Fall Of The Berlin Wall (Legoland Version)

I enjoyed this stirring re-enactment of the events of November 10, 1989:

Notice how there’s a Hasselhoff-ian figure atop the mobile platform thing, and how lights start going on and off as he performs once the Wall falls. Nice touch. This atones for the minor historical inaccuracy my wife pointed out: that the Wall actually falls from the West into the East in this little drama.

Das Moveable Feast

Two recent sightings from opposite poles of Berlin’s cultural zeitgeist:

1. Not-So-Little Cleveland Indian

Last week, I was biking home from a basketball game in early evening and ran into this, looming over Alexanderplatz:

What? Aha, it turns out that this is art— an installation by French media artist Cyprien Gaillard, exploring the legacy and exploitation of arcane, tribal imagery in contemporary advertising culture. As icing on the cake, the installation sits on a soon-to-be-demolished former Stasi building, das Haus der Statistik. Not that Gaillard is blaming the Stasi for the exploitation of Native Americans. At least, I don’t think he is.

2. Homespun Family Circus

A few days later, we took our son to a circus in a remote place called Falkensee, which lies just outside the super-uncool, westernmost part of Berlin, Spandau. Once you get outside of Berlin’s hipness sphere-of-influence, things instantly revert to the basic hapless, redneck-y mundanity that links together all of Central Europe. Indeed, this circus experience wound up being much more of a sobering tale of family values and heartland tenacity than I had been expecting.

First, consider the poster:

It turns out that, if you run a circus and you make a poster featuring elephants and giraffes, you are not implicitly promising that there are elephants and giraffes at your circus— you are simply invoking the pleasures of the circus atmosphere in a general, non-specfic sense. In this case, there were no such exotic animals on site, and it was apparent at first glance that the whole event was going to be somewhat more small-scale than advertised:

We quickly learned that the Circus Piccolino is a family circus whose patriarch used to perform in the major, large circuses that travel around Europe but then decided to stop once he had kids. Instead, to spare his family the rigors of constant travel, he started his own weeny circus with only the members of his family, a few road-hands and one vulgarian clown whom I took to be a hired mercenary (but might possibly be a cousin). The Circus Piccolino performs only in Germany, thus allowing his daughters to keep up with school and live fairly normal lives when they are not manipulating hula-hoops for the benefit of a tent full of strangers:

The backstory of the Circus Piccolino was legitimately interesting and inspirational as a tale of adaptation to the realities of family life. Yet it also seemed to be invoked a little too often throughout the show, as an excuse for every dropped hula hoop, every repetitious act involving a lesser family member, every tawdry cut corner (‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen goats performing at a circus before,’ my wife whispered as we watched various barnyard animals jump from table to table). In the end, it started to feel like an over-share that diminished the normal suspension-of-reality that one hopes to achieve while at a circus.

The ultimate buzz-kill moment happened once the performance ended: as we filed out of the big top, you could immediately see the Family Piccolino heading towards their trailer home that was parked right next to the tent, everyone curiously out of character and already half-disrobed from their outfits. While the whole afternoon provided an education glimpse into the realities of the family circus scene, I still would have appreciated if, at the end, the principals could have humored us by dematerializing into a cloud of smoke, or exiting in some comparably romantic manner.

The Fake-Friendly Thing

I’m going to keep this short, because surely it’s boring to read anything where some expat guy is complaining about US culture… but I really have to comment on how mind-bending the standards of customer service are in this country if you’re not accustomed to a steady diet of fake friendliness.

Did it used to seem normal to me when a store clerk would thank me simply for entering his or her store without actually buying anything? More pressingly, what did I say when someone would chirp “How’s everything working out for you?” whenever I emerged from a dressing room with rejected pair of pants in hand? This seems like an unresolvable double-bind now: if you say, “Good,” then it seems to create a false expectation that you’re going buy the pants (which I almost never do). But if you say, “Well… badly,” then that seems weird. And surely the clerk doesn’t want a blow-by-blow of your expectations heading into the dressing room versus the shattering reality of how the pants didn’t fit well or weren’t what you wanted or whatever.

In the case in question, I wound up saying, “Oh, well, they didn’t really fit”.

Thanks for trying!”

I give up.

Lego, Lasers, Awesome

I don’t know anything about 3D printing, but apparently it’s the bee’s knees. Just check out the side bar of an article someone pointed me to called ‘3D Printer Prints Its Own Upgrades‘:

Doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot of nay-saying flying around at PC World over this right now.

Question: suppose you strip out the references to 3D printing from these article titles. This leaves you with…

  1. Vase Made With ________ : What Can’t________ Do?
  2. ________ Cars May Be The Way Of The Future
  3. ________ May Bring Legal Challenges, Group Says
  4. ________ Built Out Of Lego, Lasers, Awesome
  5. Want ________? Build Your Own With Lego

What’s the best phrase you can insert into the blank? Feel free to nominate your own, or vote for one of these suggestions:

The Jimi Hendrix Facsimile

My friend Mike returned from vacation in Corfu last week to a spate of bad news:

  1. A lawsuit involving his dog knocking over an elderly lady in park had somehow gotten revived long after he had deemed it over and done with. Over the years, the plaintiff’s allegations have gotten trumped up and dramatized to the point that they now include Mike standing over the victim and laughing evilly while she writhes around in pain. So, needless to say, it’s shaping up as quite a courtroom drama.
  2. The same dog– now years older and much calmer since the park incident described above– nevertheless terrorized his dog sitter while Mike was in Corfu such that the sitter no longer has any interest in looking after the dog.
  3. Most hurtful of all, Mike returned to find that he had been ousted from his role as Mitch Mitchell in the Jimi Hendrix tribute band he plays in and replaced by… a chick!

Now, performing in a tribute band is such a farcical and inauthentic experience to begin with that it would be easy to poke fun at someone’s feelings of betrayal at being kicked out of a fake Hendrix band to which they felt a sense of ‘belonging’. But, note a few disturbing facets of this: first, the fact that the band has removed a mild-mannered, male, native English-speaking drummer from the Mitchell role in favor of a Czech woman clearly indicates that it is taking its one big craven shot at ‘the big time’ and has abandoned any sense of fidelity that it once had to emulating the real Hendrix Experience. Unless you’re going to replace every member of the group with a woman, this expedient mixing-and-matching of personnel clearly violates the unspoken ethical/aesthetic code of the tribute band.

Next, in the long tradition of Rock Bands Not Handling Things Professionally, no one actually directly informed Mike of the palace coup. Instead, he found out from the band’s facebook page, where its Iago-like manager had posted a concert notice inviting followers to ‘guess who our new drummer will be!’ (A strange and unanswerable question to pose, by the way… what should one guess, Kofi Annan?)

When Mike told me about all this, I was reassured by the fact that he had already assembled a bunch of half-baked ideas for  how to wreak revenge on his former band, as this — i.e., obscure vengeance plots– seems like the normal and healthy response of a bruised creative ego. One idea was to make a somewhat condescending documentary about a tribute band who arrives in the Czech Republic from the US and whose personal identities become totally eclipsed by their assumed Hendrix Experience identities. I endorsed this and vigorously recommended the Chuck Klosterman essay where he follows the Guns ‘n’ Roses tribute band around as background reading. My only other suggestion was that he form a rival Hendrix band that specifically emulates Jimi’s Band of Gypsies phase, and thereby re-ignites the whole debate about whether he was better when he was playing with British white guys or American black guys.

For old times’ sake, here’s a clip of the The Jimi Hendrix Facsimile from the Trutnov Music Fest back when Mike was still manning the drums:

See also: The Seven Types of Stories, in which I go to see the Stone Free Experience play, but wind up writing mainly about the Led Zep cover band that follows them.

The Restaurant That Used To Be A School and The Inventor Who Never Existed

This weekend, the wife and I went back to the farm where we got married. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all reflections on two years of marriage to a beautiful woman on you. The reason I bring it up is just to tell you about the village restaurant we stopped at during our farmland tramping:

First, if you peer first into the distance, and then into the shadows of this photo, you can see a happy co-mingling of beers and children’s toys. This is fairly typical of Czech restaurants in general, but the connection is especially striking here because the restaurant is located in an old one-room country school house. Here’s the cheery exterior:

Inside, most of the educational props are still intact…

… including the good old Periodic Table of Elements:

(For once, the Czech language isn’t made conspicuous by its clusters of consonants and scarcity of vowels.)

I ordered the traditional classic Svíčková, which Krafty once memorably described as a ‘meat Sundae’ in his one visit so far to the Bohemian lands:

After tucking in my meat sundae, I blearily staggered back inside to peer at an inscription I’d noticed on the wall inside (vaguely discernible in one of the above photos):

The text is just a nostalgic verse about when author was a schoolboy. But what’s notable is the attribution, Jára Cimrman. Cimrman (pronounced ‘Zimmerman’, like Bob) was a fictitious inventor and educator who’s become a kind of de facto Czech national hero despite never having had existed. A Zelig who’s credited with suggesting the Panama Canal to the Americans and inventing yoghurt, among other accomplishments, Cimrman is even the subject of a museum exhibition located in the basement of the tiny replica Eiffel Tower that stands at the top of Petřin Park in Prague.

This is one of the photos at the exhibit. The caption explains that Cimrman was training police academy recruits in a new technique he’d developed for approaching an armed assailant. The idea is that the criminal supposes that the figures approaching him are actually reflections cast in a body of water, so he subsequently fires over their heads. The exhibition is filled with ridiculous stuff like this– it’s fun to take visiting friends there and see how far they make it before catching on that the whole thing is 100% made up.

Return of the Cobra

Having dismissively sworn off yoga in the past, I’ve recently gone crawling back and started taking classes again. The reasons for my about-face: first, the 30 now 35 pound bowling ball problem (discussed here); second, an increasing incidence of disconcerting observations along the lines of ‘Why does my back hurt if I’m not slumped over in a chair?’ and ‘Did I really just tweak my neck while drinking a beer?’ My resistance to yoga has always come mainly from the whole as your lungs gently massage your internal organs, imagine that you are a tiny ant drowning in a giant pond thing– I think the person in the world whom I would be most comfortable taking lessons from would be a high-ranking Chinese party member: somebody who would busily just bark orders and not create this whole parallel new-agey narrative. But, desperate times call for desperate measures.

I will say that yoga classes in Prague are more tolerable to me so far than those in SF for the same reason that differentiates everything here from there: there are less people doing it. You don’t get the same MASSIVELY overcrowded classes that transpire in the Mission where you can’t stretch out your arms without sticking them up somebody’s nose. Also, I’m excited to have an excuse for falling asleep in public once I spread the news that I’m back into yoga these days– ‘Ha ha, no: I was just meditating there for a moment’. But I still have already run into the same essential problem that undermines my yoga practice each time I take it up again: I’m simply not very interested in attaining stillness-of-mind. It’s much more my goal to be entertained. Even when I was supposed to be achieving a calm mental state in this afternoon’s class, I found myself mentally composing this blog post instead.

(Photo: rarely-seen yoga position The Purple Monkey Dishwasher, performed with the aid of a special Indian two-wheel velocipede.)

The Hatto Affair

There are frequent postings about music on this blog.  I enjoy hearing the clips, but am absolutely clueless when it comes to the different types of rock, the names of bands and performers, the history of their departures from bands and return to them, etc.  So now I’m writing about music and musicians that I do know something about.  Not exactly in retaliation, but more in the interest of diversity.

In 2005 I read an article by the Boston Globe‘s music critic Richard Dyer about  Joyce Hatto.  The headline ran: “After Recording 119 CDs, a Hidden Jewel comes to Light.  Fans and Critics Have Long Overlooked Pianist Joyce Hatto.”  The CDs appeared under the Concert Artist label, created by her husband, William Barrington-Coupe.  (Like his friends, I’ll call him Barry for short.)

This was an amazing pianist.  At age 71, wracked with cancer, she was recording in her husband’s studio virtually the whole classical repetoire, from J.S. Bach to Messiaen; a feat as yet unattempted by man or woman.   The recordings were all first class according to Dyer, who has a discriminating ear; and on top of that she was English.  In the entire 20th century, England had produced only three memorable pianists:  Solomon (who, by his novel use of first name only, anticipated Madonna by 90 years), Clifford Curzon, and Myra Hess. Even better, Hatto looked English: a bit horsey and Camilla-like because of her long face and strong jaw.

Right away, in great excitement, I sent Dyer’s article to my brother-in-law, who is a musicologist and amateur pianist.  Living outside of New York City, he goes to tons of piano recitals there.  It was with some satisfaction that I told him of a pianist that he’d never heard of—as Dyer put it, “[t]he greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of.”  We exchanged Hatto CDs and emails about them.

Before the Globe article, excitement over Hatto was pretty much confined to bloggers.  After Dyer’s article and another one in the prestigious magazine Gramophone, the enthusiasm over Hatto spread to the larger musical world. The discovery of overlooked genius generates a lot of excitement.  I suppose part of the thrill is egotistical:  being a Hatto fan puts one in the know.  But at least in Hatto’s, case, there’s a deeper satisfaction.  Hatto’s career on the concert stage had been unremarkable, gaining her little recognition. By an unforgiving rule that condemns most of us to obscurity, people usually get the recognition that they merit.  But in this case, the rigid test of time turns out to be fallible:  an unregarded pianist turns out to be the greatest one alive.  This is something to celebrate.

The extraordinary stream of flawless recordings continued up to her death in 2006.  Then, the next year, the fraud collapsed.  All of her recordings, but one (she actually did play the piano) were made by other pianists, whose recordings her husband had swiped from other labels.

It seems that by the 1970s, Hatto and Barry concluded that the critics, who had given her concerts mixed reviews, would never accord her the acclaim she deserved.  So she retired from the concert hall; the explanation, given to anyone who cared, was ovarian cancer.  (She did in fact die of cancer at age 77; but her oncologist is quoted in a couple of sources as saying the cancer didn’t appear until the 1990s.)  Her husband had long been in the recording business; out of his technical expertise, great knowledge of the piano world, and musical taste they reinvented her career.

One thing that made the fraud possible is the amazing number —a glut, really —of excellent pianists around, then and now.  Even my brother-in-law hasn’t heard all their names.  Barry pirated performers who were at once first class and obscure sure to be applauded but unlikely to be recognized.  A great influx of talent had poured in from Eastern Europe, where it had been dammed up by the Iron Curtain.  From the other side of the globe comes a flood of Chinese pianists who, as children obedient to their parents, out-practiced everyone else.

The fraud had been suspected before 2007 among some bloggers.  Barry had overreached by releasing CDs of piano concertos, Hatto ‘playing,’ in each case with the National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Réné Köhler.  No one had heard of either.  To answer the suspicious queries of a German researcher, Barry came up with a Köhler biography; Köhler had studied in Krakow, not at the conservatory, which was closed to Jews, but at a university.  He survived the Treblinka death camp, where a German officer had crushed his left hand, only to perish in the Soviet Gulag.  The investigator checked with the university to find that there was no record of K’s attendance and not even a music department there.  Clearly Barry tossed off K’s biography without much if any advance thought; I imagine he had fun improvising his lies.

The name of the orchestra is a riot of redundancy, suggesting that Barry had a sense of humor too.  “Philharmonic” means “symphony” (the New York Philharmonic); “symphony” can be synonymous with “orchestra” (the Boston Symphony). So, in a redundancy pointed out by a blogger, Hatto, in playing with the National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, plays with the National symphony symphony symphony.

Some people doubted the Hatto marvel; others were too happy with it to give it up.  The controversy was settled by iTunes.  From the Wikepedia article on Hatto:  “When Brian Ventura, a financial analyst from Mount Vernon, New York, put the recording of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes credited to Hatto into his computer, the Gracenote database used by the iTunes software identified the disc not as a recording by Hatto but as one by László Simon.”  The database identifies a CD by the timings of its tracks; and the timings of Hatto and Simons CDs were identical.  This discovery led eventually to a waveform analysis of the recordings by an audio lab in England that showed them to be identical in every respect.

On other CDs, Barry forestalled detection by tampering with the timing of the pirated tracks.  He managed to speed up or slow down the Hatto version without altering the pitch, so that the Hatto performance did sound different from its original.  Another of his ploys was to steal from multiple pianists in a single piece.  For a sonata, say, consisting of three movements and three corresponding tracks, he deployed a different pianist for each track.

For some music critics, the exposé was quite embarrassing.  In 1992 a critic reviewing Yefin Bronfman’s rendition of the Rachmaninov 3rd Concerto wrote that “it lacked the sort of angst or urgency that has endeared Rachmaninov to millions” and that Bronfman sounds “oddly unmoved by Rachmaninov’s slavic idiom.”  Fifteen years later, the same critic wrote of Hatto’s release of the same recording: “stunning… truly great… among the finest on record… with a special sense of its Slavic melancholy.”  I felt kind of foolish too, having waxed so enthusiastic over her recordings.

Once Hatto gained fame from the fake recordings, the couple were very happy to be interviewed, and in their interviews retroactively slathered her new-found prestige onto her earlier career.  In a profusion of free-from fictions, she was playing for and being advised by the greatest musical figures in the mid 19th century.  As all of them were dead by this time, who was to object?  Over- the-top reviews of her concert performances surfaced.  “Her performance of the Brahms Piano Concerto in D minor was a triumph.  The technical virtuosity was compelling in its complete nonchalance but it was the blazing passion that brought the huge audience to its feet.”  (I love the “huge” audience).  Or:  Her performance of Brahms’ Paganini Variations was “dispatched in a seamless riot of ecstatic bravura with underlying deep musical feeling . . .”

In fairness to Hatto and Barry, it doesn’t seem that this was just simple, cold-blooded fraud. It was a tour de force of imagination.  The two invented a whole life for herself in an amazing amount of detail that grew with each conversation they held.  A New Yorker article by Mark Singer entitled “Fantasy for Piano” gives you a good sense of their powers of invention.  They moved so easily from fact to fiction that you can’t be sure which you are hearing.  I don’t think that they could tell the difference either, and that’s where the story gets scary.

Associated Research Partners

Last night, I was talking with friends about the some of the dreadful stopgap jobs we held between the ages of, let’s say, 18-23. I know a few purposeful, self-directed people who proceeded straight from college onto meaningful, rewarding work, but lord knows I wasn’t one of them. Pretty much the consummate late-bloomer, I found these people as baffling and exotic as a hetero unicorn. In my recollection, the period of entering the workforce felt much more like the opening minutes of Saving Private Ryan: trepidatiously heading out in a vast, dangerous expanse where the rules of engagement are not very clear and you’re liable to be met with a hail of bullets. (Now if only it had been more like the opening minutes of Shaving Ryan’s Privates– that would have been much more accommodating).

My friend got things rolling by describing a dubious job he held where his role was to enter various high-rises, walk into a particular establishment and pretend that he was doing student research on the company– in actuality, he was in the pay of some giant realtor and was supposed to rat out when the company’s lease expired so his overlords could swoop in and take it. This immediately hit upon a common thread in our crappy early jobs– most of them had a distinctly morally-compromising flavor. For my part, I worked for two days at the O’Farrell Theatre sorting timecards of strippers by stripper name (Mystique after Mercedes, etc). I was an admin for an all-female Real Estate firm in the Marina (talk about being marooned on a foreign beach). When I was 18, I walked up to a new-looking establishment to see if they were hiring, only to discover that it was a fake movie-set building for Sister Act 2: Back In The Habit (not the first time and not the last that I’ve been bamboozled by Whoopi Goldberg, I can tell you). The only fun job I ever had during those years was later that summer, working on Telegraph Ave in Berkeley selling cheap jewelry on the street.

The most fascinatingly sinister job of all for me was also my first official paid design gig: building and maintaining the web site for the term paper kingpin of San Francisco, one of these guys who sells pre-written term papers to students. I’m not going to name the company or link to the site or anything because the TPK is sensitive about publicity and might have my legs broken. But, somewhat amazingly, the site is still up and running, now 12 years old and still generating the occasional pre-written term paper sale. At one point (before the business fled to India and other distant locales) the TPK and other plagarini were doing so much business that SF State briefly adopted a policy of including the following question in its undergraduate final exams: ‘Briefly describe the contents of your own term paper.’ Needless to say, this shot ’em down in droves.

One of my favorite bits of term paper lore was the fact that the TPK maintained a legitimate shadow company so that he could point to something non-term-paper-oriented that he was involved in if circumstances demanded it for whatever reason. Seeking the most vague, inscrutable business identity possible, he settled on Associated Research Partners, a company that ostensibly had something to do with import/export market research. In reality, the company did virtually nothing at all– it was just standing idly by in case the TPK needed a clean change of clothes to jump into– and consisted of one dedicated phone line running into the back of his office. Nevertheless, maybe once or twice a year, this phone would ring, necessitating a awkward clamber to the back of the office to pick up the dusty handset, at which point (in the TPK’s words:) “the curtain would go up on Associated Research Partners.”

So here’s to you, Associated Research Partners. Today, this blog salutes you.