Tag Archives: Bach

From Steinbeck to Hane to Bach, by way of Ixtlan and Li Po


Culture is a slippery slope. One thing leads to another. A book leads to a poem, or a piece of music, or a painting, and suddenly you’re haring off after something else entirely.

We’re coming up on the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. Even if you don’t know him, you know his music. Even if you don’t like classical music and avoid it like the plague, you’ve heard something by Bach. One of the pleasures of getting to known the man’s immense body of work is the little epiphany you get every now and then, realizing something he wrote — Toccata and Fugue, anybody? — has been imitated and recycled so many times that it has permeated the cultural aquifer.

We’re coming up on Bach’s birthday, and at the top of the post is the cover of the first Bach album I ever bought — Book Two of The Well-Tempered Clavier, performed by Glenn Gould. If memory serves, I scored my copy at a long-vanished record store in the Moorestown Mall. The thing is, I wasn’t looking for The RickettsWell-Tempered Clavier, I was looking for The Art of Fugue. That’s because my favorite book at the time, the book I re-read at least three times that year, was John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which I still think is the best thing he ever wrote — second only to The Pastures of Heaven. And if you’ve read Cannery Row, you know the novel is, among other things, a song of devotion and admiration for Ed Ricketts, the Monterey-based marine biologist Steinbeck used as the basis for Doc, the novel’s scientist hero. Along with being a scientist, heavy drinker, and epic lover of women, Doc was also passionately fond of The Art of Fugue, and while the teenaged me could at the time only dream of indulging in the first three, I could damn well score myself a copy of Bach’s valedictory work.

Only I couldn’t find The Art of Fugue in any record store, and in the pre-Amazon landscape of the mid-Seventies it was a rare and lovely thing to find a record store willing to do special orders. Even so, I’d been wanting to take a crack at Bach — I approached album purchases as a form of self-improvement back then — so I thumbed through the bins in search of something that looked promising. That’s when I saw the angel-coiffed Bach staring back at me.

Another of my high school, fixations, along with Steinbeck, was the works of Carlos Castaneda and his (probably imaginary) encounters with the Yaqui Indian seer Don Juan Matus. The covers of A Separate Reality and Journey to Ixtlan sported the magnificent cover art of Roger Hane, whose style was so instantly recognizable that I had to get that particular Bach album. There was even a full-sized wall poster of the cover illustration. Hane also painted the coversJourney_to_Ixtlan for the 1970 Collier paperback edition of The Chronicles of Narnia. (Hane was killed by muggers in 1974, and when the fourth Don Juan book, Tales of Power, came out I was pleased to see the cover artist had written “For Roger” over his own signature.) So I proceeded to work my way through the entire Well-Tempered Clavier, and when The Art of Fugue finally turned up, I found it to be every bit as good as Steinbeck (and Doc) had promised.    

Cannery Row, as well as the essay “About Ed Ricketts” from The Log from the Sea of Cortez, included paens to the work of Li Po, and in due course I found the collected works of that drunken Chinese poet. Another bell ringer. 

See what I mean? It’s a slippery slope, this culture business. One thing leads to another. And all this because we’re coming up on Bach’s birthday.

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Friday finds

Before we get started, how about a little Bach on the Swedish keyed fiddle? The nyckelharpa has 16 strings, but you only play four of them. The rest are there to resonate with the bowed strings, the way a Norwegian hardanger fiddle has a set of sympathetic strings under the bridge that resonate along with the playing. I love both instruments, and I can’t go too long without wanting to listen to them.

agrippa-coverBoingBoing has posted a video that allows you to read and re-read “Agrippa (a book of the dead),” the 1992 self-destructing art-book created by writer William Gibson, artist Dennis Ashbaugh and publisher Kevin Begos Jr. Gibson’s poem, inspired by the death of his father, showcases some of his most evocative writing, and the several editions of the poem play on the themes of memory and loss by causing the text to decay and eventually vanish with use and the passage of time. The idea was to leave the reader with nothing his memories of the poem (and the money he shelled out) but naturally the code was hacked almost as soon as the book became available. And while we’re on the subject of William Gibson, how long before a company called Ono-Sendai materializes and starts selling these? Maybe Errol Morris will use it to replace his Interrotron.

Maybe it’s time to pay a visit to the town Neil Young created. And maybe it’s time for a little more nyckelharpa music:

Scary times for writers, especially free-lancers. This free-lancer’s motto is “no fear.”

The Art of the Title Sequence is film geekery at its finest. The site gives you the chance to appreciate and hear commentary on some of the most effective and artful examples of films that use their title sequences to establish the mood and set the stage for what follows. One of my favorite examples, the travels of a bullet from factory to victim at the start of Lord of War, is here along with John Carpenter’s original Halloween and its obvious precursor, Quatermass and the Pit.

The sound is like a glass of cold, pure water.

I don’t know which fact is more astonishing: that George Lucas actually solicited A-list British playwright David Hare (Plenty, The Blue Room, A Map of the World) to direct The Phantom Menace, or that Triple-A-List playwright Tom Stoppard (Arcadia, Shakespeare in Love, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead)did some script-doctor work on the tedious screenplay for Revenge of the Sith. Most astonishing of all, I guess, is that Lucas went for this kind of help when, as this blogger points out, all he needed was someone with competence and cleverness of the sort Irvin Kershner (and Leigh Brackett) brought to The Empire Strikes Back.

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