June 17, 2021

(++++) SPACED OUT

Cosmic Pizza Party. By Nick Murphy and Paul Ritchey. Illustrated by Bea Tormo. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 imposters). By Giles Sparrow. Welbeck Publishing. $14.95.

     Space is less a “final frontier” than a kind of goopy setting for assorted oddities and speculations in numerous books whose objective is to get the Earthbound to a better place, at least temporarily and in their imagination. The “goopiness” element is especially pronounced in Cosmic Pizza Party, a graphic novel featuring the usual odd assortment of characters thrown together as a team – in this case, for the sake of delivering the best pizza in the known (or unknown) universe, or at least in the Marinaris (“marinara,” get it?) System. Hint: read the back of the book first, since Bea Tormo’s over-the-top illustrations do not really make it clear that one central character is an “intergalactic sloth,” another a “robotic intern,” a third a “rocklike” being, and a fourth a “mecha-slug” – that is, a soft-bodied space slug snugly supported by a suitable space slug spacesuit. The end pages also show the interplanetary pizza truck used by the good guys for deliveries – and give some information on the inevitable bad guy, a three-eyed character called Papa Roni (“pepperoni,” of course) who stands for all that is evil in pizza delivery, including “I don’t really mean it” asterisks after each and every one of his supposed promises to pizza lovers. The five chapters by Nick Murphy and Paul Ritchey include one involving a search for the ultimate pizza cheese; one in which our heroes are sucked into a video game during a prince’s pizza party; one in which the synthetic inhabitants of a certain planet cannot eat pizza because they are unable to consume organic food, but find out that the trash from pizza deliveries can be the basis of some great meals; one in which planetary storms make deliveries nearly impossible; and one in which the good guys and bad guys confront each other on a game show called “The Slice Is Right.” It would be nice to say this is all inspired silliness, but there is nothing particularly inspired about Cosmic Pizza Party, although there is certainly silliness enough to give preteen graphic-novel fans who love pizza some pie-in-the-sky (ha!) enjoyment.

     Quirky in a very different way, and intended for adults rather than younger readers – although written in such a manner that teenagers and even preteens will find much of it accessible – the latest popular-science book by Giles Sparrow lands plunk in the middle of a large and ever-increasing pile of writings intended to present science simply enough for non-scientists to understand it, but accurately enough to prevent non-scientists from misunderstanding it. Every chapter of the book has references, which can be found at the back – this is de rigueur in a work professing to any level of academic solidity – and there are also plenty of footnotes. These, however, mirabile dictu, are often just as entertaining as the main text. Sparrow even includes his own references to comic strips, although not to Cosmic Pizza Party. At one point, for instance, a footnote relating to the shape of Earth goes, “Like Asterix’s best friend Obelix, Earth’s not fat, but its chest has slipped a bit – due to our planet’s fast spin, the Equator is literally trying to fly away into space.” True, René Giscinny’s Asterix comics are much better known in Europe than in the U.S., but since Sparrow is British, his reference is understandable – and could interest readers enough to send them to the Asterix saga as well as the astronomical one on which Sparrow focuses. Sparrow enjoys combining levity, and a touch of irreverence, with his serious comments on life, the universe, and all that. Another footnote, about the magnitudes assigned to stars, begins, “We’ve inherited this system from Ptolemy, so blame him…” Sparrow also uses chapter subtitles to bring science down to Earth (so to speak), as in a chapter called “Mizar (and Friends)” that is subtitled “A quick waltz among multiple stars.” This opens with a sentence that perhaps makes more sense in England than across the pond: “Stars, like policemen, often come in pairs.” And Sparrow continues, “the only thing your average star likes more than pairing up is hanging around in small groups, like surly teenagers kicking their heels on a celestial street corner.” And no sooner do readers get that image into their minds than Sparrow presents this expository footnote: “Having said that, the old assumption that singleton stars like the Sun are actually in the minority no longer seems to hold true… Curiously (and for reasons we don’t entirely understand) it’s bigger and brighter stars that tend to be multiples.”

     All of these quotations provide a fair sample of Sparrow’s A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 imposters), which mixes the chatty with the serious, the what-we-know with the what-we-don’t-know-yet, and throws in the occasional Britishism simply because that is Sparrow’s style and not because he is trying to confuse the poor benighted Americans (so when, at the end of the Mizar chapter, he writes that “it’s ticked off a series of remarkable firsts,” Americans should not think anything out there has been repeatedly angry at anything else). The 21 stars and three additional non-star objects (Omega Centauri, the Andromeda Nebula, and quasar 3C 273) that Sparrow discusses in this brief tour of the stuff out there do not fit any particular pattern except Sparrow’s own: he chose celestial objects that interested readers could locate in the sky for themselves with relatively little trouble and that demonstrate various properties that scientists study in much more excruciating detail. Variable stars, supergiant stars, black holes, nebulae, stars of different colors, even “the star on our doorstep” (the Sun) – all are here, all discussed in chapters packed with facts and mercifully minimalized math (that being the area where astronomers spend most of their lives when they are not spending them scanning the universe). Many famous and not-quite-as-famous scientists make brief appearances here, but Sparrow relentlessly focuses on their star-related discoveries rather than their personalities: the celebrities here are celestial, not Earthbound. Yet the intermingling of people and stars is often fascinating, as in his discussion of Annie Jump Cannon, a profoundly deaf scientist who, in the late 19th century, created a star-classification system that remains part of “astronomy basic training” for its neat encapsulation of star spectra, colors and temperatures, all neatly packed within the mnemonic, “Oh, Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me!” (The footnote here, after “Girl,” reads, “Or Guy, we’re not fussy.”) The highly personal nature of Sparrow’s book – even the maps of the night sky are hand-drawn – makes it as much a work of art as one of science, a view into Sparrow’s way of thinking as well as a view of the cosmos. It turns out that that is all well and good, because Sparrow has so wide a range of interests within the field of star study that readers will get carried into areas they surely never expected to visit on their own, from “Anatomy of a Black Hole” to “The CNO Cycle” (carbon/nitrogen/oxygen). Under the circumstances, the fact that the book lacks an index seems less an omission than an assertion that one need not go into full academic mode in order to communicate simplified (but not too over-simplified) versions of some extremely complex scientific concepts and findings. In his own way, Sparrow himself is a star.

(+++) OF SOUND AND NATURE

Gavin Bryars: A Native Hill. The Crossing conducted by Donald Nally. Navona. $14.99.

Carl Vollrath: Five Songs on the Text of William Blake; Love Songs; Variations in Verse–Rural Poems. Aliana de la Guardia, mezzo-soprano; Emalie Savoy, soprano; Yoko Hagino and Nathan Brandwein, piano; Timothy Phillips, clarinet; Philipp Stäudlin, saxophone. Navona. $14.99.

     There is nothing new about poets and composers exploring nature’s wonders and challenges, but many contemporary creators tend to bring a greater sense of urgency to the topic than prior ones did, given the vastly increased urbanization of humanity and the many threats to the natural world from human and other sources. Two new Navona discs feature composers tackling matters of nature in different ways and mostly from different angles. Gavin Bryars’ A Native Hill is a very extended (more than hour-long) a cappella cantata based on words by Wendell Berry (born 1934) and written specifically for The Crossing, the vocal group that performs it on this CD. Although the work is “much of a muchness” and does not really sustain at its full length – even voices as good as these tend toward a kind of aural monochromaticism after a while – it has many highly intriguing elements and will certainly interest performers and listeners seeking an experience somewhat akin to that of Henry David Thoreau, but updated for more-recent times. There are 12 sections in A Native Hill, with Berry’s words – prose, not poetry, although they are oftentimes poetic – detailing rural existence and its minutiae and also speculating on how the simplicity of nature reflects (and reflects on) the complexity of human life in general. This is thus a not-atypical philosophical study of how nature and human life intersect, interact, complement each other and are sometimes at odds. It is hard not to accept the underpinning and sought meaning of phrases such as, “when the mind wanders rather than the feet, one returns to the old route,” and “the streams are great collectors of comings and goings.” However, much of the pleasure of this recording comes from the sheer sound of The Crossing under Donald Nally, not (or not solely) from Berry’s words. Bryars (born 1943) wrote A Native Hill not only for the ensemble but also for specific voices within it, and his exquisite sensitivity to individual as well as grouped vocal performance shows through again and again. Bryars does not fear simplicity or tonality, and many sections of the work have a churchlike feeling about them – again, something not out of keeping with typical “nature’s wonders” music. But Bryars also knows when to sprinkle contemporary techniques and sounds in this music, from occasional humming and whistling to a highly chromatic opening of the final section, “At Peace,” which only gradually resolves into a feeling that matches the segment’s title. An hour-plus of unaccompanied vocal music setting words from a single essay is quite a bit by any standards, no matter how well-meaning Berry’s words and Bryars’ settings of them may be. A Native Hill is an immersive experience in many ways, not one that will fully engage many audiences – even very well-meaning ones – but one that will appeal strongly to lovers not only of the natural world but also of sensitively designed and characterized musical interpretations and explications of it.

     One of the three works by Carl Vollrath (born 1931) on a second Navona release has some parallels with A Native Hill. This is Variations in Verse–Rural Poems to words by John Gracen Brown (born 1936). This too is a lengthy series of movements – 14 of them – but most individual ones are quite short, so the whole collection lasts just a bit more than half as long as does Bryars’ work. Brown’s words are poetry rather than prose, so they come by some of their expressive effects naturally through the process of poetic creativity; and Vollrath sets them for a single voice (mezzo-soprano Aliana de la Guardia) and the interesting accompaniment of piano (Yoko Hagino) and saxophone (Philipp Stäudlin). The result is a kind of pervasive “poetic melancholy” throughout the cycle, with rather less of a philosophical overlay than in Bryars’ work and considerably greater use of modern compositional techniques, notably including dissonance (although most often resolved to consonance). The expressiveness of the music is tied, again and again, to specific sylvan scenes, from “Early Spring” to “The Coming of a Rainstorm,” from “Night Is Coming” to “Walk at Twilight.” There is certainly room here for some philosophical musings, notably in the final two settings, “On Leaving a Place in the Woods” and “Oh the Sky Is Deep Tonight.” But Vollrath’s work is more a piece of impressionism than one seeking symbolism beneath the natural scenes. The other two cycles on this CD focus, respectively, on human concerns and beyond them. Love Songs sets seven works by Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), a popular choice among composers seeking the bittersweet and attracted not only by Teasdale’s words but also by her tragic life, including her suicide two years after that of former lover and fellow poet Vachel Lindsay. Vollrath has Teasdale’s poems interpreted by soprano (Emalie Savoy), clarinet (Timothy Phillips), and piano (Nathan Brandwein) – and just as the inclusion of saxophone in the Brown cycle produces a dark and introverted overall tone, so the use of clarinet lends additional expressivity and occasional plaintiveness to a collection that includes “Barter,” “Faults,” “Child, Child,” “After Love,” “Gifts,” “Dusk in War Time,” and “Joy.” The cycle is effective – but the most interesting music on this disc features only mezzo-soprano (de la Guardia) and piano (Hagino), and uses the oldest words of all. This is Five Songs on the Text of William Blake, whose title interestingly does not say “texts,” thereby pointing to the notion that all the poetry of Blake (1757-1827) was somehow part of the same overarching theme. This is not far from the truth: Blake’s religious/spiritual mysticism, and his repeated use of simple language and extremely naïve scene-setting as a gateway to deep philosophical thoughts, are characteristic of all his poetic work (and indeed of his art, which is as remarkable and affecting as his poetry). It is in Blake that the nature focus of Brown and the human focus of Teasdale are combined – or were combined, since he predated them both. Again and again Blake brings a message of disappointment that at times devolves into despair: the “scorn” in “The Wild Flowers Song,” the too-intense seeking of joy in “Eternity,” the fleeing heavenly visitor that returns too late in “The Angel,” the “blind hand” of destruction in “The Fly,” the “invisible worm” that brings death to “The Sick Rose” – these are the feelings of the five poems set by Vollrath, all of which are handled with care and sensitivity by composer and performers alike. Like the Bryars disc, this one of Vollrath’s music will most appeal to a somewhat specialized audience, but will bring considerable pleasure through its thoughtfulness to lovers of contemporary settings of a wide variety of words with considerable variations in meaning and expressiveness.

(+++) HOW THE VOICES ENTWINE

Undertaker’s Songbook. Sons of the Never Wrong (Sue Demel, Deborah Maris Lader, Bruce Roper) and guest artists. Sons 3 Records. $15.

Gráinne Mulvey: Great Women. Elizabeth Hilliard, soprano. Métier. $9.50.

     There is a certain solidity to folk music, a certain timelessness to its simplicity, its straightforward rhythms, its frequent emphasis on storytelling above tunefulness. There is an underlying naïveté to the form, one that comes through even when the words of songs are more complex and less straightforward than usual. It is the combination of the naïve, the traditional, and the sophisticated – or at least problematic – verbiage that makes Undertaker’s Songbook interesting. These are songs that hint at meaning beyond the everyday, sometimes through their titles (Bob & Socrates, Om Not This Time) and sometimes through specific lyrics: “This land is made of reason, a million years, and all four seasons.” “I’ve been a witness, but I’m not sure just what I’ve been witnessing.” “In the end we’re all panes of glass that see the same things differently.” Some of the presentation by Sons of the Never Wrong is as traditional as it is possible to be: O Chocolay, for example, tells an entire mythic folk story in straightforward narration before the actual singing begins. And most of these 15 songs use the time-honored verse-and-chorus form that is integral to so much folk music. The singers blend throughout – with each other, with instruments, and with the words, often giving the songs a quality of eternal contemplation that makes this essentially simple, even simplistic music thoughtful in ways that transcend both the tones and the language. It is interesting how effectively this music speaks of music: “The lights are low, the song is over,” and “I used to be a singer, songs so hard to hear, but the melodies still haunt me all the same.” There are no especially haunting melodies in Undertaker’s Songbook, but there are words and thoughts that will stay for some time with listeners who gravitate to music of this type. And there are enough flickers of blues, rock and other musical forms to give many of the tracks some individual character. As a totality, the compositional simplicity belies an underlying thoughtfulness that is communicated all the more effectively because the musical means of doing so are, certainly on the surface, so forthright.

     The focus is equally solidly on vocals on a new Métier CD devoted to a single, 26-minute work by Irish composer Gráinne Mulvey. But the contrast in the way vocals are focused here could not be greater. Great Women is for a single voice (soprano Elizabeth Hilliard) and electronics, and it is neither more nor less than a basically straightforward presentation of the words of Irish women whose statements and deeds underpin the nation as it exists today. The audience for this hagiographic portrayal of Ireland and some of the past turmoil through which it became a modern nation is extremely limited, but the disc will surely speak with great feeling and meaningfulness to the very narrow listenership for which it is intended. Taped words from more than a century ago – from Countess Constance Markievicz and Rose Hackett – appear along with the much-more-recent words of two modern Irish presidents, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, plus Latin phrases put together by Mulvey. Hilliard, to whom Great Women is dedicated, contributes a variety of contemporary vocal techniques that range from text fragmentation to expressive vocalise. Mulvey’s work is a sociopolitical statement that does not really constitute a piece of music except in its partial use of select musical techniques. Its focus on verbal communication is every bit as strong as the focus of folk music – stronger, in fact, since there is not really anything significant to hear in Great Women except the words. If folk music tends to rely on intermingling of accessible verbiage with accessible tunes and harmonies, Great Women is more concerned with the intersection of the words of the present with the words of the past, with a modicum of musical/electronic reinforcement. An interpretative treatise for the Irish nation, Mulvey’s work exists in service to one country’s history – and is strictly for those deeply steeped in both the past and the present of that single nation.

June 10, 2021

(++++) SWEET!

The Big, Fun Kids Baking Book. By Food Network Magazine. Hearst Home Kids. $19.99.

     The biggest problem with this book is the table of contents, or rather the pages immediately after the table of contents. The TOC itself blandly lists the types of baked-goods recipes to be found on upcoming pages: Muffins & Quick Breads, Brownies & Bars, Cookies, Cupcakes, Cakes and Fake-Out Cakes. But the six following pages, which show pictures of the specific items in each section, are so delicious-looking that you can gain three pounds just by staring at them. And you can quickly get to a state of “paralysis by analysis,” trying to figure out just which scrumptious goodie to make first, and second, and third, and 17th, and…and, and, and (there are more than 100 possibilities!).

     What is particularly delightful about The Big, Fun Kids Baking Book is that kids who follow the recipes (which, it is worth mentioning, often would be greatly helped by some adult assistance – a great recipe for bonding time) really can end up with baked goods that look remarkably like the photos. Both the recipes and the pictures are that good and that accurate.

     This is not to say that everything in The Big, Fun Kids Baking Book is easy to do. Most baking, until you get quite good at it, is rather unforgiving of recipe deviations. The folks at Food Network Magazine make that point subtly at the start of this book, suggesting that readers who “like to throw a little of this and a handful of that into the pan and see what happens” will tend to be cooks (the audience for the previous volume, The Big, Fun Kids Cookbook), while those who like to “take your time, measure everything carefully and follow recipes just as they’re written” will tend to be bakers. That’s a pretty good distinction for the young and presumably just-learning-the-ways-of-the-kitchen audience for whom this book and its predecessor are intended. But that is not to say that young readers must slavishly follow the words here: some of those words are intended to promote creativity even as the book as a whole shows the importance of following baking recipes with care. For instance, in addition to recipes for several types of muffins and quick breads, there is a “Design Your Own Recipe” offering for banana bread, which gives the basic way to make a loaf but encourages five different possible mix-ins (such as nuts, dried fruit and chocolate chips) and provides three options for glazes. That’s a good start for the sort of adaptive behavior that enthusiastic bakers develop sometimes out of creativity (“what if I mixed this with that instead of that?”) and sometimes out of necessity (“how am I going to make frosting when I’m out of powdered sugar?”).

     The recipes in The Big, Fun Kids Baking Book are delicious-looking and -tasting, although it would have been nice if calorie counts per portion had been included – to give young bakers an idea of when a good thing becomes too much of a good thing. The book includes so many forms of yum that it will be hard for a young reader who gets started to stop making treats. Of course, that is the point (although moderation really is called for with many of these recipes – parents will have to provide it, gently). And the “fun” part of the title (a grammatical irritation: “fun” is a noun, not an adjective, no matter what social media [plural] say) shows up again and again. For instance, there are two pages called “Decorate Your Doughnuts” that display five very different and highly colorful approaches; and there are “Did You Know?” boxes scattered throughout the book with baking-related facts (Albany, Georgia, is home to more than 600,000 pecan trees; Oregon produces 99% of America’s hazelnuts; you can make an edible jigsaw puzzle out of sugar-cookie dough; a classic Oreo cookie is 29% cream and 71% cookie; and so on). There are also “Tips” that add a little suggestion here and there to the recipes: Birthday Cake Bars, for example, “will still taste great” whether finished off with store-bought frosting, or with the book’s frosting recipe, or with no frosting at all; and any cupcake can be made in mini form – you get about three times as many minis as regular-size ones.

     As for the section called “Fake-Out Cakes,” it is for somewhat more-advanced young bakers, featuring cakes that look like what they are not. There is a Chili Dog Cake, and an Ice Cream Sandwich Cake, and more – but these recipes are not for anyone in a hurry: it takes two hours to make the Spaghetti-and-Meatballs Cake or the Pineapple Cake, an hour and a half for the Egg-in-a-Hole Cake, and so forth. Still, there is something extra-tempting about working on a Taco Ice Cream Cake (one-and-a-half hours plus freezing time) or a Grilled Cheese Cake (one hour and 45 minutes). And what might young bakers do to stay occupied as the “Fake-Out Cakes” come into being? Well, a “Did You Know?” box says, “The average person in the United States eats about 35,000 cookies in a lifetime. How many do you think you’ve had so far?” The more-complex recipes allow plenty of time to count – indeed, to add to the count. But, umm, it wouldn’t hurt to go online before doing that and figure out just how many calories are in 35,000 cookies. There are, after all, limits to fun, even to the fun in The Big, Fun Kids Baking Book.