November 23, 2022


A Million Views. By Aaron Starmer. Penguin Workshop. $17.99.

Cat Ninja 4: Welcome to the ’Burbs. By Matthew Cody and Alejandro Arbona. Illustrated by Chad Thomas and Derek Laufman. Colors by Warren Wucinich. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     The first thing to know about A Million Views is that it is not about a million views. The title is essentially Aaron Starmer’s excuse to dress up a traditional preteen friendship-is-everything novel in suitably up-to-date clothing, centering on a would-be 12-year-old director of YouTube videos and his struggles and successes both online and IRL (“in real life”). The key to the whole book is stated pretty directly about halfway through: “His biggest worry used to be about getting the perfect shots, and now, suddenly, it was about one of the actors, or crew members, being taken away on a stretcher. Whether he got a good shot or not didn’t matter if someone got hurt. Or at least, it wasn’t the only thing that mattered. If he wanted this to succeed – and he did want it to succeed – then he had to think about other people. What a concept!” So this is a tale of Brewster’s maturation and self-discovery, with the usual byways into family matters (his parents have an odd, sort-of-separated relationship, and his 17-year-old sibling, complete with a surfeit of with-it “them/their” pronouns, is uncertain and confused in “their” own way). As for Brewster himself, he has made short YouTube videos before but is now determined to do something much bigger – a three-minute trailer for a movie that does not exist. For this book’s core audience, three minutes will indeed seem like a long time, so the length (or shortness) of the project is not an issue here. What Starmer does is show the many ways in which the trailer becomes a chance not only for Brewster to learn more about filmmaking (one of the other kids involved in the project knows even more moviemaking terms and concepts than he does) but also for him to, in effect, find the power to create his own “family” (his six co-workers on the trailer) to supplement, if not entirely replace, his “official,” dysfunctional one. “Mostly, he wanted a connection, an assurance that his family was in this together,” Starmer writes of Brewster, but Brewster’s “official” family is off in different directions – and it is his self-created family that turns out really to matter. The characters do not have strongly differentiated personalities – there’s the one worthy of being the trailer’s star, the one with the money to finance the project, the two who are “odd” in different ways but whose peculiarities turn out to match perfectly with Brewster’s project, and so on. Along the way to making the trailer for the nonexistent Carly Lee and the Land of Shadows, which maybe, just maybe, might maybe get maybe a million views (maybe), Brewster also meets various other people who just happen to fit perfectly into their needed roles in the project, such as the farmer who provides a crucial piece of equipment at just the right time – and the friend who buys that costly equipment for no really discernible reason when the “producer” backs out at the last minute. There is so much goodness and helpfulness baked into A Million Views that it is almost impossible not to enjoy the book if you are a preteen who dreams of social-media success despite things not going particularly well IRL. Starmer’s foundational message, that real-life friends are what really count and one’s “official” family is far less important than the “family” one creates for a suitable project, is right in line with what preteens will find in many, many other novels targeted at their age group. Also traditional is the book’s message about everyone feeling like an outsider: set in Vermont, A Million Views makes it a point to toss in some unexplained Vermont references to show how a displaced-from-elsewhere person would feel (“creemees and witch windows”), and there is even a subsidiary plot about making a video for school about how it feels to be an outsider. Starmer knits the whole thing together well; and although the plot echoes that of many other books for the same age group and tends to creak at the seams a bit (as with the magical appearance of financing when needed, not once but twice), the book is well-intentioned from start to finish and no creakier than others of the same genre. Many in the target audience will find it worth a read, if scarcely a million of them.

     The “family” is of a different clichéd type – the crime family – in the fourth Cat Ninja graphic novel, which is for just about the same age group as A Million Views but targets readers who do not take themselves nearly as seriously as do Brewster and his friends. In this installment of the utterly silly but somehow endearing series, Cat Ninja and his human family have relocated for the time being from Metro City to the quiet, classy , nothing-much-ever-happens suburb of Peaceful Valley, where obviously there is going to be dirty work afoot. Or, in this case, a-fin. Peaceful Valley is under the boot…err, tail…of The Goldfather, a goldfish evolved to intelligence and nastiness through the use of an evolving unit created by Doctor Von Malice, whose vile genius-ness lies behind pretty much everything bad (and silly) in the Cat Ninja books. Bad guy Fish-Face Malone turns the evolving unit on a particularly nasty-looking goldfish, which promptly evolves legs and turns the evolving unit’s setting to “devolve” and points it at Malone, who ends up even more fish-faced than he was in the first place. And then The Goldfather makes sure that everyone in Peaceful Valley has goldfish in bowls and that everybody is engaged in the manufacture of fish flakes. So while Cat Ninja sits around being bored in the dull suburbs, along with also-bored comrade and onetime nemesis Master Hamster, Metro City is left under the protective aegis of Octopunch, “the eight-fisted defender of justice,” creating a certain amount of jealousy among the various super-things out there. There is also some jealousy in the human family, with Marcie proving a lot better than Leon at making new friends in Peaceful Valley. Adonis the robot dog is part of the family unit as well, adding his brand of comic relief to the other brands, of which there are several. The best scenes in Welcome to the ’Burbs are ones in which Cat Ninja, who has injured his leg doing his usual escapades while breaking into The Goldfather’s headquarters, tries to fight in his typical ninja style anyway and keeps re-harming himself. The title of Chapter 5 is pretty good, too: “He Who Rules the Toilets Rules the World!” It turns out that Master Hamster, who has repaired the broken Evolver Ray under duress, has called on his inner “criminal genius” to create some surprises in the unit for The Goldfather and his minions, and of course everything gets wrapped up neatly. Well, pretty sloppily, actually – The Goldfather’s headquarters is a sewage plant – but you get the idea. The book also contains a bonus story featuring Adonis and a villain named Rhino Blasty, who is determined to enlarge the nose on the Abe Lincoln statue at Mount Rushmore because why not? Absurdities pile on each other pretty much interminably in Welcome to the ’Burbs, and there is sure to be more of the same in a forthcoming new Cat Ninja book, since the main story here ends with the reappearance from earlier episodes of some additional baddies who seem to be all set to team up with The Goldfather for reasons that are sure to be as nefarious as possible. It’s Marcie and Leon, their clueless parents, and Cat Ninja and Master Hamster as one family, plus a slew of feckless evildoers as another. Guesswork not required to figure out who, or what, will inevitably come out on top.


Liszt: Piano Transcriptions of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1-9 (complete). Giovanni Bellucci, piano. Brilliant Classics. $19.99 (5 CDs).

Sigismond Thalberg: L’art du chant appliqué au piano; Three Schubert Lieder transcribed for solo piano; Auf Flügeln des Gesanges by Mendelssohn; Mi manca la voce by Rossini. Paul Wee, piano. BIS. $39.99 (2 SACDs).

     Ferruccio Busoni once observed that “good music, universal music, remains the same regardless of the means employed to perform it,” although “different means have different languages, each one distinct and characteristic.” Busoni’s observation, although made in regard to Bach transcriptions, applies with equal elegance and precision – but in very different ways – both to Liszt’s piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies and to Thalberg’s L’art du chant appliqué au piano. The new five-CD Brilliant Classics release of the Liszt/Beethoven works, featuring Giovanni Bellucci, is one of the best renditions this amazing music has ever received in recorded form, and is the absolute best bargain for this repertoire to be found anywhere. Except for one thing, it would be a set that belongs in the collection of every listener who loves Beethoven, Liszt, and their combinatorial prowess. Bellucci is an absolutely wonderful pianist: studious without being studied, thoughtful without sounding as if he has overthought his performances, he possesses a combination of flawless technique and the intellectual capacity to put his abilities at the service of both Liszt and Beethoven. Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies, created in various guises during a three-decade period, never fully satisfied Liszt himself: he eventually decided that the Third, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh worked well enough, but the other symphonies were less satisfactory in piano versions, and the Ninth was simply impossible. Liszt was scarcely the first to create piano versions of the Beethoven symphonies, even commenting somewhat disingenuously at one point that “the arrangements for piano of these symphonies, of which there are now many, are not without value” – thus drawing attention to his own plan to do a better job than others, such as Friedrich Kalkbrenner, had done. Liszt’s final versions of the Beethoven transcriptions date to the 1860s, by which time the piano had largely assumed the form in which we know it today – and had gained the necessary strength to project the wide range of sounds and techniques necessary to communicate Beethoven’s orchestral arrangements.

     Bellucci uses a modern Steinway D, the concert grand of choice for most contemporary virtuoso performers, and in this case the choice is more than satisfactory, since it allows the pianist to produce the sound Liszt wanted and reproduce the effects Liszt was seeking – even in the Ninth, which Liszt eventually figured out and which Bellucci presents in a very unusual way, with the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno joining him in the finale in a live recording dating to 2014 (the remaining performances here date to 2018, 2020, and 2021). In truth, hearing the Ninth this way is odd: Liszt’s eventual solution to the transcription may not have been wholly satisfactory, but it is worth hearing as Liszt intended, and the use of the chorus both enhances the transcription and interferes with it. Thus, Bellucci’s performance of the Ninth is an anomaly and the most-divisive reading in this set, and is something of a curiosity – the exceptionally fine pianism notwithstanding. Nor is this the only drawback to the set as a whole. The other, more-pervasive issue is that Bellucci offers highly personalized approaches to all the symphonies, with very frequent, sometimes near-constant rubato and tempo alterations that will come as a distinct surprise – sometimes a pleasant one, sometimes not – to audiences familiar with these works, as almost anyone interested in this recording will be. One example among many is his extremely slow and exceptionally tempo-variable second movement of the “Eroica.” It is certainly possible that virtuoso pianists of Liszt’s own time, including Liszt himself, may have handled these transcriptions this way, putting their own stylistic stamp on the music instead of simply trying to reproduce its pacing and overall sound within the confines of the piano. But the stop-and-start quality that Bellucci gives to many of the symphonies’ movements will certainly seem to some listeners to interfere with their natural flow – although others will find Bellucci’s emphases and focuses very refreshing in highly familiar repertoire. To be sure, Bellucci’s sense of the symphonies’ structure, their emotional content, their motivic development, their intended impact, their orchestral effects as “pianized” by Liszt, is so apt and so well-thought-out that every performance is revelatory. Liszt’s transcriptions did not always contain (or try to contain) all the orchestral color of the symphonies, focusing on their underlying structural frameworks more than the effects of coloristic detail provided by instrumental groupings – indeed, this is likely one reason Liszt was never fully satisfied with his versions of all the symphonies. But Bellucci clearly knows where both Beethoven and Liszt were coming from in terms of the sound and balance of every symphony, and he manages – to cite just one example – to track clearly the ways in which the largely Classical elements of the First begin to transform in the Second into the grandeur and pathos of the Third, providing each individual work with its own character while showing the overall continuity of the entire set. Whether hammering home the intensity of the Fifth or relaxing “by the brook” in the Sixth, Bellucci inhabits these symphonies to an exceptional and exceptionally convincing degree. Its quirks notwithstanding, there is no finer or more-convincing version of the Liszt/Beethoven symphonies to be had anywhere, at any price – and none at all to be had at this price, which almost constitutes a gift to music lovers everywhere.

     Busoni’s thoughtful and trenchant remarks on different means and different musical languages apply equally, albeit not in the same way, to a two-SACD BIS release featuring another thoroughly remarkable pianist, Paul Wee, performing a two-hour work that is much, much less familiar than the Beethoven symphonies (on their own or in Liszt’s transcriptions). This is L’art du chant appliqué au piano, created from 1853 to 1863 – about the same time period in which Liszt finished his Beethoven transcriptions – by another Liszt-quality pianist, Sigismond Thalberg (1812-1871). The supposed pianistic rivalry between Liszt and Thalberg was largely fomented by the media of the day, but certainly both men were extraordinary virtuoso performers and composers of some skill – although Liszt’s works go well beyond the display pieces in which Thalberg specialized and have turned out to have much-more-lasting value. However, L’art du chant appliqué au piano is not a Thalberg “display” piece but a carefully conceived bit of didacticism that constitutes a genuinely fascinating instruction manual for pianists interested in producing specific effects with their instrument. The piano is a percussion instrument, producing sound through hammers striking strings, and this means that sound starts to diminish as soon as it is produced (with some modification possible through pedal use). The human voice is far more versatile, not only in range (if one considers all vocal ranges) but also in the ability to sustain a line and increase or decrease its volume and expression note by note. On the face of it, there is simply no way the piano can “sing” as the voice does; but then, on the face of it, there is no way the piano can encompass Beethoven’s symphonies, either. Just as Liszt solved the Beethoven “problem” brilliantly, so did Thalberg in L’art du chant appliqué au piano solve the “vocal expression” one – accomplishing, in some ways, even more than Liszt did. Thalberg set forth his approach to this 40-piece work very clearly in a well-written introduction to its publication – a writeup that is very intelligently included in the booklet for this release. Indeed, this is an exceptionally intelligent release on many levels, not the least of which is Wee’s own booklet notes and his thorough understanding of the music of Thalberg’s time and of Thalberg’s approach in L’art du chant appliqué au piano. Essentially, Thalberg took famous arias both from songs and song cycles and from operas – which were the “pop music” of the day – and showed, again and again, how to make their vocal lines “sing” on the piano. Some of the operas that Thalberg chose remain well-known today (Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, Bellini’s I Puritani) while others have long since fallen into obscurity (Mercadante’s Il Giuramento, Grétry’s L’amant jaloux). But it turns out that it does not matter whether the original material is well-known or unknown: Thalberg’s purpose here is to show how the piano can highlight the vocal line while preserving its accompaniment, reproducing the effect of sung material despite the apparent impossibility of doing so with an inherently percussive instrument.

     It requires exceptional pianism to make this particular tour de force work – pianism related to but different from that required for Thalberg’s far-more-common display pieces – and Wee proves an absolutely perfect match for the material. Thalberg included in L’art du chant appliqué au piano not only material identified as “arias” but also art songs (Beethoven’s Adelaïde), folk songs (Fenesta vascia, a Neapolitan song also used by Liszt in one of his works), song-cycle excerpts (from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin), even the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem. Every single work in L’art du chant appliqué au piano requires tremendous understanding of the primary vocal line and of the setting within which it appears – and Thalberg shows how every single one can be turned into a piano piece of tremendous effectiveness, in the right hands. Wee’s hands are certainly the right ones: his way with this music is exceptional, whether he is bringing out the beauty of Casta diva from Bellini’s Norma or allowing his virtuosity full scope in one of the few overtly display-oriented pieces here, Nel silenzio fra l’orror from Meyerbeer’s Il Crociato. It is difficult to overstate just how well Wee understands what Thalberg is doing in L’art du chant appliqué au piano, and just how well Wee demonstrates Thalberg’s enormous understanding of pianism in all its elegance and emotional sensitivity, not merely its bravura capabilities. L’art du chant appliqué au piano was not Thalberg’s only foray into transcriptions designed to highlight the piano’s “vocalizing” capabilities – Wee includes several other examples, all of them handled as well as those within the extended work – but certainly L’art du chant appliqué au piano was Thalberg’s magnum opus in this area. Wee’s recording makes a strong argument that it is, or should be, one of Thalberg’s by far most enduring legacies, and a work from which today’s pianists can benefit as much as could those of Thalberg’s own time.


Beethoven: String Quartets, Volume 3—Op. 127; Op. 130; Op. 131; Op. 132; Op. 135; Grosse Fuge, Op. 133. Dover Quartet (Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violins; Milena Parajo-van de Stadt, viola; Camden Shaw, cello). Cedille. $32 (3 CDs).

Eren Gümrükçüoğlu: Pandemonium; Pareidolia; Bozkir; Ordinary Things; Lattice Scattering; Xanthos; Asansör Asȉmptotu. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Edward Cowie: Particle Partita; Basho Meditations; Stream and Variations; Kandinsky; Kandinsky’s Oboe. Métier. $18.99.

     If the Dover Quartet were to be rated on the traditional corporate/academic scale, it would consistently get a ranking of “exceeds expectations” – which is quite an accomplishment, since each of the quartet’s recordings raises the expectations for the next one, and the performers then go ahead and surpass those raised expectations. This is no small feat in any repertoire, and is an even greater accomplishment when it comes to the quartets of Beethoven – which mount in subtlety, complexity, performance difficulty and needed emotional engagement by performers and audience alike from the early Op. 18 ones through the middle group to the extraordinary late quartets. What is interesting in the Dover Quartet’s cycle is how the group itself seems to change its collective personality as the music progresses. The early quartets were fleet and vivacious, lively and bubbly, thoroughly Mozartean with touches of Haydn here and there – but with the unique characteristics of Beethoven’s style clearly emerging. The middle quartets, more serious and expressive, were treated to exceptional precision of ensemble and a highly appealing balance between technical mastery and a feeling of spontaneous music-making – such a feeling really being attainable only through deep study, contemplation and rehearsal. The pervasive natural feeling of these performances – again, attainable only through careful study and attentiveness to the music – is exceptional. Each of the late quartets leaves an entirely different impression here, but in every case the audience is left with a sense of inevitability about what the Dover Quartet offers: the tempos seem just right, the ensemble passages beautifully balanced, the individual instruments’ contributions structured exactly as they should be to complement those of the group as a whole. Thus, the introspective Op. 127 is a highly moving experience and an emotionally touching one. Op. 130 is more poised and elegant, with the individual characteristics of each of its six movements brought out superbly – yet kept within a kind of “story arc” encompassing the entire work. This is the quartet whose original finale was published separately as the Grosse Fuge, and the layout of this three-CD Cedille release makes both the connection to the finished quartet and the distinction from it clear: Op. 130 is on the first disc and the Grosse Fuge starts the second. The sheer heft of the fugue is what comes clear in this performance, which has a physicality about it that coexists, sometimes uneasily, with transcendence – this is a revelatory reading of the music. The Dover Quartet takes a somewhat similar approach to the seven-movement Op. 131 as the one it uses for Op. 130, allowing each movement its own form of expression within its own context and length (the third runs less than a minute, the fourth almost 14). The performers have obviously thought long and hard about the significance of Beethoven’s tempo designations for this quartet, with the notable fifth movement marked Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile – a very, very difficult combination of characteristics that comes across just the right way here: a kind of slow walking pace permeated by great expressiveness in a singing style. This was Beethoven’s favorite of his late quartets, and the performance here certainly justifies the composer’s preference. But the Dover Quartet does not neglect the somewhat lighter and more accessible Op. 132, whose charm is pervasive but whose emotional complexity is brought forward in this reading through careful attentiveness both to the work’s jovial elements and to its sentimental and rather sweet ones. As for Op. 135, the shortest and smallest-scale of these works, the Dover Quartet refuses to minimize the work or have it sound even the slightest bit inferior to the others. The final movement bears the heading “The Difficult Decision” – just what decision that might be has never been clear – but there are comparatively few interpretative or emotive difficulties in this work, compared with what the other late quartets require. And that, in a sense, is the major difficulty of the piece: to show how well it fits with the other late quartets, and with Beethoven’s late-period thinking and experience, without making the work overblown and without trying to give it greater portentousness than it in fact possesses. The Dover Quartet manages this feat by allowing the emotional elements of the final quartet to flow naturally without ever becoming heavy, resulting in a completely convincing performance that never allows Op. 135 to come across as any sort of “comedown” from the other late quartets – as it sometimes does. The Dover Quartet’s Beethoven cycle is an altogether remarkable one, certainly not definitive – no performance is or can be – but as worthy as any version of these quartets by any group of performers: it offers highly substantive performances that are strikingly effective when first heard and only grow more impressive with repeated listening. The sheer quality of playing, combined with the tremendous insight into Beethoven from which these readings flow and which they communicate to the audience, make this a must-have cycle even for listeners who are highly familiar with the music and may already have multiple versions of it in their collections.

     Beethoven’s quartets remain transcendent, unsurpassed on so many levels, nearly 200 years after the last of them was composed. But the quartet form itself retains its fascination for composers, and has evolved over the years and centuries since Beethoven’s time. There is something about the combination of four instruments – not necessarily all string instruments – that composers continue to find highly suitable for communicating matters both emotional and intellectual, including ones that are aurally about as far from Beethoven’s sound world as it is possible to get. Three of the seven works by Turkish-born composer Eren Gümrükçüoğlu (born 1982) on a (+++) New Focus Recordings CD are written for string quartet; one of the three is for expanded quartet – the usual strings plus other instruments. None of these pieces ties directly in any way to the music of Beethoven or others who focused on string-quartet composition as Haydn perfected it – but each Gümrükçüoğlu work using a string quartet still finds something of value in the interplay of four string instruments. Bozkir sounds as if the instruments are tuning up most of the time, although there is a recognizable central pitch at one point, along with some sul ponticello playing and microtones. Xanthos makes even more of the microtones, with swooping and pizzicato passages for contrast. Both these works are played by the Mivos String Quartet. The JACK Quartet performs in Pareidolia, which also includes clarinet/tenor saxophone, percussion/drum set, and synthesizers: Gümrükçüoğlu works in both acoustic and electronic environments and frequently combines them. Pareidolia is a very extended work, nearly 24 minutes long, that runs through the usual avant-garde paces of long-sustained material, complex and quickly dissipating notes, occasional regular rhythms to contrast with the mostly irregular ones, and so on. It goes on much too long to be a satisfying listening experience for anyone not already firmly committed to music of this type, although its complexity and tonal variety make it seem to be a work that performers of this sort of material will enjoy. Quartets are absent from the rest of this CD. Gümrükçüoğlu himself performs on electronics for the first and last pieces on the disc, Pandemonium and Asansör Asȉmptotu. The first of these sounds like a collection of disparate factory sounds; the second starts with individual sounds that gradually build, transform and are distorted in a variety of ways. Also on the CD is Ordinary Things, performed by the Deviant Septet – this is a political work using excerpts of speeches by Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with musical commentary by an ensemble including clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, violin, and double bass. Also here is Lattice Scattering, performed by Andrea Biagini on violin, Simone Nocchi on piano, and electronics – this is a sort-of-trio in which the electronic sounds constantly overshadow the acoustic ones. None of this music has any intentionality of reaching out beyond an already-committed audience that considers electronic sounds and avant-garde compositional techniques to be the ne plus ultra of modern musical experience – the quartet involvement here is deliberately designed as part of a larger sonic experience for a highly specialized “in group.”

     A (+++) Métier CD of music by Edward Cowie (born 1943) takes quartet thinking in a different direction. The one quartet piece here, Kandinsky, is for four guitars rather than the usual string complement, and is performed by the Spectrum Guitar Quartet. This is a three-movement work intended to reflect and pay tribute to artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). The three movements’ titles neatly encapsulate three elements of Kandinsky’s art – “Points,” “Lines,” and “Planes” – but the music does not seem particularly reflective of the titular material. A second Kandinsky-focused piece, Kandinsky’s Oboe, is for oboe solo (Christopher Redgate) and bears the same three movement titles. It actually seems more representative of what the movement titles identify as elements of Kandinsky’s productions: “Points” is staccato, “Lines” legato, and “Planes” scattered and athematic. The other works on this disc are supposed to reflect elements of physics by relating to subatomic particles. Particle Partita, for two violins (Peter Sheppard Skærved and Mihailo Trandafilovski) is an eight-movement piece that starts with “The Democritus Question,” ends with “Higgs Boson and beyond,” and in the middle deals with “Bequerel’s Radioactivity,” “Positron to Lepton,” and so forth. This is all highly esoteric and not reflected in any meaningful way in the music that Cowie writes for the violin duo – this is one of those pieces that listeners must study and understand before hearing it, so they will know what it is about and will be able to attempt to find ways in which the notes reflect the topics. The music does not really repay the level of intellectual exploration needed to discover its foundational thinking. The eight Basho Meditations for solo guitar (Saki Kato) are of more interest and in general are mercifully short (most run around one minute). The guitar writing here is well-crafted and idiomatic, and the sound gently engaging: there may be no specificity to each of the pieces, but none is really needed, the overall impression of meditative calm (with occasional interruptions) coming through clearly throughout, and the differences among the movements providing a series of pleasant aural contrasts as well as a chance to hear some fine guitar playing. At 10-and-a-half minutes, Basho Meditations is the shortest piece on the CD, less than half the length of Particle Partita or another multi-movement suite, Stream and Variations for two guitars (Kato and Hugh Millington). The two-guitar work includes a theme and eight variations. The theme is not especially notable, and the variations seem generally more concerned with pushing the guitars’ sound beyond the norm for the instruments – although occasional forays into more-traditional guitar writing, as in Variation 2, are effective. The longer pieces on this CD are rather diffuse and unfocused; only Basho Meditations effectively communicates a series of related moods that collectively amount to more than the sum of the individual movements. The quartet use here is largely incidental: Cowie’s interest in the grouping of four guitars simply reflects his general concern, in most of these pieces, for finding ways to use the guitar to express a variety of not-always-coherent themes and concepts.

November 17, 2022


Calendars (wall for 2023): Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave; Fragile World. Universe/Andrews McMeel, $16.99 (Tomorrow); Andrews McMeel, $16.99 (Fragile).

     Broadly speaking, wall calendars fall into one of two categories: ones that emphasize words and ones that draw attention to pictures. And each type invites your participation throughout the year – albeit in different ways. A pleasantly inspirational word-focused calendar, for example, is Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave by illustrator Jessica Hische. The key here is not the messages themselves, which are suitably uplifting but scarcely original. It is the way Hische’s designs accent and interpret the fairly straightforward words that can make this calendar a pleasure to have on your wall all year – worth at least one glance a day and probably more (for the sake of re-inspiration). Each month has the words “Tomorrow I’ll Be” in an everyday type style at the top, with the word “Tomorrow” slightly curved. Then the design elements take over, with each month getting a single very large, emphasized word with its own eye-catching appearance. In addition to “Brave,” the words are “Kind,” “Honest,” “Confident,” “Curious,” “Strong,” “Patient,” “Creative,” “Smart,” “Adventurous,” “Grateful,” and “Helpful.” And each looks totally different from the others – although there are a few recurring features, such as the use in various places of cartoon animal characters, including a long-eared white rabbit in several months, a dragon in “Confident,” a zebra and other animals at a kids’ playground in “Patient,” an elephant dressed as a wizard in “Honest,” and so forth. This is not primarily a cartoon calendar, though: the words really do get most of the attention. “Confident” appears on the two-page spread of an open book, “Brave” is in a very large tree (or the tree’s many branches are growing through the word’s letters), “Curious” is spelled out using stars in a nighttime scene, and so on. The forms of the words’ letters differ quite a bit, too, with “Grateful” full of curls and curlicues and “Creative” in curved block letters with a 3-D look to them. A bonus poster provides an extra touch of self-assertive self-improvement, and the calendar as a whole offers a distinctive way of using wall space with room to make notes for each day of each month, plus an illustration that not only urges being even better in some aspect of life the next day but also makes it clear that even on a day that is not particularly good, tomorrow there is an option to improve, at least incrementally, in a wide variety of ways.

     The cartoon pictures are incidental in Hische’s illustrations, but the art is the entire point of the Fragile World calendar by Kerby Rosanes. This is a spectacularly detailed set of wall-art pieces, all of which invite thoughtfulness (they are nature-focused as reminders of Earth’s wildlife, including vulnerable or endangered animals) and very direct participation (they are all in black-and-white and can all be colored, either a bit at a time during each month or all at once). Rosanes has long specialized in art that looks highly attractive in its original black-and-white form, but still allows colorists to express their creativity in ways both big and small. A “big” way for this calendar might involve coloring the Galapagos sea lions that are featured for August or the New Zealand lesser short-tailed bats that appear for October, while a “small” way would relate to coloring the settings that Rosanes creates for these and the other animals shown during the year: the snowy landscape behind the Amur leopard (January), for example, or the bananas and other fruits shown surrounding an extreme close-up of a mandrill (June). Most Rosanes illustrations here focus on showing the animals super-realistically, but there are a few in which he offers the surreal scenes that are a characteristic of his creativity, such as one for July that shows a Philippine eagle appearing to carry an entire landscape, with mountains, on its back. Colorists who favor the realistic approach will want to investigate the real-world appearance of all these animals and match their own drawings to reality – but those with a more fanciful frame of mind are entirely free to create color palettes of any sort, both for the animals and for their surroundings. Rosanes’ point is to draw attention to the fragility of these animals and, by extension, the world they (and we) inhabit. That is a worthy goal for the entire year, and one that can bring a mixture of enjoyment and thoughtful concern to anybody who chooses to display this calendar prominently on a wall – and color the illustrations realistically, imaginatively, or not at all.