. They don’t get the chance to do so, though, before a woman’s scream is heard and a little section of the audience leads a stampede of applause that almost drowns out the end of the concerto amid cries of “Bravo!” &c.

Neither Blechacz’s clarity nor modesty of style has changed in the years since that recording. He still plays with that same gentle touch that never overpowers or gets in your face. There are no missed notes, no smeared notes, no subverted points of articulation. It’s the details that make him shine: the scales of inhuman evenness, the trills of such controlled symmetry, the leaps and jumps across the keyboard that never ring harshly …

It’s obvious that technique is but the entry-level requirement for any concert pianist, but it’s important to understand that I’m rubbing in that field on Blechacz’s part so diligent because it’s positively AMAZING. There is not even room for the SHADOW of a doubt that he has good technique, because he leaves absolutely no room for smudges, slips, or other imperfections in the recording. (This approach is unlike, for example, Horowitz and Argerich.) You can have a hundred percent confidence that Blechacz has the FULL technique – not half, not most, not “just shy of all of it” – ALL of it – down pat. He gives himself no room to hide in his playing; and so the listener can be assured that it is all completely honest.

But you can’t say that Blechacz is all technique and no expression. He simply chooses not to rely on such a marked gradient of expression to fill his palette. Picking two other recordings at random, with names off the top of my head, confirms this; Argerich and Van Cliburn: oh man oh man, but they know how to milk their fortissimos. There’s nothing wrong with that: I’m merely stating a marked preference for Blechacz really knowing how to milk his pianissimos.

Enough with the comparisons. There will be no honest, unbiased criticism of Blechacz here: there will only be oversung, much-parroted praises of his playing.

So what can I praise specific to this recording?

For starters, this is Blechacz’s first move into the concerto repetoire. He has previously released a lot of works for solo piano (and if memory serves he’s not planning on recording chamber music any time soon), but this is a first in the field of really large-scale collaborative works. As always, he delivers: we have on our hands a sensitive and well-baked reading of the two Chopin concertos. His usual crystal-clear playing continues to lay the groundwork for a colorful tenure of wonderful recordings that will be enjoyed by all. He has not cut himself slack. He’s working hard.

In a way, the slew of Chopin that Blechacz has recorded (the complete preludes, and now the concertos) kind of makes up for the incomplete set that he performed for the competition. One only wonders when he will record the mazurkas …

And so, the Concerto in F Minor is a welcome addition to the collection. This work is, above all else, soft and sweet – especially so in Rafał’s hands. This is where the piano gains its long-sought cantabile tone – if you really want to hear a piano sing, Blechacz is your man. The second movement is worth paying extra attention to. The third movement lets Blechacz run out a bit, stretch his fingers, and show off how clean he is at high velocity. The whirlwind finale features a delightful tempo change, artfully set off by the bassoonist (I think) speeding up suddenly with due warning. The piano and orchestra dance and spin around, and then with one last tripping ascension up the piano, the concerto ends.

The ascending ending is what elicited my earlier “neither too fast nor too slow” comment: I’ve heard other people play that ending significantly quicker than does Blechacz.

And the Concerto in E Minor? Nothing you haven’t heard before, though the orchestra stands out much more than it did in the competition recording. The technique is all there (minus the very few little slips that he made) and the expressionism is all there, too! I have heard accusations of “loss of youthful vigor” on Amazon, but I disagree: Blechacz by default is simply a little cautious. This does not make him stupid, slow, or senile (and when he’s eighty, just watch him out-play everybody anyway); it simply marks him as desirous of a slightly different tone.

I personally still found the e minor concerto full of a lovely range of expressions – the first movement great and dramatic, the second fond and dainty, the third light-hearted and playful. Again, this is all happy music in Chopin’s book – it makes sense that the good feelings outshine the bad. Nor do I necessarily correlate “fire” with happiness – the fire, again, is in Blechacz’s powerhouse technique. His interpretation is conservative just because. “Just because.” Hah.

The hidden jewel in this work, in my opinion, is the section which allows the piano to sing cantabile twice: before and around the nine-minute mark of the first movement. It helps that the orchestra backs with velvet strings, but I firmly maintain that the shining sound comes mostly from the playing of the soloist (at the competition, Jacek Kortus played with comparable tone; Dong Min Lim and Takashi Yamamoto, not so much).

To wrap things up, I’ll finish by concluding that this album is very much worth your money. Just throw your money at the Yellow Label already, we don’t want them going anywhere, any time soon.

I’ve run out of things to parrot-and-praise, so I’ll prune the prattling.


084: Darkwave

Noun: darkwave (uncountable) (music) – A musical movement that originated in the late 1970s, combining elements of new wave and gothic rock with dark, thoughtful lyrics and an undertone of sorrow; 2002, Jules Brown, Dinah Gardner, Hong Kong and Macau (page 315) “As well as mainstream pop you’ll find dance, funk and all kinds of club music, world music and even very select genres such as darkwave medieval, darkwave gothic to darkwave neofolk.”

TODAY on flaglock: Julian describes a few hypotheticals and the notion of “perfect” music. Sergei Rachmaninoff is crammed into a box. The whole thing rambles on for ages and ages in perhaps the longest post ever written.

News in brief: Firefox suddenly reverted back to its usual speed maybe yesterday. It took three seconds, rather than eight or nine, to start up. I deleted ~/.mozilla/firefox and watched the startup shorten to about half a second. All is well.

Imagine an ability to convert body fat into energy towards teleportation.

In this situation, science has improved to the point where you CAN shed a hundred pounds at the drop of a test-tube. It’s only a matter of choosing to turn it into colorful fireworks, to sell back to PG&E, or to put it towards teleportation, a highly pleasurable sensation. So naturally most people will choose teleportation, if only out of convenience. People coming out of McDonald’s turn gracefully on the spot and shed their fat.

The downside, though, as you see, taking walks on the street, is that teleportation takes some getting used to. Tell-tale signs that someone has been both fat and only novice at the art include asymmetrical body proportions, poor balance, and some loss of motor skills. The more talented ones can turn on a dime and hardly use their fat reserves at all to go for miles and miles.

Society is in uproar. Precocious teleporting children cause problems for their parents, and familial values dissolve. Crime skyrockets as bank robbers and muggers and murderers alike find new ways to make timely escapes. Immigration runs out of control as border patrol quickly becomes irrelevant. Airlines and oil companies all go bankrupt.

And to make things worse, the greatest chemical accident in history renders 90% of the world’s air highly toxic. Blue-collar jobs come into great demand, because most manufacturers move quickly to fit cheap (but effective) mass air filters in their factories. The crowds of people holding their breaths before the factory gates, begging for jobs, enables the widespread exploitation of workers as the American manufacturing industry makes a roaring return. Potato chip prices grow dramatically; it becomes commonplace for bags and bags of these – mostly clean air – to be gifted on birthdays and Christmas. Gleeful children would simply throw away the salty crisps and breathe instead the clean, pure air inside the bag. A child with self-control gets maybe eight delicious breaths; the greedy one two breaths. Life expectancy falls off at least 30% in every country; in China, down 78%. Fear of fan death in South Korea is exaggerated. Suicide rates go up everywhere as crazed cultists emerge everywhere, actually subscribing to the bizarre ideals that hold suicide in a better light than death by bad air.

Somewhere in there, a string quartet perched on a huge stump in a dead forest plays Joe Hisaishi.

Isn’t that pretty? A string quartet, sitting on the stump of the former king of the forest. The whole place has been leveled (that’s not the pretty part), and now these talented musicians have a venue all to themselves: there’s nobody to hear them play except the few brave creatures who still lurk around the stumps. And so the artists four play for their own benefit, and the animals too.

They raise their bows, and the first violin leads them into the soft opening bars of “Hana-bi.” It’s a gorgeous theme in G minor, with harmonies so sweet that the wood underfoot softens a little.

In the middle-section, where the music presents a few simple variations, a rude interruption occurs. It takes the form of an oversize ICBM touching down in the little town – no, big city – nearest the dead forest. Where it came from, and why it struck this particular city, are not important to consider. No. It is there: it has exploded, and everybody there is dead.

The quartet plays on; the forest, uphill, feels a light breeze. The musicians have been blinded by the nuclear flash, but they could play with their eyes closed, ears plugged, and mouths taped. A few missing fingers might slow them down a little bit.

Pianissimo harmonics conclude the B-section, and they return to the A-section. The cello presents a gorgeous, chromatically descending bass line which the other three players ride on. Another missile touches down, in the bigger city even further away. Maybe this one came from a different country than before – it seems bigger. It’s too far away to hear the people screaming, though – and good thing, too; goodness knows how it would disrupt the music.

They keep playing, oblivious to (and probably ignorant of) the eerie radio silence that overtakes Warsaw, New York, London, Moscow, Seoul, Taipei. Their only want is to articulate every note of Hisaishi’s music with love and care.

At the close, the steadfast quartet comprises the last living humans. The forest doesn’t look any different: it’s still kilometers and kilometers of tree stumps on a hill. The four don’t notice or care that nobody’s there. They have forgotten themselves, too.

The quartet at the end of the world ends the world: not with a blasted forte, but with a deliberate lento and tragic piano.

I don’t know why I’ve gotten into such a nasty habit of writing aimlessly sad pieces. I was just wondering in what sort of world would a child be happy to get a bag of air for his birthday. On to the “perfect” music.

I’m more or less a musical hipster. I listen heavily to film music and (as of late) a good deal of classical. I nod my head at criticisms of my being a music snob; I need to see a headshrinker about this one, too – I just can’t enjoy most of the trending music of today. When the thought of “this artist is being squeezed by the label for this,” my musical sense is ruined.

And since most of these artists are still actively in the music business, time has not yet decided what should be remembered as the best of their works. I’m sure that if I had been alive in Beethoven’s time, I would have been hesitant to hear his work, too; but now that we are centuries beyond him, I can look at his music without a timeframe-restricted point of view.

I don’t have synesthesia, but I think my perception of music doesn’t fall within the norm. The fact that I have such trouble taking in modern music is a strange thing. I listened to a bit of Taylor Swift’s new album with my sister today; it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t something I felt like I would come back to and listen to time and again. Sis commented, “She writes the BEST breakup songs. And whatever she doesn’t write herself, she produces.”

Something about that didn’t sit well with me: mostly because I don’t know that I’d ever have the opportunity to use a breakup song, ever.

If I ever had to play a breakup song, it’d probably be something hilariously inappropriate, like … the opening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

The following dialogue is to be read in the style of Benedict Cumberbatch voicing Martin Crieff for the radio show Cabin Pressure, interspersed with banana interjections read as Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic.

“Hey … can we talk? Okay. Good. Hold on, I gotta turn on the stereo – ”



“I’m … I’m just not feeling it.” Ba-na-na-na-ba-na-na-na-ba-na-na-naaa! “It’s not your fault! Not at all! It’s a chemistry problem.” Ba-na-na-na-ba-na-na-na-ba-na-na-naaa. “So,” [swallows] “do you think we should – ” Ba-na-na-na, ba-na-na-na; ba-na-na-na, ba-na-na-na – “maybe, possibly, end this relationship?”


In all cruel honesty, somebody who’d break up like that probably had it coming to him all the way.

So while Taylor Swift isn’t my cup of tea, the less that Beethoven’s fifth symphony could be anybody else’s cup of tea. A normal person, given the choice between Swift and Beet, invariably picks the former.

Here, my quest for “perfect music” begins and ends – subjectivity. I call it perfect; the rest of the world begs to differ. The world offers another candidate; I scuttle it. I try to compromise; the world doesn’t understand that. The world pushes another one; I torpedo it faster than a speeding “#swag.”

You see that huge surge of water? In the middle, there probably WAS a rational suggestion.

Then, what if we narrowed our search? That could help.

Let us define the “perfect” music to be the music that gives ME the perfect experience: all the right emotions, whatever they may be (and we won’t know until we FIND the perfect music), will be contained in that piece. That’s a rather rude definition, but polite ones are so much harder to pin down.

So, now, only my tastes are in play. This simplifies matters, but doesn’t solve any problems: my tastes change over time – and radically. Once upon a time, “that scary music” (I think it was from the film score for “Titanic”) kept me awake all night when Dad left the CD playing after he tucked us in. It was common for us to fall asleep listening to some calming music. I’m certain that something like Prokofiev’s second piano concerto would have terrified me.

Today, I proudly own a recording of the complete Prokofiev piano concertos, as performed by Kun-Woo Paik with Antoni Wit conducting the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. I now understand the reason for the second concerto’s popularity: there’s a fine aesthetic in there that takes some getting used to. But once you’ve grasped this, the concerto transforms itself in your eyes into a magnificent beast.

I think it’s the – what’s it called – causality playing in. Mozart works well on little kids, for the most part, because it suits their happy-go-lucky, naive natures. It doesn’t work so well when they’re older and they feel like yelling and screaming and thumping and pounding – that’s when the rest of modern music kicks in.

Some call him the one and only master. Some say his “Well-tempered Clavier” is the Old Testament of keyboard literature. But do I LOVE his work? Not really sure. Far be it from program music, too …

The reason I got into film music was because of my fandom for Star Wars – and John Williams did a nice job with the score. The music fed my perception of the movie and vice-versa, in a virtuous circle. I quickly collected all six soundtracks (no regrets – I still love ’em) and listened the heck out of them.

But over time, Williams stopped blasting from my speakers – a new man came, one who took his stage name from Quincy Jones. Joe Hisaishi stormed my CD shelf, quickly overtaking Williams in play count. Today, the number of albums associated with Joe Hisaishi (e.g. “American in Paris” had almost none of his compositions, but showcased his arrangements and partnership with the New Japan Philharmonic) in my collection totals ten. Counting the doubled-disks albums of the original trilogy into the score, Williams still loses at nine disks of music.

In tandem, my classical collection grew – I wasn’t content to limit myself to the flash-bangs of the film score. The first major investment that I made (spoiled brat that I am, I should say “my parents made”) was acquiring a box set of the competition chronicle for the 15th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition. Coincidentally, there were fifteen disks included. It was a hefty but wonderful birthday gift that my parents purchased through Barnes and Noble. There are gems on this disk that I would not have poked my nose into otherwise (because my deepest want from this box set was to hear Rafał Blechacz play), like the Tarantella in A flat major, like the Barcarolle in F sharp major, like the Rondo in C minor, like the many mazurkas, like the twenty-four preludes, like the two piano concertos …

That box set (I think it’s simply called “Chopin Competition XV”) played an enormous role in widening my musical horizons. When I might have been content before to hear Kristian Cvetković perform the Polonaise in A flat major, op. 53 (it was one of the first recordings I ever heard – it’s still on Wikipedia), his playing no longer brings tears to my eyes. Only Blechacz can do that, though today I am not so easily moved.


My history of keeping certain tracks on “repeat one” is speckled with different pieces of music. There’s been “Duel of the Fates” (John Williams for Star Wars Episode I), “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)” (John Williams for Star Wars Episode V), at least two anime songs that I won’t mention by name, “Sophie’s Castle” (Joe Hisaishi for Howl’s Moving Castle), “Reprise” (Joe Hisaishi for Spirited Away), and more recently, “Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53” (composition of Chopin’s, performance by Blechacz). Now THERE is a piece where I can listen for years and never get a full picture of its beauty all at once.

I love the film scores a little more for being part of the movie that I also love; they represent the universe that I like to think about. But as for what recently has been shooting up the scrobble-charts – Blechacz’s playing – I love it just because I think I’ve hit upon the artist of the century. Read the other reviews (in addition to my own rants) and see for yourself that Blechacz must surely be the greatest living pianist (no troll).

I’ve taken the inter-person out of the picture; but even intra-person, there’s too much going on to firmly define a standard for the “perfect” music. There will always be changes that transmute my perception of music, even if only slightly. There has not been an easy-to-follow trend that I can yet track to see how my quest for the “perfect” music might end.

I do have a bet, though: if I were to put my money on any one artist leading me to musical nirvana, I would wager it all on Rafał Blechacz. His rendition of the Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53, surpasses all other recordings (I’ll list and analyze them all some day – there’s a lot) by an enormous margin. Yes. Even Horowitz. All God-knows-how-many of his recordings of it. That springboards me into noticing the magic in his playing everywhere else – in Debussy, in Szymanowski, in Liszt. I say it now (or I repeat it if I’ve said it before): I don’t believe in God, but if there is one, then he must certainly have chosen Blechacz to be his voice. I don’t believe in reincarnation, either, but if the spirit of Chopin had grown tired of wandering for over a century, he probably chose to be reborn in the little town of Nakło-on-the-river-Noteć, 135 years, 8 months, and 13 days after his death, on Sunday 30 June 1985, as Rafał Blechacz.

And so I give up the quest for “perfect” music – no thank you, Taylor Swift. I’m sorry. I’ll have to make do with what I have. Onward.

Emo or no?

And now, a frail attempt at insight into the life of a great Russian composer – Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1873-1943, bless his soul. His saga of five works for piano and orchestra live on in a flood of recordings from every walk of the musical world. I own only one complete set of the five, performed by Rachmaninoff himself with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It’s only monaural sound with some noise, yes, but I think the playing’s just gorgeous. The four piano concertos (sans the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) come in a set of two disks by Vladimir Ashkenazy with the London Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Andre Previn). And then I have two disks of just the second concerto in C minor (and the Paganini Rhapsody) by Lang Lang with the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre (conducted by Valery Gergiev) and Yuja Wang with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (conducted by Claudio Abbado). Then there’s Mikhail Pletnev with the Russian National Orchestra (conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich) on the third concerto in D minor, and Martha Argerich with RSO Berlin (conducted by Riccardo Chailly). Argerich was the first I ever bought, and her playing holds a reserved spot in my heart for that.

GOLLY, but that’s a lot of Rachmaninoff! His two most enduring works are perhaps the most commonly paired and recorded: the second concerto, in C minor, and his Paganini Rhapsody (more or less in A minor). (For ease of style I’ll informally label the Paganini Rhapsody as a concerto, too.)

Handsome, isn’t he?

Rachmaninoff’s works are not always happy ones. I hear a constant tragic undercurrent in his five concertos that’s fairly unique. Compare the cliched piano concertos: Tchaikovsky’s three (plus concert fantasia, so “four”), Chopin’s two (plus that Polonaise in E-flat, Variations on Polish Airs, and Rondo la Krakowiak [sp?] – still only “two” because nobody plays the other three, unfortunately), probably Beethoven’s concertos (haven’t heard enough of them) – none of these convey the same depth of drama and tragedy that Rachmaninoff’s do. The liner notes of Blechacz’s recording of Chopin’s two concertos establishes them outright to have been written in the happy years of his life, for example. I’m not sure we could say the same for Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, but I wouldn’t label them as any more stressed than Rachmaninoff was (judging by the tone of their respective Wikipedia articles. OKAY, FINE, I’M NOT EXACTLY A DEEP THINKER HERE. JUST WRITING WHAT I LIKE).

The first time I heard the opening to his first piano concerto, I heard a screaming, tortured soul. A series of fortissimo F-sharps, without harmonies, are blasted before the piano enters with a sharp flourish. Then a gorgeous cantabile theme enters: beautiful as anything you could write for the funeral of royalty. The concerto goes on through turbulent development and a slow movement that doesn’t really lighten the mood. Moments of sunlight dance through the third movement, but these are quite quickly eclipsed again by ubiquitous darkness.

Here, I am obligated to insert analysis on Rachmaninoff’s first symphony before proceeding to the second piano concerto: not having heard the symphony before, I regretfully skirt over this.

All we need know is that the second concerto was Rachmaninoff’s triumphant – oh yes, most triumphant! – return to the musical stage after the critical fiasco of the first symphony. It was probably written with care and caution and due thought given to what would please the audience. And please it did: this concerto is undoubtedly one of the most famous today, with its wealth of melodic material and amazing depth of musicality.

The third concerto met with similar (though not quite as much) success. The two – one, the other, or both – are now almost traditional rites of passage that many pianists choose to undertake. They’re beautiful beasts of famous technical difficulty, so I can see why; this isn’t your grandpa’s Mozart anymore. This is Rachmaninoff.

I like trees, and I guess Rachmaninoff didn’t hate them.

The second concerto begins with what I think the composer described as “tolling bells” – quiet chimes in the distance that increase in strength until the pianist is launched into rapid up-downs over the orchestra’s introduction of the main theme. If I had to set this music to something visual, I would imagine a dam breaking at night and a village being destroyed by the oncoming flood. Alternatively, imagine a brave crew being sent up a river on a suicide mission – there’s another good use for the music. There’s an enormous, raw energy going on, which eventually gives way to a crystalline section in E-flat major. Long story cut short, more development, a heavenly slow movement, and then a third movement that brings the house down.

(NOTE: I am not labeling Rachmaninoff’s concertos as program music by any means. I was only suggesting some of the easier visualizations in film terms to make my POV clearer.)

The second movement of the second concerto is the only real “happy” music that I have heard Rachmaninoff (excluding Variation XVIII of the Paganini Rhapsody – I’ll deal with that later). My Dad calls it “a slice of heaven.” It’s melodic, drawn-out, and above all, light and carefree. It cannot possibly evoke the same images of dam-bursting or suicide missions. It’s the diamond in the rough, except you KNOW it’s the diamond and its two sibling movements the rough.

The third movement begins in E major, shifts to C major, and then lets the piano out on a cadenza carpet in C minor. Another one of those vicious themes in a minor key is introduced, playing between both the piano and orchestra; a bit of development between piano and orchestra lessens the heaviness before a return to the crusher, which the piano then stops; the orchestra introduces the gorgeous “final” theme in D-flat major, which the piano repeats…

See, overall, the third movement, while happier than the first, is still fraught with severity and austerity. Make an easy, cliched comparison: the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto (we won’t even bother with the other three; those are too happy in their third movements), which predominantly plays around a lively Russian dance in three counts. Can you call that sad? No, not really – not when the most triumphant theme of the concerto is mulled over several times over and given a pedicure; not when the music gives way to a whimsical, “derp-derp-derp” section where the pianists repeatedly plays little dovetailed notes up the piano in such a cutesy way. No. That music is too happy. I would label it playful, but never serious.

All up until the end, that third movement stays pretty straight-faced. But then things change into a major key and ohhhhhhh but that cantabile section in C major for the strings is amazing. The ghost of the angry cadenza that started the movement precedes the “triumphant” theme that ends the concerto with a burst of joy. It brings tears to my eyes sometimes.

Look at his HANDS. That’s a tenth no sweat, at the LEAST.

Aha. But the third concerto is a whole new playing field. I don’t even want to break it down; but dejection and depression  hang over the whole thing like a plague. Even in the second movement, which, while beautiful in its own way, is by no means happy like its cousin in the second concerto. And the third movement only has two or three gems of happiness, one of which Rachmaninoff himself cut from the time-constrained recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

And now we come to my favorite topic of discussion: Rachmaninoff’s fourth piano concerto, the unloved child of his many works.

The work exists in more than one version: namely, the original 1926, the 1928 revision, and the 1941 revision (and there are several intermediate stages that we don’t really care about, if I understand my reading). The 1941 is most frequently recorded one, though there doesn’t seem to be a consensus as to whether it really is better than its older sisters. I’ll only be dealing in the 1941 version, since that is what I have two recordings of.

The first concerto, not really loved and not really panned; the second concerto, praised strongly over time; the third concerto, criticized for deviating from the second; the fourth concerto, besieged by a bukkake of criticism.

I briefly wondered if the fourth concerto might have been Rachmaninoff’s way of giving the critic’s side of the musical world the finger, but his withdrawal of the work (for later release in 1941) disproves that frivolous idea.

I initially sided with those long-eared asses of critics when I first Rachmaninoff perform this with the Philadelphia Orchestra. I thought it formless, lacking in melodic invention, and not as brilliant as the other concertos. This is, upon due consideration, simply not true. It is music of a different sort, kind of like how Art Tatum would clash with Taylor Swift. It takes a different sort of approach to understand it: one must be attuned to chromaticisms and detail cherry-picking to really hear what’s going on. And when you do start to take apart the concerto and look at all the little fragments, you see in it a wondrous work of genius that doesn’t strive to artificially pass itself off as beautiful, but requires the viewer to approach it with open ears to understand its aesthetic.

A mind of a higher order.

The fourth concerto is not as easy to follow as the others – but it is, notwithstanding, a thoroughly-cooked work, well-done, and not half-assed-medium-rare. Rachmaninoff’s understanding of orchestral and pianistic textures was not lacking at this stage; nor was his feel for structure or melodic writing. We can only shake our heads at ourselves, then, and fault our own minds for not being able to keep up with him. There was not, in the past, an obligation for the musician to condescend to make his work understandable by everyone, as there is now.

Why, then, did Rachmaninoff depart so sharply from the style he established himself with in his previous concertos?

I’m not sure about that question – did he really depart? The concerto didn’t come across as much different in tone than the previous three; nor were the melodies any less likeable, once you got used to them.

I suggest this answer: there was no departure. We’re only deluding ourselves when we expect the fourth concerto to be a work that surpasses the third or the second; that is something for us to decide, yes, but also something that the composer holds the truth of to himself.

I conclude that the fourth concerto is a masterpiece, and we are not qualified to understand it in full yet. I myself enjoy the work a lot – at least one other person has agreed with me that the first movement conveys a sense of hopelessness or loss, maybe as in love, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who loves the third movement’s climactic sound of Pyrrhic victory.

On behalf of Sergei Rachmaninoff, I deliver a message, disregarding how unqualified I am to do so:

I don’t think the man ever smiles.

Source image of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Source image of the theme from Beethoven’s fifth symphony courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; voicings for the symphony (in text form), courtesy of some guy on Reddit. Source image of the underwater explosion (“Operation Wigwam”) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Source image of J.S. Bach courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Source image of manuscript for Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Blechacz portrait courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon (copyright Felix Broede). Source images of Sergei Rachmaninoff all courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

083: Wally

Noun: wally (plural wallies) – (UK, slang) A fool. OR (colloquial, London and Essex) A pickled large gherkin or cucumber.

TODAY on flaglock: J39M discusses “controlled chaos,” the appeal of the violin, and the end of everything that matters.

Monday, 4 February 2013

(02:15:30 AM) J39M: Overboard much?
(02:19:35 AM): no
(02:19:40 AM): we’re going again
(02:20:41 AM) J39M: Haha, if you say so
(02:20:49 AM): dude
(02:20:51 AM): we’re famous
(02:21:19 AM): girls knew my name

The emphasis is mine. I know how much of an attention whore I can be, but I’m not this desperate. Ultrafinitist had a long talk with me one night about this, and we agreed that desperation at this stage is pointless.

Today, at 8:27 PM, I got a call asking for a favor. And that call, I think – I almost hope, treacherous as I am – declares the start of a vicious unraveling.

We have on our hands – or, “he” has on his hands – an uncontrolled chaos. If fate plays its cards well, we may have a valuable life lesson on our hands here; if the cards go poorly, then, we will see …

Itzhak Perlman recorded a heart-breaking arrangement of the “Love Theme from Cinema Paradiso” with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (conducted by John Williams) – same in form as the version performed by Josh Groban for at least one recording, though higher by a whole-tone.

I’m very sensitive to the tiny inflections and articulations that Perlman presents: they form a cohesive and cyclic – a WHOLE – interpretation that moves me greatly. You cannot stitch together Perlman’s performance by sampling at random from a pre-recorded set of all the possible notes for the violin. The little dovetails, the alternating sharpness and softness in moving between tones – these are all things that are easily discernible on a string instrument, but often go ignored on the piano.

I’m extremely against solo piano arrangements of “Love Theme” because pianos are limited to hitting the keys softly, hitting them a bit harder, and hitting them very hard. There are only so many ways to permute these dynamic levels (in a simple piece) before the listener is plunged into tedium. I hold that such an arrangement would be both musically and technically (since the accompaniment is almost certainly just going to be broken chords, repeatedly arpeggiated) empty.

For that reason, I would dearly love to hear some of my arrangements played some time on some string instrument – e.g. “Love Theme” or “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

Dinner today was abuzz with talk about the end of the world. We touched upon heat death, anarchy, and survival in space. Our golden topic was what the last words ever spoken by humanity would be; I immediately offered “The rest is silence.” Michael and Marco topped that easily (“THE END” in a Morgan Freeman voice, and “HHHRRRNNGGHAOEURGGHPHHHHH” in no particular voice). I looked deliberately at my watch.

“Gentlemen,” I said grandly, “You have six hundred million years to save everyone and everything, starting – now.”


EDIT: danger has passed. I was wrong.

082: Adhesionless

Adjective: adhesionless (comparative more adhesionless, superlative most adhesionless) – Lacking adhesion

TODAY on flaglock: J39M discusses (in a long rant) more of his troubles, and how a touch of music solves many problems. Once again, he’s caught up in a most amusing game to the death.

For posterity I must note that I am straight. Straight straight straight. I am not in denial (which it does seem like, doesn’t it?) or confusion. I am not bi, not gay, not trans, not nothing; while I am all for equal rights for everybody, I happen not to be in any of the commonly persecuted groups (unless we’re counting nerds). There is no homosexual / incestual fantasy material ahead, but if that’s all that you can pick up, you are a poor reader indeed. I also happen to be completely hapless in the department of romance, but this is through ineptitude rather than choice or sexual orientation.

“And now, behold!” cried Professor Yano, tearing the tarpaulin away.

I thought I was looking into a mirror. But I blinked and realized that I looked upon myself – but not quite myself. His hair was shorter and better-kept. The neck wasn’t quite so long. He was neither bowlegged nor fat: his legs and stomach both looked well-toned. His skin was a beautiful, homogeneous color, free from acne, scars, or other defects. Even his face had been machined to be more handsome than mine.

“Behold, Julian 2.0!” the professor swept a grand gesture. “Not perfect, maybe, but isn’t he wonderful?”

My mouth was dry. I nyup‘d once or twice before managing: “He is … complete?”

“Down to the last memory which you just transferred into his system,” said Yano, glancing at the screen of his phone. “So he’s 99% you, if you generously weight your last five minutes of memories as 1% of your identity. Not all of his temperament will be quite the same, though, I think … some modifications … adjustments … well, anyway –

“Number Two!” proclaimed Professor Yano. “Rise!”

And Julian 2.0 opened his eyes. The first expression that crossed his face was a beautifully formed smile. His teeth were pearly-white and straighter than any orthodontist could want.

“Hello, Julian,” he said. I could hear an imaginary string quartet playing in the background for him. “I am Number Two.” What a voice. He could join an A Capella group as a star tenor.

“Hey, Number Two,” I croaked. “A pleasure.”

Number Two positively beamed. He leaped from his cradle and pumped my hand furiously up and down. “I’ve always wanted to meet you, my original, right? I mean, I was born just now and that means ‘always wanted’ doesn’t mean much, but you know, clones’ instinct, right? We love our originals just because – oh, look at me go on!” he laughed, an elegant sound that might have woodwinds backing it. He shared my pompous speaking style, but spoke with greater candor and without any hint of tension.

“He’s a gem!” crooned Professor Yano. Number Two turned to him and swept him a bow. “And you, my father, I recognize with gratitude,” he said humbly. “I mean, my family is actually your family,” he said hurriedly to me, “but you know, Professor Yano here, made, manufactured, er, created me?” he stopped short and laughed merrily again, greatly amused with his own failures in articulation. I smiled stiffly. I felt awkward.

An excited train ride later (Professor Yano and Number Two were hard at work swapping compliments, with a few directed at me now and then – I accepted these with little nods), we were back at school, and Professor Yano hurried Number Two into the dorm.

“Hey! Hey! Everyone, meet Number Two!” the Professor couldn’t stop bubbling with excitement. It was contagious: every one of my suitemates was charmed by Number Two, and before long we were all settled in the common room, listening to Number Two recount stories familiar to me (my life, my stories), but told with such renewed wit that nobody in the room could stop laughing. (I forced out a few grins, so not to kill the mood.) A word from Number Two was enough to elicit anything from quiet titters to roaring laughs; I could only keep silent.

Everyone was still grinning broadly after midnight, when Number Two announced that it was time for bed. “Because I’m a good boy who sleeps early and wakes early,” he declared proudly, sending chuckles around the room. “But, ah, Professor, where …?”

“We can shleep together,” I ventured, biting my tongue.

“Whoa. Awk,” said Marco. Another laugh went around.

“Not at all!” said Number Two defensively. “I’m him and he’s me; we’re both ‘me’ and we both know we’re completely straight. We’ve had practice sleeping in cramped spaces so – ”

I was already halfway to our room, trying not to hear the laughs from the common room over another one of my snippets retold by Number Two.

I awoke later that night to my own face – perfectly crafted, acne-free, beautiful – and rolled right out of bed. Number Two turned over and made a gentle cooing noise, but did not wake, no more did Professor Yano.

I stood up and regarded my sleeping form for a full sixty seconds. My mind was colored vaguely, clouded with a red tint that telegraphed disquiet. I grabbed two towels and simply left the room, left the suite, pivoted right, picked the lock on the supply closet, and crawled in, burrowing into the cleaning agents and mops and other awful things. I pulled my two towels over myself as makeshift bedsheets, and, shivering (warm as it was), went to sleep again.

I woke to the sound of taps on the door. I groped groggily for the doorknob, and, upsetting a few cans, opened up. Number Two smiled at me, a little shyly. “I’m sorry, I hope you didn’t have a rough night,” he said. “Was it something I did?”

“No,” I said. It wasn’t really a lie, but it wasn’t the truth. “I like sleeping out here.” That was a lie.

Number Two, probably through the Professor’s meddling, had clearly been trained to trust people far more than I myself did. He grinned. “I wouldn’t have guessed it! I knew it, I knew it – the original is by far a much, much more interesting person than the clone!”

That, too, was a lie, but he didn’t know that. I laughed bitterly with him; he misread my tone and his expression grew anxious. “I’m sorry, I woke you, didn’t I? Go back to sleep; d’you want me to buy some lunch for you?”

“No,” I grunted, sinking back between two vacuum cleaners. “I’ll eat later.” So saying, I closed my eyes and feigned sleep. Number Two closed the door with great care and returned to the suite.

I opened my eyes, staring down the business end of a mop. This supply closet was to be my new home.

When I next woke, it was because the sounds of the rec-room piano reached my ears clearly: someone was playing with great technical facility, and singing along with equal ease. It was “Gangnam Style,” arranged for piano with incredibly insightful knowledge of harmony, pianistic texture, and virtuosity. It much resembled my work with arranging Joe Hisaishi’s music: but it was completely out of my league. I heard Number Two energetically belting out the vocal part, singing with a confidence and a tone that I could never manage. Cheers and clapping quickly followed these sounds, and I pulled the towels over my ears, blotting out all sound, and sunk again into oblivion for another long period.

And after that, Number Two came to call again. “Hey there!” he said excitedly. “Feeling better now?”

“I was fine in the first place,” I said testily. My eyes moved to the girl with Number Two. He followed my gaze and his charming smile went full power. “You know her! We’re going out now!”

My heart sank. I’d talked to her a few times, and that was the extent of it … “Congratulations!” I said, trying to subdue my annoyance. Number Two poked her affectionately and she giggled. I felt sick. “I’m sleepy,” I said shortly. “But you’ve slept – ” began Number Two. “Bye.” I shut the door on his protests. Just before the chink in the door narrowed to nothing, I caught a last glimpse of his face – marred with concern, sadness, and some disappointment. There was neither resentment nor frustration – but an incredibly pure desire to please me and to earn my approval. I felt sicker than ever, and pulled the towels over my head again.

Nobody came to look for me. I slept without interruption.

It was evening when I next woke, roused again by the rec-room piano. Number Two, live in recital, played F. Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat Major, Op. 53 – a piece very close to my heart. As with “Gangnam Style” – but in a different, more conservative vein – he played with an assertiveness that made the piece sound carelessly easy, but still marvelously musical. There were the rippling transitory chords, and then the main theme. I could hear myself playing, but it wasn’t me: it was better than me, superior in every way. A changing section, and the main theme again; then the running octaves which I never mastered, tossed off effortlessly by the infinitely more powerful hands of Number Two.

Thus passed the first five minutes of the piece. I could only admire, from inside the dark supply closet, the musical ability of Number Two.

And after the octaves, a heart-breakingly beautiful section, played at a delicate pianissimo that I thought impossible on that battered piano.

The music ended there for me. It petered down, quieter and quieter, but at any moment ready to return to the triumphant finale. I did not let it finish. I stuffed my ears again, pushing a firm stopper into the music. I would not be lied to: there was no joyous, conciliatory ending that made everyone happy. I shut my eyes and voluntarily jailed myself again in the dark. I didn’t want to wake up again.

A night later, I crawled out of the closet, in search of a glass of water. The sounds of the rec-room piano echoed gently up the stairwell, ghostly as the lunar glow. It was Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade, again arranged wondrously for piano. I slithered down the stairs, intrigued in spite of myself: only Number Two could play like that.

I stopped dead at the foot of the stairs: through the glass doors of the rec room, there she was, sitting at the piano with Number Two. They were staring into each other’s eyes – drat that Number Two, he didn’t even need to look at the keyboard to play that well. Their eyes closed, their faces drew together –

I turned and fled up the stairs, diving back into the mops and cleaning agents, pulling the towels over my head. I couldn’t bear to think about it.

Months later, I left my hidey-hole and found that Number Two had gone. He’d packed his bags and traveled elsewhere to continue his education, leaving a vacancy for me. But nobody had remembered to inform me; nobody had so much as noticed that I’d ever gone. They empty half of Professor Yano’s room was just assumed to be reserved for Number Two’s possible return.

The first few days, people kept mistaking me for Number Two, running excitedly up to me before noticing my shamble, my features, my acne, and slinking away with the quiet revelation that I had existed, still existed, even before Number Two came and even after he left. His girlfriend actually had one arm flung around me before she recoiled, a look of revulsion on her face, which she quickly wiped away. She gave me a cold smile, an empty apology, and turned to leave.

That hurt. I stood there, arms frozen in a half-hug.

At the end of the day, I locked myself in the rec-room, with only the piano for company in the dark. Clumsily, my hands found the keys for F. Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat Major, Op. 53. I did my best to duplicate Number Two’s performance – which was, after all, originally mine – but broke down in the running octaves. My left hand fell to my my side, limp and useless; my right forged on, out of rhythm and with all the wrong articulations.

And I broke through into that lyrical, heart-wrenching section. Only my right hand played; the piano degraded into a cheap music box. An exaggerated ritardando crept into the piece, and my right hand, too, fell to my side before I could return full force to the main theme. The music struggled and died.

What a depressing story. And now to more happy things: a pointless but heartening triumph for J39M.

William arbitrarily assigned us “subjects of study” based on colors we chose. I was shoved into sociology. But my power was the best, second only to Anita’s “lampshading” (English major).

For most of the game, I played defensive: I first used my charisma to gather most of the educated / wise people of the village. We fled to the hills and excavated an underground town for ourselves. Michael and the others paid no attention to this controlled disappearance.

From then on, I wove an intricate web of secrecy and shenanigans around the others, conveying all my moves to gamemaster William by typing them up on my laptop and letting him read them. Not only did I actually not use my powers to their fullest (according to Will – I wonder just WHAT I could have done), but I had the amazing advantage of numbers, and thus lack of constraint on the size and scope of my moves per turn. The first thing we did in earnest, though, was hold a formal name-changing ceremony for each and every one of ourselves, so that we no longer answered to our original names and could not know each others’ names any more. This was to prevent Anita, who had a “story-book” power, from manipulating us by name. Should she have made the move that “Julian will reveal himself, then kill himself,” there would be no effect, as there would be no “Julian” in existence to effect such an action.

Our tunnels grew ever more extensive and our social web stronger and stronger. It was a good move on my part to take the educated and wise with me; they gave my powers fiat, because they could be interpreted as “society,” whereas the other three acted mostly alone. My “social constructs” were given legitimacy by virtue of homogeneous agreement.

When Michael the shoe-maker cruelly transformed Marco into an expanding, oxygen-robbing cube, I asked a loaded question that carefully set the stage for our safety underground. To be sure, though, we built a system of expandable breathing tubes that would stick up out of the ground, high into the air, above the cube-of-no-oxygen, so that we could breathe in the worst-case scenario. Anita was turned into a potato, and then a block of uranium; Michael turned himself into a diamond human, immune to asphyxiation and most frontal assaults.

My people were trained in martial arts, so that we could fight to the last breath if need be.

Marco expanded to the very boundaries of the map (no, we couldn’t flee the country) and there he stopped. Michael, having exploded Anita, asked William if he could claim victory. “No, because Julian’s still alive,” said William, completely nonplussing the transforming duo. I kept a straight face and continued constructing my plans.

From there, I made two separate offers to Marco: sanctuary and freedom from his slavery, only asking that he cooperate with us in exchange. This offer was eventually withdrawn and Marco was allowed to be destroyed. But in that final turn before his destruction, I made some extra-sneaky moves: I redefined “life” in the game to mean possessing both consciousness and agency. Marco, lacking the latter, could be pronounced to be dead by my terms (as could Anita, who had been turned into pure energy). I began appending “by fiat of my powers” to the end of each move so that William would understand their social nature. As an extra pre-emptive move, I also assessed my karma against Michael’s and declared that my death was still my victory, having done nothing with ill will throughout any of the game, whereas Michael’s death would be an empty, meaningless thing.

All of this was, of course, done in secret, to prevent easy counters from the others.

Michael, as a final move, sent a burst of gamma-rays across the map, destroying pretty much everything. William left out the final detail: whether I was dead or alive. I was pretty far underground, apparently.

“Everyone’s dead,” said William carefully, “But Julian won.” This drew incredulity from the others; I laughed delightedly.

There was a lively debate for some time afterwards about the nature of winning, which didn’t go anywhere.


081: Trobled

Verb: trobled – Simple past tense and past participle of troble.

TODAY on flaglock: the witch-hunt – the troll-hunt? – continues in the little town of 6B32, and J39M has decisive trouble with Music 25A and with dreams.

Step, step step – pause. Wave the torch around. Try not to set the forest on fire. Step step step – pause. Wave the torch around. Try not to snag torch on nearby branches. Repeat ad infinitum, or until –

Marco paused, torch tilted in his loose grip. There was a tuft of gray fabric in the bush not a foot away. Could it be … ? His free hand shot out, gripped tightly – the torch straightened and stood upright at attention – and pulled –

It was an old sock. Marco pulled a face and threw it away. Several muffled crunches later, Anita appeared before him, torch in hand. There were leaves on her shoulders and in her hair; her glasses stood askew. “Anything?” she raised her eyebrows. Marco shook his head. “He’s not in this neck of the woods.”

“Totoro!” said Anita, adjusting her glasses. “Totoro!” she whistled piercingly (Marco flinched), as one would at a dog. “Come out, Totoro!”

Julian dashed haphazardly through the brush and shrubbery, Totoro clutched tightly to his chest. He snagged his foot on a root and tumbled into a roll, refusing to release his ward. He loosened his hold briefly, whispered into Totoro’s ear, and seeing it twitch nonchalantly, nodded and continued on, a little slower.

He broke free of the forest and was in the open air. Fifty meters ahead, a sandy road stretched onward into the gloom, over the hills and toward an implicit town in the distance. Julian stared, but not for long; he knelt in the grass and put Totoro down gently. There was an audible rubbery sound as his little (at his scale, invisible) feet touched the ground.

Totoro, too, turned around to look at the road ahead, but did not dwell on it. He faced Julian again, bag already slung over his shoulder. His eyes were still large, round orbs, unchanged by emotion.

“Here,” said Julian, “take this to her. She will understand.” He handed Totoro a letter, which disappeared into his sack, along with the many mixed nuts and other natural goodies inside.

Julian hugged him warmly. Totoro closed his eyes, and his whiskers bristled. When at last Julian let go, Totoro extended one stumpy arm and patted him on the head. The rubbery sound reprised itself. Julian shut his eyes, too, and nodded. He opened his eyes to Totoro’s bright smile, which he mirrored.

Totoro, still grinning like a cat, leaped well over a meter and got a running start; with another leap, he whirled about in the air and disappeared.

Dazed again, Julian stood up and stared out into the hills. He thought he saw the faint outline of a little fuzzy thing skirting over the grass with the wind. He watched a minute more, and turned away, setting a brisk jog back through the forest. He needed to be back at the hotel in ten minutes if he wanted a solid alibi.

And so they lived happily ever after – not really. The joke is that the camera cuts away before we can see all hell breaking loose.

William set both Michael and me another hypothetical problem, one that deserves thorough documentation. Michael had the “easy button” (ten-minute maximum, consciousness only) and I had God-mode Google Earth in a milkbowl. More about that next time.

A dream from last night cannot wait, though. As with many of my other dreams that take clearly defined form, the cast was altogether random. I threw myself into a sappy love story. With the girl who used to sit behind me in English class and sound sort-of-nice but still make me wonder vaguely if she was mocking me.

What’s more, it was not taken for granted that we had to be lovers: rather, she confessed to me, and I showed skepticism. At that, she even earnestly offered to prove to me in no uncertain terms (though post-dream, these “certain terms” don’t hold water) that she was enamored with me.

SOME kind of development happened; I’m not sure what exactly. But I woke up with the terrible bitter feeling of lost love. This feeling cannot be condensed, compressed into a single sentence: it is at once sadness, longing, confusion, and above all, hollowness, crystallized and buried at the core of your heart.

The upshot of this, though, is that it’s such strong, unadulterated emotion. You FEEL it hurting you, you feel it fading away and a new day of blandness coming upon you. It’s part of the bizarrely masochistic reason why I enjoy my strong dreams, even the nightmares – it’s the only place where interesting things happen without backlash.

Ah, yes, my struggles with Music 25A? All I want to say is that I eyeballed my classmates on day one; the crowd outside 124 Morrison was a motley crew. One of the girls stood out – very slender, long hair, not-very-happy-expression but a cute face, and not excessively extroverted. I filed her away in my internal cabinet for later reference.

Then the class preceding us cleared out of 124 Morrison, and we shuffled in. To my horror, the freshly filed girl went to the chalkboard and started erasing. She introduced herself as our GSI in accented English.

I raced to the cabinet and wrenched her file out, casting it into the acid pool at the backdoor reserved for such emergencies. What HAVE I done.


EDIT: I should take back what I said about dreams and emotion; last night I dreamed that Blechacz … well, it won’t happen, but in the dream … I was crying hysterically and nothing anybody could do (in-dream) could calm me down. I’m certain the rest of the world would mourn, too.

Get well soon, Rafał!