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Regular friends of the decanter will know that one of the subjects to which the butterfly-like braim of Robbo sometimes flits is that of geology, specifically tectonic geology.  So you can readily imagine my delight in reading this article from the Beeb concerning a series of severe but largely ignored earthquakes off the coast of Sumatra last April.  (They garnered little or no attention in the press because they did not generate any noticeable tsunamis.)   Scientists have now posited that they represent the forming of a new crack in the midst of the Indo-Australian plate:

The sequence of huge earthquakes that struck off the coast of Sumatra in April may signal the creation of a new tectonic plate boundary.

Scientists give the assessment in this week’s Nature journal.

They say their analysis of the tremors – the biggest was a magnitude 8.7 – suggests major changes are taking place on the ocean floor that will eventually split the Indo-Australian plate in two.

It is not something that will happen soon; it could take millions of years.

“This is a process that probably started eight to 10 million years ago, so you can imagine how much longer it will take until we get a classic boundary,” said Matthias Delescluse from the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris.

Dr Delescluse is an author on one of three scholarly papers in Nature discussing the 11 April quakes.

The rupture is being caused, as I understand it, by the fact that India, sitting on the western part of the plate, has slammed full-tilt in the bottom of Asia (forming, among other things, the Himalayas), while Australia continues to move relatively unimpeded.   In one article I read, the analogy was drawn to a side-car on a motorcycle hitting a brick wall while the bike itself continues forward.

I love this sort of thing for two reasons.  For one, I think the contemplation of the enormous time-scales involved is a useful – if at times vertigo-inducing – exercise in perspective.  For another, it is a reminder of the mutability of all things under Heaven and our powerlessness to do anything about it.   The resulting sense of humility is, in my opinion, a good tonic for the soul.


I see that today is the anniversary of the landing of William and his Normans as Pevensey in Suffolk.   He would meet Harold and his Saxons at Hastings a few weeks later, of course, and the rest, as they say, would be history.

It occurs to me as I ponder this particular milestone that I have not heretofore really studied the Normans enough for my own satisfaction.  Of course I know that they represented a last eruption of the Vikings that lodged itself in western France much to the annoyance of the natives and that they went on to raise tandem and tallywhack across a pretty fair sized chunk of the Continent, but I’m not as up on the particulars as I’d like to be.

One thing that has always intrigued me in contemplating this subject is the beginning of Act III, Scene V of  Henry V  in which the French nobles rant about King Harry’s invasion and the initially feeble French response:

  • King of France. ‘Tis certain he hath pass’d the river Somme.
  • Constable of France. And if he be not fought withal, my lord,
    Let us not live in France; let us quit all
    And give our vineyards to a barbarous people.
  • Lewis the Dauphin. O Dieu vivant! shall a few sprays of us,
    The emptying of our fathers’ luxury,
    Our scions, put in wild and savage stock,
    Spirt up so suddenly into the clouds,
    And overlook their grafters?
  • Duke of Bourbon. Normans, but bastard Normans, Norman bastards!
    Mort de ma vie! if they march along
    Unfought withal, but I will sell my dukedom,
    To buy a slobbery and a dirty farm
    In that nook-shotten isle of Albion.
  • Constable of France. Dieu de batailles! where have they this mettle?
    Is not their climate foggy, raw and dull,
    On whom, as in despite, the sun looks pale,
    Killing their fruit with frowns? Can sodden water,
    A drench for sur-rein’d jades, their barley-broth,
    Decoct their cold blood to such valiant heat?
    And shall our quick blood, spirited with wine,
    Seem frosty? O, for honour of our land,
    Let us not hang like roping icicles
    Upon our houses’ thatch, whiles a more frosty people
    Sweat drops of gallant youth in our rich fields!
    Poor we may call them in their native lords.
  • Lewis the Dauphin. By faith and honour,
    Our madams mock at us, and plainly say
    Our mettle is bred out and they will give
    Their bodies to the lust of English youth
    To new-store France with bastard warriors!

Now it’s always fascinated me that Bourbon identifies Hal’s army not as Englishmen but as Normans, while the other nobles make various references to their barbarous northern origin.  Agincourt was fought about 400 years after the Norman Invasion and Will wrote his play another 200 or so years after that.   Would the old racial hostilities between Normandy and France still have been on the minds of the French nobles in the 15th Century to the point where they thought of Harry and his band of brothers not as Anglo invaders but as returning Vikings?  And would a 17th Century English audience also have picked up on this?  Or was the Bard just showing off his own historickal knowledge, or perhaps getting in a little dig at the French and indulging a bit of pride at his own antecedents?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but I enjoy noodling them.

Greetings, my fellow port swillers, and Happy Friday!

The most extraordinary thunderstorm(s) rolled through the Port Swiller neck of the woods last evening.   As I went to pick up the youngest gel from swim practice at about 9:15, the sky was positively filled with the most brilliant lightning, seemingly coming from all different directions at once.  And yet, at the same time, it was eerily quiet, with almost no thunder and only a little sprinkling of rain.  (UPDATE: The Capitol Weather Gang got some cool pics.)

The rain set in later on in earnest and only ended after I’d got up this morning.  Wet roads and my very light Wrangler had me humming “Slip-Slidin’ Away” under my breath on the school drop-off runs, as my new commute involves quite a few hills and sharp curves.   Either I’m going to have to use the 4WD more often or else get myself a couple hundred pounds of sandbags, especially with the likelihood of frosts starting in a few weeks.

I mentioned that yesterday was Pajama Day at the middle gel’s school?  Today is Spirit Day.  The school colors are purple and gold and everyone is assigned to one or the other, and so they are expected to deck themselves out in appropriately enthusiastic attire.  The middle gel is on the purple side, so in the spirit of things she went and got herself some purple duct-tape and wrapped up the crutches she’s still on because of her crocked ACL.   Is there nothing duct-tape can’t do?

Perhaps it was the late burst of summah air, but Port Swiller Manor seemed to have lost all concept of Time this ack emma, with various females lethargically drifting about and dreamily wondering what had become of their clothes/shoes/homework/backpack/hair-brush/breakfast/lunch/etc./etc., or simply sitting and staring slack-jawed into space  while Robbo literally danced with frustration trying to get them to get a move on.   We run to a pretty tight schedule when it comes to the morning’s decamping operations, which frequently require the pre-positioning of materials for the afternoon and evening’s activities as well,  and the combination of excessive dithering and past-last second mad scrambling once they actually realize how late it is always makes me stick figurative straws in my hair and start muttering about goddam dog-and-pony shows.  I pray every day for (amongst other things) patience in dealing with my family, but I can’t say that I always receive it.

Another thing that irks Self in the pre-dawn hours is the habit all the gels seem to have picked up of strolling into Mom and Dad’s bedroom and bathroom whenever the whim takes them.  Ol’ Robbo has very old-fashioned ideas about personal privacy and what might be called proper lines of demarcation and gets pretty short with young ladies who wander in on him when he’s standing in his boxers shaving or trying to decide what to wear for the day.   The fault here lies firmly with Mrs. R, who has always had a much more open-door policy.  If we ever win the lottery, the first thing I’m going to do is put in my own bedroom and bathroom with a deadbolt on the door.

Oh, well.  After all the tumult and shouting dies, the captains and the queens depart and everybody gets to where they need to be with what they need to have.   “HeeeventuallEEEE,” as Manuel would say.  I just wish it could all somehow be smoother, calmer, less rushed and more, well, dignified, but I recognize that in this I may as well wish for a pony, too, because I’m just about as likely to get one.   Ah, the felicity of unbridled domesticity.

Greetings, my fellow port swillers!

As the middle gel and I were driving to school this morning, she broke a pensive silence to say, “Dad, I’m really worried about what the world is going to be like when the kids grow up.”

“You mean when you become an adult?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.  “People behave so awfully already – the way they talk, the way they dress, the music they listen to, how they treat other people.  I just can’t think how much worse it will be then.”

“Well,” I said, “There’s not much you and I can do about other people.  All we can really do is hold ourselves to higher standards and try to get on with it.”

“Oh,” she replied.  “In other words, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On.'”

Yes, that’s about it.  What else can one do?

Actually, for all her concern about the pending collapse of Civilisation, not that I don’t think it genuine, I knew what she was really fretting about.  It’s spirit week at her school and today is “Pajama Day”.  In the spirit of things, she had donned this morning a full-length fire-engine red one-piece rig with monkey-head feet.   It seemed like a very cute idea at the time, but as we got closer and closer to school I could sense exactly what was on her mind:  If I’ve made a mistake about the day, I’m going to feel one absolute hell of a fool. 

Fortunately, there was no mistake.  As her classmates got out of their cars, they were seen to be similarly p.j.-clad.  The gel’s relief was palpable as she beetled off.

With that worry out of the way, hopefully she’s also regained a little bit of optimism about the future, too.

Middle Gel:  Dad! I had a dream last night that you and I had to go to a Lady Gaga concert.  It was horrible!

Self:  Sounds like a real nightmare.  I wonder what it meant?

Eldest Gel:  I like some of Lady Gaga.

Self:  Oh, sweetie, I wish you wouldn’t listen to that stuff – it’s soul-rotting garbage.

Eldest:  Well, I don’t like Lady Gaga herself, just her music.

Self:  There’s no difference.  It’s all the same package.

Eldest: Nuh-uuuuh!

Self:  In fact, that pretty much goes for all pop music – soul-rotting garbage.

Eldest:  Look, Dad, just because you were born 2000 years ago doesn’t mean everyone else was.  Your music is old.  And boring.

Self:  I don’t care whether it’s old, but it certainly isn’t boring.  Thumpa-Thumpa-Thumpa-Oh, Baybee over and over again.  Now that’s boring!

Eldest:  You can’t just condemn all pop like that!

Self:  Well of course I can.  When the shoe fits.

Greetings, my fellow port swillers!

Ol’ Robbo found himself behind a car this morning that bore a license plate reading “SOVI3T”.

This puzzled me mightily.  There are still plenty of fellow travelers out there, but their adulation tends toward hero-worship of individuals such as Lenin and Mao, Castro and Che, not the bureaucracy.

Could the driver actually have been a fan of the Politburo itself?   Or perhaps he was an historian and this was his particular field of expertise?

Mayhaps he lives in some collectivist enclave, although the car itself didn’t seem to be the sort that would be driven by a hippie.  (An ex-hippie who cleaned up on Wall Street, though.  Perhaps the fellah was just trying to be funny.)

An ex-Soviet immigrant?  But in that case, I would think he’d have been more likely to have identified with a nationality – Russian or Ukrainian, for example – than a political organization.

Impossible to see, as Yoda would say.

Vanity plates that contain ambiguous or indecipherable messages often prove to be grain-of-sand-like irritants in Robbo’s braims, especially early in the morning.   Somebody ought to invent an app¹ whereby you could scan one of those image thingies that look like cubist squished bugs located in the corner of the plate with your iWhatever and download an explanatory footnote.  (I wouldn’t know how to use it myself, of course, but I’m sure any of the gels could get the information in a flash.)  Call it VanExplan®.

Would save me a whooooole lot of useless musing, I can tell you.


¹  I can’t believe I actually used that word.  We hates that word!  Just goes to show you how much of a distraction this sort of thing is to me.

Somehow or other, ol’ Robbo missed this piece of aquatic jackassery:

Australian Trenton Oldfield, 36, stopped the annual contest between Oxford and Cambridge for around half an hour on April 7 when he swam into the rowers’ path in a protest against elitism.

But as he swam towards the boats he was spotted by assistant umpire Sir Matthew [Pinsent], who has won four Olympic gold medals, and the race was immediately stopped.

Isleworth Crown Court heard the rowers lifted their oars so as not to potentially fatally injure Oldfield who could have had his skull cracked or caused surrounding boats to collide.

The race was restarted after a half hour delay and was finally won by Cambridge.

The bulk of the article concerns testimony at the fellah’s current publick nuisance trial about the danger he presented both to himself and to all the oarsmen by his idjit stunt and the lengths to which the umpires and crews went in order to prevent any harm coming from it.

Mr. Man of the People ought to think himself lucky that these thnooobs were so concerned for his safety and so forbearing in their response to his sudden appearance in front of them.   My own boat back in the day, which was by no means stocked with Oxbridge types, would unhesitatingly have run him down if he were to interfere with one of our races.  And we’d have enjoyed it.

UPDATE:  Speaking of such things, The Art of Manliness has an article up today about nicknames in all-male groups.  On the aforementioned crew, I was known as “Whammer”.  I will not tell you why.

I note that today is the anniversary of the arrival, in 1513, of Vasco Núñez de Balboa at the shores of the Pacific after crossing the Isthmus of Panama, thereby becoming the first European to take a dekko at the Big Blue from its eastern side.

Whether Mr. Dennis Coot John Keats poetickally robbed Balboa of this distinction and gave it instead to stout Cortez with eagle eyes out of historickal ignorance or whether he did so just because it scans better than “stout Balboa”, I could not really say.   However, although the substitution might be hard cheese on Balboa, his spirit can at least take consolation that he didn’t wind up in this cartoon, which I have had hung on my dorm/office wall for many, many years:


Greetings, my fellow port swillers!

Ol’ Robbo wanted to draw the attention of the musick lovers among friends of the decanter to a new CD that is being highlighted as the “pick of the week” on the local classickal station and features the Bach Brandenburg Concerti Nos. 7-12.

But Tom, you are no doubt saying, we only know of six such concerti.  How can this be?  Well, I’ll let the station’s ad copy speak for itself:

This new release on the ATMA Classiques label is a performance by Montréal Baroque of a project by the late American oboist and musicologist Bruce Haynes.  In his words, “…these concertos are not meant as serious reconstructions, merely as speculative trials to demonstrate the possibilities for instrumental treatment of Bach’s rich fund of musical inventions contained in the cantatas and other vocal works.”  When Haynes conceived these sequels, he chose six cantatas and transcribed vocal lines for the same instrument groups Bach used in the original Brandenburg Concertos.  In May 2011, having orchestrated three of them, Haynes died unexpectedly during a surgical procedure.  His widow, cellist Susie Napper, finished the project, and was the artistic director for this recording, produced during the 2011 Montréal Baroque Festival.

So there you have it – concerti fashioned out of instrumentalized cantatas.

So far I have not heard a track based on a cantata with which I am much familiar, so I can’t really compare the vocal to the instrumental treatments.  I can offer a few observations, though.  Foremost is that listeners must not let the whole “new Brandenburgs” label set up any false expectations:  These pieces sound nothing at all like the original Brandenburgs, either in scope, scale, tone or structure.   This is hardly surprising, given that Bach had two completely different purposes in mind when he composed these two very different kinds of musick.  The Brandenburgs were, if you like, exercises in musickal conversation for its own sake, written by Bach for the aesthetic and intellectual enjoyment and amusement of a small, intimate group of musicians and their hearers.  The Cantatas, on the other hand, were meant for the purpose of enhancing the publick worship of God.  As such, they necessarily entailed different and very much broader performance goals and ideas.

Second, it’s my impression so far that the pieces are perhaps somewhat over-orchestrated, with more instruments than strictly necessary to the form jumping in and out in a way that sounds a bit fussy and contrived.   In this, they aren’t nearly so culpable as, for example, the abominable genre of “re-imagined” Christmas tunes of the “If Bach Had Written ‘Jingle Bells'” variety in which hack composers typically bulk up the orchestra for maximum cuteness.  However, even if they’re faithfully transcribed into the same instrumental groups used by Bach in the Brandenburgs, the effect – at least on a casual hearing – is a mite too cluttered for the ear of Robbo.  It’s quite true that Bach used the Brandenburgs as platforms for all sorts of different – and often novel – instrumental combinations, but again, that was part of the specific scope and purpose of these works, and the instrumentation was calculated based on those criteria.  (I haven’t heard yet how a cantata can possibly have been crammed into the delicate scoring of Concerto No. 5 with its trio sonata-like form and extended harpsichord solo, but the mind boggles at the thought.  Bull?  Meet china shop!)

Third, and for all that above,  I still find these tracks interesting and pleasant to hear and am toying with buying the CD myself.  Again, it’s a bit of a gimmick, and Hayes himself indicates that he is just messing about for the sake of experimentation, but there is after all a very long tradition of transcribing the same musick back and forth among various forms.  (Where would I be, after all, without my beloved recording of Charles Avison’s orchestral transpositions of Scarlatti’s keyboard musick?)  Also, this is Bach, after all, whose musick is of such utter genius as to be very nearly indestructible no matter what form it takes.  (Heck, even Leopold Stokowski’s horrid orchestral mutations couldn’t crush all the life out of it.)   And it is quite clear that Hayes and Napper respect that genius and treat it accordingly.

Oh, and the Montréal Baroque do a bang up job, with all the scraping and howling goodiness of a period instrument performance.

So, there you go.  You may assign what weight you like to my opinion, keeping in mind of course the fact that said opinion is amateur, gratuitous and off-the-cuff, but I think this CD worthy of a listen.

Regular friends of the decanter may recall that in honor of the Civil War sesquicentennial ol’ Robbo was rereading his copy of Stephen Spear’s Landscape Turned Red to mark the Battle of Antietam Creek that was fought 150 years ago last Monday?  Well, in fact I finished it and, because the book goes on to cover Lincoln’s sacking of Little Mac and appointment of a reluctant Burnside to command of the Army of the Potomac in November 1862, am now chronologically ahead of the game, at least as far as the Virginia theater goes.

Anyhoo, although I’ve read the book a couple times before, it was only this time around that an interesting little piece of trivia got caught in the grease trap that is Robbo’s braim.  Do you know who this fellah is?  He’s George Washington Whitman, younger brother of poet Walt.  Whitman enlisted as a private in the 51st New York Volunteer Regiment, where he quickly rose in rank, eventually becoming (I believe) a captain.  At any rate, the trivia bit that I wanted to highlight was that he actually took part in the Union attack on Burnside’s Bridge, writing a letter home about it a couple days later that Spear cites a couple times in his book.  (Well, I think it’s interesting.)

A bit of perusal reveals that George had quite the war career serving in the IX Corp.  He was wounded by a shell fragment at Fredericksburg and later was an eye-witness of the Battle of the Crater before Petersburg.  He was captured in 1864 and spent some time in Libby Prison, too.  Evidently, ol’ Walt admired the man tremendously.  And I believe it was Walt’s trip to find and comfort George after Fredericksburg that got the old, ah, um….., got Walt interested in volunteer nursing.

As Johnny Carson used to say, I did not know that.

UPDATE: Oh, let me just clarify that I have absolutely no interest a-tall, a-tall, in the poetry of Walt Whitman.  I throw the matter out as historickal trivia, not literary.


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September 2012