Musical Musings: Hector Berlioz and Orchestra Life

Hector Berlioz concert poster, Andreas Geiger, 1846.

Hector Berlioz concert poster, Andreas Geiger, 1846.

I listen to a lot of classical music with a preference for the work of the contemporary composers such as Terry Riley, Simon Jeffes, and Philip Glass but I’ve got a weak spot for the works of Hector Berlioz, as he was a French Romantic composer, now best known for his compositions Symphonie fantastique (a favourite of mine) and Grande messe des morts. Berlioz made significant contributions to the modern orchestra with his Treatise on Instrumentation. His compositions required huge orchestral forces for some of his works, and he personally conducted several concerts with over a thousand musicians. Now that’d be a sight to see!

In the early 1840s, he was producing several serialisations for music journals which would eventually be collected into his Mémoires and Les soirées de l’orchestre (Evenings With the Orchestra). It definitely the most honest book ever written on all aspects of the orchestra from the pay of the musicians (worse than pitiful and did they grumble well) to the reason reviewers write book reviews (so they can resell the books of course).

As our reviewer notes ‘Berlioz was never successful as a composer. His music was never much accepted during his lifetime (in fact, Les Troyens was not even performed in its entirety until some years after Berlioz’s death), and his everyday life exhibited the tenuous existence that we equate with all Romantic artists. In order to remain solvent, Berlioz often had to turn to penning articles of criticism and commentary on music and cultural matters for the Paris publications of the day. By all accounts, Berlioz hated this work and the necessity of it, which is ironic given the quality of his writing, as evidenced in Evenings with the Orchestra.’

You can read his loving review here.


Concert Memories: Matisyahu at the 9:30 Club

Hasidic reggae. No, I’m not kidding. . . .

I’m a huge Bob Marley fan, but I’ll take my reggae any way I can get it. So when a friend mentioned that Matisyahu was coming to town, I had to go. Hustling downtown for the Christmas/first night of Hanukkah show, I just knew it was gonna be better than just sitting around at home waiting for the L-tryptophan to kick in after my usual Christmas Day turkey pig-out.

Sound good? You can read all about it here.

Theatre of The Mind: Larry Niven’s Flatlander

flatlanderScience fiction mysteries were rare when Niven started his Gil ‘The Arm’ Hamilton series in 1968. As issac Asimov once saidn, ‘[John] Campbell had often said that a science fiction mystery story was a contradiction in terms; that advances in technology could be used to get detectives out of their difficulties unfairly, and that the readers would therefore be cheated.’ That didn’t deter Niven when he decided to write this series.

In Flatlander, Larry Niven tries something that at that time was something of a rarity: a first person police procedural played honestly down to the limitations on psi abilities. Gil ‘The Arm’ Hamilton is a flatlander (born on Earth) who migrated to the Belt civilization to be a miner, lost his arm in a mining accident, returned to Earth (eventually) for a transplant, but develops a psi power in the form of a telekinetic third arm while recuperating on Ceres. And he became an ARM, the police force of the United Nations, after getting his transplant from the organ banks on Earth.

Does it work well without cheating as the two genres, sf and mysteries, have different logics? You’ll need to read my review to get that answer.


Yep — it’s American stuff this morning — and that’s likely to include almost anything.

For example, you may wonder why Robyn Hitchcock, famed English “psychedelic folkie” (that’s what it says here) is included, with Spooked. Maybe it’s his collaboration with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. . .

We have something focused a little more on a very American genre, alternative country, for you next. It was a song, then a magazine, then a book. See our reviewer’s thoughts on No Depression, edited by Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock.

And because it’s American music, we next have a biography of a “rockin’-country-bluegrass-roots icon.” That would be Lauren St. John’s Hardcore Troubador: The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle.

American folk music covers just as wide a range as you might expect, from the songs of the Westward migrations to the protest songs of the 1960s. And then you get someone like Casey Neill with an ode to Brooklyn. Sort of. At any rate, the album is titled Brooklyn Bridge, which should give you a hint.

It somehow seems fitting to conclude with James Sturm’s James Sturm’s America: God, Gold and Golems, three stories from history rendered as a graphic novel.

That’s it for today. See you next time.

Early Morning (A Letter to Ekentrina)

I am not a morning person, as being the Pub manager and usually the evening lead publican keeps me up very late at night. Indeed it’s not unusual for me to see the dawn in before I turn in.

(One memorable dawn was when I stepped outside in the early summer to stretch my legs and I heard a lone fiddler playing Aly Bain’s ‘Da Day Dawn’.)

So why I was up was a mystery one recent morning, but I couldn’t sleep (though my dear Ingrid was sleeping soundly), so I got up, dressed, and decided to write a letter to her sister Ekentrina, who lives in Riga. If you’re interested in what I had say to her, you can read my letter here. Would it it help to persuade you to read it if I noted I talk about yummy breakfast foods?

Random Access

It’s spring (we’re told, and please pay no attention to the inch of snow on the ground), and that means baseball, so let’s start off today with a history of the Montreal Expos. See what our reviewer thought of Jonah Keri’s Up, Up & Away.

And because this site is nothing if not eclectic, our next offering is a look at two books relating to Hector Berlioz, Michael Rose’s Berlioz Remembered and The Musical Madhouse, from the master himself.

As long as we’ve ventured into the realm of music, how about a look at something a little exotic? That would be the Kahurangi Maori Dance Theatre in a live performance, and it sounds like quite a show.

More music, this time from an otherworldly source — J. R. R. Tolkien, no less. We have At Dawn in Rivendell: Selected Songs and Poems from The Lord of the Rings — and the booklet (of course there’s a booklet) was illustrated by royalty, believe it or not.

And to finish off on a high note, a book — a conjunction of some of our favorite things, this one being Emma Bull’s Finder: A Novel of the Borderland.

That’s today’s offerings, so enjoy. Until next time.

From the Letters Bag: Bad Bacon

(Sometimes, the joke’s on us — I think. . . .)

From: Arne Keller
Subject: Gary Whitehouse’s review of Francis & the Bacon Boys’ Bringing Home the Bacon
Date: August 17, 2002

Dear Gary Whitehouse:

Thanks for reviewing us in GMR. We have never been so badly panned, yet I feel that you are right about most things.There is only a very slim chance of ever running into us, playing in a bar in Copenhagen. Mainly because they are not willing to shell out, even though we can get subsidies for the expensive trip over the new bridge.

We are based in Svendborg, and the money and the people are much nicer here, so why bother with Copenhagen snobs? You are right in your supposition that we are fun to listen to live, it is a way better experience than the CD. Then, you may well ask, why record the CD at all? (there was a Brit reviewer remarking: “There is a dead fish on the cover – what is the band trying to tell us?”). Of course the CD stinks, as bad as the band’s joke name. But the CD was made in response to public demand, believe it or not!!

So blame it on our devoted, local audience. We couldn’t well refuse, considering that our accordeonist has a complete recording studio in his back yard. The production was financed by this enigmatic “Godfather” character from Toender (since bankrupt). But all 2000 copies have been sold, so we are not complaining. In fact, the insatiable public is clamouring for more, so we have donned our thinking-caps to find out what we should go ruin next.

I expect that what is bothering you the most about our CD and our repertoire is the lack of seriousness.It is part of the joke — bad or otherwise — that Francis is indeed very serious. He has a traumatic Belfast background, whereas we Danes in general are more relaxed about the music. This makes for a lot of horsing around on stage, and attempting to transfer this to the CD medium is, of course, asking for trouble. I am sorry that our attempts at American music give rise to such massive criticism, and I would be ready to apologize, if I felt that you were justified. I don’t, though, I can only assure you that our “ersatz” goes down very well here, and that we have no intention of bothering you with it over there – the only reason that you got the CD at all was by virtue of Cat’s invitation.

Best regards,
Arne Keller FBB

An Interview with Kevin Crawford of Lúnasa

You may have noticed that we deal with a lot of music that grew out of the Celtic traditions. Maybe that’s because so-called “Celtic” music, which comes from a tradition that once spanned the continent of Europe, seems somehow magical — as well as forming the basis of a lot of traditional American music, and lending itself to so many other modes.

One of the foremost bands in that tradition — the Irish version, to be exact — is Lúnasa, and like so many other “traditional” bands, the traditions aren’t carved in stone. See what whistle and bodhran player Kevin Crawford has to say about all that and more in our interview.

Literary Musings: Fairy Tales on the Couch

You can read fairy tales simply as stories, dark and otherwise, but you’d be missing the deeper meanings of them to do so. Be it the Brothers Grimm whose tales were far more bloody and gruesome than they are in later editing versions, or the more global folk tales such as that of The Grateful Dead, there’s a lot of meaning to be found within them.

So Sarah Meador wrote a guide to books that look for these meaning a long time ago for Green Man Review and it’s too good not share with all of you. Now go read her essay while I bank the fire high here in our Reading Room and brew us a pot of lapsang soochong tea.

Concert Memories: Johnny Clegg (With Savuka and Juluka): Live! and More

What we have today is not exactly a “Concert Memory,” although there is a concert in there — actually, two concerts. It’s part memoria, part review, and part history. At the very least, it’s something to keep you occupied for a bit, and probably much more than that. And you can read our reviewer’s thoughts on Johnny Clegg right here.