Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Music and Culture

I love Rock Band. Some might even say that I'm obsessed with pretending to be a guitarist or drummer and "playing" those little plastic instruments. Even so, I love it, and part of the reason is the continued stream of extra songs that have been released. While not all have been to my taste, enough have been that I've had plenty of interesting new songs to "play" over the past six months.

Some of these new songs set my brain a-pondering. Last week the game released in Europe, primarily in the UK, France, and Germany. To give music fans overseas some localized flavor, they added 9 songs to the core game, some English, some German, and some French. To even things up across the pond, all 9 songs were released for download here in America.

Now I suppose I'm at a bit of an advantage, I've traveled a lot. I've seen music TV in France, Germany, and Japan. I've been exposed, primarily through my sister, to a wide variety of international music, and I've come to appreciate and even love bands that don't share my mother tongue.

So I was thrilled to see the release of one of my favorite songs, Hier Kommt Alex by German punk rockers Die Toten Hosen, for play on Rock Band. However, my joy was dampened when I was reading comments on Youtube (not exactly the location of American Intelligentsia I'll admit) decrying the release of non English language songs as a 'waste'.

It got me thinking about how American Pop-Culture has literally taken over the world, but with rare exceptions (Anime and Manga), the world's pop-culture rarely makes so much as a dent over here. Certainly we see this effect in the area of film too, where we see successful foreign films remade, rather than simply released into theaters. It is as if we cannot accept foreign actors, or indeed, foreign singers, when really a good dose of the new and different could provide quite the shot in the arm for both the film industry and the rapidly flagging music industry.

That brings another point the fore, the availability of foreign music. You'd think, in the age of the internet, that one could easily acquire any imported bit of music that one would wish, but that is manifestly not so. On the rare occasion that Amazon stocks import discs, they are invariably quite expensive and as for i-tunes, good luck! One of the recently released Rock Band tracks caught my ear, and I went onto i-tunes to see bout downloading it, and while I did find two of the band's albums, which is more than I can say for Die Toten Hosen, the studio version of the song I wanted as missing in action, as was their entire first album. Indeed, the controversial metal outfit Rammstein, who probably have seen the most state-side success of any German act, has a mere two of their five studio albums available for download on i-tunes.

At a time when illegal downloading is enemy number one to the record labels it would seem to make sense to make music as available as possible, but I guess as we see by the You-tube comments, there simply is no money in it. Alas.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Simon Winchester

I am an avowed fan of the non-fiction author Simon Winchester, having quite favorably reviewed two of his books on this very blog. (Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded and The Map that Changed the World) I have also read and enjoyed his book on the San Francisco Earthquake, The Crack at the Edge of the World and one of his two works on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Professor and the Madman. Winchester is a true lover of knowledge, his books are impeccably researched, and he loves to share the fruits of that research with the reader. He litters his books with little nuggets and asides, so that a book nominally about geology could include bits and pieces about history, food, biology, economics, personalities, or any other little tidbit he turned up in his research.

Being an avowed fan of his work, I was very lucky indeed to have been browsing at The Tattered Cover today during lunch. For those not familiar with Denver, The Tattered Cover is our premier independent bookstore and often hosts book readings and signings. In my lunch time sojourn I learned that not only did Winchester have a new book out, The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom , but he was to give a presentation about the book, and sign copies this very evening.

I have of course recently come from the event, and I have to say that Mr. Winchester is just as learned and personable in the flesh as he is on the page. His presentation shared much with his writing, as no tangent was was left untrod, and he peppered his look at the long and varied life of Cambridge professor Joseph Needham with dozens of excellent anecdotes. I have my signed copy just waiting to be devoured, so I suppose I'm lucky that the weekend is nigh. I suppose I will have to review it here after I am done!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Brunelleschi's Dome

There is a genre of books that I call "short and sweet nonfiction." Rather than the 1,000 page exhaustive look at a subject, these little tomes take a subject and dissect it in nice, easily readable couple hundred pages. One excellent example of this style is Longitude by Dava Sobel, which I recall favorably reviewing some time ago.

The latest of these that I have had the pleasure reading is Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King. This 167 page look at how Fillipo Brunelleschi created the vast dome of the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence is excellent.

I've always known that The Duomo was a famous building, and indeed it's hard to find a photo of Florence that doesn't include the iconic dome towering over the city. What I didn't know was that it remains the largest masonry dome in the world. Even domes built later, like St. Peter's in the Vatican, or even the U.S. Capital building, are not as large as Brunelleschi's effort.

Not only did Fillipo build the largest dome the world has ever seen, he built it in a most unorthodox way, without the supporting wooden centering that had long been used in cathedral construction. He used a multitude of breakthroughs to achieve this, including new construction techniques, and a multitude of radical machines that made everything about the building of the cathedral revolutionary. Indeed, so successful where his hoist and crane designs, and his rules against the masons drinking wine during their lunch, that only one man died during the 16 year construction of the dome. For any major construction project, even today, that is amazing. After all, 112 people died during the building of Hoover Dam!

Anybody interested in history, art, architecture, cathedrals, or the Renaissance will devour Brunelleschi's Dome. I loved the book, and it has made me very excited for my upcoming excursion to Italy, as I will get to see (and photograph) the whole massive dome for myself!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Rockies 4 Cardinals 3, or "Why you don't leave in the 6th Inning"

I have not been to a baseball game in years. Many years. So, when I won tickets to a Colorado Rockies game at work, I was pretty thrilled. It was about time for me to check out a professional sports game again, and free is such an agreeable price. I got to head over to Coors Field with the my three other lucky co-workers, and my first rude awakening were the seats. I knew that the semi-mythical cheap seats "rock pile" existed, but had never had the pleasure of sitting in these literal nose bleed seats.

I've been thinking about getting my glasses replaced, and after squinting at the tiny players, I really do believe it is time. I had to strain to make out what the score was! Of course, since the score was a solid 3-0 against the home team, it was kind of nice that I couldn't see the scoreboard very clearly.

While the company was pleasant, the group of screaming and yelling 6-year olds above us less so. My ears were ringing worse than a rock concert! I'll admit I was a bit shocked at their behavior, and this is coming from a person who taught English to a couple of really crazy kids. The children were running around, yelling, shouting, jumping up and down, and generally being very loud, and super obnoxious. We just couldn't believe that the chaperons made no attempt to quite these kids down, or to discipline them in the slightest.

With the Rockies stinking up the diamond, and the kids stinking up the stands, we made our exit around the end of the 6th inning. I came home, fully expecting to blog about another pathetic loss at Coors Field only to check the score and see a miraculous comeback with four runs scored in the eighth inning.


Well, at least the night wasn't a total wash, I did get a nice panorama of the stadium, and while we were walking around downtown, my little group saw the coolest Jeep, painted up like the jeeps in Jurassic Park!