August 05, 2021

(++++) THE DESKTOP DICHOTOMY

Calendars (desk for 2022): Peanuts; The Good Advice Cupcake. Andrews McMeel. $16.99 each.

     Desks are in a bit of a quandary nowadays. The COVID-19 pandemic and its lockdowns led many “desk workers” to leave their offices, under duress or not, and work from home – maybe on kitchen tables, living-room furniture, beds, or other locations besides desks (although some of course could work on home desks). The increasing use of portable computers, from laptops to tablets to mobile phones (which nowadays are computers in miniature), has left people far less tethered to desks than in the past. There has even been talk of standard office work, including desk work, becoming obsolete as society, at least for “knowledge workers,” becomes more mobile. Realistically, that is not going to happen: a few years back there was talk of a “paperless office” as computer technology improved, but what happened was actually an increase in the volume of paper and an increase in paperless work. Yet certainly some aspects of the relationship between people and desks have been modified recently, and some new approaches have taken hold.

     Still, there remains a definite value to a physical location around which work centers and at which work can be done consistently and hopefully without significant interruptions from, say, children and cats. Certainly there remains value for many people in desktop computers, in part because their available large screens offer far more viewing space than anything portable can provide and make multi-window use, graphic design and other aspects of work much easier. Along similar lines, there remains considerable value in desktop calendars, or “monthly/weekly planners,” as they are now often called. Combine the space they offer for writing appointments and notes, the organizational capacity they provide in a way very different from that found in electronic appointment calendars, and the enjoyment they can deliver through extraneous but pleasing graphic elements, and you have calendars that definitely serve a functional and enjoyable purpose. And they do so with design elements that are different enough to attract people with all sorts of varying preferences. The 16-month Peanuts desktop planner, for example, offers a full year-and-a-third (September 2021-December 2022) of Sunday comics from Charles Schulz’s classic strip – those are the extended, six-to-10-panel ones in which there is time and space for more character development and a longer build-up to the final, climactic panel than in the briefer daily strips. The Peanuts strips appear at the top of each right-hand page in this nicely designed, open-flat book. The rest of that page and the entire left-hand page are given over to space for making notes – every day of every week gets the same amount of space, so weekend and vacation plans can be as easily noted as work meetings and requirements. Taking this calendar along during a work or pleasure trip is easy, too, and its built-in bookmark lets you keep track of where you are in the year, or where you need to make further notes. The colors chosen for this 2021-2022 planner are particularly pleasant – black and white and maroon – and will make it enjoyable to look at throughout the entire 16-month period that it covers.

     If you prefer somewhat more-up-to-date cartoon characters and a somewhat “funkier” design, consider a 16-month calendar featuring The Good Advice Cupcake, an Internet creation that has made a successful transition to the physical world along with a pet cat named Sprinkles (they both appear on the calendar’s cover). Cuppy the cupcake is particularly noteworthy for often being almost foul-mouthed, favoring four-letter and other curse words in which one letter has been replaced by an asterisk. There aren’t any of those in this desktop planner, though (except for one on the cover). In fact, there is no “good advice” here at all, except by implication: the illustrations (larger ones at the bottom right of each right-hand page, smaller ones at the top left of each left-hand page) are strictly pictorial. And they are often very funny and/or cute: for example, one showing Cuppy and Sprinkles wrapped in a blanket, with only their faces showing, is perfect for the January week in which it appears. This calendar’s design is different from that of the Peanuts desktop calendar in several ways: The Good Advice Cupcake book is spiral-bound, does not include a bookmark, does include a pouch on the inside back cover (handy for keeping receipts and such), and has space on every two-page spread not only for daily jottings and notes but also for “kick-ass habits” – which users are welcome to define as they wish. There is more bounce and brightness here than in the Peanuts planner, more use of multiple colors throughout, less room for actually writing things down, perhaps a greater sense of playfulness and a lesser one of character development and thoughtfulness. The reality, though, is that both these desktop offerings have a great deal to recommend them – probably to different people, or at least to people who want to show different sides of themselves when working at two different desks. Oh yes, two desks, perhaps one at an office and one at home, remain the norm for plenty of people, and that is unlikely to change even as technology continues to advance. The ability to find two highly functional desktop calendar books with designs and appearances as different as the 2021-2022 Peanuts and The Good Advice Cupcake planners shows that it remains quite possible, and quite desirable, for desks – wherever they are located – to reflect the personalities, not just the work assignments, of the people who use them.

(++++) O TEMPORA! O MORES!

Kid Beowulf #4: The Tarpeian Rock. By Alexis E. Fajardo. Kid Beowulf Comics. $19.99.

     “Oh, what times! Oh, what customs!” Yes, indeed: the fourth super-clever myth-and-history mashup by Alexis Fajardo mashes history and myth to an even greater extent than did the first three. In fact, it slices, dices, cuts, cubes, and recombines them, all in the service of yet another rousing story about the boy Beowulf (human) and his brother Grendel (big, green, and horned). The willing suspension of disbelief has to be even more willing here than in The Blood-Bound Oath, The Song of Roland, and The Rise of El Cid. All three of those earlier books took place more or less in the same time span: the events described in Beowulf date to about the 6th century, those in The Song of Roland to the 8th, and those in The Rise of El Cid to the 11th. All right, admittedly those time spans do not exactly overlap, but they are all in the period often called the Dark Ages (or early medieval times, if you prefer) – a time when, in Europe, Christianity was in the ascendant and then became the center of pretty much everything.

     The Tarpeian Rock, however, requires massive time travel by the central characters, back to 753 B.C., the year in which Rome was founded, and even to an earlier time, to provide some history of the tribal wars and relationships (known and mythic) predating the city’s creation. The way Beowulf and Grendel end up in this era – in which, as elsewhere in these books, they understand whatever languages are spoken to them and have no difficulty making themselves understood in turn – is never explained. Of course that is fine in a book written more for entertainment than for historical accuracy, but given Fajardo’s pleasing penchant for period presentation, it is simply more jarring than it would otherwise be to find Christian-era Beowulf and Grendel engaging in gladiatorial combat in pre-Christian not-yet-Rome.

     There was a saying in ancient Rome comparable to and a good deal more literal than the proverb “pride goeth before a fall” (actually “pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall”). The Roman phrase was Arx tarpeia Capitoli proxima, which translates as “The Tarpeian rock is close to the Capitol.” The rock was an execution site from which the worst criminals, specifically including traitors, were thrown, being denied the less-shameful method of death by strangulation. The saying was a warning to rulers and others who might be tempted to abuse power to the detriment of the state: do not get so full of yourself as to take advantage of your position and harm Rome, because it is a long way down (about 80 feet).

     Yet the Tarpeian rock does not figure at all in The Tarpeian Rock, although Tarpeia herself does – as a younger compatriot and companion of Romulus and Remus, whose fratricidal competition (which is not fratricidal in Fajardo’s graphic novel) led to the founding of Rome. Little is known of the historical Tarpeia, except that she apparently betrayed the proto-Romans (Latins) to their arch-enemies, the Sabines; was killed by the untrustworthy Sabines, who did not keep their bargain with her; and was eventually buried at the site of the Tarpeian rock – hence its name. There is none of this in Fajardo’s book; in fact, Fajardo is so preoccupied with creating a life for Tarpeia and rehabilitating her name that for most of the book she is the central character, while titular protagonist Kid Beowulf gets put on the back burner. Being an apologist for Tarpeia is, in Roman terms, a bit like being one for Judas Iscariot or Benedict Arnold in their respective contexts. But by making Tarpeia into a kind of little sister to Romulus and Remus, and giving her a willful and headstrong personality that leads her continually into trouble even when (especially when) she is trying to do the right thing, Fajardo turns her into an attractive linchpin for his story. In fact, he is so enamored of the character that by the time the book ends, he has split the anticipatory material relating to future books into three parts rather than two: Beowulf and Grendel are going separate ways for differing but interrelated purposes, and in addition there is a promise of much more to come with Tarpeia as a central character.

     There is nothing whatsoever wrong with any of this, of course. Playing fast and loose with history and literature is nothing new in graphic novels (or any novels). But Fajardo does play faster and looser with sources in The Tarpeian Rock than in his three previous Kid Beowulf tales. One obvious example: the notorious Rape of the Sabines, which certainly would not fit into a book aimed at readers as young as preteens, has to appear in some way, since it is crucial to the tale of Rome’s founding (it led to the near-war that resulted in a Latin-Sabine truce that in turn made Rome’s founding possible). So Fajardo makes it into part of a plot to reunite the devoted-to-each-other brothers Romulus and Remus – and then has elements of the temporary-abduction-for-ransom of the Sabine women go wrong in a way that leads to the accidental (decidedly not fratricidal) death of Remus.

     Even more than the three prior Kid Beowulf books, The Tarpeian Rock is best read as an adventure story and something of a romp. Unlike individual entries in other series to which it can reasonably be compared, such as Bone and the tales of Asterix, The Tarpeian Rock is not internally consistent: aside from the time-travel element, it is full of references to Norse gods (Odin, Loki, Sif) that make sense in Beowulf’s time and place but not in ancient proto-Rome; and while some anachronisms are clearly intentional and in good fun (fist bumps and signatures on souvenirs, for example), others seem to be oversights – although Fajardo’s usual homage to other comics and other media, in this case by displaying a hilariously varied set of swords of all provenances, is as clever here as in the earlier books.

     As in the three prior volumes, Fajardo does a first-rate job of plotting and pacing throughout The Tarpeian Rock. But he is badly in need of an editor to eliminate a slew of grammatical and spelling inaccuracies. To cite just half a dozen examples, “they’re attention” is on page 110; “your coming with me” on page 165; “you’re dopey friends” on page 167; “rember your name” on page 177; “passed” rather than “past” this place and that (twice) on page 215; and “never posses” rather than “never possess” on page 236. Fajardo started working on The Tarpeian Rock as long ago as 2017, so these errors have nothing to do with haste or meeting any sort of deadline. They are not really justifiable.

     Still, The Tarpeian Rock is a fascinating blend of facts (some), history (a bit), fantasy (a lot), and adventure (a lot), and it is also very well drawn. To mention just one example, the capture of the Sabine women occurs on a single page, divided into nine equal panels that collectively show an overall scene of part of the town while each individually focuses on one portion of the action of the women being taken into captivity – that is, the page encompasses two time frames simultaneously, no easy feat for any artist to accomplish. The book is also very well colored (by Jose Mari Flores). Certainly it has flaws, but it has many more pluses than minuses, and as a totality is a fine continuation of the Beowulf-and-Grendel-as-brothers concept that has now become, in addition, a canvas upon which Fajardo can depict the unlikely companions as characters who have “world enough and time” to explore eras other than their own.

(++++) THE PAST RECONSIDERED

Bach: St. Matthew Passion—No. 3, Herzliebster Jesu; St. John Passion—No. 14, Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück; Flute Partita, BWV 1013; Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 279; Sonata No. 1 for Solo Violin; Suite No. 6 for Solo Cello; Johann Rudolph Ahle: Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort—No. 5, Es ist genug. Mak Grgić, microtonal guitar. MicroFest Records. $16.99.

Martin Scherzinger: Etudes. Bobby Mitchell, piano. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     It is all too easy for performers skilled on a particular instrument to become self-indulgent in using that instrument to play music that was not intended for it – doing no favors to the composer or, for that matter, the performer. But every once in a while, a reinterpretation, in a very different form, of music that was intended to be played in a specific way, turns out to be intriguing enough to be worth exploring on its own terms. It may not exactly be revelatory, but it is engaging in its own right – and the unusual nature of the adaptation quickly becomes irrelevant as listeners simply enjoy the music being played without needing to think too deeply about ways in which it has been significantly changed to accommodate the instrument and performer. This is the case with a new recording featuring various Bach works performed by Mak Grgić on, of all things, microtonal guitar. This is an instrument capable of being tuned in smaller intervals than traditional guitars and Western instruments in general – that is, intervals beyond the usual tones and semitones. Microtonal instruments play what is, in  essence, an extension of the quarter-tones with which Western composers have long experimented; and microtonal music is actually quite common in nations including India, Indonesia and much of Asia. Western music, though, is not generally written in microtones except when seeking a specific effect, often one that audiences will hear as exotic; and Bach most definitely did not have anything microtonal in mind when writing the Passions or works for flute, violin or cello. However, it is well-known that Bach was deeply concerned about instrumental tuning: The Well-Tempered Clavier refers not to a “good” tuning but to tuning using a specific approach that allowed music to be played in all major or minor keys without sounding out of tune. For this recording, Grgić actually uses a type of tuning from Bach’s time, one created by Bach’s student, Johann Philipp Kirnberger (1721-1783). The tuning creates shading and emphasis in the sounds that are different from the ones to which listeners are accustomed – although the differences are generally subtle enough so they do not draw undue attention to themselves or to Grgić. The result is that the transcriptions that make up the entirety of this MicroFest Records disc sound very much like Bach (which of course they are), but with some differences of emphasis and tonal color that render the music neither better nor worse but subtly distinctive. Of course, hearing this material on a guitar, no matter how the guitar is tuned, is a trifle odd – but Bach is so often transcribed for so many different instruments that the solo-guitar approach in itself is not unnerving. Ultimately, the interest of this CD lies not in the use of a microtonal guitar and not in the use of Kirnberger’s tuning but, plainly and simply, in Grgić’s approach to the music. And that approach is sensitive and involving throughout. The very short excerpts from the St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion (each less than a minute long) are resonant and involving, the overtones in Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück being particularly affecting. The four dances that make up the Flute Partita, BWV 1013 are well-contrasted in sound as well as tempo, with the Sarabande in particular gaining in depth in this version. The gentleness of Christ lag in Todesbanden comes through effectively here, too. These versions of the extended solo-violin sonata and solo-cello suite may be a bit more of an acquired taste, if only because the music is so well-known and so often played that the distinctive character of Grgić’s performance on microtonal guitar takes more getting used to than is needed for the shorter works on the CD. Some effects in these works are, however, really striking, such as the opening of the Siciliana in the violin sonata and, in the cello suite, the quiet drama of the Prelude and the bounce of the Courante (which sounds as if it is being played on two instruments even though it is not). The disc concludes with a 90-second selection by Johann Rudolph Ahle (1625-1673) that brings the CD to a gentle close and shows that it is not only Bach’s music that can be effectively presented on an instrument of which neither the composer nor many modern listeners will likely ever have heard.

     There is nothing unusual about the instrument chosen by Martin Scherzinger for the 14 solo Etudes heard on a New Focus Recordings release – it is the piano. But there is something unusual about the music itself, which in its own way is just as much a revisiting and rethinking of the past as is Grgić’s offering of Bach works on microtonal guitar. What Scherzinger does in these short works – and one slightly longer one requiring two pianists – is to juxtapose music by well-known Western composers with rhythmic and other material from Africa (Scherzinger was born in South Africa in 1975 and raised there). This could easily become just another multicultural mingling of disparate elements that do not fit together at all well, but Scherzinger is not looking for a sprinkling of “exoticism” (whatever that might mean in this context) but for a genuine hybridization of material, and manages in multiple cases to come up with works that are wholly engaging in their own right, whatever their provenance. There is plenty of recognizable thematic material here, from Brahms, Chopin, Paganini, Schumann and others. But there is also a considerable amount of what could be called “spicing” that comes partly from Africa and partly from Scherzinger’s personal way of thinking about methods of fitting disparate musical pieces together. The works’ titles are at times over-clever, and some may even be off-putting, not to mention obscure: The Horse Is Not Mine, a Hobby Horse; Fast zu sorglos; Mbele ni Nyuma; Mbiras de St. Gervais. But unlike much contemporary music, in which the titles must be analyzed and understood before listeners can hope to figure out what a composer is getting at, these works by and large speak to audiences on their own terms, whether or not someone hearing the disc knows to what the titles refer. Actually, in some cases, the referents are clear enough: Chopi-Chopin is a fascinating reconsideration of Chopin, while Paganini, Piano Hero explores a theme well-known from many other composers’ explorations of it. Likembe-Liszt, on the other hand, is scarcely Lisztian in any obvious sense, being Scherzinger’s attempt to convey, on the piano, the sound of the lamellophone, an instrument that uses tuned metal or bamboo tongues and is related to the Jew’s harp. Some rather self-referential titles among these Etudes give listeners a few things to think about even while listening to the music unfold under the highly skilled hands of pianist Bobby Mitchell. Among such pieces are Rondo à la Rondo and the more-or-less-fugue Errata Erratica. And then there are single-word-titled pieces that pretty much speak for themselves: Occidentalism, which is gently lyrical and rather pretty, and Gigue, which is strongly rhythmic but extends rather than exemplifies the dance form of its title. Also here are two separate pieces called Verso il capo, both of which sound a bit like extracts of the French Baroque: one for solo piano that runs five minutes and one of twice that length played by Mitchell and Tom Rosenkranz. It is sometimes a bit hard to figure out just where Scherzinger is going with a piece and just what he is trying to communicate – but because the Etudes are musically effective in and of themselves, the uncertainty does not seem like one of those puzzles sometimes created by contemporary composers with the apparent intent of mystifying the audience. Instead, what Scherzinger delivers is musical portraits of various kinds, their subject matter often but not always derived from Western music or musical styles, but their overall effect – and effectiveness – being tied to the skill with which Scherzinger adapts material from earlier composers to his own sensibilities, all the while producing pieces that are pianistically satisfying and, unlike so much of today’s music, worthy of being heard repeatedly simply for the pleasure of engaging with the material and the skillful way Scherzinger handles it.

July 29, 2021

(++++) A BIT BEYOND FUN

Calendars (wall for 2022): Heart and Brain; Adulthood Is a Myth—A “Sarah’s Scribbles” Calendar; The Good Advice Cupcake. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.

     There is nothing unusual about wall calendars that feature comic strips and cartoons: they have been around for many years and have generally been designed to provide a touch of pleasant humor, or perhaps uplift, whenever you look at them. But some comics by today’s cartoonists are edgier than most of those of the past. This is the Internet age, after all, and many comics now get their start online – and the result is calendars that are edgier as well. Furthermore, a few 21st-century cartoonists have actually hit on topics that offer a touch more depth than comics usually do, and that translate well to wall-calendar format on a visual basis while also offering material that is a bit more thoughtful than average. Nick Seluk’s Heart and Brain is a good example. On the surface, it is very funny indeed: Seluk creates cartoon versions of a heart, with huge eyes and perpetual emotional attraction to instant gratification; and a brain, which wears rectangular eyeglasses and is always trying to analyze situations, plan ahead, and avoid the consequences of too much emotional attachment to momentary interests. Seluk also peoples the strip (“organs the strip” is closer to the truth) with cartoon versions of the lungs, tongue, eyes, liver, gall bladder, etc., giving each a personality reflecting the real-world functions of the real-world organs. Heart and Brain remain the center of the strip, though, and Seluk is effective at finding the many, many ways in which we everyday human beings are constantly pulled hither and thither by the conflicts inherent in having both emotional drive/attachment and intellectual concern/ability. The 2022 Heart and Brain calendar deals with the thought-vs.-emotion conundrum throughout every month – for 16 months, actually, since (like other Andrews McMeel wall calendars) it starts in September 2021, with the last four months of the current year appearing on a single page before the one-month-per-page layout starts in January. A perfect encapsulation of the heart-brain dichotomy is the four-panel September 2022 illustration, in which Heart wants Brain to channel Heart’s creativity into “something” that Heart “can’t really explain,” that is just “kind of a feeling” that Brain needs to make “tangible” – with the proviso that “it needs to be perfect or I will be very upset.” That is Heart and Brain in a nutshell. Some other months also offer four-panel interactions between the primary characters, with other body parts – tongue, muscle, lungs, stomach – showing up from time to time. And some months use only a single-panel illustration, which can be just as effective, amusing and thought-provoking as the four-panel series. In one of those, for April, Heart stands at one side of the panel with a few balls or balloons labeled “pro,” while Brain stands at the left with a much larger collection of them labeled “con.” Brain says, “Now do you see why it’s not the right decision?” And Heart answers, “I demand a recount!” Again, this is a great example of the underlying truthfulness of the whole heart-vs.-brain duality with which we all live all the time – and at the same time, given the characters’ words and expressions, it is certainly funny enough to provoke a wry chuckle each day of the month.

     Sarah Andersen’s Sarah’s Scribbles comics also exist simultaneously in the real world and the cartoon universe. At its simplest, Andersen portrays the 21st-century life of a twentysomething woman. But things are never quite at their simplest in this somewhat surrealistic strip. And the design of the Adulthood Is a Myth 16-month wall calendar for 2021-2022 is quite unusual. Each page features a large, full-color single panel, within which are nestled multi-panel black-and-white sequences that relate very little (in fact, usually not at all) to the large, color art. This lets Andersen express emotions, thoughts and concerns on, quite literally, two different levels, and the result is striking and a touch odd (a pretty good description of Sarah’s Scribbles in general). The full-color November illustration, for example, shows cartoon Sarah in a riotously colorful kitchen, happily flipping an egg in a frying pan; the four-panel black-and-white strip within the color panel has Sarah arriving in Heaven, where an angel says, “Here’s your dog,” leading cartoon Sarah to ask, “Where’s my cat?” The final, wordless panel shows plenty of cats, apparently dancing in a circle, surrounded by – flames. Who needs words for that? Certainly not cat owners! Then there is the March color panel, showing a very small cartoon Sarah feeding a treat to a snail that sits atop a mushroom – a kind of “Sarah in Wonderland” scene. The four-panel black-and-white strip here has full-size cartoon Sarah watching a TV show and “seeing a still that’s constantly used as a meme” online – and remarking, with wonder, “A meme in its natural habitat.” It takes a bit of thought to “get” that – which is the whole point. And in the February color panel, cartoon Sarah sits in a comfy chair, surrounded by shelves of books (yes, books!), quietly reading. In the two-panel black-and-white insert, Sarah is wondering what language to read Goethe in, given that “I am dumb in 3 languages.” That puncture-one’s-own-pretensions approach is one of the many charms of Sarah’s Scribbles and, as a result, of this calendar – which includes a bonus page of a dozen stickers, suitable for use as reminders or amusements (one shows cartoon Sarah with a stack of cookies taller than she is; one has her in a Halloween costume; one has her playing guitar; etc.).

     Stickers are also an extra feature of the 2021-2022 calendar focusing on The Good Advice Cupcake, a distinct Internet-era creation that goes against the “anything goes, preferably in four-letter words” character of so much Web interaction. Cuppy (whose cat is named Sprinkles) is a pink-topped, huge-eyed, pithy commentator given sometimes to short observations and sometimes to short profane observations in which, unusually for the 21st century, asterisks are used to disguise (admittedly very mildly) the profanity being uttered. Much of what Cuppy says is funny precisely because the profanity is very slightly and very ineptly disguised – in the Internet world, such language is very rarely toned down to even the slightest degree. Whether or not Cuppy is using asterisks, though, the comments and exaggerated cupcake appearance make this calendar fun all year. In June, for example, Cuppy is seen relaxing in a kiddie pool, sporting an obviously unnecessary flotation device and wearing big sunglasses; a wine glass and pizza slice are next to the pool; and the caption is simply, “Living the dream!” The very next month, July, on the other hand, shows Cuppy actually melting (although still smiling) beneath a huge sun, with the caption, “You’re hot as f*ck.” Silliness abounds here: in February, Cuppy is insisting on holding Sprinkles even though the clearly distressed cat is grimacing and has scratched and clawed Cuppy abundantly; here the entire background consists of hearts, and the words are, “You’ll never escape my love.” And then there is April, with Cuppy sitting on the lap of the Easter bunny (in a Santa-like scene) and saying, “Bring me so much chocolate that I pass out.” Cuppy’s mixture of cuteness and almost-foul-mouthed expression may be a bit of an acquired taste, but those who already know the character will certainly enjoy all of Cuppy’s calendar appearances – and those who do not yet know the pleasures of an Internet-based talking confection will find this calendar a pleasant and, really, rather sweet introduction to a pleasant and, really, rather sweet cartoon.