Penman No. 236: A Web of Entertainment

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Penman for Monday, January 30, 2017

 

IF I HAD to name three of the most important and most useful sites on the Internet that I’ve ever used, they would, unsurprisingly, be Google, Wikipedia, and YouTube. (Some would stick Facebook in there, but since I stay off the FB grid, I wouldn’t know).

Granted, they’re far from perfect and are eminently susceptible to manipulation by both the well-intentioned and the unscrupulous. It’s easy to become overly dependent on them for information, and to simply believe what they say and show without any kind of critical intervention. For many students and researchers, Google and Wikipedia have long replaced the physical library—and why not?—without minding the inflexible if inconvenient need for proper attribution of sources and for fact-checking. Google in particular gives weight to the popular, and in this age of fake news, post-truths, and “alternative facts,” where “If it’s retweeted a hundred times, it must be true,” the pitfalls abound.

But with enough awareness and discernment on the user’s part, they can be valuable tools for learning, and I have to say that I can’t possibly get as much work done as I do these days without drawing several times a day on these indispensable sites.

And there’s an even better reason, I’ve discovered, than cold research or trawling for factoids to explore these sites. They form a veritable Worldwide Web of entertainment, taking me to serendipitous discoveries of all sorts, thanks to the Web’s structure of hyperlinks. They often lead me to things and places I’d never have encountered otherwise, which is where much of the entertainment lies, in the continuously unfolding panoramas of knowledge that open up onscreen.

A good example came up about a month ago, while I was watching an episode of Great Performances on PBS (which I get by paying a small subscription fee, well worth the treasure trove of documentaries and arts programs). This one was titled “La Dolce Vita: The Music of Italian Cinema,” and it featured the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra in a concert of classics by such renowned and popular film composers as Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota. (Morricone is a personal favorite—I keep playing Yo-Yo Ma’s rendition of “Gabriel’s Oboe” from “The Mission”, and even visited Morricone’s hometown in Cervara di Roma, where he’s venerated as a hero.)

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One tune that captured me was the haunting theme from a film called “The Anonymous Venetian,” played on the violin by Joshua Bell. I had heard the song before, but Bell performed it with such sublime intensity that it brought my wife Beng to tears when she listened in.

Now that I had the title, I went to Google to find out more about the song and the movie; Stelvio Cipriani had composed the music for the film, which had been directed in 1970 by Enrico Maria Salerno, starring Tony Musante and Florinda Bolkan. Further Googling revealed that the movie was about a terminally ill musician who meets his ex-wife in Venice, briefly rekindling their old passion. It was panned by the critics (and then again, some bad movies produce the best scores–remember “The Promise”?). I’m a fan of movies about Venice (Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice”, Nicholas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now”) and Beng and I had spent some of our most blissful moments there riding the vaporetto on a one-day visit three years ago, so I went on eBay to buy the movie, but it wasn’t available on DVD.

Neither was it on YouTube, where you can find whole movies if you get lucky (and don’t mind the dubious provenance). But I was able to download the full PBS video on the PBS site and to find other versions of the song on YouTube, from which I cut clips to save to iTunes.

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My attention then turned to Joshua Bell, who turned out to be something of a sensation in American music. Among other interesting factoids brought up about him by Wikipedia was that he owned and used a 1713 Stradivarius violin called the Gibson ex Huberman after two of its previous owners, a $4-million instrument which has been stolen not once but twice.

That led me to the story of the violin itself and back to YouTube, where a one-hour documentary titled “The Return of the Violin” traces the long and poignant pedigree of the violin, particularly its time in the hands of the Polish prodigy Bronislaw Huberman. Huberman received the violin as a gift from a Polish noble family in recognition of his astonishing prowess, but even more remarkably, he didn’t rest on his laurels; he saved many Jewish musicians during the Nazi period by recruiting them to join the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which he was setting up at the time.

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At this point, I was getting far more than entertainment; I was getting an education in music and its humanizing influence, thanks to a few clicks on my keyboard.

Penman No. 128: Sense by Sondheim

51xVXvpXz-LPenman for Monday, December 22, 2014

 

LAST WEEK, I mentioned having twice seen the HBO documentary on the life and work of the Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, perhaps best known for the song “Send in the Clowns” from his hit 1973 musical A Little Night Music. Directed by James Lepine, Six by Sondheim walks us through the conceptualization and the composition of six of Sondheim’s most important songs: “Something’s Coming” (West Side Story); “Opening Doors” (Merrily We Roll Along); “Send in the Clowns” (A Little Night Music); “I’m Still Here” (Follies); “Being Alive” (Company); and “Sunday” (Sunday in the Park With George).

I’d have to admit that I didn’t know three of these songs; I knew and liked “Something’s Coming” as a big West Side Story fan, and “Send in the Clowns” and “Being Alive” from Barbra Streisand’s Broadway album, but the others were unfamiliar to me, which was just as well, as they were a pleasant discovery of other aspects of Sondheim’s craft.

That craft and the attitude that shaped it was something nurtured by Sondheim from a young age. When his parents broke up, the boy sought a sense of regularity and order, and surprisingly responded well to the routine of a military school. He found a hero in a family friend, the lyricist and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, to whom he presented his early attempts at composition, only to receive a coldly professional—and cutting—assessment.

That didn’t faze Stephen, who went on to write the lyrics for West Side Story at age 25—and was unhappy about it, wanting to have written the music instead (Leonard Bernstein did). This was one of Sondheim’s (and any aspiring theater person’s) first and most important lessons: when you’re starting out, you learn to play the part you’re given. And Stephen did, exceedingly well: in the documentary, he talks about writing “Something’s Coming” using a succession of baseball metaphors that emphasized forward motion: “cannonballing down through the sky… catch the moon, one-handed catch!”

Sounds like poetry, but Sondheim is very clear about the difference between poetry and songwriting. While some lyrics may be poetic, songs, he says, have to be understood as they are sung; songs have to advance the dramatic situation, and help the listener grasp what’s at stake in the unfolding drama. Readers can go back and mull over the lines of a poem, but a song has to be instantly comprehensible.

Even so, Sondheim doesn’t succumb to the easy rhyme (the kind of song where you know “remember” will be followed by “September”). The words may be simple, but the ideas complex, as in “Being Alive”: “Make me confused / Mock me with praise / Let me be used / Vary my days.” His collaborators and directors like Hal Prince would agree that Sondheim doesn’t go for the simply hummable tune: he challenges norms, uses his music to put people not at ease, but at odds with oneself, as his characters often are.

His approach seems deceptively easy: “I scour the dialogue for lines. Or I might take a title line, then use its inflections to get the rhythm of the melody.” He likes to write lying down, taking a stiff drink now and then to loosen up. His love of word games (“It’s a very short road from the pinch and the punch / to the paunch and the pouch and the pension,” goes one of his lyrics) is mirrored in his collection of vintage board games and puzzles.

Also surprisingly, some of his best songs came as “throwaways” or space fillers, songs written to fill a gap in the drama or to wrap more tension around a character. “Send in the Clowns” was one such song—but here, for all that he maintained about the difference between songwriting and poetry, the poet prevailed. Director Hal Prince had asked Stephen to write the song for the character Desiree, played by Glynis Johns, and Sondheim had initially demurred, believing that the scene was properly the male character Fredrik’s. But he relented after seeing what Hal had in mind, and wrote the song in two days. Glynis would later say that as soon as they heard the first few notes, something stirred in the air and in their bones: they knew that they were hearing the birth of a great song. (The documentary presents it in a lovely montage headlined by Audra MacDonald and featuring, among others, Barbra Streisand, Glenn Close, Patti Labelle, Cher, and Judi Dench.)

But what did “Send in the Clowns” mean? Frank Sinatra, who sang it hundreds of times, professed that he didn’t really know. When I first mentioned the song in this column a few months ago, reader Ivi Avellana-Cosio wrote in from LA to contribute this interpretation, for which I (and surely many readers and karaoke crooners) can only thank her:

“It’s basically a song of deep regret, irony, even anger but with a reference to the theater rather than the circus. Desiree (an actress) and Fredrik are former lovers who meet again after many years, and after many other men for Desiree. Fredrik is now married, but during a weekend in the country, he and Desiree spend the night together and she realizes that he has always been the one she wanted. She proposes marriage, but Fredrik refuses to be unfaithful. The tables have been turned—now Desiree is at last ‘on the ground’ and Fredrik ‘in midair,’ in love with his young wife. Desiree declares there’s no need to ‘send in the clowns’ to cover up a bad situation: looking at Fredrik, she sings, ‘Don’t bother. They’re here.’ It’s heartbreaking, because the truth is that Fredrik is still in love with Desiree. Stephen Sondheim, in an interview, revealed that the song came together for him when he wrote those two lines. He clarified that he used ‘clowns’ because that call—“Send in the clowns!’—was originally used in the circus to divert the audience’s attention when something went horribly wrong, e.g. when the lion tamer literally lost his head. But he meant it in the context of ‘fools” and for a brief moment considered changing the lyrics. It was a good thing he didn’t, because somehow ‘Send in the Fools’ doesn’t quite cut it!”

If you want to hear the rest of Sondheim and all the music that should go with this piece, look up Six by Sondheim on YouTube, and enjoy what I did.

Penman No. 73: A New Home in Erehwon

IMG_2568Penman for Monday, November 18, 2013

I HAD a good chat with Metro Manila Concert Orchestra founding music director Josefino “Chino” Toledo recently at the inauguration of the MMCO’s new rehearsal space at the Erehwon Center for the Arts in Quezon City. Also a gifted composer and conductor, Chino is a fellow professor of mine at the University of the Philippines, and a batchmate under UP’s Arts Productivity System. We’ve run into each other during UPAPS ceremonies, but never really got to talk until the Erehwon event.

But let me digress a bit and say something about Erehwon itself first. Founded a couple of years ago by businessman Rafael Rivera Benitez, Erehwon is actually a big white building nestled in a corner of Old Balara in Quezon City (you can find the map and more details on www.erehwonartworld.com) that Raffy converted and devoted to serving as Metro Manila’s newest arts mecca—a studio cum gallery cum performance space cum residency and meeting venue.

Raffy himself is an old friend and compadre of mine, someone I spent one of life’s most privileged experiences with—prison time and space in Fort Bonifacio under martial law, when both of us were in our late teens. He made his mark in the baking and printing businesses, but late in life (he very recently turned 60), Raffy decided to pursue another passion—patronage of the arts, giving rise to Erehwon. (People our age will remember the late, lamented Erehwon Bookshop in Ermita—which was right next to my old NEDA office on Padre Faura, providing me with a perennial excuse for an extended lunch break. That Erehwon, however, has nothing to do with the new one.)

And now, thanks to Raffy Benitez and Erehwon, the Metro Manila Concert Orchestra will have a new home through a venue grant offered by Erehwon to the MMCO, which until lately was lodged with Miriam College, where Chino Toledo also held certain responsibilities. Its arrangement with Miriam having ended, the MMCO needed a white knight to come to its rescue, and that turned out to be Erehwon, which has also been seeking partners to work with in arts promotion.

Erehwon couldn’t have found a better partner than the MMCO, which was established in June 2000 and has since become one of the country’s leading semiprofessional orchestras. I asked Chino what set the MMCO apart from the others, and he told me that they were especially receptive to new and young Filipino composers and musicians. I noticed, during the inauguration, that the orchestra’s musicians were predominantly young, most of them clearly in their 20s and 30s. That’s exactly the kind of push our young musical talents need, particularly as orchestral music, like theater, involves the effort of a community working as one, and an individual really succeeds only insofar as he or she can find membership and nurturance within that community.

The MMCO now counts about 50 musicians in its ranks, coming from various schools in the metropolis. (“The number of people in an orchestra will vary depending on the piece,” Chino told me, “but at full complement, an orchestra like the New York Philharmonic could have as many as a hundred members.”) They hold an average of one concert a month, and practice at least twice a week. The conductor, Chino explained, functions as the team coach, and the concert master acts as the captain ball, leading the execution of the coach’s plan.

Funding is always a problem, Chino added; as a semi-professional orchestra, the MMCO does its best to pay its members what they deserve, but as with most other artistic endeavors, it’s love of music that really drives the group and Chino himself forward, and sustains the commitment of a faithful corps of supporters that include Executive Director Chinggay Lagdameo and MMCO Foundation President Corazon Alma de Leon.

Here’s hoping that the MMCO’s move to Erehwon will result in a new season of growth and prosperity for the orchestra and for Philippine music as a whole.

SPEAKING OF cultural initiatives, last week marked the staging of the fourth Philippine International Literary Festival (formerly known as the Manila International Literary Festival), spearheaded by the National Book Development Board in cooperation with four universities in Manila—the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University, the University of Sto. Tomas, and De La Salle University—and the Ayala Museum. The urban setting was deliberate, because this year’s festival theme was “Text and the City,” focused on how centrally the city figures in Philippine and regional literature.

I joined a panel at UST with colleagues Jing Hidalgo and Charlson Ong in a discussion of how the city informs our writing. In broad terms, I noted that the city, not surprisingly, has figured in a major way in Philippine fiction, particularly in English, because most of the fiction published in the Philippines has been written by city-based middle-class writers. It has often been presented as the site of violence, poverty, and corruption, in contrast to the romantic conception of the countryside as a place of peace, plenitude, and spiritual regeneration. In more politically aware writings, however, that line has become blurred, as the feudal roots of urban wealth and power become more clearly exposed.

Our focus on the familiar city, however, comes at a great price—the near-absence of new writing that deals with the Philippine countryside in anything but a romantic mode. (By “romantic” here I mean I mean not only the highly idealized representations of rural maidens by the likes of Fernando Amorsolo, but also my politicized generation’s expectation of ascending into the mountains—joining the armed struggle—as a kind of revolutionary apotheosis.) As it happened, I was in Baler, Aurora that weekend, and rushed back to Manila at dawn to make it in time for the UST event. On the six-hour ride, over mountain roads with a view of the great ocean, I remarked how conspicuously absent the sea and the mountains were in our contemporary literature, despite the fact that we pride ourselves in being a vast archipelago. Our stories today take place in Starbucks Katipunan, or in some cozy corner of Bonifacio High Street that may as well be another country.

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In UP, I was happy to introduce an old friend, the Singaporean fictionist Suchen Christine Lim, a guest and featured speaker of the festival along with other international writers including the Hong Kong-based fictionist Xu Xi and cultural critic Peter Swirski. Suchen is a delightfully gifted writer whose title story in the collection The Lies That Build a Marriage (available at National Book Store) blew me away; her prose is crisp and to the point, but her command of character displays the depth and sophistication of her perception.

I noted how the Philippines and Singapore have had a long and special literary relationship, probably nurtured by the fact that we share the same colonial language, English. Among writers, Frankie Sionil Jose was a contemporary and good friend of Edwin Thumboo; Krip Yuson, Charlson Ong and I have had fruitful contact with Kirpal Singh, Robert Yeo, and Chris Mooney-Singh; our younger writers like poet Joel Toledo (who’s doing a PhD in Singapore) have their counterparts in Alvin Pang and Joshua Ip. Some years ago, Filipino and Singaporean poets got together to produce a joint anthology titled Love Gathers All. You’ll note that all of these pairings are between men, so it’s refreshing and important to remember that women writers have also figured prominently in Singaporean literature, aside from Suchen Lim—the fictionist Catherine Lim and the playwright Stella Kon among them.

Next year, Singapore will host the Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators conference, followed by us in 2015. It’s events like these that will help put the Philippines where it deserves to be, squarely on the global literary and cultural map.

Penman No. 30: Music to Lose Weight by

Penman for Monday, Jan. 21, 2013

AS I’VE been reporting lately, I’ve lost quite a bit of weight since my doctor ordered me six months ago to take brisk walks and go on a sensible diet to fight the onset of Type-2 diabetes. I seem to have hit the wall at a weight loss of 45 pounds, but I guess I should be happy where I am, in the low 170s. With my blood sugar in the 100 range and my blood pressure steady at around 110/80, I’m a whole lot better off than where I was a year ago—and, I suspect, than many men my age.

But this isn’t about cholesterol, triglycerides, and all that; rather, it’s about another unexpected side benefit to all this huffing and puffing. Because I take 30-minute to one-hour walks around the UP Academic Oval several times a week, I’ve rediscovered all the music I’d stored away in my iTunes. I have about 2,000 songs all in all—apparently not much by the standards of today’s kids, some of whom I’ve seen to profess having 10,000 songs in their playlists (of which, I’m pretty sure, 9,900 will sound all the same to me).

As you can imagine, most of my music is made up of what seniors know as “standards”—vintage pieces from the likes of Doris Day and Bing Crosby that can put a 20-something to sleep in 30 seconds, the kind of music you’ll hear on FM radio at 2 pm. Of course I have the complete Beatles collection (and could probably sing 80 percent of it from memory), a boatload of Broadway, Sinatra from here to eternity, Michel Legrand in both English and French, opera like I knew Italian, enough bossa nova to make me wish I knew Portuguese, and instrumentals from the likes of Jackie Gleason (yes, he was also a bandleader). Henry “Pink Panther” Mancini, and Toots Thielemans, who can make a harmonica sound like a love letter with your address on the envelope.

I do have quite a few new songs—but “new” to me usually means something 20 or 30 years old. Instead of Linkin Park, I have Led Zeppelin; instead of the Eraserheads, I have Heber Bartolome and Banyuhay. OK, I have a couple of songs by Journey (what else but “Open Arms” and “Faithfully”) and one by INXS (“Afterglow”) but no Nirvana, no hip-hop, nothing to disturb my hard-won equanimity or my illusion that the world is anything but an ordered whole.

It’s that old-guy sense of order and purpose that drives my left foot in front of the right and the right in front of the left, for 2.2 kilometers around the oval until I reach the Oblation and then do it all over again. I have to believe that all of this exertion will actually mean or bring something good, and for that I need emphatically optimistic music.

Broadway, I find, best puts me in this mood. If anything—from Carousel to Les Miserables—Broadway’s been built on selling the power of love and the indomitability of the human spirit, so you could whistle a happy tune and never walk alone and look to the rainbow and be sure that the sun will come out tomorrow. I might start with something light like “Dites Moi” from South Pacific or “Question Me an Answer” from Lost Horizon, progress to something more dramatic like “We Kiss in A Shadow” from The King and I or “If Ever I Would Leave You” from Camelot, and then push myself for another turn around the oval with something truly rousing like “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady or “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific. I’m singing all of these in my head, but being deaf to the world with my noise-canceling earphones on (not the smartest idea on the open road), I’m sure—from the strange looks I get from people I pass by—that I’m making noises I’m not hearing.

Next to Broadway, my two favorite genres are Latin music and OPM. I don’t really speak anything more than schoolboy Spanish (thank God for the old Spanish Law, which of course all of us detested in our time), but whenever I listen to someone like Luis Miguel, I find myself feeling foolishly sorry that we kicked those Spaniards out. I have eight versions of “Sabor a Mi” in my iTunes, and savor both Andrea Bocelli’s and Ennio Morricone’s versions of “Amapola” (which Morricone used for the soundtrack of Once Upon a Time in America). Speaking of Morricone, how could anyone resist “Gabriel’s Oboe” from The Mission, especially when it’s Yo Yo Ma doing the honors? And speaking of Yo Yo Ma, how much sweeter can a cello get than on “Doce de Coco” from his Brazilian album?

Ah, Brasil, where hearts were entertaining June, and we stood beneath an amber moon…. I’ve told my wife June (also known as Beng) that when I croak, the kind of music I’ll want at my wake will be that of Antonio Carlos Jobim, especially “Desafinado.” There’s something in the gentle insistence of the bossa nova that speaks to my own temperament. And here I have to bring up one of my favorite divas (aside from the inimitable Barbra and our own Sharon—yes, I’m an unabashed Sharonian)—the Japanese-Brazilian chanteuse Lisa Ono, whose “Pretty World” never fails to add some lift to my shoes.

For something more soulful I’d turn to Laura Fygi’s “Abrazame”—and it may be an odd way of looking at these ladies, but if Laura Fygi and Lisa Ono’s voices were like ink, Laura’s would shade to purple and Lisa’s to green. To top off my Latin section, no single album gets more airplay in the car or in my earphones than the soundtrack of Woman on Top, which has an upbeat vibe you can listen to all the way to Baguio. (I was playing it in the car once while driving around Pampanga, and everyone with me wanted a copy.)

And did I say OPM? Much as I may appreciate exotic melodies like “Dein ist mein ganzes herz” or “Les moulins de mon coeur,” they can’t get me going like Sharon’s “I-Swing Mo Ako” or “Bituing Walang Ningning.” When I’m rounding that long bend around the Sunken Garden and am tempted to linger under the acacias for a lick of sweet sorbetes, I strengthen my resolve by drawing on “Sana’y Wala Nang Wakas”: “Kahit na ilang tinik ay kaya kong tapakan, kung iyan ang paraan upang landas mo’y masundan… Kahit ilang dagat ang dapat tawirin, higit pa riyan ang aking gagawin!

And that—plus a lot of kangkong and hasa-hasa in sour broth—was how I lost 45 pounds in six months.