Friday, November 17, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Tunku Varadarajan at the Wall Street Journal, conducts a lovely interview with Zubin Mehta, musical director of the Israel Philharmonic and in the process we learn about the history of both the maestro and the orchestra.
The Israel Philharmonic has evolved along with the country. When Mr. Mehta first arrived, it was an orchestra of very uneven quality. “It was still mostly the orchestra that Huberman had put together,” he says. “The strings played beautifully, because they were from Vienna and Poland. But the brass and woodwind”—here, a pause in search of euphemism—“was not so good.” Jewish émigrés from Russia in the 1970s and ’80s brought a new excellence. “Thank God for the Russians!” Mr. Mehta says. “But we never hired them because they spoke Russian and carried a violin. They were all chosen after blind auditions from behind a screen.”
Those Russians have all retired; they came to Israel in their 30s and 40s. Today’s orchestra is predominantly Israeli. “We have,” Mr. Mehta boasts, “probably one of the best woodwind sections today, anywhere. And the brass section is magnificent. All of that never used to be the case when I first joined.”
* * *

I have to confess that a lot of the talk surrounding the British superstar conductor Simon Rattle leaves me a bit rattled. What I have heard of his work has left me unimpressed. But still... This review in The Spectator makes me think I really should have a listen to his Rite of Spring:
No masterpiece is harder to pull off than the Rite. So often it deflates midway and never regains its shape. Rattle made his name with the piece when he was at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, taming the brute, slowing it down, prising open its interior, allowing us to inspect its fangs, look straight down its snappy gob.
Here, the beast was unleashed. Rabid brass, uncontrollable winds, strings scything through the rabble behind. Key to the pungency was the bite of the percussion, allowed to go to such extremes my eyes began to water. The LSO can come across as a bit slick. Last Sunday they were monstrous. Before letting loose their inner animal, they delivered an invigorating Firebird and a Petrushka that sounded (in the best possible way) like they’d passed the vodka round early.
Now if only I could find someone to translate that into English for me.

* * *

A commentator sent me this: Misattribution of musical arousal increases sexual attraction towards opposite-sex faces in females. Wait, what? Let's quote a bit from the abstract:
only women in the fertile phase of the reproductive cycle prefer composers of complex melodies to composers of simple ones as short-term sexual partners
Well, ok then!

* * *

I always suspected this was the case: What music do psychopaths like? More Bieber, less Bach.
Despite the film industry’s depiction of psychopaths, classical music is not their go-to soundtrack in the real world.
“In the movies, if you want to establish in one shot that a monster has a human side,” said Pascal Wallisch, a psychology professor at New York University, filmmakers play a certain kind of music. There’s Beethoven in “A Clockwork Orange” or Mozart in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Wallisch and Nicole Leal, a recent graduate of NYU, wanted to find out if a preference for certain musical genres is correlated with psychopathy, a personality disorder characterized by manipulativeness and a lack of empathy.
They don't know their Silence of the Lambs: Hannibal Lector was listening to Glenn Gould's recording of the Air to the Goldberg Variations by Bach. Not Mozart. And if you read the whole article it seems that they really don't come up with much in the way of findings anyway.

* * *

The Wall Street Journal has a big piece on the new "gatekeepers" in music. It turns out that, basically, three people control what we all listen to. Well, not you and me, but you know, everyone else.
“It’s a brave new world,” says David Jacobs, a music-industry lawyer whose clients include the rapper Aminé, DJ Martin Garrix and Colombian-American singer Kali Uchis. “We’re consolidating 60 years of regional tastemakers, spread around dozens of markets around the country and the world, into one system. Basically, three or four people.”
The most influential is Tuma Basa, according to several music-industry experts. The global head of hip-hop at Spotify curates RapCaviar. With around 8.3 million followers, the playlist sets the agenda for hip-hop the way New York radio station HOT 97 once did, says Larry Miller, who heads the music-business program at New York University’s Steinhardt School. “He’s the most important gatekeeper in the music business right now,” says Mr. Miller.
Just a few years ago wouldn't have statements like these been greeted with, well, horror? Here is one of the tunes that Mr. Basa picks for our musical edification: "Bodak Yellow" by Cardi B:


* * *

Some sad news via Slipped Disc: a friend and colleague of mine at McGill University in Montreal, Winston Purdy, has passed away. Here is the more extended obituary from the university. I was lucky enough to have done a number of performances with Winston. We did a program of 16th and 17th century songs for voice and guitar from Spain and France that was broadcast by the CBC. But the most memorable was a performance of El Cimmarón by Hans Werner Henze. This is a kind of chamber opera for four musicians, baritone, flute, guitar and percussion, that takes up an entire evening. Everyone, including the singer, gets to play percussion at some point. It was a hugely challenging role for Winston and he did a terrific job. He was a very generous man. I recall learning a large set of variations for guitar by Petr Eben that required the performer to sing an old Czech folksong, the theme, while accompanying himself. Winston offered some really helpful coaching. I'm sure he will be greatly missed at McGill.

* * *

And now the article we have all been waiting for from Forbes, How To Make It In The Music Business Today: Improvisation All The Way.
Being a professional musician takes practice—lots of practice. But those looking to make a steady living as a musician have to pay much more attention to the networking and management aspects of their careers than they used to.
Last year the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded that there were just over 40,000 people in the nation employed as musicians or singers. Their pay, the bureau says, stood at an average $34.56 per hour. But how do full time musicians go about finding work?
At one time it was common for musicians to have managers who would book them jobs playing live. Established recording companies were also a source of steady income for some, and wages earned for recording music could help a professional get by. Now many musicians manage themselves, and recording companies’ revenue streams have been upended by streaming technology that allows consumers to access music cheaply or at no cost. And the money a musician can hope to earn from services like Spotify is slim.
“Artists need to know a lot more than they needed to know twenty years ago or ten years or five years ago,” says Richard Kessler, dean of the New School's Mannes School of Music in New York. “They need to know social media, they need to know publishing … they need to direct their own careers.”
You should read the whole article. What interests me is the erasing of an important distinction. Imagine that this article was talking about the visual arts instead of music. I suspect that the point would be made that there are two rather different career paths: the one is commercial art where you design imagery and visuals for commercial advertising. The other is fine art where you produce aesthetic objects that are not for some immediate commercial purpose. I'm sure we all understand and appreciate that distinction. But notice that here, talking about music, the idea of producing musical aesthetic objects for no immediate commercial purpose is not even mentioned. Musical artists today are either commercial artists or they are nothing, is the implication. The really horrifying item in the article is that blandly stated statistic that, in a nation of more than three hundred million people only just over 40,000 are employed as musicians or singers. And they make an average of $34.56 an hour.

* * *

I'm not sure that El Cimmarón by Henze stands up to the test of time. It was composed in 1970 and the musical language of that time sounds rather dated today. I have to say that it was a lot of fun to play, though. Everyone gets to play various percussion instruments and the guitarist gets to use a cello bow and to play the mbira or thumb piano. Here is a 2013 performance of Part One:


Henze wrote a lot of music for solo guitar as well. Here are his Drei Tentos from 1958:


Later he wrote two large sonatas for guitar based on Shakespearean characters. This is Ariel from the First Sonata played by Julian Bream:

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Philosophy, Science and Scientism

I just read a succinct article on the philosophy of science that is worth having a look at: Why philosophy is so important in science education.
Each semester, I teach courses on the philosophy of science to undergraduates at the University of New Hampshire. Most of the students take my courses to satisfy general education requirements, and most of them have never taken a philosophy class before. 
On the first day of the semester, I try to give them an impression of what the philosophy of science is about. I begin by explaining to them that philosophy addresses issues that can’t be settled by facts alone, and that the philosophy of science is the application of this approach to the domain of science. After this, I explain some concepts that will be central to the course: induction, evidence, and method in scientific enquiry. I tell them that science proceeds by induction, the practices of drawing on past observations to make general claims about what has not yet been observed, but that philosophers see induction as inadequately justified, and therefore problematic for science. I then touch on the difficulty of deciding which evidence fits which hypothesis uniquely, and why getting this right is vital for any scientific research. I let them know that ‘the scientific method’ is not singular and straightforward, and that there are basic disputes about what scientific methodology should look like. Lastly, I stress that although these issues are ‘philosophical’, they nevertheless have real consequences for how science is done.
 If you follow the link from the word "problematic" in the above paragraph you will be taken to another interesting paper on the concept of "statistically significant" and why it often means very little.

Now let me offer a little free-wheeling philosophical speculation. Science, in its hunt for facts, depends on two things: the ability to turn witnessed phenomena into numerical statements, and the ability to understand these numerical statements as being an index of causality. In other words, we have to be able to measure a phenomenon and record it in numbers. Then we have to be able to analyze these numbers in terms of causality.

The first idea explains why scientific study of music so often falls short or tells us things that we already know with no new insights. The aesthetic experience of music is not measurable with numbers and every time we see a study that attempts this, say, by asking questions of a group of listeners, we see the inadequacies. They tend to start by designing a question that can be answered by means of a psychological survey--this supposedly captures an aesthetic experience in numbers. I talked about this a bit in this post: A Theory of Scientism. I quote Roger Scruton as follows:
This is the sure sign of scientism — that the science precedes the question, and is used to redefine it as a question that the science can solve. 
The second idea is the notion of causality understood as statistically probable, which has its own inherent problems, largely with false positives. Whenever I hear about a study or diagnosis that results in a false positive I think that there is a real, if seldom acknowledged, problem with the understanding of causality. As David Colquhoun writes in this paper:
The aim of science is to establish facts, as accurately as possible. It is therefore crucially important to determine whether an observed phenomenon is real, or whether it’s the result of pure chance. If you declare that you’ve discovered something when in fact it’s just random, that’s called a false discovery or a false positive. And false positives are alarmingly common in some areas of medical science.
Aristotle had a quite different notion of causality and while it is not applicable to the problems of medical research, it is certainly a refreshingly different concept of what causality is. For Aristotle you cannot understand a phenomenon until you know why it occurs, in other words you look for an explanation. He looked largely at things that result from human action and distinguished four kinds of cause. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes them as follows:
 In Physics II 3 and Metaphysics V 2, Aristotle offers his general account of the four causes. This account is general in the sense that it applies to everything that requires an explanation, including artistic production and human action. Here Aristotle recognizes four types of things that can be given in answer to a why-question:
The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools.
I wonder if any of this might be of use to modern science. Certainly it encourages one to look deeper than a merely statistical result. If you give a new drug to 100 people and 95 of them feel better, this is called "statistically significant" but we certainly lack an explanation of why or how the drug worked. It is possible that the 95 people felt better for some other reason than the drug. In other words, statistics, when used properly (as often they are not) offers no explanation other than a probability. Unfortunately, with the kinds of phenomena that are usually observed in modern science, Aristotle is of little help and we turn to the statisticians like Thomas Bayes.

For our envoi, let's listen to some music by a near-contemporary of Bayes, C. P. E. Bach. This is his Symphony No. 1 in D major conducted by Ton Koopman:


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Galina Ustvolskaya

I am surprised at how very large Russia looms in the history of music over the last hundred years or so. It is particularly striking to me as a Canadian, the other very large northern nation, because Russia leapt ahead and developed a deep musical culture while Canada still seems to be struggling. Very different places, of course. Russia was importing European composers and culture for a long time, dating from the 18th century at least, while Canada had to make to with the thin gruel of 19th century British musical culture. Early classical music in Canada tended to come from composers in Quebec, with a French musical influence, but the British conquest of Quebec in 1759 severed that connection.

Throughout the 19th century Russian music grew enormously starting with Mikhail Glinka (1804 - 1857) whose overture to the opera Ruslan and Lyudmila is justly celebrated. This is the Orchestra Of Mariinsky Theatre - Director Valery Gergiev (who looks like he is conducting with a toothpick):


Then came the "Mighty Handful" of five brilliant and original Russian composers:  Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin. All lived in Saint Petersburg, and collaborated from 1856 to 1870. I have put up a lot of posts on Russian music since then, most recently my series of posts on Stravinsky.

So today I want to fill in a gap. I have just recently become aware of Galina Ustvolskaya (1919 - 2006) a student of Shostakovich and yet another native of St. Petersburg. Just last month a large scale festival and symposium on the music of Ustvolskaya was held in Chicago. Among the scholars giving papers was Richard Taruskin. Ustvolskaya's music was largely ignored during the Soviet period as it was too "modernist." Indeed, it is only recently that she has begun to be recognized as an important contemporary composer. Here is a piece written in 1959, the Grand Duet for Cello and Piano. The performers are Cello - Mstislav Rostropovich and Piano - Alexei Lubimov:


That is certainly uncompromising music. Shostakovich said about her: "I am convinced that the music of G. I. Ustvolskaya will achieve worldwide renown, to be valued by all who perceive truth in music to be of paramount importance."

Ustvolskaya typically used very unusual instrumental combinations. Her Composition No. 3 (1975), for example, is for four flutes, four bassoons and piano:


Wikipedia says:
Her specific idealism is informed by an almost fanatical determination; this should be construed not only as a typically Russian trait, but also – in terms of Dostoyevsky – as a 'St. Petersburgian' one.
Let's listen to another piece. This is her Symphony No. 3 from 1983, subtitled "Jesus Messiah, Save Us." The performers are Valery Gergiev conducting the Munich Philharmonic. At least one commentator claims that this is not a good performance.


Here is the only other one on YouTube so you can compare:


Well, yeah, that seems far superior!

The only composer that this even vaguely reminds me of is Olivier Messiaen, whose dates are not too distant--if he were Russian, not French.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Now Cluck Like a Chicken

I often express disagreement with post-modern theory on the blog and sometimes I even manage to say why. But I just ran across an excellent article that does it so much better than I have. The writer is Adam J. MacLeod, an associate professor of law at Jones School of Law at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama and this is a talk he gave to his students. It is preceded by a brief explanation and titled: Undoing the Dis-Education of Millennials.
I teach in a law school. For several years now my students have been mostly Millennials. Contrary to stereotype, I have found that the vast majority of them want to learn. But true to stereotype, I increasingly find that most of them cannot think, don’t know very much, and are enslaved to their appetites and feelings. Their minds are held hostage in a prison fashioned by elite culture and their undergraduate professors.
Here is what he said to his students:
Before I can teach you how to reason, I must first teach you how to rid yourself of unreason. For many of you have not yet been educated. You have been dis-educated. To put it bluntly, you have been indoctrinated. Before you learn how to think you must first learn how to stop unthinking.
Reasoning requires you to understand truth claims, even truth claims that you think are false or bad or just icky. Most of you have been taught to label things with various “isms” which prevent you from understanding claims you find uncomfortable or difficult.
Reasoning requires correct judgment. Judgment involves making distinctions, discriminating. Most of you have been taught how to avoid critical, evaluative judgments by appealing to simplistic terms such as “diversity” and “equality.”
Reasoning requires you to understand the difference between true and false. And reasoning requires coherence and logic. Most of you have been taught to embrace incoherence and illogic. You have learned to associate truth with your subjective feelings, which are neither true nor false but only yours, and which are constantly changeful.
We will have to pull out all of the weeds in your mind as we come across them. Unfortunately, your mind is full of weeds, and this will be a very painful experience. But it is strictly necessary if anything useful, good, and fruitful is to be planted in your head.
You really need to read the whole thing as it is chock-a-block with wisdom. My title comes from this passage:
So, here are three ground rules for the rest of the semester.
1.  The only “ism” I ever want to come out your mouth is a syllogism. If I catch you using an “ism” or its analogous “ist” — racist, classist, etc. — then you will not be permitted to continue speaking until you have first identified which “ism” you are guilty of at that very moment. You are not allowed to fault others for being biased or privileged until you have first identified and examined your own biases and privileges.
2.  If I catch you this semester using the words “fair,” “diversity,” or “equality,” or a variation on those terms, and you do not stop immediately to explain what you mean, you will lose your privilege to express any further opinions in class until you first demonstrate that you understand three things about the view that you are criticizing.
3.  If you ever begin a statement with the words “I feel,” before continuing you must cluck like a chicken or make some other suitable animal sound.
 Our envoi must necessarily be the Symphony No, 83 in G minor, nicknamed "The Hen" (because of the second theme in the first movement) by Joseph Haydn. The performers are The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, dir. Sigiswald Kuijken:


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Salzburg: 2018 Season

The programs and artists are now online for next summer's Salzburg Festival. Just the list of performers goes on for pages and pages:

All my favorite pianists will be there: Grigory Sokolov for the eighth consecutive year playing Haydn sonatas (yes!), Igor Levit, brilliant up and comer doing Wagner, Liszt and Beethoven, and Khatia Buniatishvili, who to my mind is winning the "sexiest pianist" battle with Yuja Wang, doing Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Liszt.

The last time I was in Salzburg, as a student in Pepe Romero's master class in 1988, they had a terrific roster of performers and repertoire. Lutosławski was there conducting a premiere (forget which), Jessye Norman gave a recital, Stockhausen brought his ensemble from Köln for seven concerts of his chamber music, Alfred Brendel did all the Schubert piano sonatas, the Alban Berg quartet did all the Beethoven string quartets and so on. I managed to find time to attend a few of these.

But looking over next summer's offerings I find myself asking, who won't be there? In addition to the pianists I mentioned above there will also be recitals by Maurizio Pollini, Arcadi Volodos, Evgeny Kissin, two by András Schiff (the Well-Tempered Klavier, Books 1 and 2 respectively), and Daniil Trifonov. Any other festival with this wealth of artists? My favorite conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen will be conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, who will also be conducted by Andris Nelsons, Riccardo Muti, Herbert Blomstedt and Franz Welser-Möst.

Speaking of orchestras, there will also be concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic, the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, the Vienna Radio Orchestra (I have to see that one: the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Shostakovich Symphony 10), the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester. By my count that's seven orchestras. In 1988 I think there were only five. In either case, if you get on a bus, you have to fight your way past cello cases. Ah, Salzburg, city of one movie theater and twelve concert halls.

As for big series, Teodor Currentzis is conducting all the Beethoven symphonies, there is a special series of concerts devoted to the music of Galina Ustvolskaya (student of Shostakovich), and there are five matinee concerts devoted to Mozart. Lots of other stuff as well. I think it will take me about a week to figure out what concerts to attend! One I know for sure is Sokolov on August 8. It's in the Grosses Festspielhaus and tickets run from ten euros to one hundred and fifteen euros.

If any of my readers are also planning on attending, let''s meet for a weißbräu after a concert!


Saturday, November 11, 2017

And the winner is...

This will likely be the last in my series of posts on science fiction in film and television. As of now, my favorite science fiction tv series is, wait for it, Stargate SG-1! And believe me, I am as surprised as anyone to see myself writing that. I quite liked the film with James Spader and Kurt Russell on which the series (and its spinoffs) is based, but the first time I saw an episode of the tv show I was seriously under-impressed. It seemed to me to be a simplistic, stereotypical action series. However, it has slowly won me over.

Let's start with the lead character, Colonel (later General) Jack O'Neill ("two ls"). The actor, Richard Dean Anderson, was previously the star of another action series shot in Vancouver (for the later seasons), McGyver, O'Neill is an Everyman. He likes beer, fishing (preferably with no fish in the pond) and The Simpsons. He is a very savvy guy, but makes no pretense to being an intellectual. He leaves that up to his second-in-command Captain (later Major, later Colonel) Samantha Carter, the brilliant scientist who comes up with a lot of solutions (and has a very cute smile). Anything she can't figure out usually the civilian member of the team, Daniel Jackson, archaeologist and linguist, can. The final member is a humanoid alien, Teal'c, the muscle.

This show went for ten (10!) seasons with two spinoffs: Stargate Atlantis (which I haven't seen, but I have it on order, it went for five seasons) and SGU: Stargate Universe, which went for two seasons. So, as sf franchises go, second only to Star Trek.

Here is what I enjoy about Stargate: the original premise is good. The idea of a "stargate," a kind of portal that can connect far distant points in the universe, solving the problem of interstellar travel, has been used before. I recall it making an appearance in books by Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein and others in the 50s and the "wormhole" idea was also used in Farscape and other places. But in the movie and tv series, it was connected to the idea of alien influence on ancient Earth civilizations. The Egyptian pyramids are actually landing pads for giant alien spaceships and the stargate itself was discovered buried in Giza. What this does to the narrative is add a great deal of historical texture.

Frankly the weak point in a lot of science fiction is the thinness and shallowness of most created future worlds. If they are not an implausible dystopia they are an equally implausible utopia. In both cases the worlds simply lack depth. The premise of Stargate allows them to constantly reference and bring in elements from ancient Earth civilizations which adds a huge dimension to the created universe. Sure, sometimes it results in silliness, as when Daniel relates some alien language to medieval Latin (really, Daniel?), but for the most part it adds a great deal, especially visually, to the show.

Other things that are enjoyable in the show are the characters. The good guys are actually pretty good. There is a strong moral core to Colonel O'Neill and his team and their immediate superior, General Hammond for the early seasons, is also a strong moral figure. Bureaucrats are often evil bastards, which is always nice and the bad guys, such as the Goa'uld, are satisfyingly evil in an over-the-top way, as Col. O'Neill is often pointing out. They are also overdressed, like a bad music video.

The basic message of the show is that freedom is good and tyranny is bad and I find it hard to disagree. Tyranny can come from being controlled from within by a horrible parasite wrapped around your brain (and doesn't that remind you of post-modern ideology?) or it can come from the Ori, an intergalactic religious cult that will exterminate you if you don't bow down to their every command.

Over such a long span, characters, even lead ones, disappear and are replaced. In later seasons Anderson is replaced by Ben Browder from Farscape and a new character is introduced, Vala Mal Doran, played by Claudia Black, also from Farscape.

I haven't seen the Atlantis spinoff, but I have watched SGU: Stargate Universe. It starts well, but for some reason never quite settles down. It is characterized by extreme tensions between the characters, and is morally more ambiguous than the original. Perhaps the basic problem is that I find it hard to like either of the two main characters, Nicolas Rush, the brilliant, though Machiavellian Scottish scientist and Everett Young, described as a young Jack O'Neill, but in reality a very different kind of character. He is conflicted, compromised and constantly wrestling with internal politics. Jack would have just said "over my rotting corpse, sir!" The show tries for some profound truths and discoveries, but doesn't quite manage to bring it off.

The nice thing about the original Stargate SG-1 series is that it never tries to be more than an entertaining science fiction adventure. And hey, it does it pretty well. Also, the lead character, Jack O'Neill is a pretty good comic actor. One of the funniest episodes involves the Groundhog Day-like looping of the same events over and over, to comic effect:


I think the bottom line is that this is one of the very few sf series that is entirely unpretentious.

UPDATE: Ok, that was not the clip I wanted, so I put in a different one. There don't seem to be any very good collections of funny moments from Stargate, so you should probably just watch the whole series. Honestly, it is worth it just to see O'Neill eating Froot Loops at the beginning of each loop in the "Window of Opportunity" episode.

Future Interruptus: Firefly

Until he went tentpole Hollywood by getting hired to direct mammoth-budget cartoons like The Avengers, Joss Whedon was my favorite media creator. Decades ago I had my three favorite film directors, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick and Peter Weir and that was it. I knew where to go for narrative brilliance. But then everything changed: cinema got less interesting as it turned more and more to weird little dysfunctional independents and two dimensional blockbusters. And surprisingly, television, with Homicide: Life on the Street, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men, True Blood, Rome, Game of Thrones and a host of others, actually got to be interesting. Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel were for a long time my favorite tv series. I even presented a couple of scholarly papers on them at a conference at the University of Huddersfield in the UK several years ago.

It was at that conference that I first heard about his canceled science fiction series, Firefly, so when I got back home I ordered the dvds. Wow, what a great, great show. In my books it, along with the motion picture sequel, Serenity, is pretty much the best science fiction ever filmed. Great cast of characters, great fusion of the western and sf genres, great stories, great writing, great humor and most of all, it was really original. Plus, no aliens with funny noses, no spaceships going whoosh in vacuum, and a fascinatingly plausible future with a lot of people swearing in Mandarin! Joss even wrote the theme song:


Firefly had some of the scariest bad guys ever, the Reavers:


And that little description of what will happen if the Reavers board the ship has to be some of the scariest dialogue ever. But Firefly was also one of the funniest series as well. This collection of favorite quotes gives you a taste:


Given Joss Whedon's standard Hollywood liberalism, the libertarian slant of Firefly was odd, but refreshing. As an example of Whedon's brilliant dark humor, I offer the torture scene from "War Stories" in which Mal and Wash are tied to a steel frame and tortured with electricity. Funniest torture scene ever (starts around 22:00 in this clip):


But the brilliance of the complex creative vision was compromised by the idiocy of the Fox executives in charge (may they contract many painful and wasting diseases) and not only did they refuse to air the carefully constructed pilot episode, insisting that Whedon come up with a replacement script over the weekend, but they did not show the episodes in order. As a final insult, they canceled the show halfway through the first and only season. What remains, thirteen episodes, is a bleeding torso of what might have been a spectacular series. In those thirteen episodes there are many hints at future developments. For example, it is obvious in the pilot that Inara Serra, the Companion or "geisha," and Shepherd Book know one another from before, but how and where is never revealed in the episodes we have. Fan outrage and dvd sales led Universal to fund a movie sequel, Serenity, but it was not well-attended so that ended the franchise. What a pity! In Serenity we see another libertarian theme plausibly explored: in the future government will seek ways, through the mass administration of drugs, to make the populace more amenable. I won't say what happens, but it does not end well. You might think this is pure fantasy, but at a cocktail party in Montreal many years ago I met two guys who were actually working on something similar. After I grasped what they were getting at I said: "Well, if you are coming to administer something like that to me, bring lots of guys with lots of guns." They literally backed away slowly!

Firefly would, had it been allowed to have a few seasons, have been by far my favorite sf tv show. But the enjoyment is always compromised a bit by the lost possibilities...

Oh, and Firefly also has great music! Go watch it. Now. At the moment, the double-length pilot episode seems to be on YouTube, so you can start there:


I'll be in my bunk.