Thursday, February 08, 2007


Geoff Emerick speaks!

Over at Netscape, I just posted my interview with studio wizard and former Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. His memoir, Here, There and Everywhere, is a pure delight, easily transcending the nostalgia angle and telling us all sort of interesting things about art, fame, technology, and exactly how Ringo got that thundering drum sound on "Tomorrow Never Knows." With the paperback release of the book just a week or so away, he was kind enough to sit down for an extended telephonic chat. Here's one of my favorite bits:
Netscape: Is there one Beatles track that stands out in particular for you?

Emerick: Well, there's a couple. "Tomorrow Never Knows," of course, because it was the first track I ever engineered for them. But I'd have to say "A Day in the Life." The shivers ran down our backs the first time we heard John singing it, with that echo in his cans [headphones]. He used to like recording that way. He didn't like the sound of his voice straight. I don't know why.

Netscape: I've read that before, and always found it incredibly ironic.

Emerick: That was John. Anyway, the night we dubbed in the orchestra on "A Day in the Life," there was a kind of party in the studio. I set up a rough monitor mix to play for everybody, and Ron Richards, who was the producer for the Hollies, was in the control room. When I played back the rough mix, Ron just put his head in his hands. And he was serious. There was silence after we finished playing it back.

Netscape: Because the impact was so overwhelming?

Emerick: Right. It was like you were watching a black-and-white film, and suddenly there was color and Cinemascope. The feeling in that control room was just amazing. Nobody had ever heard anything like it in their lives.
Again, click here to read the entire interview.

Monday, February 05, 2007


Monkey see, monkey do

I always like to see translators getting their moment in the limelight (rather then perpetually hunching down in the prompter's box). So here's a conversation with Tran Thien Dao, who's translated Voltaire, George Sand, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Thomas Mann, Miguel Angel Asturias, Richard Wright, Marcel Proust, and approximately one million other writers into Vietnamese. I was particularly struck by this comparison:
I’ve always believed translators are like monkeys. When an author raises his or her hand, the monkey must mirror the action, also raising its hand. Translators must interpret the exact meaning of what the author wrote and respect the author’s literary style. If a translator makes a boring work interesting in his or her translation, then he or she has betrayed the author. If the author writes incoherently, the translator must stay true to the text. One must keep in mind that you should never translate a piece word by word, or you’ll lose the writing’s context.
Monkeys are better paid, of course. But having spent the last four months raising my hand, I'll admit that Dao has a point.


Shawn etc

Yesterday Newsday ran my review of Allen Shawn's Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life. The author's explication of phobia as a neurological phenomenon is mostly interesting but sometimes dutiful and a little dull. What saves the day are his intermingled memories of his family. Growing up at the elbow of editorial wizard and control freak William Shawn would have left its neurotic impress on almost any child. (The benign monarch of the New Yorker hated to leave the city and "looked surprised and vulnerable standing on grass and not on pavement. I believe that he found even the sight of mountains and forests somewhat disturbing.") Yet Shawn never indulges in Freudian finger-pointing--he writes about his family with affection and winning delicacy. I began this way:
To fear is human. Even the healthiest mind is marbled with anxieties. And even the great conquerors, having sunk a fleet or put another city to the torch, will inevitably tremble in the privacy of their tents: as it happens, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon were all frightened of cats. Yet there is fear--and there is phobia.

Allen Shawn, a composer and the author of a previous study of the composer Arnold Schoenberg, would be the first to recognize this distinction. In the opening pages of Wish I Could Be There, he's engagingly frank about his phobias, which are so numerous and overlapping as to constitute a kind of neurological obstacle course.
You can read the rest here. Meanwhile, I also picked up Shawn's Arnold Schoenberg's Journey, wondering about the relationship between the two books. Yes, ladies and germs, Schoenberg had his phobic cross to bear: he was spooked by "the number thirteen (triskaidekaphobia), [and] regularly made mistakes in his musical scores when he came to the thirteenth page or thirteenth measure." Isn't there something poignant about the great progenitor of twelve-tone theory abhorring the number thirteen? I think so. Yet the figure who emerges from this beguiling little book is fearless--at least in the realm of art. Mahler and even Wagner had often strayed beyond the boundaries of the diatonic reservation. Schoenberg ditched them entirely. For this he suffered. Shawn quotes a vivid statement that composer made in 1947:
"Personally I had the feeling as if I had fallen into an ocean of boiling water, and not knowing how to swim or get out in another manner, I tried with my legs and arms as best I could. I did not know what saved me; why I was not drowned or cooked alive. I have perhaps only one merit: I never gave up. But how could I give up in the middle of an ocean?"
A boiling ocean--not good. Yet Schoenberg has always been thrashing or dog-paddling his way through something even more forbidding: his reputation. This is what Shawn means to rescue him from. He wants us to hear the warmth and intricacy of Schoenberg's music, its all-too-human register of sadness, joy, bewilderment. And for me, anyway, he succeeds, since I went right back Verklärte Nacht (the Sony release by the Juilliard String Quartet with Walter Trampler and Yo-Yo Ma) and the piano pieces recorded for Naxos by Peter Hill. These are earlier pieces, of course. Schoenberg is still puttering along on diatonic training wheels, at least in the string sextet, but the music is absolutely magical. When Randall Jarrell sent his wife-to-be a copy in 1951, he wrote: "I am about to mail you some Moonlight marked Fragile."

I suppose you could apply the same phrase to Six Little Piano Pieces, which Shawn discusses in his introduction. The author first tackled the tiny suite at age 13, egged on by his piano teacher Frances Dillon. "This attractively thin album of miniatures seemed to contain a special, intimate, and yet strangely familiar world," he writes. "As in a Japanese rock garden, the pieces altered one's conventional sense of scale in a way that made each musical moment in them appear huge." These quizzical and elusive pieces go by in a flash. Peter Hill, for example, dispatches all six in 5:49. Yet they never sound rushed, and the lengthiest piece--the last, clocking in at an expansive 1:39--feels much, much longer. Time stands still, or at least jiggles quietly on one foot.

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