Saturday, March 24, 2012

Adventures in Eye Trouble

On Thursday, I could see the red spreading through the white of my left eye. I could see where this was going -- pinkeye -- so when I got home, I got out the eyedrops from the bout last year, and began medicating myself before things got any worse.

That evening, I watched some TV, and I noticed how incredibly bright the thing was. As the evening wore on, my eye became more and more photosensitive. I woke up in the middle of the night with excrutiating pain in my eye, from the ambient light of my neighborhood coming in through the window and filtering through my eyelid! I may as well have been staring straight into the sun, for all the pain it was causing me.

Jeff got me a towel and I was able to wrap my head in it and the pain was not as bad, but there was still a stabbing pain every few minutes. But I managed to get a little sleep.

In the morning I still could not open my eyes or unwrap my head hardly at all. I took a shower with my eyes closed. Jeff took me to the doctor, blindfolded. He also went into the appointment with me, in case someone needed to hold me down while the doctor pried my eyelid open. The doctor was suspicious about the photosensitivity, which made him think it wasn't pinkeye, so he referred me to a specialist. By that point, things were starting to get a little better, and I could open my eyes in a dark room with minimal discomfort. The opthamologist numbed my eye and shone various colored lights into it. After a detailed examination, he determined that I had suffered an episode of iritis, a non-contagious, spontaneous inflammation of the eye. He prescribed some eyedrops for me and off we went.

Today, my eye is a bit sore and red, but much better. Vinny has been administering my eyedrops, which has been great! I am so lucky to have such a sweet and thoughtful son who takes good care of me!

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Red Leaf Conversations

Today, after I turned left at a stoplight, I saw another red Nissan Leaf, stopped behind me at the light. I slowed down a little bit, hoping that the other red Leaf would catch up to me.

Sure enough, the driver stopped beside me at the next traffic light. I rolled down my window, and he rolled down his. We conversed about our cars. We both love them, and think they are the best car ever.

Then that light turned green, but we got caught by the next one. In our next conversation, I told him that I'd had mine since July, and he said he got his in September. Then there were no more stoplights, and we eventually went our separate ways.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Music I Enjoy: Sibelius Symphony No. 4

Jean Sibelius is another of my favorite composers. His work is a departure from Beethoven's -- less formal, more organic. In his symphonies, the music just evolves from the beginning to the end, unlike the more formal structure of Beethoven's symphonies.

My favorite symphonies are the second, third, and fourth. The second and third are fairly popular, but the fourth is under-appreciated, in my opinion.

Perhaps this is because it is so dark and stark. I readily concede that it is. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is certainly mine. This symphony has been played orders of magnitude more than everything else on my iPod. It is perfect for writing papers -- it keeps my emotions occupied while my brain works on the papers.

One commenter on the YouTube video that I link to for this said:
If there ever was a man foolish enough to say that despair cannot be sublime, by the time this symphony hits 1 minute and 10 seconds he has been proven wrong.
Take out the male-exclusive pronouns, and I could not agree more. It is a piece of beauty drawn from despair.

The symphony begins with a slow movement (unusual for a symphony). It starts with a cello/bass/bassoon dirge, and eventually a solo cello rises above. This movement sets the mood for the entire symphony: slow, stark, and dark. More of the orchestra joins in: first the violas, then the second violins, and finally the firsts -- and the volume rises as more instruments join. At the 2:15 mark, when the strings cannot get any louder, the horns and then the trumpets join in. This characterizes the entire movement -- a series of swells of sound, very beautiful, but slow, stark and dark.

Even the second movement, which is in a fast tempo, leads right back into slow, stark, and dark for the third movement (my favorite movement, and the focus of this post). The third movement parallels the beginning of the piece, with sustained cello/bass, but a flute solo to start. The flute passes the melody off to the clarinet, then it goes back to the flute, and the cellos and basses begin to imitate the lines of the flute.

We get a small taste of the melody that will be the climax of the piece when the horns enter at the 1:16 mark, but the first substantial preview is initiated by the violas beginning at about the 2:43 mark. At 4:30 it appears again in a slightly more developed form played by cellos under string tremolo. But it gets interrupted by a reprise of earlier themes. The cellos and basses bring it up again at about 5:32, with a poignant cello solo, and we again get thrown off by reprise of earlier themes. The next time it appears is at the 6:45 mark, and it is a much bigger exposition. At this point we can hear it in depth. It begins at the lowest range of the cellos and rises 6 octaves while swelling to fortissimo, before diving back down to the depths and pianissimo, and returning to the original opening theme.

At the 8:30 mark, we have a major theme under which the climax melody, played by the cellos, serves as accompaniment. Finally, at the ten-minute mark, it is the beginning of the big climax. Violins, viola, and cello play it in unison. The melody rises almost 3 octaves and the volume rises to fortissimo until the highest point is reached, and a swift decrescendo down to almost nothing.

For the remainder of the movement we have a sustained focus on the pitch C-sharp. There is a lot of dissonance and resolution and dissonance again, passing from flute to clarinet to first violin to second violin to cello to pizzicato bass, until everyone ends up on the C sharp and just fades away.

The fourth movement starts at C sharp. It is a necessary semi-resolution of the despair of the third movement, and has some beautiful moments in it, my favorite being the theme that begins at about the 2:48 mark and returns at about the 4:25 mark. In this particular recording, the coda (last part) is interpreted a lot differently than I had ever heard -- extremely slow, but perhaps more like it's intended, as if to say that there's no escape from the stark and dark. Although, if it were all up to me, I wouldn't even be trying to escape.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Music I Enjoy: Beethoven's 9th Symphony

In this series of posts, I've already discussed Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The Ninth Symphony is equally famous. Everybody's heard the "Ode to Joy" -- and you may have even sung it a few times in church (it is a hymn in the Methodist hymnal at least). The final movement with the chorus is superb, to be sure, but I'd like to focus on the first two movements.

The first movement begins with an interval of a fourth (A and E). This is the (inverted) scaffolding of a chord -- the top and the bottom, but not the crucial middle note that tells you whether this is a major or a minor chord. He hangs onto this fourth, accentuating the two notes with violins ascending and descending the scale on those two pitches only, for half a minute. I love the tension this creates -- what is going on? Is this going to ever resolve?

Yes! It does resolve at that point, into D minor, which is fascinating because it is not entirely expected -- those starting notes suggested A minor or A major (although, A minor is a secondary chord in the key of D minor, so it's related). There's a little exposition of a melody, for another half minute, until we get back to another series of fifths, this time D and A. And this time, it resolves into B-flat major, but soon modulates across keys and into a fairly lengthy melodic section mostly in a major key, a break in the storm.

But at the 4:45 mark, we return to the fourths, this time resolving into a series of chords crescendoing into the exposition of a melody derived from the fourths. I really like the part beginning at about 6:23, where the violins alternate between G's -- one the lowest note they can play, and the other two octaves above, and this is then echoed by the woodwinds and brass when the violins take over the melody. Beginning at about the 7-minute mark, a sense of urgency is created in the texture of the piece by strings playing triplets (in the background), which creates an asymmetry in the music. The motion continues, culminating in a series of fortissimo D-major chords beginning at the 8:57 mark, changing to D minor at about 8:45, and recapitulating the melodies we heard throughout the movement. It ends in a typical Beethoven fashion, with a recapitulation of the first melody and a whole lot of D-minor chords.

My favorite movement in the entire symphony is the second movement, the scherzo. Apparently Beethoven was widely criticized for not following the standard form for symphonies, so he wrote this movement as a response to that criticism. The scherzo takes an A-B-A form: scherzo-trio-scherzo. It is in three (as scherzos should be), but with the fast tempo (prestissimo!) and syncopation, it sounds as if it's in quadruple time at times. Take that, critics!

It begins with the same melody* as the first movement, punctuated by a timpani. Then it goes into a fugue, started by the violins, joined by the horns and the rest of the string section and eventually the whole orchestra. We first hear the syncopation at about the 16:45 mark of the recording I've linked to, and in fact the harmony sounds backward in a way when we get to 16:52.

I love the way the timpani is used just like another instrument, in the 17:45 range -- it is identical to the contributions of all the rest of the instruments. And the music rises to a fortissimo statement of the melody beginning at about 18:15.

The trio section is introduced by the woodwinds at about 19:37. It is a swift departure from the original melody -- in major, and seemingly in quadruple time. It is a pleasant and peaceful break from the relentless minor melody. Until, of course, it returns at 22:10. The trio tries to reassert itself at about 25:38, but soon gets squashed by the melody from the first movement to round off the movement.

* If you can call it that! But Beethoven is the master of creating compelling music out of poor melodies.