Saturday, May 31, 2008

Dogs and Roses

Ah, how good it feels to walk again! I've been exploring my new neighborhood (no longer with cousins, but in one of the library's apartments), and it reminds me a lot of where I lived in grad school, only with more rose gardens and more dogs (if that is even possible). The smell of roses, lavender, clematis, jasmine and honeysuckle is dizzying. But how good it feels to transport oneself on one's legs. And I'm starting to feel more grounded and less tired too- all it took was a week.

Today and yesterday evening I went exploring, and this afternoon I discovered the nearby market, which expands on the weekends to include local farmers, artists, jewelers, craftspeople and a flea market. I picked up some amazing local strawberries and artisanal cheese, and spent the better part of an hour taking in all the people, including many babies, dogs and cute guys, some with babies, some without- is there anything more adorable than a cute guy wearing a snuggly facing out with a wiggly 2 month-old, I ask you? No, there is not. Except maybe if he were also holding a puppy. Then I think I'd faint.

Now it's gotten very dark and thundery, and rain pours down in buckets. The library's only open for another two and a half hours, and there's tea at 3. I had planned to explore a different neighborhood this afternoon, but I do like a good cozy library and a nice cup of tea, especially when it's raining outside.

Monday, May 26, 2008


Good Lord, I am Out of Shape. I arrived in DC last night after a lovely 6 hour train journey and today I decided to go for a nice long walk, explore some shopping neighborhoods by metro and then walk back. The metro stop is only a 12-15 minute walk from where my cousins live, but it was 90 degrees in the sun. I was out of breath and sweating by the time I reached the cool, subterranean metro. And then while trying on clothes, I took stock of my figure and noticed flab in places I never thought could get flab before. And the strain in my lower back, oy vey! Since I moved to suburban southern city to teach, I stopped walking for transportation, started driving. According to a recent visit to the doctor, I have gained 10 pounds over the last 2 years in the south. So my body has not been accustomed to this much walking.

I felt like a marionette, my joints swaying with every step I took.

Thankfully, by the end of my five and a half hour expedition I started to feel more grounded and less out of breath.

This month I'll be walking everywhere again, but for good measure I've also decided to purchase an unlimited monthly pass at a yoga studio near Dupont Circle, which offers Ashtanga 3 times a week, along with Pilates and four levels of Vinyasa flow. I intend to go to class 3-4 days a week. I may not lose those 10 pounds, but at least I will feel like a Real Girl again.

So there you have it. My schedule: 9-5 library; 6:30-8 yoga; 8-whenever, blissed out post-exercise happiness.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dramatic Fugues

Yesterday I had a delightful coffee with Hip Colleague, and we talked about our book projects. He's writing his second book and had a question for me about Renaissance drama. One of his chapters is on Tony Kushner's play Homebody/Kabul and he described the way that play (and much of the Kushner oeuvre) explores a theme or issue through one character, then pass the theme on to the next set of characters, who in turn pass it on to the next, etc. He wondered if there was a literary or dramatic term for this.

I thought about it. And truth to tell, I couldn't find it operating in early modern drama or classical drama. I tend to think of political issues in Shakespeare operating in a somatic way (the body politic, the humors, the veins, the trickling down), and I tend to think of ethical dilemmas in Greek drama and tragedy working vertically downwards from the top to the bottom. Nowhere could I find an early modern or classical drama in which a problem is passed from hand to hand the way my friend was describing.

So I volunteered the term "transference," which sort of sounds literary and theoretical, maybe psychoanalytical too, though I have no idea why it popped into my head at the time. This term, of course, made me think of the pattern my colleague described as a kind of viral movement, which would make sense for Angels in America, though perhaps less so for Homebody/Kabul.

Then I thought of music- fugues in particular. In his fugues, suites and partitias, Bach takes a theme, breaks it down to its smallest elements ("motifs") then works it through different voices, inverting it, turning it inside out and upside down, and augmenting it into larger chord progressions. By the time the fugue finishes, we have seen the theme and its motifs carried through a metamorphosis.

And this kind of musical fugue happens on the 20th century stage as well, most notably in American Musicals- for some reason especially those to which Sondheim contributes. In what I consider his best musical, Sweeney Todd, Sondheim takes the opening of bars of the Latin Mass, inverts it and it becomes "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." Then he takes the Dies Irae and uses it as a repeated counterpoint motif (as musical accompaniment to a different melody) to signify Sweeney's descent into insanity. You can hear it in the background when he sings "We all deserve to die" in "Epiphany" and it appears in the same song when he returns to the tragic fate of his wife ("My Lucy lies in ashes"). It comes back significantly in the very end in the musical surge when he slits the throat of the beggarwoman.

A concurrent motif from the Dies Irae theme is the tritone interval, a diminished fifth known in Medieval and Renaissance music as diablos in musica, or "the devil in the music." The tritone has a hauntingly unresolved feel to it. It's dissonant and begs for a resolution. Sondheim and Bernstein made great use of it in "Maria" and the opening "Rumble" in West Side Story- you can hear the tritone on "Ma-REE-", and it's resolved on the "-ah." But it's really used to much better effect in Sweeney- you could even say the tritone is the main musical calling card of Sweeney Todd. It shows up in the male ingenue Anthony's ballad "Johanna" which is very similar to "Maria," but much creepier because Sondheim doesn't resolve the tritone into a major triad for a several lines; he keeps it suspended longer. And it shows up again in the harmonies of the hilariously macabre duet "A Little Priest," which closes Act I. When Mrs. Lovett joins Sweeney in cadencing the refrain, they are usually a fourth or a tritone apart, and at the very end, the orchestral accompaniment rises to a series of fast syncopated tritones, an antic and uneasy way to pull the curtain down.

So musically, Sweeney Todd passes the themes of demonic possession, Judgement Day (dies irae or day of wrath) and tragic loss from character to character until they culminate in the "Final Sequence," the tragic denouement in which Sweeney kills his wife and learns of Mrs. Lovett's deception too late.*

So I said all this to my friend and he said he had actually spoken to one of our colleagues about musical motifs in Kushner before, which kind of validated what I'd said, even though I was sort of stretching.

I think one of the reasons why I don't write about Renaissance drama (I prefer poetry and book history) is because if I wrote about drama, I'd really prefer to write about American Musical Theatre.

* I highly recommend the Original Broadway Cast recording from 1979 with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou, though nearly as good is "Sweeney Todd in Concert" (2001) with George Hearn (Sweeney No. 2 on Broadway) and Patti Lupone with the New York Philharmonic and a number of noted opera stars, along with Neil Patrick Harris who is excellent as Toby.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Blackberries, peaches, figs and plums, oh my!

So this year I decided to fertilize the garden with organic stuff. And in doing that I learned that plants are by no means vegetarians- in March I gave them some bones to crunch on, and in May they get a yummy meal of blood all around (makes me feel a bit like Mrs. Lovett).

And I didn't expect much, but what a world of difference organic fertilizer makes! The fig tree is twice as big and has tiny nubs on every single new leaf bract, which basically means there will be tons of figs cropping up in August. Even more exciting, I discovered a peach tree with fuzzy little green and orange fruits ripening in the far part of the back yard, along with several enormous blackberry brambles (possibly wild ones). And this morning getting the mail I noticed how big the plum tree was getting and was shocked to find about 16 hard little magenta plums on it. I thought it was a flowering plum, but not a fruiting one. And I only fed it with a tiny bit of leftover fertilizer, so now I know it's capable of producing a lot more.

Alas, I'll probably be out of town when the peaches, plums and blackberries ripen so I hope my cat-sitters will pick them and eat them before the birds and squirrels do. But the figs I can enjoy all August, which sweetens the bitter task of having to come back early and do more freshman advising.

Monday, May 12, 2008

I aint got nobody

Feeling sorry for yourself never sounded better- or smarter. From 1940's "Strike up the Band."