Fascinating courtly intrigue and bloody power games set on a generation ship full of secrets―Medusa Uploaded is an imaginative, intense mystery about family dramas and ancient technologies whose influence reverberates across the stars. Disturbing, exciting, and frankly kind of mind-blowing.” ―Annalee Newitz, author of Autonomous

Monday, December 19, 2011

Suffering For Your Art

I think writers are luckier than artists and composers. Most of us don't start out with the ambition of creating great art. Usually, we just want to tell an entertaining story and get people to buy our books. We want them to do that so we can keep writing. The way it usually turns out, people mostly don't buy our books, a fact that causes us both financial and emotional distress. But we keep writing anyway. By the time we figure out we're not going to be able to make a living with writing, we're already addicted to the process, and it's too late. We hold onto our day jobs and hope that some day the urge to write will go away and that we'll find a cheaper hobby. But we do have much in common with artists and composers. We all suffer. And that suffering isn't just due to lack of money and acclaim.

This situation is beautifully illustrated by the movie, Untitled. We see two brothers struggling to be the best they can be. One is an artist who has managed to make money at what he does, yet he can't seem to get critics and gallery owners to notice him or show any respect for his work. The other is a gifted musician who is also a composer – but the music he creates is far from commercial. Audiences walk out on him when he performs this music. He tells his brother, The Artist, that he's going to give it three more years – and if he doesn't “make it” by then, he's going to kill himself.

This is a line that makes you laugh – not because you think it would be funny if this guy killed himself, but because you actually understand how he feels. He's out there, a voice in the wilderness, and he really believes in what he's doing. His brother does too. Both of them have something all creative people share: hubris. It's a trait that flies in the face of American values, an overconfidence mingled with a lack of modesty. Yet we can't work up the nerve to create stuff without it. We draw, and paint, and compose, and write, and we show what we've done to the world. When the world ignores us – or worse, laughs at us – it's really painful.

Besides their suffering, the two brothers in Untitled share something else – or rather, someone. They both get involved with a young woman who's a gallery owner. She is strongly attracted to artists who are as unpleasant, unappealing, and weird as possible, because she believes they are true pioneers. Her great talent is to peddle this idea to wealthy patrons, and she actually makes her case very well. Despite her preference for unappealing art, she reps the artist brother, selling his “pretty” paintings to banks and hotels, making a lot of money for him and for herself. This allows her to mentor the weird artists she truly loves. But when the artist brother wants to have his own show, she puts him off. She thinks he's not good enough, but she can't quite come out and say that to him. We look at his paintings, and we can see her point of view. They're pretty, but seem kind of boring.

The gallery owner also thinks the composer brother isn't good enough. Yet she can't resist his weirdness, or the dissonance of his music, so she promotes him. She lets him perform at her gallery, and the audience loves him. But along with the applause and the appreciation, there's also laughter – they think he's being deliberately funny, and he's not. This really humiliates him – but the performance makes it possible for the gallery owner to get him a commission. For the first time in his life, he's got to come up with a serious composition that someone else is paying for.

For a writer, this is comparable to selling your first novel. You believe you've finally got your foot in the door. Finally getting noticed is heady stuff, you're ready to take the world by storm. But bookselling is a commercial business, and what happens to new books is that they get released as if they were hamburgers. You've got maybe a month or two to sell as many hard copies as you can in a Brick & Mortar store, and then you're pretty much off the radar. These days, with ebooks and internet, you've got some options writers didn't have before – you can petition bloggers to review your book, try to get guest blogs, try to make some happy noise on your social media networks. Basically you become the best carny barker you can be, regardless of what your publisher is willing to do to promote your book (which is generally almost nothing).

But even if your initial sales are enough to win you another book contract, you discover another painful truth. Your publisher has pigeonholed you as a certain type of writer, and they are only willing to consider certain story ideas. In a way, you've got to keep writing the same book, over and over. If you try something that's too different from what they expect of you, they won't buy it.

For the artist brother in Untitled, this is actually not a problem. His paintings are all very much alike – that's just what he wants to paint. But in his own way, he has still been pigeonholed by the gallery owner. She believes a show of his work will flop. And at this point in the movie, you agree with her. When the paintings are seen individually, they look pleasant, but uninspired.

Meanwhile, the composer brother seems to be blossoming. He has to direct other musicians, and for the first time, there are rumors of actual moolah materializing. He gets to work with a singer who hates his guts. She's talented, and very opinionated, and harbors suspicions that he's trying to sabotage her by making her look ridiculous. Yet she stays on board, and he learns more about directing. Every time they perform you still want to laugh, but you begin to realize that part of the reason you're laughing is that the music is not just “weird,” it's witty. There really is an inherent beauty to unstructured sound – you hear it every time you stop to listen to distant thunder, or wind chimes, or the sound of water bubbling over rocks. At this point the film has performed a subtle shift – the characters are seeing and hearing things differently, and so are you. You begin to realize that the gatekeeper in the movie, the gallery owner, is not just helping the artist and the musician. She's hurting them, too.

This is what gatekeepers always do, whether they're gallery owners, critics, recording executives, or publishers. They can turn you into a professional. They can make it possible for you to achieve critical and/or financial success. But in doing so, they become the bosses of your career. They decide what you're going to write, paint, and compose – and what you're not going to write, paint or compose. They decide what ideas and projects are worth pursuing. It's very hard to succeed without them. But once you've teamed up with them, your choices become very limited. And worse, those gatekeepers who let you in will eventually shut you out for good. Up until recently, once they closed the door on you, you were done.

Now things are shifting around pretty drastically in the publishing world. They're shifting in the music world too, though It's still hard to say what's happening with art. I suspect we still have some gatekeepers – like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, YouTube, Google – But so many people are using these services, they don't seem to have the time or the inclination to micro-manage anyone's career (yet). For the time being, we writers and artists and composers have the option of plying our trade online without getting the approval of a gatekeeper. Many of us are finding out how hard, exciting, satisfying, and aggravating that can be. Probably the best thing about it is that we get to decide what we've got that's worthy to show the world. Many people would argue that's also the worst thing about it. The possibility of looking ridiculous is scary – you could lose credibility, rack up hundreds of bad reviews, look like a fool to the world.

But sooner or later, you have to risk that possibility. Because you're creative, and this is how you can succeed, even when the gatekeepers won't let you in – or when they've decided you're done, and shut you out for good, which is what happens to most writers, and artists, and composers. You can take the guff and slink away with your tail between your legs, or you can seize the day.

And that's exactly what the brothers do, in Untitled. Just when you think they're going to keep knuckling under to the gallery owner, they decide they have to do what they have to do. The composer writes a composition all right, but when the time comes to perform it for the wealthy patron who bankrolled it, the composer emulates the gallery owner's favorite artist, a guy who makes “invisible” art. The composer makes soundless music.

And the patron demands his money back. But that's okay, the composer is ready to stride off in his own direction, he really knows what he wants to do now. He doesn't need to follow anyone else's ideas about what music he should make. His brother, the artist, also asserts himself – he demands his own show. He gets it, simply because all of the other avante-garde artists have abandoned the gallery owner by this time (apparently they're a fickle lot). So she fills her gallery with the “pretty” art. And another odd thing happens. Once you see all of those paintings together, they look beautiful and inspiring. You realize that the reason the paintings look pleasant-but-sort-of-boring by themselves, is that they were all really part of a larger work, something that's still in progress.

So the gallery owner was both right about him and wrong about him. She was helping him along and holding him back. Gatekeepers do filter a lot of amateurish stuff out before the wider public can ever see it. Sometimes they also mentor talented amateurs until they turn into professionals. Once you've got a gatekeeper in your corner, you really want to please them, you're inclined to see things their way. It's actually a little sad how badly you want to please them. If you become uber-successful, as a handful of people do, this relationship may shift until you're the one who needs to be pleased. I think we all hope for that outcome. More often, you just get strung along until you're finally dropped.

But in a way, that's the luckiest thing that could happen to you. You don't have to work up the courage to take the plunge, sever your ties with a gatekeeper, and possibly assassinate your career – because you've got no other choice. So what you do instead is make the best of it. You try to figure out what your options are. It's hard work, but not really any harder than becoming an artist, or composer, or writer in the first place. You suffer when people laugh at you, or ignore you, or write lengthy opinions about why you suck. You don't get much money, or much critical acclaim, but you still feel driven to express yourself. Every time you put something out there, you're taking a big risk, and it's scary.

The compulsion to create overcomes all that. And, after all, it's not slings and arrows every second. They say that anyone who can be discouraged from [fill in the artistic endeavor], should be discouraged. And that's the most essential thing all artists/writers/composers have in common. We can't be discouraged. We dream. We dream big.

Those qualities, above all else, may be what really define us.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Michael Levy's Beautiful Lyre Music

This video features Michael Levy's arrangement for lyre, of the 1st Delphic Hymn To Apollo (c.128BCE), from his album, "The Ancient Greek Lyre", set to a the ancient Greek poem "Parmenides' Journey":

Michael has made an appeal to music fans:
If anyone out there "in the know", who knows anyone I could contact, to use my ancient lyre music for similar themes eg as background music for documentaries on "The History Channel" etc, this would be amazingly appreciated...my biggest frustration, is that apart from this website and my Youtube Channel, my voluminous virtuosity on the lyre, is virtually unknown!!!”

My Poltergeist

Let's face it – latchkey kids are the perfect target for a haunting. We're all alone. We're hungry (and sick of cheese sandwiches). And we've seen all the monster movies - we know that evil forces are out there, just waiting to gobble us up.

But what are you going to do? Mom and Dad are working to keep a roof over our heads, and we're too old for babysitters. So we walk home from school, let ourselves into our scary, empty houses, check in the closets and under the bed (baseball bat in hand) and settle down in front of the TV and/or game thingee with a crummy cheese sandwich. We find some diversion to keep us from freaking out until more people come home and turn the empty house back into a haven.

If you were a ghost, wouldn't YOU pick on that kid? Plus, you would have the advantage of surprise. In an ordinary neighborhood, who's expecting a ghost? We don't have a lot of abandoned mansions nearby. We're kind of expecting to get attacked by monsters of another kind.

I think my neighborhood was typical in a lot of ways. It was suburban, and we had a resident monster. She was called Mano Loco, and I suspect she was a spin-off of La Llorona, the vengeful spirit of a woman who killed children. Being a kid myself, I took that very personally. But sightings of Mano Loco were rare – the monsters we were most likely to encounter were human. And as a kid gets older, our expectations change. When you're 5, you think Frankenstein is going to get you. When you're 10 or 11, you're more likely to expect the crazy guy with the knife.

I think I almost encountered that guy once, or his close cousin. I got home from school one day with a really big problem – I had to go to the bathroom so bad, I almost didn't get the front door unlocked in time. I rushed into the house without even closing the door – the only smart thing I did was to lock the bathroom door.

As I sat there taking care of my business, my mind started nagging at me. You didn't close the front door, it warned. Bad idea.

Still concerned with more pressing matters, I brushed that off. No one's going to break in, I said with 99% confidence. It's not like crazy guys are waiting behind the bushes outside the house 24/7 . . .

Maybe they aren't. But I heard a sound in the hall, and then I saw shadow feet in the gap under the door. I ran to the door (I can't remember if I tripped over my shorts or not) and grabbed the doorknob just as it began to turn.

You may remember, I said I had locked the door. So why was the bad guy on the other side able to turn it? Because this oddball doorknob was designed with a hole in the center – if you inserted something into the hole, you could press on the mechanism and turn the knob, opening the door. This is an important point for two reasons: 1., if you couldn't turn the knob, you couldn't unlock the door, and 2. You actually had to have a knob like that to know how to get it open. Which means that the person on the other side of the door, attempting to ambush me in the bathroom, was probably one of my neighbors. I was only 10 or 11 at that time, but I grasped that little detail immediately, and to say that it freaked me out is a serious understatement.

I held onto that knob for dear life. The person on the other end kept trying to turn it. Fortunately, this was not comparable to arm wrestling – my desperate strength was just enough to keep the knob from turning. I'm not sure how long this contest of wills went on, because I think I was suffering from time dilation by that point. I just hung on until the galaxy stopped spinning and time itself came to an end.

Then I peeked under the door. No one stood there anymore. It took me a while to work up the courage to come out. When I did, I fled and stayed at a neighbor's house until my mom came home.

I never did figure out which neighbor tried to ambush me. And from that point on, I felt more than a little paranoid about being home alone. I think that may have been what attracted the poltergeist.

Poltergeists are “mischievous ghosts.” They like to move stuff around, to occasionally throw things, and to make loud noises. I had a friend who was trying to clean up her mother-in-law's house – the woman had been a pathological pack rat whose home was stuffed to the rafters. My friend had a lot of trouble making progress. She would sort books into separate piles, leave the room for a moment, then come back to find the books had been re-shuffled into one giant, precarious stack in the middle of the room. That's pretty typical behavior for a poltergeist.

My ghost only had one trick up its ectoplasmic sleeve. It demonstrated that trick to me one day after I came home from school. I was standing in the family room, setting my books on the table, when I was overcome by the certainty that someone was in the house with me. I turned, listening as hard as I could. Then something began to come down the hall toward me, stomping its foot and snapping its fingers as it came.

Let me clarify something. The noise I heard was not the sound a human foot and human fingers would make. It was grotesquely amplified, as if freakin' Godzilla were stomping his way down that hall, headed straight for me. And the snap was like the sound high voltage wires would make as the giant, mutated Komodo dragon walked straight through them. It went like this: THUMP! SNAP! THUMP! SNAP!

That line of THUMP-SNAPS would be a lot longer if I had actually hung out to listen to them. Instead, I ran out the front door as if my tail were on fire. I ran to my friend's house. And if this were a movie, this would be the part where I told my friend what happened, and she didn't believe me. That's what happened in real life too. So of course, I had to take her back to my house and show her.

No, really. We were that dumb. You would have been shouting, “Don't go back into that house, don't go up those stairs, don't go into that basement!” I didn't actually have a basement or any stairs, but if I had, I'm sure we would have climbed and/or descended to our doom. We went back into the house. We stood in the family room. We waited for a long time. Nothing happened.

She smirked at me and said, “See?”

And then something in the hall went, “THUMP! SNAP! THUMP! SNAP!” moving right toward us.

I think she may actually have gone airborne at that point. She zoomed out my front door with me right on her tail. But I admit, even in the midst of all that terror, some little part of me was saying, I told you so, with a ridiculous amount of satisfaction.

So for months afterward, I tried to avoid being home alone. But the THUMPSNAPPER still managed to ambush me a few more times. Each time it happened, I zoomed out the front door before I could get a good look at the supernatural prankster. And each time it happened, I had no trouble getting away. But then something unavoidable happened. I got sick.

I had to stay home in bed. And I was so sick, for a few days I didn't even think about the THUMPSNAPPER. I just sort of faded in and out of consciousnesses, halfway listening to the TV set on in the background.

Finally I got to the point where I was feeling better. I was wide awake in the back bedroom, watching some game show. And suddenly I heard the THUMPSNAPPER coming.

But this time, it started at the other end of the hall, between me and the front door. I couldn't get out. I looked at the window, and for one moment I contemplated trying to climb out.

Instead of doing that, I hid behind the door. And I didn't cower there. I waited, because I wanted to finally confront this thing that kept terrorizing me, that kept chasing me out of my own house. I had had enough. I was ready for a showdown.

Well – almost ready. I hid there as the noise came closer, my heart pounding. It reached the end of the hall and stopped there. It was on the other side of the door. I could actually feel a presence. And finally, I screwed up my courage enough to look.

Nothing was there. The THUMPSNAPPER had simply evaporated. That's when I knew that my poltergeist was nothing more than a loud noise. It could startle me, it could annoy me, but it couldn't hurt me. Its reign of terror was over. I never heard it again.

Years later, I was reading a book about ghosts and saw the word poltergeist. I had never heard it before, and I didn't know the word back when I was actually being haunted by one. I read something interesting about those noisy ghosts. The noises they make often sound unnaturally amplified. That's when I realized what had actually haunted me, years earlier. The THUMPSNAPPER was a textbook case, though it never threw anything at me. It was more playful than mean.

So if your kid tells you about something that scared them, something they never saw but that made REALLY loud noises, believe them. Tell them what a poltergeist is. Maybe they can confront it and make it go away. Or it may get bored and go away by itself.

Or it may just hang around indefinitely, waiting for the right moment to go . . .


Saturday, October 15, 2011


When you turn on the TV in the wee hours of the morning, you're never quite sure what you're going to get. Sometimes it's a shopping program, or an extended infomercial. Sometimes it's an extra-early version of an early news show. And sometimes you discover something magical.

That's how I stumbled on Sadko, directed by the Russian master of fairy tale films, Aleksandr Ptushko. Several years ago, my husband and I were working a difficult shift at Borders, and had to get up at GodAwful O'Clock in the morning (it was 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. – not my favorite time of the day). We had cable TV, and turned it on to watch the news. But we didn't have it tuned to the right station, and instead we ended up in the middle of a movie.

We were not in a movie-watching mood. But Sadko was so charming, we left it there and watched Sadko and his men going up to the sultan's tower where the Bird of Happiness was allegedly being kept. And this was when an amazing moment occurred. The Bird had the head of a woman, she was sitting on a perch in semi-darkness. She moved slightly, so the light fell across her face, and it was the most beautiful face I've ever seen. That image struck me right between the eyes (an interesting experience to have that early in the morning), and it has haunted me (in a good way) ever since. The bird lady was a wonderful special effect, I completely believed her.

Years later, on a whim, I looked the title up on amazon and was delighted to find it available. I've watched the DVD several times now, and it never loses its magic.

Granted, it's been ridiculed on Mystery Science Theater 2000. Not everyone who looks at Sadko will see its charm. To American eyes, it may look pretty corny. The dubbed version is BADLY dubbed, and many people don't like having to read subtitles. There's no CGI (since the movie was made many decades ago in Soviet Russia), and the leading lady is a little plump by modern standards.

But her face is truly lovely, and her voice is even more beautiful. I love hearing the actors speak Russian, and the sets and mattes for the film remind me of the work of the Russian artist Nikolai Roersch.

Sadko is based on the Russian folktale, and was also the subject of a symphonic poem by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The movie is really a glimpse into two lost worlds: the world of fairy tales, and the world of film makers who have more creativity and ingenuity than money. It never forgets that it's a folk tale, never loses touch with the roots of the audience for whom it was made. In one scene, Sadko hires a crew for his ships based on how much vodka they can drink without falling over and whether or not they can withstand a punch in the chest. Also, being able to wrestle a bear is a plus. You'll be happy to know that no actual bears were harmed in the filming of that segment – a guy in a bear suit takes all the abuse.

When the movie was packaged for American audiences, they called him Sinbad, but Sadko is a way nicer guy. He is a musician who plays the gusli, but unfortunately also has political opinions. When he sees the suffering of the poor, he wants to do something about it. He doesn't totally succeed, but he gives it the ol' college try. He tries to find the Bird Of Happiness so he can take her home to Novgorod. What he finds is a far stranger, more dangerous creature, possibly a siren. She lulls people to sleep with her beautiful voice, so the bad guys can come and kill them. She belongs to the sultan, so I imagine she's fallen on hard times and is forced to work for her keep. She must spend her days sitting on her perch, in the darkness, contemplating the lost Golden Age. Sadko almost falls under her spell, but rouses himself at the last moment. He realizes he's been chasing a rainbow, so he decides to chase it home again.

His adventures aren't quite over. He still has to play his gusli for the Tsar and Tsarina of the Underwater Kingdom. When the undersea revelers make waves that threaten ships on the surface, Sadko breaks his gusli and escapes to find his true love in Novgorod.

In fairy tales, courage and love win the day. Sometimes a movie can capture that same magic. That's why I love Sadko, unreservedly.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

How Sarah Vowell Saved My Sanity

Before I actually started to listen to audio books, I had a bad attitude about them. I was very dismissive – I figured people listened to audio books because they were too lazy to read. In my defense, there is some truth to that notion. When I worked at Borders, I helped many harried mothers whose children had to read a book for school that they simply would not read, because they hated to read. So moms bought the audio book, thinking that might help. And they may have been right, though for many of those kids, paying attention to 9+ hours of material was probably more than they were willing to do.

I began listening to audio books by accident. Ernie and I had night jobs on a clean-up crew at a local grade school, and our supervisor was an audio book fiend. He would play them on the PA system. After the first night of this, I was hooked. I realized that audio books were very much like the old radio shows. And best of all, I could listen to them while doing other stuff, like gardening, housekeeping, cooking, or driving. Now that I can listen to audio books on my itouch, I'm really spoiled – these days I'm listening to an audio book at some point just about every day.

In the old days, price used to be a huge limiting factor for audio books. You paid anywhere from $25 to $125 for one book. Many people were willing to pay, but after the economy tanked, publishers reacted more intelligently with audio books than they did with print books. They went digital. Granted, they may have been forced into that technology by heavy hitters like Amazon, but it seems to be working out for the best. Prices are lower, and there are a wide variety of good audio books to chose from.

I have my favorite authors: Ellis Peters, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Jeff Lindsay, Elizabeth Peters, etc. But now that I've been listening for a while I also have my favorite readers, people you will not have heard of unless you listen to audio books. These folks are superstars, they don't just read the material. They are the ones who turn a good book into an entertaining dramatic presentation. Many of them can do multiple foreign accents (an ability I very much envy, now that I'm recording my own audio books). Patrick Tull and Barbara Rosenblat are two giants in the field. TV actors also find work narrating audio books: B.D. Wong's narration of Ticktock, by Dean Koontz, is delightful. Jay O. Sanders and Stephen Lang also narrated books by Dean Koontz, Dragon Tears and By The Light Of The Moon. I have a long list of favorites I can refer to when I need to be happily diverted.

Sarah Vowell features prominently on that list. And it's not because she has a beautiful voice or because she can do foreign accents. In fact, though Sarah Vowell narrates 70% to 80% of her audio books (except for
The Partly Cloudy Patriot, where she does about 90%), guest narrators do the particularly challenging roles. It's not Sarah's acting ability that snags me, it's her wit, her comic timing, and her delightfully nerdy subject matter that keeps me tuning in. She is an unabashed American history buff, and her obsessive inquiries into our past are funny, fascinating, and illuminating. Assassination Vacation and The Wordy Shipmates can withstand multiple listenings. In fact, they just get better every time I hear them.

There are times I feel like I'm just a voice in the wilderness. It's nice to hear another voice crying out there too, even if it's a little squeaky. My voice isn't that melodious either. Sarah gives me hope – in more ways than one.

Treat yourself. Give her a listen.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My Mom's (Yearly) Quest To New Mexico

New Mexico is just not a big city kinda place. Even Albuquerque is more like an oversized town. Once you head North toward Santa Fe and Taos, you find a lot of towns dotted throughout the hills, many of them little more than dents in the road. Truchas is one of those dents.

The Truchas Farmhouse is an Inn that my mom fell in love with about 20 years ago. She makes a pilgrimage there every year, usually in August, just when we're starting to feel completely fed up with the heat in Phoenix. Mom loves the farm and the little casitas at the Inn, but she especially loves the lady who owns the place, Frutoza Lopez. Frutoza possesses a rare wit, and she and Mom like a lot of the same novelas (Spanish-language soap operas) and a lot of the same old Mexican songs.

Truchas was the inspiration for Siggy Lindquist's home town, in my novel Broken Time: the rugged hills, the streams and irrigation gates, and the little towns denting the roadside. The Farmhouse has its own stream, which passes under a bridge in front of the main house.

It also has a man-made pond out back, with at least two resident racoons – I surprised them this year when I trudged out with my camera and suddenly spotted them near a culvert. They disappeared into the pipe as quickly as they could. Unfortunately, I couldn't capture them on video.

From the Inn, Mom and I venture out to surrounding attractions. We've got a couple of favorite shops we like to go to, but they're not the expensive galleries and clothing stores that took over Santa Fe and Taos. They're thrift shops, where the fancy stuff gets sold second hand.

One of them is the second floor of a candy store in EspaƱola; items there run from 50 cents to $1.75. There are state and national parks to visit too.

If you drive along scenic route 14, you can see outcrops of tilted layers of welded tuff, superheated volcanic ash that fused into solid rock. Turn off the route into Cerrillos, and you can visit Cerrillos Hills State Park, which features several moderate hikes through a landscape of welded tuff & volcanic rock, scrubby trees & tough grasses.

My favorite is
Bandelier National Monument, below the Jemez volcano, which formed along the Rio Grande Rift. Jemez exploded twice within the last million years, spewing about 50 cubic miles of ash and rock. Bandelier National Monument is in Frijoles Canyon, which eroded out of thick layers of rhyolitic tuff, some of the same stuff you see along Route 14. The Canyon walls are tan, white, pink, and light orange, full of holes from gas trapped in the tuff that cooled and eroded into fanciful shapes. This fused ash formed a rock that ancestral Pueblo people found very useful for building material, so the monument contains ruins and petroglyphs too. This year, forest fires in New Mexico forced park officials to close all but a tiny portion of Bandelier. We didn't get to hike our favorite trail. But that just makes us more determined to come back next year.

Mom lived in Santa Fe when she was a little girl, some time during the early 1930s. It's changed so much since then, I think it breaks her heart a bit. Taos has changed too. Even I feel some of this sadness – when I was growing up in Arizona during the 60s, we only had about one quarter of the population we have now. Crappy apartment and housing complexes have sprung up everywhere, ticky-tacky places that are poorly built and crammed close together, and that all look alike. Beautiful hills and mountains have cities and towns creeping up their sides. This is not an improvement.

But we still manage to find the beauty in New Mexico every year. Mom will keep making her pilgrimage, and I'll keep tagging along. It's true that you can't go home again.

But you can certainly visit from time to time . . .

Monday, August 15, 2011

Ernie's Robot

My husband makes up really great titles for things. If you were looking at a display of his art in a museum, you would have as much fun reading the titles as you would have looking at the actual art. But unfortunately for Ernie, he's married to me – and I like to make up my own titles for his work.

Take Ernie's Robot. I found him lurking in a forgotten portfolio. I like him so much, he sits in a prominent spot in the room where we spend most of our time. I see him every day when I wake up and every night before I go to sleep. He is there while I'm watching movies, while I'm working on our big desktop computer, while I'm folding laundry and putting it away. I meditate or vegetate under his glowing gaze; he watches me do my homework. He has witnessed hundreds of phone conversations, but he never repeats anything he's heard.

Sphinx Lady presides over my science and travel library. She is so gorgeous, she would probably sell pretty quickly in an art show. But I suspect many who admire her obvious attributes do not suspect the appetites that are the flip side of her sublime expression.

Skeleton Guy is an illustration for an article Ernie did for a gaming magazine, DIFFERENT WORLDS, about precolumbian monsters and spirits. If you see him, you have to be courageous enough to grab his exposed, beating heart, or the sight of him will drive you mad. I always thought he would make a great Halloween card.

We weren't careful enough when we stored
The Jaguar's Wife and something stained her face. But I rather like it – she looks as if she just got done eating a chocolate ice cream cone. After all, it's not easy to hold onto a cone with your paws.

Ernie named this picture
Cease And Desist – I call it Zeppelin Woman. I love the little chubby spot around her navel. I have no doubt she'll fight off the bad guys.

Here are some details from
The Novel
, a piece that I hope to have mounted and framed some day.

You can read it from either direction. Ernie did it on a whim, with some leftover particle board.

It has suffered some damage over the years, but I love it anyway.

The Crocodilian is still loaded with personality, even though he's dead. He's from one of Ernie's on-the-run sketchbooks. Ernie has kept several over the years, drawing in them with crayon and/or grease pencil. Happily, he has begun to scan some of this stuff into our computer, where he can work on it with the GIMP program. These sketches are some of his best work.

I have appropriated many drawings by Ernie to illustrate my blog – it's one of the perks of being married to an artist. Fortunately for me, Ernie is a kind man, gifted with infinite patience. We have even begun to do some art together, using my photographs and his skill with GIMP. Together, we designed the cover for my book, Broken Time.

We'll be doing more of this in the future, so . . .

watch this space!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

They've Got The Horizontal AND The Vertical . . .

I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona during the 60s, a time and place that I fortunately shared with the wonderful program director for Channel 5, who was a huge movie buff. His programs on Channel 5 included, The World Beyond, Tarzan Theater, John Wayne Theater, Charlie Chan Theater, Adventure Theater, and many others.
Each of those programs had wonderful theme songs. For The World Beyond, it was an excerpt from Also Sprach Zarathustra – not the most obvious bit, but the weird stuff with all of the voices that you hear in the movie 2001. For John Wayne Theater it was an excerpt from the last movement of Grand Canyon Suite. That program director just seemed to have a knack for picking 30 seconds of music that captured the spirit of the movies he loved so well. He understood how important that music was. He is the one who taught me to be aware of musical scores.

For me, the film score is always at least as important as what's happening on the movie/TV screen. Sometimes it's more important. Here are some movie and TV scores that rocked my world and blew my mind. I hope they'll do the same for you.

The Outer Limits, Dominic Frontiere
I consider myself very lucky to have seen the premiere episode of The Outer Limits: "The Galaxy Being." But the really lucky thing was that I was only 7 years old, so when the announcer said, "Do not attempt to adjust your television set . . ." I was literally reaching for the dial. I snatched my hand back, scared motionless.

"We control the horizontal," said the announcer, "We control the vertical."

Oh my gosh! They've got the horizontal AND the vertical! We're doomed!

So for the next hour I was a happy captive, utterly convinced that what I was seeing was the truth. But even more important, I believed the music, though I didn't know the mechanics behind it (and still don't). The music is utterly true, even though I now understand that The Outer Limits was just a very good story-telling device, not a transmission from benign-yet-spooky aliens. Dominic Frontiere belongs to the Great Soundtrack Composer Club, where he sits right alongside Bernard Herrmann and Elmer Bernstein (not to mention Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland).

The day after I had my visit from "The Galaxy Being" I rushed out to tell my friends about it, only to find that many of them had experienced the same thing. If you're younger than me, maybe you'll find this goofy. But sample the music – you'll find out it packs a wonderful punch. I'm so glad I own a copy of this album.

Beauty And The Beast, Georges Auric
In the interest of preserving peace in our home, my mom gave me my own little black & white TV when I was 9, an act that some might consider a blow against Western Civilization. But I was a weird kid, and I didn't spend much time watching game shows. I was hooked on movies, so Bill Thompson's Channel 5 got a lot of my business. We also had a good local PBS station, and that's where I discovered Jean Cocteau's Beauty And The Beast. I accidentally tuned in during the scene where Beauty is running through the Beast's castle, a haunting, silent sequence that runs at a dreamlike pace. Then the Beast steps out of the shadows and confronts Beauty. She faints, and the music starts up again.

Any thought I had of changing the channel was forgotten.

When I started collecting albums, I searched for this soundtrack. My search lasted for 30 years, because Beauty And The Beast didn't have a soundtrack album. It wasn't until after the death of the composer, Georges Auric, that someone was going through his papers and found the score. Now I own two different recordings (this one and the NAXOS recording).

The score works both as a soundtrack and a classical suite. In turns it's haunting, romantic, heartbreaking, playful, transcendent, and triumphant. You'll like it even if you haven't seen Cocteau's film - and if you have seen it, hearing this music will evoke wonderful memories.

It's impossible for me to imagine this film without its score, and that's the reason I won't see the remake. It's bad enough they thought they could replace Michael Rennie. But when I think of the wonderful sequence, “Nocturne/The Flashlight/The Robot/Space Control,” I can't imagine why anyone thought they could improve perfection. This sequence is the essential science fiction experience, an encounter with the unknown (and possibly the unknowable). It's a glimpse into alien minds and alien machinery.

The theremin (played by Samuel Hoffman and Paul Shure) in this movie produced a sound that became the standard “science fiction soundtrack,” at least in the popular imagination. But it was never used to better effect, and it was beautifully supported by an orchestra in Herrmann's score. It's inventor, Leon Theremin, was a genius with a long and very odd career. Bernard Herrmann went on to write scores for Alfred Hitchcock, including the next album.

Vertigo, Bernard Herrmann
The first time I saw this movie, I didn't actually see it. I heard it. It was playing so late at night, I was dozing on my bed when it finally came on the TV (which tended to be on, much of the time, in my bedroom). The music roused me from deeper sleep, and managed to keep me in an in-between state for the entire movie. Occasionally I would pry one eye open and see Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, talking, running, kissing. I knew some heavy-duty stuff was going on. And even though I didn't hear the dialog, the music told me everything I needed to know about the movie and its themes of love, obsession, deception, and ultimate loss.

This was the most grown-up movie I had encountered up to that point. It's so grown-up, I'm not sure you can truly comprehend it if you're under 40. But that's okay – the music is a road map. If you've heard it, you'll never forget it. It will tell you exactly how Jimmy Stewart's character was feeling. You'll be swimming in deep water. And that's an experience everyone should have at least once.

Jason And The Argonauts, Bernard Herrmann
Herrmann was a versatile composer who is probably best known (in the U.S., at least) for his score for Psycho, in which a band of crazy violins duke it out with some relentless cellos. The sound bite everyone knows (“scree-ree-ree-reet!”) doesn't really do the score justice. Listen to the whole thing some time – it's a masterpiece of suspense.

Brits may know Herrmann better for his scores, Anna And The King Of Siam and Fahrenheit 451. These scores are so beautiful, they deserve blogs of their own. I saw these movies eventually (happily, when I was still a kid, and my sense of wonder was still dominant). But the first Herrmann score I ever heard was Jason And The Argonauts.

The opening sequence is driven by the same sort of drum you would expect the rowers to hear on the Argo. Likewise, the horns might have sounded from city walls, warning of an approaching army or celebrating returning heroes.

But my favorite part is where the dragons teeth are sown, and the Children of the Hydra sprout into an army of skeletons. I'm pretty sure the dominant instrument in this sequence is the bassoon. It's effect is delightfully menacing. Once those skeletons start fighting, an array of percussion instruments join the wind section to create the effect of clashing swords and rattling bones. Ray Harryhausen's animation and Bernard Herrmann's orchestration make a dazzling team.

Le Voyage En Ballon, Jean Prodromides
Someone (on NPR, I think) once posed the question: “What are the five album that changed your life?” For me, that mostly happened before I was 12 years old. The only exception is the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, which took my heart by storm when I was 30-something.

When I was a kid, the first album I became aware of was Snoopy And The Red Baron, by the Royal Guardsmen. I loved Snoopy, so it was only natural I would love the song about him. It's a wacky album, very British 60s pop/rock. But within a few years, my tastes became more sophisticated. Some new albums came along and rocked my world: Ports Of Paradise (Ken Darby and Alfred Newman), Rogers and Hammerstein's The King And I, and Jean Prodromides' score for Le Voyage En Ballon.

My mother, brother and I had seen the original version of Le Voyage En Ballon at a drive in. It was French, but didn't need subtitles, because it had no dialog – it was made by the same director who did The Red Balloon (Albert Lamorisse). The action and music told the story. Later, Jack Lemon bought the American rights and released the film with an awful narration track attached to it.

My mom loved the music, so she bought the LP. I played it to death. This is another album I searched for, for years, in CD form. I recently found it on amazon – as an import. I can't stress enough to you – get this album while you can. It's incomparable.

People have a tendency to romanticize times that are past, as if all adventure, glory, and achievement are long dead. I don't believe that's the case with film scores. People are still writing great ones. But today's composers are influenced and inspired by the composers who came before them. So am I.

I'll always be grateful to that program director for Channel 5. Every Saturday morning, he invited me to The World Beyond. On that show, and others, I heard some of the best film scores ever written.

I was a very lucky kid.