Stephen Hawking, R.I.P.

In honour of Dr. Stephen W. Hawking’s remarkable work and (even less likely) long life, Albert Einstein’s birthday, Hawking’s status as Distinguished Visiting Research Chair at Waterloo, Ontario’s Perimeter Institute (PI), and Pi Day (3.14), please join me in a slice of pi/e (preferably at 1:59). You may also remember Hawking from his interest in Homer Simpson’s theory of a donut-shaped universe.


Book Chapter on Music in The Simpsons

I’m working on a chapter about music in The Simpsons for a book that the independent publisher McFarlane has requested. I presented six conference papers on the topic between 2006 and 2013 and also completed about half of a book on it, so it shouldn’t take take too long! The editor in 2010 co-authored a book for the same press, called: The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield. The new book is intended for undergraduate students and the general public, so it’s a good opportunity to get some more “public music history” out there.

Letting Academic Things Go

Kelly J. Baker just posted an article called “Goodbye to All That,” about abandoning her recently-contracted plan to write an academic book on the cultural history of zombies. I have very similar feelings about my work on music in The Simpsons, including my proposed academic book, related possible journal articles, and already-presented conference papers (e.g., 20062013). Without a tenure-track, professorial context, I have to let those types of academic things go and possibly reimagine them as public music history projects instead. I’ve already made that transition from my dissertation on the rock band Rush to Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion (2014) and am currently working on Experiencing Peter Gabriel: A Listener’s Companion (2016). So, I don’t see why I should stop now. Maybe, I’ll be able to get to the point of making a living wage at it!

Meet Prof. Doe

A history professor (Jonathan Rees) recently referenced the 1941 Frank Capra movie Meet John Doe. In it, a fake, world-despairing “everyman” (played by Gary Cooper) ends up having value despite being imagined into existence by a newspaper columnist (played by Barbara Stanwyck) and then being appropriated by a power-hungry aspiring politician.

Rees’ idea is that something similar is going on with the providers of online university courses (MOOCs) apparently thinking about hiring celebrity actors to “teach” their courses. It’s not a great analogy, though. For example, in the contexts of adjunct instructors and other disenfranchised academics, the world-despairing is not actually being faked at all. Tens of thousands of post-secondary courses are now being taught by academics (including thousands of Ph.D.s) who do not have offices, benefits, or pensions. Actually, some people with Ph.D.s are worse off than that:  I know, because I’m one of them.

So, someone should write a screenplay called Meet Prof. Doe. The title character would be perfect for someone like Matt Damon, especially given his early success with 1997’s Good Will Hunting. (Ben Affleck may direct the movie, but he may NOT appear in it!)

Kiss Me, Deadly (1952) & Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

I finally read Mickey Spillane’s detective novel Kiss Me, Deadly (1952), in order to compare it to one of my favourite films noirs, the adaptation directed by Robert Aldrich and co-written by A. I. Bezzerides:  Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

The film keeps many of the book’s characters, situations, and gender dynamics (e.g., “hard-boiled” detective Mike Hammer and a collection of what might be called “femmes semi-fatales”) and transposes them from New York State and NYC to California and LA.  However, the film otherwise completely transforms the book’s cautionary tale about international drug smuggling into a vastly more bizarre and fascinating one ultimately involving a rich, eccentric, medical-doctor collector of “new art” (i.e., atomic materials) during the early Cold War—as well as his connections to the criminal world.

In a related matter, the film adds numerous relatively “highbrow” cultural references to the story, such as Christina Rossetti’s poems (especially “Remember”), symphonic music and opera, and even Mike Hammer and his “secretary” Velda abandoning their sleazy divorce PI existence for rather more “sophisticated” intrigue than the mob/drug context of the book.  The film also derives a more upper middle-class context, especially re Mike (including his expensive sports cars, his reel-to-reel answering machine, and his habit of screening his phone calls), but also re his policeman friend Pat (who, in the film, takes on much of the elevated-social-status character of the “feds”—who are far more prominent, and generally in “higher-level” contexts, in the book).  In addition, the film has more of a multicultural milieu than the book does (including Greek-, Italian-, and African-Americans), although the secondary, “hyphenated-American” characters are shown mainly in working class (mechanic, out-of-work singer) and service-type (bartender, barroom jazz singer) contexts.

It’s a great book, but a quite different great movie.  I feel the same way about Laurence Olivier’s film adaptations of Shakespeare and also about many of the films of Stanley Kubrick.  However, I do not feel that way about recent movies involving wizards and hobbits.

Cosmos (TV series, 1980)

Growing up, I never saw Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (PBS, 1980).  So, I’ve just been watching it (and reading the book) and pondering its approach and contributions to the popularization of science.  I’m doing this partly to help myself think about the implications of “public science” for “public musicology.”  It doesn’t surprise me that in 1994 Sagan (1934-96) won the National Academy of Sciences’ Public Welfare Medal (its highest honour), while simultaneously being denied membership in the Academy.  Numerous scientists didn’t like his media activities, in the same way that many of my fellow musicologists aren’t going to like my ventures into books for non-academic presses, self-published e-books for the public, and a collaborative community website for music history & culture.

The parts of Cosmos I like the best are the historical ones about the ancient Greeks and Ionians (the size of the Earth, the library at Alexandria, the scientific method), Kepler (elliptical orbits), Champollion (the Rosetta Stone), and so on.  On the other hand, there is surprisingly little in the 13-part series about Copernicus, Newton, and even Einstein.  Sagan and the other creators of Cosmos probably concluded that certain figures had already been covered at least adequately in such other places as high school and college textbooks.  I also like the 1990-92 updates included in the 2000 DVD edition.  For example, through updates of red-shift research, physicists have (since 1980) been able to model that the galaxies emanate outwards in a sort of plume shape (and, yes, thus away from each other at varying speeds) from a single point.  On the other hand, I have mixed feelings about the DVD edition having made obvious changes to the images of the 11th episode in order to add such things as 1990s’ computers, the World Wide Web, and so on.

Cosmos gets rather more into science-fiction towards the end, with the second-last (12th) episode a bit of a subtle plug for Sagan’s movie screenplay (1979) and eventual novel (1985) Contact, which was later revived as a major motion-picture (starring Jodie Foster) released in 1997.  Also, although it is not at all surprising for something from 1980, the last episode is quite pessimistically “cold war”-oriented.  For example, the last lines of a hypothetical, future Encyclopaedia Galactica entry about the Earth read:  “Communications Interrupted:  Neutron and Gamma Ray Doses approach lethality for dominant organisms.”  If the series had been done thirty years later, they probably would have spun those aspects to be more about such ecological and sociopolitical issues as global warming, natural disasters, the excess uses of energy, oil spills, controversies over acquiring and delivering energy, and rogue nuclear states.  However, the series (even the pessimism) holds up very well.  The last episode has the great line (still VERY applicable today):  “We accepted the products of science; we rejected its methods.”

I’m not a physicist, but it seems to me that everything we can model from the most distant galaxies happened billions of years ago.  So, what if everything that far away has already either turned into black holes (as happens with the largest stars) or (as might happen with neutron/pulsar systems and even white-dwarf systems, like ours will be) been sucked into their gravitational fields?  Maybe everything eventually disappears:  black holes into other black holes, probably, and perhaps even everything reaches a balance and the whole universe reverse big-bangs almost instantly!  Either way, the 4th-dimension (space-time, the best three-dimensional analogy for which has been that it’s “curved”) connects everything back to the singularity.  Done and done (closed universe).

Now, to music, since I am a musicologist!  It should be said that the credits of the series don’t list any of its specific items of music.  However, even on a cursory first pass, it is clear that Cosmos uses such accompanying music as recent electronic instrumental music, especially by Vangelis (such as from his 1975-76 albums, Heaven and Hell and Albedo 0.39), but also an electronic adaptation of Bach by Isao Tomita and several other pieces.  It also uses such classical works as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Holst’s “Mars” from The Planets, Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” Rimsky-Korsakov, Mozart, Bach, Pachelbel’s “Canon,” Vivaldi’s “Spring” from The Four Seasons, and early music and world music (for far away times and places, but Earth-bound ones).

Some of the music comes back too often (especially Vangelis’s mellow “Alpha” and “Heaven and Hell” excerpts) and some choices are too obvious (e.g., the “Martian” Holst).  However, there is also a much bigger problem in the idea that European 18th, 19th, and early-20th century classical or “art” music and 1970s’ pseudo-classical instrumental music is the “big music” most suitable to accompany “big questions” about the universe.  It’s not surprising that the series was made and developed in the late-1970s, just after the era in which Leonard Bernstein’s public lectures about classical music (1973) became well-known on TV, video, and in book form.  I wonder what choices the creators of Cosmos would have made if the series had appeared in 2010, instead of 1980?

A re-boot of the series is underway for 2014, to be hosted by science populist Neil deGrasse Tyson and co-written with Sagan’s two co-writers.  So, it will be interesting to see how the new, internet-age series compares to the original one.

Silver Linings Playbook (movie, 2012) & the Oscars

Silver Linings Playbook (as a story, anyhow) is not really in the same league as some of the other 2012 Best Picture nominations—especially Beasts of the Southern Wild, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, and Life of Pi.  However, I am impressed that somebody found Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games, etc.) a reasonable transition-from-teen-star to interesting-young-woman project.  I hope no-one got too much money casting the also-excellent Julia Stiles as Lawrence’s older sister, though, because I thought of Stiles the very first time I saw Lawrence (in Winter’s Bone).

In addition:  People, you should watch the actual movies, not the damn Oscars show!  In the 4-6 hours you’ll waste on that broadcast and surrounding filler (not to mention the extended water-cooler chit-chat time on Monday), you could have watched 2 or 3 of the actual movies.  I still have Les Misérables and Amour to watch, and, as I don’t have TV, I’ll instead be watching those two movies tomorrow evening.

Nine contenders is too many!  As a Canadian, I find Argo deeply flawed and misleading, I didn’t find Django Unchained to be nearly as good as Tarantino’s last movie (Inglourious Basterds), and so on.  So, there probably should have been more like six (possibly even only five) nominees.