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, February 27, 2012

Powerhouse Knocks Your Socks Off

Recently we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of John Glenn's flight into orbit around the Earth, a feat that still fills me with pride. Though I also celebrate the fact that Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova were the first man and woman in space, that flight was one of the great American achievements of the 20th century. But another great achievement celebrated its 75th Anniversary on that same date: the debut of Raymond Scott's best known composition, “Powerhouse.”

If you've ever seen an automated assembly line in action, you can't help but imagine “Powerhouse” playing in the background – it is truly the music of the Jazz/Machine Age. In a way, that technology is as Victorian as anything you'd find in a Steampunk novel, with its gears and perfectly calibrated interlocking parts. I can remember one Warner Brothers cartoon where a couple of ultra-polite chipmunks accidentally get transported to a canning plant inside a load of vegetables. Carl Stalling's arrangement of “Powerhouse” plays while these little guys try to avoid the machinery that processes and cans the veggies. When you listen to that rendition, you don't just hear the machines working – time itself seems to be marching off to some dazzling, relentless future.

Stalling's renditions of Raymond Scott's work are beefier than Scott's, since they're arranged for full orchestra. And the Warner Brothers orchestra recorded on one of the best sound stages in Hollywood. I grew up watching those cartoons (on the Wallace & Ladmo Show), and I ended up getting thoroughly spoiled by the high-quality animation and scoring. The wretched, canned music that accompanied cartoons in later eras is like fingernails on a blackboard to my ears. Fortunately, I can still get CDs with the good stuff on them.

My favorite Raymond Scott album is Reckless Nights And Turkish Twilights. If you look on Amazon, you'll notice that most of the reviews for it are 5 stars. It's a perfect collection. Some would say the sound quality isn't up to par with the great recordings of the 20th century, and that's true. But this album made me realize something about the music of Raymond Scott – it was actually written with that poor sound reproduction in mind. When this music is recorded in high fidelity, it's almost too much (though Carl Stalling certainly did a magnificent job with his arrangements.) I think the lower fidelity of this recording protects the listener from the full "manic" impact, giving you a chance to enjoy the performances and the composition.

And if you'd like the Warner Brothers/Stalling take on the subject, try The Carl Stalling Project. It will make you long for the days of those old big-band orchestras. If only there were nightclubs that still offered dinner, a big orchestra, dance performances by the likes of Fred & Ginger . . .

So I salute John Glenn on the anniversary of his flight into orbit. And I salute Raymond Scott for sending me into orbit. Here's to you, fellas.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The "Baby State" Turns 1.7 Billion

The state of Arizona is now officially 100 years old, semi-officially 1.7 billion years old (recent findings at the bottom of the Grand Canyon suggest that at least a few chunks of it are far older). There are many places in Arizona where that birthday can be happily celebrated, and one of them is the book store where I work.

The Heard Museum Book Store is located in the courtyard of the museum, right next to the Coffee Cantina, at Encanto and Central Avenue. It is one of the last surviving book stores in Central Phoenix. We specialize in books about the Southwest, Native Americans, and Arizona travel and history. Our courtyard is full of tables that sit under Ironwood trees, right next to a splashing fountain, where people who have just purchased books can sit, sip coffee, and enjoy the serenity. And you don't have to pay the entrance fee to shop there. It's the perfect place to explore the subject of Arizona's Centennial. In honor of that birthday, several books have been published about our history, and we carry them all.

My favorite is Jim Turner's Arizona: A Celebration of the Grand Canyon State. Whether you're an Arizona resident, a sometime visitor, or a fan of ARIZONA HIGHWAYS magazine, this is a book you must have in your collection. Though a lot of people in the world know a little bit about Arizona, Jim Turner knows a lot more, and what he knows is fascinating. He's put a wealth of interesting details into one handy book.

Arizona is the last of the territories in the contiguous United States to become a state. Our history is as unique as our geology – a point not lost on Turner, because he begins the first chapter with, “Eons ago, huge chunks of the Earth's crust called tectonic plates rammed into each other . . .” Beginning a book about Arizona's history with the tale of its geology is not a whimsical choice. We are what we are because of those tectonic plates – because of our latitude, our basin-and-range mountains, our volcanic history, and the inland seas that laid down the sedimentary rock that was eventually carved into the Grand Canyon by the Colorado River. That landscape of canyons, plateaus, mountains, valleys, and deserts is the setting for our “Wild West” history, peopled by Native Americans, cowboys, miners, adventurers, farmers, ranchers, soldiers, yahoos, scoundrels, scientists, and dreamers. Turner has stories to relate about all of them.

But don't get the idea this is a thick, dry tome of facts. The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs, maps, and illustrations. It is divided into chapters about each successive wave of populations, from the ancient ancestors of Native Americans to the post-war immigrants who drove here on route 66. The sections are accessible, more like magazine articles. You can peruse the text any way you like, from start to finish, or just by looking up the tidbits that interest you. Some may prefer to keep it on their coffee table, others will shelve it with their history or travel books.

I keep it where I can reach it easily. Like Arizona, this book is a treasure.