January 17, 2010

Falling stars

There's nothing like a good book, and one of the fun parts of reading is looking up words on my Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary. We used to use the huge blue books during or English lessons at school. I can just see some of our English teachers right now: a Santa Claus look-alike who once got a student's pencil stuck in his beard and turned red, our bald teacher who year after year shoved American literature down our throats ("This term, we're going to discuss the American dream in literature!" - groans from the whole class: "AGAIN?") and a our red-haired favourite who used to answer almost all questions with the words "shut up" or "go to hell". Anyway, where was I?

The books I have been reading lately have been rich in language, making me consult my dictionary on words such as augury, prurient, trowel and stentorian. The trouble is, what to do when I can't lug the thing along all day? Opposed to the delights of broadening my vocabulary, there's nothing as annoying as finding a misprint in the book you're reading. I don't know about you, but I get the creeps reading a sentence like "they scurried up the gnagway like mice" or "on the way to met his deadly enemy Kashat he strode out so fast and vigorously that his son and the other two men had difficulty keeping up with him." Some people shy away from books that are thicker than their 2 cm, but I enjoy a book with so many characters they have to be somehow summarised first - so that, before the novel even begins, the reader is presented with labyrinthine family trees. One of the books I read a while ago actually had a misprint in the family tree itself, making it very confusing for me to figure out how one of the protagonists could have been born in 1935 when his parents began talking about having children only four years later. It took a couple of hundred pages for me to define the correct date of birth (1940) and correct it with one angry scribble.

I might require absolute concentration with a book, but watching a movie while doing something else isn't too big of a challenge. Just yesterday I spent most of the duration of the fantastic movie Avatar fumbling with my 3D-glasses and trying to sort out the black candy from the colourful candy by holding them up towards the lit screen. And right now, I'm actually watching The Painted Veil on television (it has a slow plot). A cup of tea I'm about to have will probably make me sleepless for a few more hours, but then I can enjoy the relaxed weekend moments a little longer. Starting tomorrow, it'll be back to work with a pile of music to study: Bruckner's E minor mass for choral conducting on Wednesday and Thursday and more Beethoven for the Tampere Philharmonic Choir. There'll also be preparation work to do for Kaamos and SOL, and of course the Slovenian Chamber Choir's program for the concert in March has also been neglected for too long - Schumann, Rautavaara, Poulenc... the list goes on and on.

It's interesting how so many composers seem to have been obsessed by stars. One of the songs in the Slovenian program is Schumann's "An die Sterne" ("To the stars"), in which the poet wonders whether the stars we see are familiar with the feelings we experience on our planet: joy and passion, sorrow and pain. Taneyev's beautiful setting "Stars" to the text of Polonsky reflects on how stars signify rebirth and, at the same time, death. I recently read the biography of the Finnish composer Toivo Kuula, and it turns out he spent a fortune on a huge telescope to watch the stars. As many sopranos have found out, Beethoven took the melodies of his choral compositions to their highest possible point so as to create a symbol for the heavens and, of course, stars. In Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's chilling novel "One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich", one of the convicts talks about his belief that stars are born when the old moon is broken every night. New stars are needed, because "Stars fall every now and then and the holes have to be filled up".

That's a nice way to look at it.


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