January 31, 2019
Where’s the Llama? An Around-the-World Adventure. By Frances Evans. Illustrated by Paul Moran. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
It probably seems as if it has been at least 30 years since parents and kids first encountered Where’s Waldo? That is only because it has been 30-plus years: the first of the immensely popular search-and-find books appeared in 1987, in England, as Where’s Wally? In the three decades since, Waldo (U.S./Canada) or Wally (England and elsewhere) has shown up just about everywhere, initially as the only person in the books and then with a growing cast of one-time characters and an increasing number of recurring subsidiary “find them, too” people (Odlaw, Woof, Wizard Whitebeard and others).
The search-and-find concept in books for kids (and adults) was nothing new when Martin Handford created Where’s Wally? But Handford’s cleverness in the illustrations and his method of dressing Wally/Waldo in readily identifiable red-and-white-striped clothing – then putting in a variety of other red-and-white-striped objects to mislead would-be Wally/Waldo finders – made the books extra-enjoyable. And the concept spread over the years into a wide variety of other “find this or that” books by a wide variety of authors and illustrators.
And now it has spread to, of all things, llamas. That’s llamas, plural. Yes, the Frances Evans/Paul Moran book is called Where’s the Llama? But there are no fewer than 10 llamas to be found here, in every single illustration: Beatriz, Eduardo, Rosa, Luis, Elena, Carlos, Daphne, Ricardo, Nelly, and Hector. All are introduced at the book’s start, and all are distinctive in appearance: Beatriz, the group leader, is white with a brown patch on her back and brown ears; Luis looks as if he is wearing a tuxedo and actually does wear a bow tie; Ricardo sports a Mohawk and leather jacket; Hector is a cria, a juvenile llama, and is two-tone; and so on. Unlike Wally/Waldo, the llamas are not simply visiting various spots where readers need to find them: they “are doing their best to blend in” everywhere, which means they can be even more difficult to track down than Wally/Waldo. And readers need to look for all 10 of them everywhere, so this is quite a quest.
It is also a great deal of fun, because the book really does hopscotch around the world. It opens at Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, moves to super-crowded Miami Beach, then heads to a New York City art gallery, and so on. Evans provides hints that are not quite as helpful as they might at first seem. For instance, at an amusement park in Ottawa, Canada, “Eduardo wants to go on the merry-go-round, while Beatriz and Elena have agreed to take Hector for a nail-biting ride on the flying swings.” That offers a general idea of the places where those specific llamas should be found, but the key word is “general,” since it turns out that there are a lot of areas near the designated attractions that need to be searched.
All the searching is fun, though, which is the whole point. The llamas go to a desert music festival, a Dutch tulip garden, a street market in Berlin, and elsewhere around the world, and they really do a good job of blending in with the locals – or rather, Moran (aided in some of the art by Gergely Fórizs, Jorge Santillan, Adam Linley, and John Batten) does a good job of blending them in. There are some major find-them challenges here, but the artists are fair: all the llamas can be found everywhere with some very attentive searching. The most-difficult and funniest illustration of all is the very last one, “Llama Land,” in which the 10 travelers have returned home to be welcomed by “llamas from all over the country” – which means, yes, picking out 10 specific llamas from a two-page illustration containing lots of them. And if the difficulty of finding the llamas in any picture turns into frustration, there is an easy solution: turn to the back of the book, where answers to all the find-them puzzles are offered. But even those answers are not just answers: each solution is accompanied by a “Spotter’s Checklist” suggesting that readers find certain other, non-llama objects or characters in each of the book’s locations. The result is that Where’s the Llama? is highly enjoyable from start to finish – and how finished is a book like this, really, when even the solutions contain more puzzles? Answer: only as finished as readers/searchers want it to be. Llesson llearned.
Jan Jirásek: Choral Music. Bonifantes Boys Choir & Czech Soloist Consort conducted by Jan Míšek. Navona. $14.99.
I Carry Your Heart: Music for Chorus. University of South Dakota Chamber Singers conducted by David Holdhusen. Navona. $14.99.
The words of the past often inspire the music of the present – in fact, this has been true for “present-day” music for hundreds of years. Czech composer Jan Jirásek (born 1955) takes homage to and reinterpretation of the past to new levels in his choral works on a new Navona CD. He does this by taking traditional spiritual texts from several different religions and juxtaposing them – having the words sung by boys’ choirs, thus implying the continuing relevance of the material and also turning it into a hope for continuity into the future. This is a lot of freight for music to bear, and the recording does not quite attain the sublimity and meaningfulness for which it strives, despite the very fine performances throughout and the skillful conducting of Jan Míšek. Part of the issue here is that Jirásek pays such careful tribute to the past that his music, as music, tends to seem mired in it. The first part of the three-section CD, Missa Propria, includes three settings from the traditional Latin mass – and while they are offered with suitable deference to the material and a good sense of writing for chorus, there is nothing particularly distinctive about them. The disc’s second section, Mondi Paralleli, is more interesting and gets to the heart of what Jirásek is trying to do. Here the composer starts by setting additional material from the Christian liturgy, then has the boys’ voices add these words to ones from Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. For example, the Latin Miserere and Jewish Avinu malkenu are combined in one section, the Latin Te Deum laudamus and Buddhist Om ah hum in another. These mixtures, however well-intentioned, come across as curiosities rather than strong arguments for a kind of multi-religious ecumenism. The elements of Mondi Paralleli are interesting and often partake of a more-contemporary feeling than those of Missa Propria, but the sincerity of Jirásek’s settings never translates into a strong philosophical/spiritual argument. The third part of the CD is called Tam, kde sláva nepřestává and speaks directly and specifically to Jirásek’s Czech heritage. Here the voices – accompanied at times by percussion – explore specifically Czech elements of religious life and how they are interwoven with the nation’s history and its current circumstances. For anything but a Czech audience, this is very rarefied material indeed, unlikely to have much impact or emotional resonance – although here, as throughout the CD, Jirásek’s very effective choral writing is a greater attraction than the religious and cultural points he is trying to make.
There is no specific intellectual or emotional point being made by the University of South Dakota Chamber Singers under David Holdhusen on another new Navona CD, this one titled I Carry Your Heart (the name of a work by Connor Koppin – one of the 18 tracks on the disc). This is a hodgepodge of a recording that is clearly intended to focus on the quality of the chorus and its capabilities in presenting music by a variety of contemporary composers. It is therefore a disc that will appeal to listeners interested in fine choral singing for its own sake – but the disparate approaches and topics of the music make the whole thing seem more than a trifle disconnected. There are some spiritual elements here, for example, not in traditional Mass sections but in Sicut Cervus, a psalm setting by Jonny Priano, whose Lullaby and Remember are also sung on the disc. Along similar lines are two different versions of the Lord’s Prayer: Die Onse Vader, an Afrikaans version by Zander Fick, and Otche Nash, a Russian Orthodox version by Alexander Gretchaninoff. But these items are widely separated on the CD, appearing pretty much at random among pieces drawing on African-American spirituals and on works based on the poetry of e.e. cummings and Sara Teasdale. Languages vary pretty much at random, too, with, for example, Hebrew (Dirshu Adonai by Kenneth Lampl and Kirsten Lampl) immediately followed by Stacey Gibbs’ arrangement of Sit Down Servant, and the aforementioned Sicut Cervus preceded by another Gibbs arrangement, Ain’t That-a Rockin’. For listeners simply interested in the polished sound of the ensemble and the smooth, often quite lovely touches in certain of the tracks (e.g., solo voice, percussion, solo quartet, two violins), this recording will be a pleasant potpourri. It does not seem to aspire to be much more than that – and that will be enough for fans of fine choral singing. Listeners hoping for something better-organized or more clearly thematic, though, may be disappointed at the rather disjointed totality of the material.
January 24, 2019
Will Giraffe Laugh? By Hilary Leung. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.
Mr. Wolf’s Class #2: Mystery Club. By Aron Nels Steinke. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
Hilary Leung has assembled a delightful cast of board-book characters and is marching them one by one through simple, funny and very pleasantly drawn adventures, the latest being Will Giraffe Laugh? Each of the books has a question as a title. So far, she has produced Will Bear Share? And Will Sheep Sleep? And Will Ladybug Hug? Everything starts with some sort of mild, age-appropriate trouble, and everything is happily resolved by the end of the book. In the case of Giraffe’s book, the title character is first seen in bed – half in it, anyway – looking rather sleepy-eyed and being described as “grumpy.” So his five friends – Bear, Sheep, Ladybug, Crocodile and Frog – decide to cheer him up. Easier said than done! Bear tries a juggling act that ends with a toilet plunger on Giraffe’s head. Crocodile opts for sock puppets, one of which manages to get onto, and almost into, Giraffe’s nose. Sheep tries making a balloon animal, but it gets loose, flies in a crazy pattern, and slams right into Giraffe’s eye. “Ouch! No.” Frog goes for funny faces, using his long and sticky tongue to advantage. But it is too long and sticky, and Giraffe ends up wrapped in it. “Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.” Ladybug gives Giraffe a pretty flower – which makes Giraffe sneeze. Everyone fails and everyone is miserable – so miserable that Giraffe feels really, really bad and decides to cheer up the whole group. That goes about as well as expected, with Giraffe falling down a slope into a mud puddle. But that is funny, and now everybody laughs, Giraffe included. The only slight problem comes at the very end, after everybody jumps into the mud to join Giraffe: sighting a tasty bug, Frog sends out his long, long, sticky, sticky tongue, and – oops – everyone ends up wrapped in it. The tongue even spells out the word “oops.” The whole romp is delightful, and it fits well with the three earlier books in the series – although each of them is entirely independent. The only real question is what Leung will come up with for the two friends who do not yet have their own book titles. For one of them, there is a pretty straightforward guess: Will Crocodile Smile? But what rhymes with “frog”? Hmm. How about Will Frog Blog?
The titles are not in question for Aron Nels Steinke’s graphic-novel series about assorted wide-eyed animals attending school together: each entry is Mr. Wolf’s Class. Thankfully, the second book in the series, Mystery Club, is a good deal better than the first and gets a (+++) rating. The first book was so focused on the everyday realities of going to school that it was simply dull: nothing happened to or with the animal characters to distinguish them or to offer human readers any experiences beyond the ones they would themselves have in fourth grade. That may have been Steinke’s point, but if so, it did not work. Fourth-graders did not need to read the first book – they were living it. Third-graders who picked it up would get little to look forward to in fourth grade. And fifth-graders would not have wanted to read it – it would have been old news to them. Mystery Club is somewhat more interesting and somewhat funnier, too: the two different ways in which Mr. Wolf gets accidentally spattered with drinks are high points. Most of what happens here, as in the first book, is strictly quotidian: tardy slips, gym class, hall passes, outdoor activities, and classroom work. The Mystery Club designation has to do with some students getting together to try to figure out what happened to a missing Frisbee, whether the girls’ bathroom is haunted, and why a teacher from the previous year is no longer at school. The answers are inconsequential: the toy was accidentally thrown over a fence, the bathroom is just fine, and the teacher retired. But Steinke uses the “club” notion simply to show ways in which students – whether they are human or just happen to be a mixture of animals – relate to each other. In the main, Steinke bends over backwards to make the cast diverse (it is hard to be sure who is male and who is female) and politically correct (one student has “two mothers”). But there is an oddity here in a subplot: all the animals work and play happily together, but all are worried and frightened by rats, which appear occasionally during the story and are themselves dressed in the same sort of human clothing as everyone else. There is no explanation for the omission of rats from the all-inclusiveness and 100% toleration of the book – and the attitude is even less understandable when it turns out, at the book’s conclusion, that the rats as well as the classmates throw birthday parties for each other. The other off-putting oddity here has to do with the drawing style. Steinke draws a number of characters, including Mr. Wolf, in cubist profile, with both eyes and mouth clustered on the same side of their noses. This is fine and is a standard cartooning style. But Steinke sometimes has difficulty with it and runs into perspective trouble. On page 83, Mr. Wolf’s smile and the eyes behind his glasses are positioned in such a way that his nose, sticking out to the left, looks like a gigantic wart. On page 126, there is a similar error involving Mr. Wolf’s eyes and smile: kids can put a finger over the sticking-out nose to see what looks like a properly drawn cartoon face. And on page 153, the story’s final one, three birthday-party rats all have the same perspective mistake, the one in the center most of all: that one’s appearance is truly grotesque. Steinke is not drawing the characters this way for purposes of deliberate exaggeration, since the same characters appear elsewhere in correct proportion and with their features spaced and oriented properly. It may be that Steinke is still finding his way as a cartoonist in these graphic novels, just as his characters are supposed to be finding their way through the everyday world of fourth grade.
Stas Namin: Centuria S-Quark Symphony. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lee Reynolds. Navona. $14.99.
John Psathas, arranged by Omar Carmenates: Percussion Project, Volume 1. Navona. $14.99.
Matthew Burtner: Glacier Music—Ecoacoustics of Glaciers. Rivanna Quartet (Daniel Sender and David Sariti, violins; Ayn Balija, viola; Adam Carter, cello); Albemarle Ensemble (Kelly Sulick, flute; Shawn Earle, clarinet; Katy Ambrose, horn; Greg Howard, Chapman Stick); Brandon Bell and Trevor Saint, percussion. Ravello. $14.99.
The pleasures of hearing some compositions lie primarily, if not entirely, in the way the music sounds. Even when a traditional orchestra is used, even when a work has an intellectual framework and reason for being, sometimes what is most attractive about it is simply the way in which its composer brings instruments together and uses them to produce particular effects. That is the case with Stas Namin’s Centuria S-Quark Symphony, a single-movement, 47-minute work heard on a new Navona CD as played by the ever-reliable London Symphony Orchestra, here conducted by Lee Reynolds. Namin has produced a percussion-heavy orchestral work, filled with fanfares and multiple themes that are scattered around a piece written more or less in sonata form. But even though the form is discernible, even though the early part of the music is tonic and leads into greater and greater dissonance and atonality over time as Namin tries to communicate a rising tide of discord, the music works best when simply heard as a very extended presentation of multiple themes and sections – sometimes by instrumental groups, sometimes by individual instruments – in which the composer explores the very wide variety of sounds that a symphony orchestra is capable of producing. Namin wants the piece to be fraught with meaning: the title combines a word for “prediction” with a reference to subatomic “strange quarks.” His basic idea, structurally, is to introduce theme after theme, explore each individually and in combination with others, then eventually have the themes overlap to such an extent that they are virtually bereft of individuation and become, in effect, a massive gout of mixed sound. Having built to this point, Namin stops everything – literally: the orchestra goes silent. And then he starts things all over again, as if to indicate that even if matters deteriorate to the point of explosive dystopia, something new and presumably better will arise from the ashes and maybe, just maybe, lead to a better conclusion. It is very philosophical and all that, but the music does not really support the underlying thesis particularly well. Namin extracts a wide variety of sounds from his large orchestra, and the basic progress (if it is progress) from tonality to atonality, from concord to discord, is clear enough. But the symphony goes on and on, extended far beyond the point of audience involvement, and it rises to so many climaxes – punctuated again and again by vast percussive outbursts – that it becomes difficult to figure out its overall arc. On the other hand, if listened to simply as an exploration of orchestral timbre, without regard to the underlying meaning that Namin is trying to convey, the work is reasonably effective: it becomes a series of episodes, each building to a climactic point, none having inherently greater importance than any other. Listening to Namin’s Centuria S-Quark Symphony this way may undermine the composer’s intentions in writing it, but it makes the work’s considerable length and its episodic nature much easier to accept and enjoy.
Sound for its own sake is also very much the province of the collaborative Percussion Project, Volume 1, in which Omar Carmenates arranges a variety of works by contemporary Greek composer John Psathas for various forms of percussion. Two of the pieces, Corybas and Aegean, were original for piano trio. There is a Piano Quintet that Psathas intended as a tribute to four other composers: Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke, Jack Body, and J.S. Bach. There are four Drum Dances (originally for drum kit and piano), Muisca (originally for guitar), Matre’s Dance (originally for violin solo), and Jettatura (a piece whose title refers to a Greek superstition about the “evil eye” and is itself a work that Psathas says was intended to protect him against it). The various performers handle the percussion-ization of all this material with considerable skill. Carmenates himself is a major participant, playing vibraphone, percussion and marimba at various times. Others featured are Daniel Koppelman (piano), Justin Alexander (drum set), Ryan Patterson (marimba), Emma Gierszal (marimba), and Justin Lamb (marimba and vibraphone). This Navona CD will clearly appeal to listeners already familiar with Psathas’ music and interested in hearing some of his works in novel instrumentations. But it will be less clearly appealing to an audience that does not already know Psathas. Some of the percussion arrangements are affecting and quite successful: Corybas, based on a Macedonian dance with very complex rhythms, is fascinating. But some of the arrangements are at best capricious and unconvincing, such as the Piano Quintet. Others are all right but not especially compelling, such as Drum Dances. The three movements of Muisca offer a pleasant but ultimately over-long opportunity to hear the interwoven sounds of vibraphone and marimba. Matre’s Dance is nicely rhythmic, but it too overstays its welcome. Jettatura, whatever its talismanic properties, is another interesting exploration of marimba and vibraphone sonorities, while Aegean has a pleasant delicacy about it but lacks the rhythmic inventiveness of Corybas. As a whole, the disc is best listened to as a sonic exploration: anyone who is not already a fan of Psathas’ music will at least find here some nicely balanced and often interestingly conceived percussion mixtures that are intriguing to hear on their own, whatever their original provenance.
Sonic display is the whole point of Matthew Burtner’s Glacier Music on a new Ravello disc. These five electroacoustic works combine acoustic and electronic instruments with recorded sounds of glaciers from Burtner’s native Alaska. Burtner sees this music as a celebration of glaciers and an appeal to preserve them despite a warming climate that is causing them – some of them, anyway – to disintegrate more quickly than they otherwise might. To environmental activists, the sounds of water and snow, intermingled with those of the instruments (including the Chapman Stick, which is a bit like a guitar, a bit like a piano, a bit like percussion, and electronic into the bargain), may represent a clarion call to conservation. To others, the sounds of running and trickling water are as likely to seem intrusive into the instruments’ audio (and may make those with full or weak bladders head for the bathroom). Two of the works here are very extended indeed: Muir Glacier, 1889-2009 lasts 26 minutes, and Sound Cast of Matanuska Glacier goes on for 23. The overall sound of the music is minimalist, with very slow or no development; indeed, much of Burtner’s material is difficult to classify as music at all, consisting as it does almost entirely of recorded natural sounds. The shorter pieces come across somewhat better simply because they do not drag on and on at a pace best described as, well, glacial. Sonic Physiography of a Time-Stretched Glacier runs 11 minutes; Syntax of Snow goes on for only nine; and Threnody (Sikuigvik) lasts a mere five. It is easier to imagine these pieces accompanying films about glaciers or museum exhibits on the water-and-ice cycle than to think of them as concert works in any meaningful way. As tributes to Alaskan glaciers, they are effectively imitative and interpretative; as environmental works, they are unlikely to convince the not-yet-convinced or to show those committed to Burtner’s way of thinking anything specific to be done about glaciers. Heard simply as sound, though, they certainly have their moments. Syntax of Snow is aurally the most interesting piece, combining a glockenspiel with amplified sounds made by touching, grabbing and performing gestures on and in snow. As a whole, this is a CD of very limited audience reach: only those who pick up on its environmental message – and who also appreciate minimalist, background-style music – will be likely to find it appealing.
Hakan A. Toker: Arrangements of works by Beethoven, Satie, Henry Mancini, Hubert Giraud, Bach, Paul Desmond, Dvořák, Mozart, and Nat Simon. Hakan A. Toker, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Peter Lieuwen: Music, Volume 3—Sarumba (2015); Chamber Symphony (2013); Quad Concerto (2015); Concerto Alfresco (2013). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Music for Horn and Piano by Sixten Sylvan, Jean-Michel Damase, Leslie Bassett, and York Bowen. Ian Zook, horn; Eric Ruple, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The type of enjoyment associated with classical music is often thought to be so rarefied that it is available only to a small subset of listeners, the remainder needing the more immediately accessible approach of various forms of pop music as their everyday fare. But classical music was everyday “popular” music for a long time – even opera was the equivalent of a multimedia extravaganza – and every once in a while, glimmers of fun peep through in ways that may, just may, garner a new audience for classical works. Sometimes this happens because people hear Carnival of the Animals (which was even made into a Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck cartoon), or encounter Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia, or hear familiar themes by Rossini from William Tell or The Barber of Seville. At other times, it can be attractive to encounter deliberate sendups of the classical-music world, whether through Peter Schickele’s “PDQ Bach” or through the playfulness of Hakan A. Toker – the latter being the subject of a new Navona recording. Toker’s treatment of classic scores ranges from sendup to genuine reinterpretation, and he knows musical approaches – classical, jazz and improvisational – well enough to make most of the works here sound intriguing and some of them genuinely new. Elise’s Got the Blues, based on Beethoven’s piano miniature Für Elise, is fairly straightforward as soon as Toker starts hitting “wrong notes.” And Gnossienne Czardas, after Satie, is mostly a slightly iconoclastic take on a composer who was an iconoclast already. However, Moon River Invention, based on Henry Mancini, is delightful, with “invention” here referring to the musical form so often used by Bach: this is a work that Bach could have written if he had come up with the familiar Mancini theme. Toker next takes to the harpsichord, not for Bach but for Sous le Ciel de Versailles, based on music by Hubert Giraud that will likely be less familiar to listeners than the Mancini tune. For the rest of the CD, Toker combines his own piano playing with contributions from other instruments and performers. He turns directly to Bach for Toccata & Fugue in Blue, which handles Bach along more or less the same lines as Beethoven and which includes drums played by Hakan Çetinkaya. Next is Take Five or More, based on Paul Desmond’s highly catchy, already jazzy tune, and combining piano with tabla, played by Gürkan Özkan. Then comes a trio called When My Ma’ Sings to Me, based on Dvořák and including both double bass (Mehmet Sönmez) and drums (Çetinkaya again). And then Toker expands into three forays into full-fledged chamber music, the first two based on Mozart. Rondo Turchissimo opens with the original Rondo alla turca piano solo and rapidly expands into a colorful mixture with a very definite Turkish flavor, undoubtedly made extra-effective by Toker’s own Turkish ethnicity. Included here are B-flat clarinet (Aykut Sütoğlu), zurna (Vedat Dinletir), kanun (Bilal Kızıllar), ud (Tolga Karaslan), double bass (Sönmez again), and hand percussions (İsmail Darıcı and Çetinkaya). The piano original sneaks in cleverly from time to time. This piece is the high point of the CD. What follows is Rondo alla Latino, which starts from the same Mozart music and gives it the flair of Latin dance – to somewhat less intriguing effect that the prior arrangement. Here the instrumentation is strictly Western, including two trumpets (Ömer Dağaşan and Enes Nalkıran), French horn (Begüm Gökmen), trombone (Burak Dursun), tuba (Ertan Şahin), hand percussion (Darıcı), and drums (Çetinkaya). The final piece is based on Nat Simon’s very familiar Istanbul Not Quite Constantinople, and this arrangement too has a distinct Turkish flavor, combining piano with B-flat clarinet (Sütoğlu), kanun (Kızıllar), ud (Karaslan), double bass (Sönmez), and hand percussion (Darıcı). This piece sounds as if Toker is trying a bit too hard for rather obvious exotic-to-Western-ears sounds, but it has pleasant moments and is very nicely constructed – as are all the works on the disc. The downside to offbeat (sometimes literally off-beat) material like this is that it is unlikely to have much staying power. All these Toker arrangements would be fun to experience in a live performance, but they will likely wear thin fairly rapidly in recorded form: it is hard to imagine most listeners returning to them again and again, as they likely would (and probably already do) to the originals on which Toker builds. The whole CD is certainly fun to hear, but for most people, probably only once or twice.
Deviations from classical-music traditions are far more modest and handled with far more seriousness in the third volume of the MSR Classics series devoted to music of Peter Lieuwen (born 1953). Lieuwen is a skilled orchestrator who is not afraid to create works that are defiantly tonal and pleasantly melodic. His style is filled with syncopation and rhythmic variety, and if his more-lyrical material is somewhat straightforward and unconvincing, at least he is not afraid to try to pack some emotion even into 21st-century music. Two of the four works on this CD take classical models in somewhat new directions. Sarumba, a mostly dancelike work with a vaguely Latin beat (or series of beats) combined with underlying ostinato passages, is written for two violins and chamber orchestra – a combination that can be found as far back as Vivaldi but has scarcely been in favor in more-recent classical works. It gets an enthusiastic performance from violinists Emeline Pierre and Lavard Skou Larsen; Larsen also conducts the Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss. The other work here that somewhat pushes boundaries is the Quad Concerto, which, as its name states, is for four instruments – in a combination that not even Vivaldi tried. They are clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, along with orchestra; here, Larsen conducts the SOLI Chamber Ensemble and Moores Symphony Orchestra. Lieuwen uses the varying sonorities of the four soloists well, and there is some attractive percussion writing here, too, although this single-movement work never sounds quite as interesting or intricate as its combination of solo parts would seem to imply. The two other Lieuwen pieces here are more straightforward. Chamber Symphony is a pleasant but not very involving three-movement work portraying, as its movements say, “Nature,” “Love,” and “Cosmos.” The evocative titles notwithstanding, the music meanders pleasantly without striking emotional chords as strongly as Lieuwen sometimes does in other works. Part of the issue here may lie with the performance by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra under Franz Anton Krager: the ensemble plays adequately but without any strong sense of involvement in the material. The fourth work on the disc, Concerto Alfresco for trumpet and orchestra, comes across better: as the title implies, this is outdoorsy music with a considerable amount of flair, performed enthusiastically by trumpet soloist Allen Vizzutti – and here, Krager’s direction (of the Moores ensemble) seems better-attuned to the music, although the orchestral material in this case is somewhat bland. Lieuwen’s music, whether created within traditional classical bounds or a bit beyond them, is easy to listen to and shows the hand of a skilled craftsman throughout; but it does tend to be superficial rather than deep.
Compositional skill is also in evidence in the four three-movement horn-and-piano sonatas performed by Ian Zook and Eric Ruple on another new MSR Classics release. The CD bears the title “Musica Incognita” in deference to these works being so little known. Indeed, the sonata by Leslie Bassett (1923-2016) has never been recorded before, even though it dates back to 1954. To some extent, the neglect of these works is understandable: the horn-piano combination is not often heard in recitals, and neither these pieces nor their composers could be said to be among the best-known of the 20th century – although works by York Bowen (1884-1961) have been cropping up with increasing frequency on recent recordings. Bowen’s work here, composed in 1937, is impressive in its warmth and its careful use of the horn, which by and large partners the piano rather than dominating it. The first two of Bowen’s sonata’s three movements are deliberate in pace, the third being much brighter. Zook and Ruple, who play off each other admirably in addition to playing well together in unison passages, produce a convincingly expressive performance. The Bassett sonata is less immediately appealing. Its dissonances seem contrived, and Bassett does not use the horn’s capabilities to as good effect as does Bowen. The instruments tend to sound as if they are playing separate pieces in isolation rather than as if they are making music together. The sonata by Swedish composer Sixten Sylvan (1914-2001), which dates to 1963, is better-proportioned. The first movement’s horn part recalls the instrument’s longtime hunting associations; the second gives Zook plenty of opportunity for warmth; and the finale, which also has considerable feeling of hunting calls, nicely balances the horn and piano while allowing the character of each instrument to come through. The latest sonata here, by Jean-Michel Damase (1928-2013), dates to 1996 and shares with Bassett’s work some of the tendency to present very different material in the two instruments. But Damase does so more convincingly, juxtaposing sections in which horn and piano go off in different directions with ones in which they respond to and complement each other. Damase’s sonata has a rather deliberate feeling throughout, even in the finale, despite that movement being marked Allegro vivo. This is music that horn players may take to heart more readily than everyday listeners will. Indeed, that is true of the entire CD except for the Bowen sonata, which will be the work of greatest interest to the many listeners who will be unfamiliar with this “Musica Incognita.”
January 17, 2019
Perfect. By Max Amato. Scholastic. $16.99.
There are so many variations on the “opposites attract” and “apparent enemies can turn out to be fast friends” themes in picture books for young children that it is always surprising when an author comes up with a new one. That is just what Max Amato has done in Perfect. Starting with photographs of a pencil and an eraser – the pink-parallelogram type, not the kind on the pencil itself – Amato gives these characters simple but expressive faces with a few lines and shapes, then sets them against each other. They are, after all, opposites: the pencil makes marks on pages and the eraser removes them. They are also expressive opposites: the eraser narrates the book, while the pencil expresses itself entirely by drawing – or, from the eraser’s viewpoint, by messing up all the nice clean pages.
Any child who has read books about unlikely friendships will see where the book is going, but that will not matter: the fun is in how it goes there. The pencil (whose drawing portion is the only part that Amato shows, thereby avoiding the issue of whether it has an eraser of its own on top) repeatedly spoils things for the self-satisfied eraser. “No pencil can mess with me,” the eraser says at one point on a left-hand page, and sure enough, the facing, right-hand page is completely white, just as the eraser likes it. But turn the page and the eraser lets out an exasperated, “Hey!” The reason is that, on the next right-hand page, the pencil has drawn a really silly caricature of the eraser, complete with the “No pencil can mess with me” comment.
The eraser runs through that drawing, of course, erasing most of it, but cannot quite catch the pencil, which draws a squiggle that soon develops tornado-like intensity and blows the eraser right off the page. The eraser lands on a later page filled with shading that the pencil has done – and before the eraser can remove any of it, an army of huge, angry-looking pencils suddenly shows up. They are in fact simply drawn by the pencil, but the drawings are soon chasing the eraser toward what turns out to be a thick forest drawn, of course, in pencil and by the pencil. “I’ll never be able to fix all of this,” the eraser laments, giving way to frustration with a series of inarticulate shouts. But then – in some of Amato’s cleverest drawings – the eraser figures out how to erase part of the pencil shading that is all over the page, creating through the erasures (that is, with white space) a rocket ship in which the eraser can ride speedily around the page, erasing more and more of it and finally escaping onto a couple of nice, tidy white pages.
Unfortunately for the eraser, at this point the realization dawns that being “perfectly clean” is not really all that much fun – and Amato shows the character, in a small size, right in the middle of an otherwise completely white page, wearing an unhappy frown. This is clearly the setup for a rapprochement. The eraser shouts “Hey!” and the pencil obligingly drops down from the top of the page, creating a squiggle pattern above the top of the now-smiling eraser. And then the pencil does more and more shading, filling the page with darkness similar to what previously went into the forest. And then the eraser uses the same technique as before to remove some of the dark area, this time to create the letter “P.” And that becomes the first letter of the word “Perfect,” which appears on the book’s final page as eraser and pencil, reconciled and now obviously enjoying each other’s company, look smilingly out at the reader. There is nothing very unusual in the underlying plot of Perfect, and even the idea of animated drawing tools is not new: crayons, pens, paintbrushes and other objects have featured in plenty of children’s books. But Perfect is nevertheless special, thanks to the clever ways in which Amato builds the book around the real-world characteristics of pencils and erasers. The pages on which the pencil creates shapes and shades really look as if they have been done in pencil, and when the eraser passes through penciled areas, little eraser bits are left behind, as they would be with a real eraser. Perfect is fun and funny, and kids will enjoy seeing the ways in which the two characters get on each other’s nerves for a while and then decide they are better off cooperating than remaining in conflict. That is a simple message, to be sure, but certainly a worthwhile one – and all the better for being so entertainingly presented.
Some Clever Title: A “FoxTrot” Collection. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
Mother Is Coming: A “FoxTrot” Collection. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
There is no shortage of nerd comics online. The best of them is xkcd by Randall Munroe, but others also have much to recommend them, such as SMBC (Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal) by Zach Weinersmith. However, in the days before there were any Internet comics, or even any Internet in the sense in which we know it now, there was one comic strip that fearlessly (OK, maybe fearfully) carried the tattered banner for science geeks everywhere. That was Bill Amend’s FoxTrot, which dates all the way back to, believe it or not, 1988. FoxTrot was an unusual mixture of hoary suburban-family humor with highly sophisticated (especially for its time) play with math and physics concepts (Amend has a degree in physics). The strip had the usual three-kids suburban family: feckless father whose inability to light a simple barbecue grill was a recurring thematic element; down-to-earth mother whose obsession with healthful eating was her recurring theme; older, sports-focused high-school-age brother; early-teen, fashion-obsessed sister; and math-and-physics whiz kid brother whose antics quickly became the focus of the strip and its most unusual element by far.
FoxTrot was genuinely funny, and Amend skillfully walked a fine line between too much geekiness for the strip to resonate with non-nerds and too little for it to be distinctive. And it is not quite fair to speak of FoxTrot in the past tense, because it is still around. But it is scarcely the same: Amend discontinued the daily strip at the end of 2006 and since then has produced it only on Sundays – during years when the newspaper industry, where FoxTrot thrived, has shrunk to near-unrecognizability and papers’ comic strips have shrunk along with it. The antics of father Roger, mother Andy, and kids Peter, Paige and Jason have continued in much the same vein in the years since FoxTrot became a once-a-week offering, but the strip’s continuity has disappeared, and it would now be quite difficult for someone who has never read FoxTrot to piece together its underlying approach from the Sunday-only strips.
It is worth trying, though, at least when those strips appear in collections such as Some Clever Title and Mother Is Coming, which allow readers to absorb and enjoy more than 130 of the Sunday appearances per book and get a sense of the characters’ personalities somewhat akin to what readers of the dailies used to obtain. The mixture of FoxTrot themes has not really changed very much. Some strips offer traditional suburban-family humor, as when Roger announces that he put the charcoal in the grill upside-down and flames burst through the bottom of the unit, or Roger tells Peter about his plan to climb a ladder and lean out far enough to cut a tree branch that is next to a power line – asking Peter to talk him out of doing it. Or Paige carefully selects sherbet by color until she has eight scoops held in an arched rainbow shape between two cones, announcing that this is her way of getting rainbow sherbet. Or Andy has “the talk” with Paige – not about sex, but about Paige’s desire to have her mom stop posting on Paige’s Facebook wall. And that Andy-Paige talk is also a mild version of the real heart of the strip, which involves the many ways in which Jason confuses and upsets and occasionally charms family members and/or readers through knowledge, behavior and antics that have very definitely kept up with the latest trends in nerdiness.
For example, Jason is a longtime World of Warcraft devotee (as is Amend), and the game makes fairly frequent appearances that will mean little or nothing to the uninitiated. Jason is a comic-book fan as well, and readers need to be fans themselves to understand a strip such as the one in which a super-long arm stretches past Jason and others who are standing in line for a cartoonist’s autograph: “Wait your turn, Reed Richards,” Jason says, and if you do not know that is the name of super-stretchable Marvel character Mister Fantastic, the strip will be unintelligible. Some Jason behavior is a bit more mainstream, as when he and friend Marcus create geographical features such as Lake Jason and Marcustown National Park in the hope that Google Maps will be taking satellite photos at just the right time. Then there are the references to TV series such as Dexter, about a blood-spatter expert who is also a serial killer: Jason pours cran-grape juice into a topless blender, turns it on, and analyzes the resulting kitchen splatter patterns as a tribute to the show. Or take Game of Thrones: it provides the title of Mother Is Coming as well as cartoons in both these collections. And then there are the math strips: Paige has her rainbow sherbet, but only Jason would ask for ice cream in a hexagonal prism, dodecahedron or ring torus rather than an ordinary cone. And only Jason would bring math tests with perfect grades for show-and-tell – a different perfect one every time. And it takes Jason’s mind to come up with “trig or treat,” in which he and Marcus maximize their Halloween candy haul by telling people “you can either give us lots of candy or listen to us do trigonometry problems.”
To be sure, FoxTrot has plenty of non-Jason humor, and some of it is really first-rate, such as the strip in which Peter discovers the apps that Andy, who is a writer, has on her phone: Instagrammar, Angry Words, Pendora, Nouncloud and Prefacebook. That entry is both nerdy and suburban-humor-y – a rare combination and a delightful one. FoxTrot itself is a rare and delightful combination of comic-strip tradition with the pioneering spirit of a strip whose focus on math and science was trailblazing 30 years ago and remains unusual even today. Some Clever Title and Mother Is Coming may not entirely make up for the absence of continuity that FoxTrot had as a daily offering, but these full-color collections show just how good Amend still is, even at reduced frequency (insert pun relating to electromagnetic radiation here).
This Is MY Fort! A Monkey & Cake Book. By Drew Daywalt. Illustrated by Olivier Tallec. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $9.99.
Drew Daywalt and Olivier Tallec have created one of the most improbable among a great many improbable pairings of best friends in children’s books. A talking, cap-wearing simian named Monkey is not really anything new or anything particularly special, but pairing him with a big, jolly, pink-faced, pink-armed, pink-legged, cherry-topped talking baked good – that would be Cake – is a stroke of something beyond absurdity. Daywalt and Tallec never explain how something like Cake could possibly exist or become friends with Monkey– these are children’s books, after all, and in that realm, Cake is not really much more outré than Monkey. And the point of the Monkey & Cake books is not really the characters, as offbeat as they are. The point is the way the characters interact, the sorts of disputes they get into, and the way they resolve their differences.
There is considerable intellectual underpinning here. These are not little arguments along the lines of who gets to play with a toy (typical decisions: share it or take turns). The Daywalt/Tallec books are based on arguments grounded in philosophical concepts, never stated directly but foundational to the stories. Thus, the question of inclusiveness and how to define it is the basis of This Is MY Fort! The tale starts simply enough, with Cake building himself a make-believe fort that includes a comfortable chair with a blanket draped over it, a reading lamp, a broom, an umbrella, some books, and a few odds-and-ends. “I am making a fort to keep out Monkeys,” says Cake – never explaining why, just announcing his plan. Monkey, of course, is distressed to be told, “No Monkeys are allowed in my fort.” Monkey explains that he likes forts, and Cake says he knows, but this fort is for Cakes only.
In other children’s books, the rejected character might get angry and upset, might cry, might even complain to an adult. Not here. Monkey looks a bit dejected and then simply sits on the floor looking at what cake is doing – being thoughtful. The wordless two-page illustration showing him intently watching Cake complete the fort by rolling up the edge of a piece of carpet to mark the fort’s perimeter is key to what happens next and is beautifully done. After this scene, Monkey asks Cake if the fort is done; and Cake, sitting in the chair with the blanket almost covering him, say yes, he is finished. That means, says Monkey, that he is finished, too. Confused, Cake asks just what Monkey is finished doing. And Monkey says his fort is now finished. Impossible, says Cake: “You are a fortless Monkey!” Not so, declares Monkey. The wall that marks the edge of Cake’s fort – that is, the rolled-up part of the piece of carpet – also marks the wall of Monkey’s fort, which consists of “the whole rest of the world.”
“My fort is big. It is huge,” Monkey states, and “your fort is small.” And Cake realizes that his fort is small. Not just that, says Monkey: “Your fort is a trap! …Your fort is a cage. You are in a cage, Cake!” Now Cake is upset, saying he does not want to be in a cage – he wants to be free! Can he please leave his fort and go into Monkey’s fort – that is, into the world outside the Cake fort? No way, says Monkey – until, after teasing Cake a little, he says that of course Cake can come into the rest of the world: “This fort is for Cakes and Monkeys and everyone.”
Lesson learned, Cake happily leaves his little fort and moves into Monkey’s huge rest-of-the-world fort, and the two friends join hands and dash off to eat pie, because – well, why not? The point here is an unusually clever one for a book for young children: the very youngest readers of the book will enjoy the silliness of the characters, the brightness of the drawings, and the easy progress of the story, while older-but-still-young kids will get more out of This Is MY Fort! Yes, it is a book about friendship, but it is also one about boundaries, self-imposed or otherwise – and about the way in which a redefinition (Monkey’s clever assertion that Cake’s fort’s wall is also the wall of his fort: the rest of the world) can change people’s (and Monkeys’ and Cakes’) perception of a situation and produce a breakthrough in understanding. This is in fact a very adult theme, and one that grown-ups can and do find enormously useful when dealing with intractable problems of all sorts. Finding this redefine-to-change-perception message used so effectively and humorously in a book for young children is highly unusual, and turns this book and this pair of most-unlikely friends into something significantly more interesting and useful than will be found in the great mass of pleasant but far more ordinary picture books.
Schumann: Märchenbilder; York Bowen: Phantasy for Viola and Piano; Clarice Assad: Metamorfose; Garth Knox: Fuga libre; Shostakovich: Impromptu for Viola and Piano; Franz Waxman: Carmen Fantasy. Matthew Lipman, viola; Henry Kramer, piano. Cedille. $16.
Paul Lombardi: Holocene; Acquiesce; Persiguiéndose; Phosphorescent; Fracture. Megan Holland, Roberta Arruda and David Felberg, violin; Kimberly Fredenburgh, viola; Joel Becktell, Lisa Collins and David Schepps, cello; Mark Tatum, double bass. Ravello. $14.99.
Brendan Collins: Concert Gallop “Thunderbolt’s Pursuit”; Serenade; Stomp; Sonata; Pastorale for Trumpet, Trombone, and Piano; Concerto for Two Trumpets; Scherzo for Trumpet, Violin, and Piano; Concerto for Trumpet. Phillip Chase Hawkins, trumpet; Maria Fuller, piano; Tyler Simms, trombone; Andy Lott, trumpet; Gabriel Lefkowitz, violin. Navona. $14.99.
Music for Flute and Saxophone by Chin Ting Chan, Phillip Sink, Michael Rene Torres, Scott Brickman, Thomas Wells, Dylan Arthur Baker, Marilyn Shrude, and Charlie Wilmoth. Tower Duo (Erin Helgeson Torres, flute; Michael Rene Torres, saxophone). Ravello. $14.99.
The use of two and only two instruments in a composition provides, on the face of it, a ready template for musical conversation between equals. But the reality of composers’ handling of duos is more complex. Although equality between the two performers, as a partnership, is sometimes present, at other times one of the two is distinctly subservient to the other and plays a support role pretty much from start to finish. Furthermore, the roles of the two instruments and the people playing them have changed considerably over time – and also may change even within a single composer’s output. The variability of the relationship between two players is particularly evident on a new Cedille recording featuring violist Matthew Lipman and pianist Henry Kramer. The CD includes works from three centuries: the 19th, 20th and 21st. That alone gives a sense of the recording’s considerable range. The pieces chosen by Lipman for the program are further evidence of it. Schumann’s Märchenbilder (“Fairy Tale Pictures”) is a moody, often very beautiful four-movement suite written in 1851, in which viola and piano intertwine effectively. The melancholy finale is especially well done in this performance, with Lipman giving it a pervasive gentleness to complement the underlying sadness. The Schumann work lasts as long as the single-movement Phantasy by York Bowen (1884-1961), which dates to 1918 but partakes largely of 19th-century sensibilities. Here the viola is more dominant than in the Schumann, although the back-and-forth “conversational” elements of the music are pronounced. However, by the time of the Carmen Fantasy by Franz Waxman (1906-1967), the prominence of the string player is undoubted, although virtuoso showpieces like this one (originally written in 1947 for violin) have been around for some time. Lipman seems to have particular fun with this work, presenting it with exuberance and genuine enjoyment. The remaining pieces on the CD are something of a mixed bag. Metamorfose by Clarice Assad (born 1978) was written for Lipman in memory of his mother, who died in 2014. It is a conceptually interesting two-movement work based on the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly, and both Lipman and Kramer play it with feeling, but its expressiveness seems rather formulaic. Fuga Libre (2008) by Garth Knox (born 1956) is also based on an interesting idea – using Baroque-sounding musical fragments to produce a fugal work filled with contemporary techniques – but it is somewhat too rarefied to be fully engaging even when played as well as Lipman plays it. The CD also includes a world première recording, but a very minor one: Shostakovich’s Impromptu for Viola and Piano, which dates to 1931 but was only recently rediscovered. Lasting just two minutes, it allows the viola to sing above a rather formulaic piano part. Its short, almost abrupt conclusion is its most interesting element. As a whole, this recording is really a showpiece for Lipman and, to a lesser extent, Kramer: the diversity of the works is considerable, but their totality does not hang together very convincingly – although several are very much worth hearing as individual pieces.
Three compilations of 21st-century duets, two on the Ravello label and one from Navona, show relationships between instruments that are in the main very different from those in the Lipman/Kramer pairing. The string duets by Paul Lombardi employ different two-stringed-instrument combinations: Holocene (2004) is for violin and viola, Acquiesce (2006) for violin and cello, Persiguiéndose (2007) for two cellos, Phosphorescent (2008) for cello and double bass, and Fracture (2017) for two violins. But all are constructed using similar mathematical concepts and techniques that composers and listeners alike will immediately recognize as standard in contemporary classical music – which means atonality, intervallic variation, frequent rhythmic changes, recursive patterns, and performance requirements that stretch the players’ abilities as well as the sound of their instruments. There is certainly an occasional attempt at reaching out to an audience – a short pizzicato section in Phosphorescent, for example, is one instance, but it is cut short abruptly. But by and large, the music sounds as if it is written primarily for the cognoscenti, including the composer himself, rather than for anyone seeking emotional connection or any form of enlightenment through music. Knowledgeable audience members will discern some of the building blocks of the pieces fairly readily – for example, the essentially canonic structure of Persiguiéndose, whose title comes from a Pablo Neruda poem about days that “go chasing each other.” But the involvement here is of a strictly intellectual kind: the music does not really speak to anyone who is not “in the know” about its inner workings and the means by which it is made. The overall sound of the material is a balanced one: no matter which strings are involved, Lombardi treats both instruments as equals. But the material comes across more as a set of exercises in modern compositional approaches than as any kind of heartfelt appeal to listeners’ understanding, much less to their empathetic involvement.
The trumpet-focused works of Brendan Collins could not be more different. All are quite recent: Concert Gallop dates to 2010, Serenade to 2013, Stomp and Sonata to 2015, Pastorale to 2018, Concerto for Two Trumpets to 2017, Scherzo to 2014, and Concerto for Trumpet to 2011. And all the trumpet-and-piano duos place the emphasis strongly on the trumpet, casting the piano strictly in an accompanying role. The result is a disc that is more immediately appealing, if less intellectually stimulating, than the one featuring Lombardi’s string works. Collins writes quite well for the trumpet and has a good sense of the wide expressive range of which the instrument is capable: the material here can be martial, but by no means is it that way all, or even most of, the time. For example, the third and last movement of Sonata provides the most-extended piano material on the CD, an introduction lasting well over a minute that is followed by a warmly flowing trumpet melody that is almost film-music-like in its emotive character. The disc is interesting for including three pieces for three rather than two instruments. Pastorale, originally for string orchestra, is a very tuneful work in which both trumpet and trombone have opportunities for expressive outreach. Concerto for Two Trumpets originally was for trumpets with wind ensemble. It is a three-movement work that treats the two trumpet soloists equally whether or not they happen to be playing together, and the music seems always on the verge of bursting into more-enthusiastic sections, as when the first movement, Misterioso, suddenly erupts in bright trumpet calls that are not mysterious at all. And Scherzo, which feels like an encore even though it is not placed last on the CD, is a bright and largely forthright piece that plays off the violin sounds against those of the trumpet to pleasant although not particularly memorable effect. The final work on the CD, Concerto for Trumpet, does not adapt very well to being played by trumpet and piano, because the material given to the piano has the feeling of orchestral garb about it and really does sound reduced in a piano reduction. The trumpet writing here is among the most virtuosic on the disc, but Phillip Chase Hawkins handles it every bit as well as he manages everything else, while Maria Fuller gamely holds up her end of things as well as possible under the circumstances. Whether writing for two players or three – or just one, as in the extended and complex cadenza in the final movement of Concerto for Trumpet – Collins keeps the spotlight on the trumpet and produces music that is often exciting, even when it is on the superficial side.
The native sound of the instruments played by the Tower Duo – that is, the flute and saxophone – is quite different from that of the trumpet, but exploring the instruments’ inherent sound quality is not the point of this release. Instead, the works on the CD, mostly either written for Erin Helgeson Torres and Michael Rene Torres or initially performed by them, are examples of the common approach of some contemporary composers to instruments’ established sounds: take them as a jumping-off point and expand and extend them into new territory. Thus, the ethereality of the flute and the deep warmth of the saxophone are almost nowhere in evidence here. Instead, there are snippets of disconnected sound in Chin Ting Chan’s Crosswind (2013) and short intermingled phrases in Phillip Sink’s Places Never Painted (2012). There are bits of dialogue, mostly dissonant but occasionally consonant, in Michael Rene Torres’ Four Short Episodes (2011), and a venture into twelve-tone that uses the octatonic scale in Scott Brickman’s Epic Suite (2012). There are extremes of range and sound for both instruments in Thomas Wells’ Tower Music (2017), and an attempt to use the instruments to paint a nature portrait in Dylan Arthur Baker’s Precipital Pairing (2014). There is a 2007 arrangement of the 1996 Notturno: In Memoriam Toru Takemitsu by Marilyn Shrude – the original version was for violin, alto saxophone and piano, with the later one using flute instead of violin (the piano in this recording is played by Maria Staeblein). Shrude’s work, although quiet and nocturne-ish enough, really is a tribute to Takemitsu’s compositional style, which means that an audience unfamiliar with Takemitsu will not get the piece’s full effect. Finally, there is extreme sonic repetition, almost like an extended set of études, in Charlie Wilmoth’s Three Pieces (2013), which features flute and saxophone in a kind of pointillist back-and-forth in which they occasionally collide with each other. This is a piece that sounds as if it is more fun to play than to hear. In all the works on this CD, the instruments and performers are balanced in terms of their contributions. What changes from piece to piece is the nature of those contributions and the extent to which the composers have an interest in appealing to listeners other than the players of their music. By and large, there is much less appeal to hearing these pieces – which do little with the basic sonorities of the instruments and much with extensions of their sounds – than there would likely be to performing them as exercises in exploring the further reaches of the flute’s and saxophone’s technical capabilities.
January 10, 2019
Dog Man #6: Brawl of the Wild. By Dav Pilkey. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
Dav Pilkey’s absurd and often very funny forays into classic literature, reinterpreted through the minds of his fifth-grade alter egos and the adventures of a character with a dog’s head and a man’s body, continue in a book that is actually based (very, very, very loosely) on a book about a dog. That would be Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, which has nothing whatsoever to do with Pilkey’s Brawl of the Wild except that Dog Man gets hitched to a snowgoing dogsled in a couple of scenes and proves his loyalty to the other seven sled dogs in ways that lead to those dogs becoming heroes during a fire that Dog Man eventually puts out through a truly extraordinary amount of vomit.
Classic literature this isn’t. But Pilkey still manages to create graphic novels that are enormously enjoyable even for people who have not read the classics that are their jumping-off point. In fact, it helps not to have read those classics, to lessen the chance that readers will themselves spew copiously when they discover what Pilkey has done. Pilkey’s Dog Man books are ostensibly created by George Beard and Harold Hutchins: they are the fifth-graders who have been reading real classic novels and are thus being inspired to produce new Dog Man adventures. The graphic novels’ coloring is done by Jose Garibaldi, whose form of inspiration is never mentioned but who is to be thanked for making Dog Man’s substantial vomit a not-unpleasant shade of tannish brown rather than something truly disgusting. Garibaldi shows a certain level of restraint in coloring dog poop, too, and that is a good thing, since Pilkey shows no restraint whatsoever in arranging for some of the bad guys in Brawl of the Wild to fall into a hole and have a great deal of the stuff dumped on top of them. But see, they deserve it, which makes everything OK.
It helps to read all six (so far) Dog Man books in order to get the full, um, flavor of Pilkey’s humor, but it is certainly possible to pick up any of them and understand more or less what is going on, since Pilkey has George and Harold provide a synopsis of the story (stories) so far as each new book opens. Brawl of the Wild includes the reappearance of three minuscule bad guys from Lord of the Fleas – not that they were minuscule at first; they were shrunk as part of the climax of that book. Here they are described as “flagitious fleas” (Pilkey enjoys throwing in real-but-little-known words from time to time). The bad guys manage to frame Dog Man for crimes, so he gets thrown in Dog Jail and forced to help pull a sled on which is perched a huge bag of dog poop that the evil warden transports to the local fertilizer factory so he can pocket the money he is paid for the poop. Meanwhile, Dog Man’s sidekick, Li’l Petey – adorable kitten clone of bad-guy cat Petey, who at this point in the series is trying hard to become a good guy – is working with robot buddy 80-HD on trying to prevent his dad from being sad all the time. That isn’t going well, and the little kitten remarks, “At least things can’t get any worse!!!” So of course the very next page of the book starts a chapter called “Things Get Worse!”
Also here are some heroics by heroic reporter Sarah Hatoff and her heroic dog Zuzu, accompanied by heroic “Yolay Caprese, the world’s greatest actress,” who does a great job defeating the charmingly named Booger Breath shortly before everyone gets to watch the première of Dog Man: The Major Motion Picture, a Claymation extravaganza whose Claymation monster/villain comes alive, steps out of the screen, and wreaks a suitable amount of temporary havoc. If all this sounds confusing, that is only because it is confusing. But have no fear: everything works out just fine in the end, especially the underlying theme of the book, which is that Dog Man may be a misfit because he is part dog and part man, but everybody is a misfit in some way or other, so being a misfit is just fine. And that is about as much of a moral as Pilkey provides in Brawl of the Wild – and it is plenty. After all, the Dog Man books are not about morals: they are about – well, they are not really about very much, but they are so much fun and packed with so much humor and silliness and occasional heart that readers are very unlikely to notice the lack of about-ness, or be upset if they do notice it.
#SAD! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
Imagine the furor – a furor fueled by and filled with glee – at this Trump tweet: “I should own all land and buildings in NY! Decide what gets built where! Who lives where! Who pays how much! #MakeNYGreatAgain!” How Doonesbury would go to town over that one! So why didn’t Garry Trudeau make a big deal about it? Well, because the statements (modified only slightly, and without the hashtag) actually came not from Donald Trump but from Bill de Blasio, a hyper-liberal mayor so popular in New York City that he won re-election in 2017 with 66.5% of the vote. De Blasio even said (on November 28, 2018) that his strong “socialistic impulse” to have government own and control all property, determining who lives where and at what price, is reinforced every day by his constituents.
There is immense comic fodder in that, and the fact that it never appeared or could appear in the Doonesbury universe is a key both to Trudeau’s popularity and to his limitations. Like great satirists of yore – Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope come to mind, although both wrote far more stylishly than Trudeau does – Trudeau hammers home the same point of view again and again, shining the glaring light of his perceived truth on areas he considers to be filled with darkness and falsehood. Like satirical cartoonists of the past such as Thomas Nast – who was a better artist, albeit in a somewhat different medium – Trudeau digs and digs and picks and picks at sociopolitical scabs, although Nast genuinely wanted change and successfully brought it about, while Trudeau seeks mainly to complain as loudly as possible about discerned wrongs and wrongdoing and be the mouthpiece for his many like-minded followers.
Those followers will very much enjoy #SAD! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump, and will enjoy being able to understand all of it – which will not be so easy for any casual reader. Trudeau’s superb caricatures are mixed here, as they always are, with a Doonesbury trademark: invented cartoon characters reflecting specific aspects of society, such as “Jimmy Crow” for the supposedly revived popularity of long-gone “Jim Crow” laws; even “Mr. Jay,” a talking marijuana joint drawn in underground-comic style, makes a token appearance in this book. Casual readers will have trouble figuring this out. Even more confusing are the ways Trump creates hilarious (to those “in the know”) but puzzling (to those not “in the know”) representations of individuals. For example, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is Austrian-American, is seen in Doonesbury only as a gigantic, well-muscled arm and hand, and is repeatedly referred to as “the Gröpenfuhrer.” That is, for those “in the know,” an amusingly snide reference to his ways with women. It is also deeply offensive, since it is a pun on “Gruppenführer,” a Nazi paramilitary rank. To understand just how offensive this is to someone of Austrian heritage, imagine telling a white person who dislikes spending a lot of money that he or she is a “cheapskate,” while telling a black person that he or she is “niggardly.” The words mean the same thing, but choosing to apply a specific one under specific circumstances would surely cause some people to take offense. But not Doonesbury fans in the case of Schwarzenegger. Those unfamiliar with the multi-decade evolution of Trudeau’s strip will not know what to make of the talking arm at all (it is actually a bit of homage to Al Capp of Li’l Abner fame: he invented a crimefighter named Jack Jawbreaker, portrayed only as a muscular arm).
Of course, the main character in #SAD! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump is Donald Trump, whom Trudeau hates with all the fervor of his fellow coastal residents, who refer to the heartland of the U.S. as “flyover country” and continue to ask how “they” could foist Trump on “us,” the intelligentsia that by rights ought to be in charge. There is plenty, plenty, to dislike about Trump, but there is also plenty to dislike about elitism and self-importance, and those have increasingly become the characteristics of Doonesbury over the years. That is too bad, because Trudeau is enormously talented, not only artistically but also in managing what may be the largest cast of characters ever assembled in a comic strip (although, interestingly, he does not seem to care about his characters: he selects ones for specific strips based solely on the editorial point he wants to make and the characters who can best make it). #SAD! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump is a collection of Sunday strips from a multi-year period, not presented chronologically but grouped loosely by Trump-related topic. Some elements are brilliant, such as a Trump board game that takes off (very loosely) from one that really was a Trump offering at one time. There is also an amusing, if self-referential, explanation of the role of the strip’s title character, in the context of the many news reports of sexual harassment in various fields: the strip’s female characters send Mike Doonesbury a letter saying he is “mostly a harmless goofball, passive and inoffensive, doing the best he can.” This is excellently descriptive as well as a nod to Walt Kelly, whose title character in Pogo was sometimes described as dull: Kelly explained that the good-natured, moderate-thinking possum was the glue holding the strip (also a politically charged one containing a great many characters) together.
Readers need not wonder whether Trudeau is really aware of where Doonesbury stands in terms of past comic strips and past cartoonists, including high awareness of the strip’s own history. There is an absolutely marvelous strip in #SAD! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump in which longtime radio host Mark Slackmeyer, commenting on ways in which Trump “acts guilty” about a variety of topics, suddenly flashes back to a notorious Doonesbury strip from 1973 in which Slackmeyer, obviously much younger and at the time a host on his college radio station, comments that he thinks then-Attorney General John Mitchell is “guilty, guilty, guilty” of Watergate-related crimes. Reproducing a color version of the 1973 panel within the 2017 Trump-focused strip is a touch of comic genius and ingenuity – and may make longtime readers lament the loss of the more-stylized Doonesbury art of earlier decades. In another Slackmeyer strip, in which the radio host interviews a student determined to change the way Washington works, 2018-version Slackmeyer suddenly finds himself face-to-face with college-era Slackmeyer, the comparatively urbane older host being angrily confronted by his intense younger self. This too is marvelous, and has a cleverness far beyond Trudeau’s comparatively mundane and ultimately not-very-interesting ongoing attacks on Trump as a blowhard, disaster, egotist, etc. Trudeau’s political views are the main reason for the existence of Doonesbury, but they are, by and large, unexceptional and passé. His method of expressing them, however, and his ability to mold and model the comic-strip form in ways unlike those of any other cartoonist working in the medium today – those are unique to him and to this strip. And those, more than the political jeremiads, are the reasons to revel in #SAD! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump – even though, as political commentary, it brings very little that is new to the nation’s ongoing discussions, debates, and demonizations.