A Christmas tree on a university campus in Tainan, decorated with students' handwritten wishes for each other.

From the isle Formosa, Merry Christmas.


Tainan University of Technology
Tainan, Taiwan

2006 December
© Alton Thompson

Putting Saturn back in the Saturnalia

Two Christmas seasons exist. One is the Christian religious season, observed in the western European liturgical calendar for twelve days between December 25 to January 5. It is preceded by the season of Advent, traditionally a period devoted to quiet activities and inner reflection. The other Christmas season is a secular holiday. This holiday corresponds with a merchants' marketing season that builds in a frenzied crescendo across a span of roughly two months to end in a flurry on the evening of December 24.

Every year one observes the citizens of Western countries working through some tensions that exist between the two. Observant Christians often express the desire to get their holy day back and complain of the 'Christ being taken out of Christmas.' When I lived in the States I regularly encountered articles in which someone endeavoured to explain the 'original' Christian meanings of holiday symbols such as the wreath, the evergreen, the holly and the mistletoe. Meanwhile, the nature of a pluralistic society makes it polite to acknowledge that not everybody observes the hooiday in a religious sense. It remains a time for friends and fun anyway, and it is always in order to wish others well. For this holiday the more secular images, being more inclusive, dominate. As always, the most inclusive people of all are the merchants, who welcome the business of all comers.

However one observes the holiday, if indeed one does at all, the fact remains that the original meaning of the holiday is pre-Christian and its symbols traditions in a variety of ways. Many good sources of information exist. For an informative thumbnail sketch on the web, check out John Steele Gordon's essay in the latest Wall Street Journal.

My friends in other parts of the world often ask about how Christmas is celebrated in east Asia. In Taiwan our cultural equivalent is really the Lunar New Year that we celebrate, depending on the moon phases, somewhere between mid-January and late February. That's when shops close and families feast and children get presents. This holiday entails the largest movement of people in the world.

Christmas is a fun but relatively minor holiday. It is a harbinger for the new year season here and gets people in a festive mood. We don't get off work, but it's a great excuse to slap on a Santa hat and gather with friends at a restaurant or karaoke place (called KTV here) and enjoy yourself.

Concerts devoted to Christmas music in Taiwan are usually charity benefits sponsored by Christian organizations. Performances of Handel's Messiah often fall into this category. Most concerts in December, though, are normal concerts. We hear all kinds of music; the holiday doesn't have the same effect on programming as elsewhere. Taiwanese people enjoy their touches of whimsy, though, so for a concert on December 24 or 25 performers often evoke the spirit of the season in some way: performers wearing Santa hats, ushers wearing reindeer antlers.

Christmas in Taiwan is just festive enough. You can have fun without drowning in it.

(For drowning, we have Lunar New Year!)



Everything's Great

Photo: Everything's Great
Tainan University of Technology
Tainan, Taiwan
2006 December
© Alton Thompson



Unnecessary Provocation

We think that Taiwan's referendum to apply to the United Nations under the name 'Taiwan' is a provocative policy. It unnecessarily raises tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and it promises no real benefits for the people of Taiwan on the international stage.

Condaleeza Rice
US Secretary of State

Dear Secretary Rice:

Like many Americans living in Taiwan I think your recent statement is a provocative action. It unnecessarily raises tensions between the democratic ideals we cherish and the policies of your administration. The statement promises no real benefits on the international stage for the people of America, Taiwan, or even China.

The moment was not worthy of you, Ms Rice. History has recorded your name already as a crucial player in the advancement of democracy. You were your country's Russia expert during the fall of the Soviet empire. The people of central and eastern Europe did not achieve democracy in those years because America sent mixed messages. Your motto then was peace through strength, not status quo.

Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.

Ronald Reagan

Compromise is inevitable in day-to-day governing. But it becomes betrayal when it gives away too much. Your statement, a payoff to Beijing after its help with North Korea, does just that. To say Taiwan's referendum is not helpful to you, to say you don't support the move, is one thing. To say you oppose Taiwan holding one is another. It gives away too much.

China's abusive leadership needs to understand that your country's commitment to democracy is not a chip to be traded. It needs to understand that the rights of free people, in Taiwan or elsewhere, are not the property of others to trade.

Please inform your counterparts in Beijing that they will have to collect America's IOUs with different currency.


Photo: Banner at Taipei Main Station
Taipei, Taiwan
2007 October

© Alton Thompson



Polish-German Border Dissolves

Nicholas Kulish reports in The International Herald Tribune on a quiet but historically remarkable development due to take place just a few hours from now.

As of midnight Thursday the once contentious border between Poland and Germany will be thrown open. For the most part, it has been more whimper than bang for the fall of one of the most historically fraught and violently fought over frontiers on earth.

Traveling along the 450-odd kilometers, or about 280 miles, of the border - from the German town of Zittau in the south, where the German and Polish dividing line ends at the border of the Czech Republic, to the Polish port city of Szczecin in the north - what is most striking is the relative indifference along the way to the change.

For centuries Poland was Europe's marching ground - when it was not dismembered and wiped off the map entirely by some combination of Germany, Austria and Russia. The Kingdom of Poland battled the Teutonic Knights as far back as the Middle Ages and memories of Hitler's Blitzkrieg storming into the country in September 1939 are still alive in the minds of the elderly and the imaginations of the young.

Once Hitler's army was defeated, millions of Germans were forced out of major cities now in Polish territory, like Breslau, now known as Wroclaw. Cities along the rivers Neisse and Oder that form most of the border became divided towns like Frankfurt-Slubice or Görlitz-Zgorzelec.

That the peaceful dismantling of border posts is largely a ceremonial nonevent testifies to the quiet success of the often-criticized project of European integration.

The report goes on to examine some of the challenges that remain. But they are the normal challenges: linguistic, economic, practical. (More here from the BBC.)

I was impressed during my own travels in Poland with the horrors that beautiful area of the world has endured. It seemed that every locale, no matter how urban or wooded, idyllic or bustling, is the scene of a past massacre. Poland's geographical placement seems to have guaranteed as much: at the crossroads of traditionally imperial powers.

Now, as Europe's peoples continue to join in common purpose, comes this almost unnoticed closing of the book. Here's wishing peaceful days ahead for both sides.


Taipei PM

©2007 Alton Thompson
Taipei, Taiwan


How China Builds the Firewall

At the top of the news today is the crackdown on another blogger in China for disagreeing with his government. I highly recommend taking a look at the interactive feature CNN appends to the story: 'How China Controls the Internet.'

The CNN feature puts you in the shoes of a person trying to navigate the Net behind the Great Firewall. China's people have no privacy rights. They must register to use the Net, providing the government with their names and passwords. Their activity on the Net is monitored. Businesses providing Internet service are required to keep records of all that goes on.

The technology for blocking and filtering sites is provided by firms like Yahoo and Google China and, more than any other, Cisco.

What is China's government afraid of? A look at a few of the taboo subjects tells a great deal.

Here's a short list of keywords that will trigger the filtering system and block access to content:

  • Revolution
  • Equality
  • Freedom
  • Justice
  • Taiwan
  • Tibet
  • Falun Gong
  • Dissident
  • Democracy
  • STD
  • Human rights

  • If you have participated in Internet forums and chat rooms where some participants are from China, you have likely noticed the surreal reaction you get whenever a subject comes up that remotely questions whether China's leaders always knows best. The Chinese participants will quickly declare their loyalty to the party line and insist that the subject be dropped. They shame others for bringing up the subject at all and declare their unwillingness to continue further. If the conversation proceeds anyway, they disappear.

    Those who are naive about the oppression that exists in China find these reactions surprising, disproportionate and baffling. They often misinterpret it as the expression of a passionately held belief on the part of the individual. This is, of course, a matter of habit. It's the way we normally register such reactions in democratic societies, where the right of all participants to express their feelings openly is a given. So it strikes them as amazing that Chinese friends should 'feel so strongly about' this or that subject.

    What their Chinese friends feel strongly about, though, is not the banter; it is about keeping themselves and their families alive, out of prison, and employed. On any subject where their government has staked a position there is only position they may take. To say anything different, to even treat the question as open, is to open oneself to the charge of subversion. And that government has staked a position on a vast array of subjects, including how many children to have.

    You see the phenomenon occur frequently on networking arenas such as Flickr. I have seen the reaction occur with subjects as innocuous as whether it is practical, in a keyboard texting age, to continue using simplified Chinese characters. No sooner is the question raised than Chinese participants declare the subject inappropriate and say they will leave the discussion if it continues.

    Not a political issue, you say? China's Communist Party has already ruled on the matter. Simplified characters appear on all the street signs because that is the choice the government ruled to be best. Nothing exists now for a Chinese person to discuss. To act as if options still existed, even to sit idly by as other opinions are expressed, is to take risks the discussion is hardly worth.

    Announcing their intention to boycott a conversation serves another practical purpose. The Chinese participants in Internet discussion know (even though their foreign friends often do not) that the discussion will soon end for them anyway. Their Internet content is filtered. The comments you and others make on a subject, even the thread in which those comments appear, are destined to disappear soon from their screens. It was accident that they saw it at all. They know that, unremarkable as the discussion seems to you, their government intends to deny them access to it. The safest thing they can do is go on record as supporting the Party line before the curtain falls, as it will, on the whole subject.

    Why don't they tell you that they can't continue the conversation simply because it puts them in a bad situation and is certain to be filtered? They don't tell you because their government's filtering of the Internet is itself another taboo subject. Big Brother knows it makes Big Brother look bad when Chinese citizens tell their international friends how much he watches.

    It is thus naive to assume, when Chinese colleagues quit an Internet discussion, that you have 'caused offence.' Your friends in China have far more urgent concerns than your humble opinion. They are performing for the camera. The authorities are always watching. They are giving the only show those authorities care to see.

    All in all, it's a sobering situation as we head into the year of the Beijing Olympics. China was only awarded the games, after all, because its government pledged to make significant progress by 2008 on human rights.



    Music by Ma Shui-long

    The music of Ma Shui-long will be featured in three concerts by the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra, according to a report by Taiwan's Central News Agency. The concert dates and locales:

    December 15 Saturday 19:30
    Kaohsiung Cultural Center

    December 16 Sunday 19:30
    NTSO Recital Hall
    Wufeng Township, Taichung County

    December 17 Monday 19:30
    National Concert Hall
    Taipei, Taiwan

    Works by Ma to be featured in these concerts:

    Liao Tian-ding Suite

    For zheng (also called the guzheng), a traditional Chinese zither.

    The Invisible Temple of God
    For orchestra and male chorus.
    The work's 'Jade Mountain theme' draws on the music of Taiwan's Tsou and Bunun peoples.



    Olivier Messiaen

    Ninety-nine years ago today Olivier Messiaen drew his first breath in Avignon, France. We remember his birth today because of his signal achievements as a composer and organist. Expect to hear more of this composer's works in the concert hall in the coming months as we approach the centenary of his birth.

    Messiaen (1908-1992) is perhaps best known for his Quartet for the End of Time, composed during his imprisonment in a Nazi camp during the Second World War. The instrumentation was dictated to him by the availability of instrument at the camp. The piece displays the hallmarks of the composer's style: a mystical outlook, octatonic scales, and evocations of birdsong. Other landmark works in his oeuvre include Visions of the Amen, Turangalîla Symphony, and the opera Francis of Assisi. His style profoundly influenced subsequent generations of composers, including Boulez, Xenakis, Stockhausen and Gubaidulina.

    Those seeking an introduction to the composer and a guide to recordings will be well served by a visit to the BBC Olivier Messiaen Music Profile. It never hurts to drop in on Answers.com, of course. This omnibus reference site draws upon a number of resources, including Britannica and Wikipedia. The blog by Alex Ross of The New Yorker offers fascinating discussions of the Quartet and Saint Francis in particular. An international Messiaen conference will be hosted this summer (June 20-24) by the Birmingham Conservatoire. The Boston University Messiaen Project recently updated its web site. Among the many resources offered by the Project is a performance calendar listing significant events worldwide leading up to the big anniversary.

    Appréciez votre voyage.


    Liberty Square

    The sky opens over the main gate of Taiwan's newly christened Liberty Square (自由廣場) yesterday, on the eve of International Human Rights Day.

    Viewers familiar with the appearance of this landmark will notice that the new characters display a different calligraphy style than those they replace. Though still traditional, the style of the present characters is more open and looks more obviously like brushwork. In a departure from ancient Chinese tradition, but in keeping with current practice in Taiwan, the title is read left to right.

    The commemorative hall opposite the square is due to acquire a plaque this morning proclaiming its rededication as Democracy Hall. After that the barricades will be removed and crowds admitted.

    The opening of the square and the hall today coincide with the dedication of Jingmei Human Rights Park on the site of a former military detention center.

    Happy Human Rights Day.


    Photos by Alton Thompson
    Taipei, Taiwan 2007
    December 9
    All rights reserved.



    Transition in Taipei

    The times they are a-changin.

    The site originally dedicated to Chiang Kai-shek by his Kuomintang successors is being rededicated to the ideals of democracy. In the years following the Generalissimo's death in 1978 the site bearing his name became the scene of numerous demonstrations calling for reform. The most notable of these, the Wild Lily student movement of 1990, led to Taiwan's first island-wide popular elections. Recalling these events, Taiwan's national government recently designated the square, the hall and the surrounding gardens historical landmarks and rededicated them to the island's peaceful achievement of democracy.

    The original Chinese characters over the entrance archway recalled Taiwan's late dictator in words fit for a Chinese emperor: dazhong zhizheng (大中至正) . Yesterday workers took down the characters. When the last one came off the wall at 5:26 pm the crowd cheered. Cries went up: 'Taiwan ten thousand years!' 'Long live democracy!'

    New characters designating the landmark as Liberty Square (自由廣場) are due to be mounted today.

    A crowd of several hundred looked on, took pictures, and shared stories about life under Chiang Kai-shek and the developments since. There were songs as well. One knot of protesters waved ROC flags and sang 'Remember Chiang Kai-shek' repeatedly throughout the day. The Chinese-language anthem, once taught in schools, declares the singer's loyalty to the Generalissimo's goals of 'opposing Communists' and 'retaking the mainland.' Another small group, supporting the change, broke out singing 'Taiwan the Formosa' as the last character dropped from the wall. This Taiwanese-language hymn praises an island 'once subdued under foreign rule, now free at last to be its own.'

    The Taipei Times reports that in the next week the plaque designating the monument across the square as 'Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall' (中正紀念堂) will also be removed. A new plaque will be put in place bearing the characters minzhu jinianguan (民主紀念館): 'Democracy Hall.'


    Photos by Alton Thompson
    Taipei, Taiwan 2007
    December 7
    All rights reserved.


    Stockhausen 1928-2007

    The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen died on December 5th at at the age of of 79 in his home in Kuerten-Kettenberg, according to worldwide published reports. The news was announced on the official Stockhausen web site by Suzanne Stephens and Kathinka Pasveer, longtime companions of the composer who often performed his compositions.

    David Ward of the Guardian Unlimited UK describes the mystically-minded Stockhausen as 'a composer who never courted popularity or convention and in his later years continued to plough a lonely furrow.' He reports:
    Prolific, whether in fashion or out of it, he composed 362 works, including the world's longest opera, Licht [Light], a sequence of seven pieces, one for every day of the week. The work lasts 29 hours. . . .

    Born in 1928 in a village near Cologne, he trained with the Swiss composer Frank Martin before making one of the key decisions of his life: he headed to Paris in 1952 to study with Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud.

    Works hailed by enthusiasts (among them the Beatles, who included him on the cover of the Sergeant Pepper album) as masterpieces included Gruppen (1955-57). The work is written for 109 players divided into three groups laid out before and to either side of the audience.

    Stimmung, his 70-minute piece for six voices, was said by Paul Hillier - whose new recording of it was released last month - to have "completely refashioned the very idea of what a vocal ensemble might do and be".

    Reviewing the disc, Guardian music critic Andrew Clements described the work as "a vast elaboration of a single six-note chord based on the overtones of the note B flat" and added: "Stimmung is one of the masterpieces of the last half century. Like all the greatest music it is unclassifiable - part meditation, part gigantic motet, part phonetic game - and totally resistant to imitation".

    Ivan Hewitt in the Telegraph admits the difficulty facing anyone wishing to take stock of Stockhausen.

    Few composers in history have attracted such furious controversy as Karlheinz Stockhausen, the composer who claimed to be descended from astral beings and described composition as "listening to the vibrations of the universe".

    Some say he was just a high-class charlatan, his grandiose visions indulged by the generous German subsidy system and protected from the world by a bevy of ministering women and starry-eyed followers. Others say that he was the really the best of that great generation of composers who were born in the 20s and moulded by the traumatic experiences of war.

    Hewitt regards each view as too extreme. He describes the composer's 'great period' as ranging 'roughly from the mid-1950s to the mid-70s.' The compositions dating from this period display 'one great radical leap after another', says Hewitt, and showed a new generation of composers that anything was possible.

    Like his great contemporary Pierre Boulez, Stockhausen was inspired by the 12-note method created by the great Austrian/Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, and wanted to take it further. But unlike Boulez, his vision of music was essentially mystical. "May God help me to find the true path", he once wrote.

    Stockhausen viewed serialism as a 'democratic' way of making music that acknowledged 'relativity' in the universe. Ward notes that 'the world moved on but Stockhausen refused to have anything to do with minimalists and postmodernists. And they chose to have nothing to do with him. '



    Nikolaus Harnoncourt

    Art is not a nice extra – it is the umbilical cord which connects us to the Divine, it guarantees our being human.

    - Nikolaus Harnoncourt

    Today marks the birthday of a remarkable cellist and conductor. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, born in Berlin and raised in Graz, began his career as a student and orchestral cellist in Vienna. He and his wife Alice grew increasingly interested in performing of Renaissance and baroque repertoire using the instruments and performance practices of the period. They founded the Concentus Musicus Wien ensemble in 1953 to explore the possibilities. Harnoncourt began collecting antique instruments and writing articles on the ideal of 'Music as Rhetoric' commonly encountered in the writings of seventeenth and eighteenth-century theorists.

    And the rest, as they say, is history. In the 1980s Harnoncourt's pioneering approach to music of the past became the norm. He has been widely sought after as a conductor of opera and symphonies. Today he is renowned for performances of daring originality and perceptive musicality. His interpretations combine heart and mind in a way that identify him as a true servant of his art.



    DG Downloads

    Deutsche Grammophon has launched a new web site featuring DRM-free downloads of classical music. The imposing DG catalogue makes this development an exciting one for music lovers. Gramophone magazine reports that DG will make around 2,500 releases available in MP3 format encoded at 320 kbps. This includes hundreds of releases that are already unavailable in CD format or on other web sites.

    The site serves a number of countries (such as Taiwan) that are not served by iTunes. Customers can buy single tracks at the DG shop as well as complete albums. Downloading purchased files into iTunes is accomplished by easy drag-and-drop into the iTunes jukebox. And in one of those thoughtful 'Why didn't anyone do this before?' moves, DG provides liner notes for each release in PDF format.

    UK music lovers will also want to investigate the Universal Classics and Jazz store.



    Night Life

    Photos ©2007 Alton Thompson
    Taipei, Taiwan



    Taiwan Culture Portal

    A vibrant new Internet portal has opened that provides English speakers with information on Taiwan culture. You will want to save a bookmark in your browser for Culture.tw. The portal offers information about arts events, performances and music festivals as well as photography and feature articles. A generous supply of links takes you to artists' communities, orchestras, museums, festival hubs, and individual artists.

    The site won support from Taiwan's Central News Agency in an open bid process and gains from the resources the CNA brings to the project.

    The portal's chief editor discusses the site with reporter Robert Brownlow in today's Taipei Times:

    Miranda Loney, chief editor of Culture.tw, said that the site was unlike other cultural portals because, in addition to presenting links to local Web sites, it also offers information and articles in a foreign language. "Our site is not just a cultural portal. If we'd have just made a cultural portal it wouldn't have worked," she said. "We had to augment it with lots of English information that wasn't readily available."

    [ . . . . ]

    To be sure, many Taiwan-based English-language Web sites already cover Taiwanese culture, and a few offer a partial multimedia experience. Internet surfers can download podcasts from International Community Radio Taiwan's (ICRT) Web site, for example, or watch videos on the Taiwan News' site. [...]

    But Culture.tw has access to CNA's extensive video and audio production resources and takes the multimedia experience to a new level, with videos, audio files and a well-managed collection of links, in addition to a growing collection of articles and pictures. There are plans to add Web 2.0 functions like blogging and user-generated content as part of a redesign next year. Readership is growing, and the site is already one of the first links that pops up when a person enters search terms like "Taiwan culture" or "Taiwanese art" on Google.

    Culture.tw was conceived three years ago by a group of academics led by Wu Chin-fa (吳錦發), the assistant director of the Council of Cultural Affairs (CCA). Foreigners were enlisted for a focus group to brainstorm ideas for an "English Web portal" (英文入口網站). The CCA then submitted an RFP, or request for proposals, for companies who were interested in running the site. CNA, a news service that derives a portion of its revenue from the Taiwanese government, won the bid.

    The site is run by Loney, an editor at Academia Sinica and former reporter and editor for the culture and arts section of Japan's Asahi Evening News, two editors, a project manager, two Web designers, six systems engineers and four translators. It employs one full-time reporter and has featured articles by 15 paid freelance writers.

    The writers tend to be experts in a particular field, like Taiwanese visual arts or Aboriginal cultures, and Loney said she's always looking for more contributors.

    Two early highlights are articles about Hoklo-language poet Chen Chao-cheng (陳昭誠), a taxi driver who was a victim of the White Terror period, and Tsui Kuang-yu (崔廣宇), a video/performance artist who has shown his work at Tate Liverpool. Readers can listen to Chen read three of his poems in a soulful baritone and watch a video of Tsui rolling bowling balls at pigeons in London.

    "It's very exciting. And everybody loves working for us," Loney said. "Just think that just a few years Taiwanese weren't even allowed to speak their own language. And now we can broadcast it over the Internet for everyone to hear the beauty of their language. It's great, isn't it?"



    Flute on Film

    Here's the English trailer for Kenneth Branagh's film version of The Magic Flute.

    And, though they're still singing in English, this is the trailer being run in France.

    I like the tempos.



    'The Review' Returns

    The Hopkins Review returns this fall after a hiatus of over half a century. Congratulations to everyone at JHU who made this happen.

    Greg Rienzi provides details in the Johns Hopkins Gazette:

    The original Hopkins Review was launched in 1947 by the Writing Seminars, then called the Department of Writing, Speech and Drama. The literary magazine back then was a thin paperback volume that sold for 25 cents a copy. Acclaimed novelist and short-story writer John Barth, a Writing Seminars alumnus and later a JHU faculty member, published his first story in its pages, which also included the works of such celebrated poets as Richard Wilbur and E.E. Cummings.

    The magazine eventually languished due to a lack of funds and a dwindling number of full-time faculty in the department. It folded in 1953.

    The resurrected journal, subtitled New Series, will be a joint venture of the Writing Seminars and the Johns Hopkins University Press. Its inaugural issue, to be released this month, also marks the 60th anniversary of the Writing Seminars, one of the most prestigious creative writing programs in the country.

    [ . . . . ]

    The 190-page quarterly literary magazine will publish fiction; poetry; memoirs; essays on literature, drama, film, the visual arts, music and dance; and reviews of books in all these areas, as well as reviews of performances and exhibits.

    The magazine's editorial board will be senior faculty of the Writing Seminars. Its distinguished list of contributing editors includes Nobel Prize-winner J. M. Coetzee, novelist James Salter, poet John Hollander and critic Harold Bloom.

    [ . . . . ]

    The first issue, Winter 2008, contains fiction by Max Apple, Donald Barthelme, Stephen Dixon and Erin McGraw; poems by Edward Hirsch, John Hollander, Charles Martin, Mary Jo Salter and Richard Wilbur; and essays by John Barth, Karol Berger, Millard Kaufman and Frank Kermode.

    The Spring 2008 issue will include work by Barth, Michael Blumenthal, Claudia Emerson, Richard Howard, Andrew Hudgins, John Dixon Hunt, Brad Leithauser, Padgett Powell, Wyatt Prunty, David Slavitt, David Wyatt and others.

    Copies and subscriptions can be ordered from The Johns Hopkins University Press.

    Congratulations to the publishers for an auspicious new beginning.



    UN for Taiwan

    Huge rallies took place today in Taiwan supporting the island's big to gain the international recognition its people have earned. Taiwan's efforts to gain UN representation have been thwarted by China's veto clout. These bids may soon speak with increased authority that China cannot match: ratification by the island's residents as their express will in a free democratic process.


    Binoche on Acting

    Juliette Binoche discusses the art of acting this week with Neil Smith of the BBC. Some of her observations:

    You have to play the action that is behind the words. It's not the acting, it's the being.

    . . .

    You should never lose track of the purpose of it, which is to make a bridge to the world. The experience of watching a film you've made with an audience is so strong, it virtually makes sense of why you're doing it.

    . . .

    On the set you have to be renewed, for each scene and each take. It takes courage to go into the scene and that is between you and yourself.

    Even though you're being directed by someone you know and love, the loneliness you need to have as an actor is still there. You have to have that moment of stillness and silence inside you; otherwise the truth of it doesn't come out.

    The context is A Few Days in September, a film directed by Argentinian Santiago Amigorena, now open in the UK.



    Tyzen Hsiao

    This week I was delighted to experience for the first time the orchestral music of Tyzen Hsiao, a Taiwanese composer now living in Los Angeles. I had long heard his art songs in the recital halls and practice rooms of Taiwan's music schools. It was a thrill to hear his uplifting music resound on the large canvas provided by musicians of National Taiwan Normal University conducted by Apo Hsu.

    The following information formed the basis of an article I created for Wikipedia.


    Tyzen Hsiao (蕭泰然) (b.1938) is a Taiwanese composer of the neo-Romantic school. His music is widely admired for its romantic lushness and unabashed lyricism. Many of his vocal works set poems written in Taiwanese, the mother tongue of the majority of the island's residents. His music is representative of the Taiwanese literature movement that revitalized the island's literary and performing arts in the 1970s and 1980s.


    Tyzen Hsiao's rich tonal style has earned him an international reputation as 'Taiwan's Rachmaninov.' Hsiao's compositions include works for solo instruments and chamber ensembles, many works for solo voice, and large-scale pieces for orchestras and choirs with soloists.

    Hsiao's most widely performed large-scale pieces include:

    • Formosa Symphony, opus 49 (1987)
    • Violin Concerto in D, opus 50 (1988)
    • Cello Concerto in C, opus 52 (1990)
    • Piano Concerto in C minor, opus 53 (1992)
    • 1947 Overture for soprano, chorus and orchestra (1993)
    • Ilha Formosa: Requiem for the Formosan Martyrs (2001)

    Hsiao's art songs enjoy frequent performances in Taiwan. His folk anthem-cum-revival hymn 'Taiwan the Formosa' is regarded by many as Taiwan's unofficial national anthem. Hsiao's 1947 Overture quotes the song. Other well-known art songs by Hsiao include 'The Fairest Flower', 'Eternal Hometown', a Taiwanese-language setting of Psalm 23, and 'I Love Taiwan.' He has also won acclaim for his folk song settings, such as 'Brother Andon Goes to Market' and 'The Grasshopper and the Rooster.' Many of Hsiao's songs, originally composed for solo voice and piano, also exist in versions for solo voice with orchestra.

    Hsiao acknowledges Rachmaninov, Bartók and Chopin as important influences on his personal style, along with Presbyterian hymnody and, above all, Taiwanese folk music. His songs combine the seemingly artless elements of folk song with romantic melodies and lush harmonies reminiscent of Canteloube.

    Hsiao's fusion of Taiwanese and international music traditions has influenced a number of younger composers, many of whom he has trained through teaching positions at the National Taiwan Normal University, the Tainan Women's College of Arts and Technology (now the Tainan University of Technology), and the Tainan Theological College. His music has been the subject of graduate research at the National Sun Yat-sen University in his hometown of Kaohsiung, the Florida State University in Tallahassee (US) and other institutions.

    Life and Career

    Tyzen Hsiao was born in Taiwan's southern port city of Kaohsiung. His father, a physician, served as an elder in the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan. His mother, a church pianist, began teaching him piano at an early age. As an adult Hsiao's career has encompassed composition, piano performance, and conducting.

    • 1959-1963 Majors in music at the National Taiwan Normal University. Teachers include Hsu Tsang-Houei (composition), Kao Tsu-Mei (piano) and Li Fu-Mei (piano).
    • 1963 Graduates from NTNU, begins performing and teaching.
    • 1965-1967 Studies at Musashino Music University in Japan. Teachers include Fujimoto Hideo (composition) and Nakane Nobue (piano).
    • 1967 Appointed to faculty at National Taiwan Normal University.
    • 1971 Composes opera Jesus Christ on a libretto by his father.
    • 1974 Composes Fantasy Waltz for Two Pianos, opus 38.
    • 1975 First 'Hsiao Tyzen Night' at Jhongshan Hall in the Hsimen district of Taipei.
    In 1977 personal and political circumstances led Hsiao to relocate to the United States. It was to be an eighteen-year stay.
    • 1977 Moves from Taiwan to Atlanta.
    • 1978 Composes The Vagabond, setting his own Taiwanese text. Moves to Los Angeles. Begins fruitful musical collaborations with Taiwanese community.
    • 1980 Composes 'March of Democracy', an art song that leads to his being forbidden to re-enter Taiwan by the Kuomintang government.
    • 1984 Composes art song 'What a Beautiful Taiwan'
    • 1985 Composes The Highlander's Suite for Piano Quintet
    • 1985-1987 Earns master's in composition at California State University, Los Angeles. Teachers include Byong Kon Kim (composition) and Milton Stern (piano).
    • 1987 Composes Symphony Opus 49 Formosa. Composes 'Never Disregard Taiwan' (text by Yang-Min Lin). North American Taiwanese Professors Association releases recording Psalms of the Taiwanese: Tyzen Hsiao’s Compositions.
    • 1988 Composes Violin Concerto in D, opus 50. Composes hymn 'Taiwan the Formosa' (text by Rev. Er-Yu Cheng)
    • 1989 Named Humanity Award Laureate by the Taiwanese-American Foundation
    • 1990 Composes Cello Concerto in C, opus 52, The Prelude for Pipe Organ, and song 'Mother's Hair.'
    • 1991 Prelude for Pipe Organ wins first prize, California Music Teachers Association Composition Competition
    • 1992 Ban lifted on Hsiao's return to Taiwan. Completes Piano Concerto in C minor, opus 53. Composes songs 'The Fairest Flower' and 'Eternal Homeland.' Premier of Violin Concerto by Lin Cho-Liang and San Diego Symphony Orchestra (US). Premier of Cello Concerto by Carol Ou and the Taipei County Cultural Center Orchestra (Taiwan).
    • 1993 Struck by heart attack while composing 1947 Overture; recovers and completes the work.
    • 1994 Premier of piano concerto by Jonathan Tang with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (Canada).

    Hsiao returned to Taiwan in 1995. He was one of thousands of natives who returned to the island from abroad after democracy was established during the 1990s.

    • 1995 Composes Nocturne for Violin and Piano, Fantasia for Flute and Piano, and Toccata for solo piano. American premier of Cello Concerto by Felix Fan and the San Diego Symphony. Premier of 1947 Overture by the Oakland Youth Orchestra with soprano Huang Mei-Hsing and Taiwanese-American choir.
    • 1996 Composes Formosa Trio for piano trio and Dragon Boat Festival for solo piano.
    • 1997 Tyzen Hsiao Music Association forms in Taiwan.
    • 1999 Composes The Angel of Formosa and Ode to Yü-Shan (choir with piano or orchestra). Premier of Formosa Symphony by Russian Federal Symphony and The Angel of Formosa by Moscow Symphony in Moscow. Russian premier of violin concerto.
    • 2000 Composes cantata The Prodigal Son. Performance of Ode to Yü-Shan presented as part of Taiwan's presidential inauguration ceremonies in Taipei. Russian premier of Cello Concerto and 1947 Overture; program includes the Violin Concerto.
    • 2001 Premier of Ilha Formosa: Requiem for the Formosan Martyrs (poetry by Min-Yung Lee) in Taipei. American premier takes place soon after in New York's Lincoln Center.
    • 2002 Suffers stroke while composing the Love River Symphony.

    Hsiao's stroke in 2002 led him to suspend composition and relocate to Los Angeles for recovery. The Love River Symphony remains unfinished.

    • 2004 Awarded Taiwan's National Art Prize. Japanese premier of Ilha Formosa Requiem
    • 2005 Receives Wu Sam-lien Musical Contribution Award
    • 2006 Awarded Kaohsiung City Prize for the Arts
    • 2007 Formosa Dreaming, a concert of major works for orchestra and voices by Hsiao and Fan-Long Ko, tours the United States. The concert features the NTNU Symphony orchestra, soloists Meng-Chieh Hsieh and Yu-Hsin Chang, and the Formosa Festival Choir. The performances are conducted by Apo Hsu.


    • Tyzen Hsiao Orchestral Music (2003), a two-disk set by Vakhtang Jordania and Russian Federal Orchestra with Moscow State Chorus. Includes the Formosa Symphony, the Violin Concerto (Alexander Trostiansky, soloist), the Cello Concerto (Kiril Rodin, soloist), the Piano Concerto (Anatoly Sheludyakov, soloist), the tone poem Angel of Formosa, and the 1947 Overture. Angelok 9912/13
    • Tyzen Hsiao Chamber Music. 1 CD issued by Tyzen Hsiao Music Association (2004). Includes piano trio 'The Formosa' and string quartet 'Homeland at Dusk' with art songs and works for solo violin. Soprano: Chiong-Jong Lu. 1 Violin and Soloist: Shien-Ta Su. 2 Violin: Yu-Yuan Chen. Viola: Chan-Hang Ho. Cello: Su-Chu Tseng. Piano: Lina Yeh, Tyzen Hsiao.
    • Taiwan Affection, Tyzen Heart: Tyzen Hsiao Works for Solo Violin and Piano. 1 CD. Issued by Tyzen Hsiao Music Association (1999). Violin: Shien-Ta Su. Piano: Lina Yeh. Winner of Best Composer and Album of the Year prizes at the Taiwanese Golden Song Awards.
    • Tyzen Hsiao Works for Solo Voice and Piano. 2 CDs issued by Tyzen Hsiao Music Association (1998). Soprano: Li-Chan Chen. Piano: Tyzen Hsiao.
    • Tyzen Hsiao Choral Music 2 CDs issued by Tyzen Hsiao Music Association (1995).
    • Psalms of the Taiwanese: Tyzen Hsiao’s Compositions (1987). North American Taiwanese Professors Association.


    Photo by Alton Thompson, 2007.09.04
    Jhongshan Hall, Taipei.



    Friendly Skies

    This is how things looked in Taipei today.

    This is how things looked farther out.

    The subject of the photo is Sepat, a Category Five storm leaving the Philippines and heading our way. Taiwan is at the upper left.

    I've been told that the sky never looks better than just before a typhoon arrives. Now I'm a believer.


    Taipei 101 photo by Alton Thompson. All rights reserved.

    Satellite image of Sepat courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory.



    Lois Greenfield Photography

    Special treat today. Never mind this blog.

    Check out the photography of Lois Greenfield.



    Total Lunar Eclipse

    The moon, earth and sun will combine for a grand show on August 28 that will be visible from five continents. To find out the schedule where you are check the information at the NASA web site.



    American Arts Education

    A winning case for beefing up the quality of arts education in the United States appears this week in OpinionJournal (WSJ). The article by Dana Gioia, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, is a condensation of his commencement address at Stanford earlier this year.

    Some choice bits (emphases mine):

    We need to create a new national consensus. The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproduct. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society.

    . . .

    If you don't believe me, you should read the studies that are now coming out about American civic participation. Our country is dividing into two distinct behavioral groups. One group spends most of its free time sitting at home as passive consumers of electronic entertainment. Even family communication is breaking down as members increasingly spend their time alone, staring at their individual screens.

    The other group also uses and enjoys the new technology, but these individuals balance it with a broader range of activities. They go out--to exercise, play sports, volunteer and do charity work at about three times the level of the first group. By every measure they are vastly more active and socially engaged than the first group.

    What is the defining difference between passive and active citizens? Curiously, it isn't income, geography or even education. It depends on whether or not they read for pleasure and participate in the arts. These cultural activities seem to awaken a heightened sense of individual awareness and social responsibility.

    The complete article may be viewed in the July 19 edition of OpinionJournal.



    Why Johnny and Janie don't finish their PhDs

    Half the students who begin school do not finish.

    If this statement described an American inner-city public school system, the story would already have made headlines. Outraged parents would be asking hard questions of the mayor at the next press conference. If it described undergrad athletes at your local collegiate sports factory, the NCAA would already be leaning on the program to change something.

    But this statistic is not about those students. It describes students enrolled in American Ph.D programs.

    This dirty secret, long known to officials at universities, is gradually becoming public. For decades, half the students who begin doctoral programs at American universities have been walking away.

    But why call this secret 'dirty'? Doesn't it makes sense that high number of people would fail? Aren't doctoral programs supposed to be rigorous? demanding? elite?

    The secret is dirty because the students who walk away are not failing. They are successful. The grades non-completers earn are as high as those of their colleagues who complete their degrees. Recent research shows the undergraduate GPAs of female students, in fact, to be higher among the walkoffs than among their colleagues who finish. The secret is dirty because these are adults who have already completed at least two college degrees just to get where they are. Their competence for academic work, and their willingess to follow through, is established. The secret is dirty because these are adults who have invested enormous amounts of time and personal resources into the very programs they decide to abandon.

    Finally, the secret is dirty because it's a secret at all. Why aren't prospective students given information about attrition rates at schools where they may enroll? Why aren't attrition rates factored into US News and other magazine rankings? Isn't education about supplying people with knowledge? Why are students denied information, from educational institutions of all places, about a phenomenon that has a direct bearing on their chances of success at that school?

    Yet a secret it has been. American university officials typically run from discussions of attrition rates. When pressed, many shift blame onto the students who leave. 'Some people are not cut out for academic work,' they say. Remember, these officials are speaking of degree-holding persons they screened and chose to admit into their own programs. When pressed, officials also reveal, very quickly, that they rarely have any contact with the walkoffs at all. They don't know why their students leave. They haven't asked.

    The blame shift just doesn't hold up to examination. The truth is that an attrition rate of 50% represents an enormous vote of No Confidence in a system. As one pair of researchers observes: 'many students who depart are conducting a referendum on the departmental culture; they are voting with their feet.'

    University officials suspect as much, of course. They simply prefer denial over action as a coping mechanism. How else to explain the widespread lack of curiosity, on the part of people who make their living conducting research, about a phenomenon happening right in front of them?

    Fortunately, a number of people are getting curious. One result of that curiosity is the Council of Graduate Schools PhD Completion Project, a seven-year research program supported by Pfizer Inc and the Ford Foundation. Statististics released by the CGS on Monday are summarized this week in Inside Higher Education.

    One pattern that emerges: humanities departments have a great deal to account for. Across the board the humanities doctorates take longer to finish, require more borrowing to fund, and are more likely to be abandoned than the same degrees in any other area of study.

    Respondents to surveys report that the most important factors in their completion of degrees were (1) availability of funding, (2) a capable mentor, (3) advance knowledge of the environment. A high percentage of the walkoffs, though, also possess (1) funding and (3) advance knowledge. The greatest predictor of completion turns out to be (2) a capable mentor. Students invest in the schools where faculty invest in them.

    Barbara Lovitts and Cary Nelson, veterans of research in this area, have noted candidly that 'the real problem is with the character of the graduate programs rather than with the character of their students. Yet most faculty assume that the best students finish their degrees and the less talented and qualified depart.' They go on to observe:

    Everything about the way students depart reinforces this conviction. Most leave silently; they simply disappear, without communicating any reservations about the program to faculty or administrators. Exit interviews or follow-up contacts with departing students are rare. Moreover, students are effectively discouraged from voicing complaints while they are still actively enrolled. The 'successful' student is 'happy' and compliant; such a student is more likely to receive financial support, good teaching assignments, and strong letters of recommendation. A student who criticizes the program is a problem. Of course this reasoning is circular and self-fulfilling, since complaining students may well be turned into problem students by neglect or discrimination. Meanwhile, the accumulated silence of previous 'dropouts' reinforces the view faculty prefer to hold: the problem is with the student, not the program.

    Many faculty thus conclude that the way to improve student success is to admit better students. Yet our evidence and that from other studies suggest that students who persist and students who leave are equally well qualified. The Lovitts survey found no meaningful difference between the undergraduate grade point averages of the students who did complete the Ph.D. and those who did not. The only notable difference in grade point averages surfaces when the students are separated by gender: female-completer, 3.57; noncompleter, 3.62; male-completer, 3.52; noncompleter, 3.49. In other words, women who abandoned graduate study had a somewhat higher undergraduate grade point average than those who stayed. What's more, women leave in higher numbers, thus suggesting once again that attrition is due to something other than ability.

    Barbara E Lovitts and Cary Nelson. 'The Hidden Crisis in Graduate Education: Attrition from PhD Programs. AAUP.

    Devising and implementing solutions to such systemic problems will take years. Inertia is a huge factor here: American universities are just now waking up to the fact that a problem exists. So what do you do if you are holding a degree or two and are considering enrolling in graduate school for another one?

    A good first stop would be to read 'Straight Talk about Graduate School' by Dorothea Salo. She explodes a number of myths about graduate school. She offers a very smart series of questions prospective students should ask of schools where they apply. Salo notes that a number of good sources of 'grad school tips' may be found out there, but nearly all share the same optimistic, and flawed, assumption. They all talk as if completion of a graduate degree is something under your control. Such 'positive thinking' only gets you so far in graduate school. Most of the time it is a recipe for prompt disillusionment. Success in graduate school depends on much more than your ability to be a good student.

    Half the good students, after all, walk away.

    Council of Graduate Schools. Ph.D Completion Project.

    Scott Jaschik. 'Why and When Ph.Ds Finish.'
    Inside Higher Education. 2007 07 17.

    Barbara E Lovitts and Cary Nelson. 'The Hidden Crisis in Graduate Education: Attrition from PhD Programs. AAUP.

    Jolley Bruce Chistman. Book Review of Leaving the Ivory Tower
    : The Causes and Consequences of Departure from Doctoral Study by Barbara E Lovitts. (Lanham, Maryland USA. Rowman & Littlefield, 2001)

    Dorothea Salo. 'Straight Talk about Graduate School.' Yarinareth.



    Twenty Years, No Martial Law

    Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the lifting of martial law in Taiwan. That period--thirty-eight years--still represents the longest official imposition of military rule anywhere in the world.

    First imposed by Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists, or Kuomingtang (KMT), in May 1949, martial law remained in effect in Taiwan until 15 July 1987 when it was officially lifted by the dictator's son, Chiang Ching-kuo.
    Caroline Gluck describes the situation in a BBC report.

    The media was tightly controlled, outspoken academics and others were blacklisted and even hundreds of songs were banned.

    The secret police, called the Taiwan Garrison Command, had wide-ranging powers to arrest anyone deemed to be critical of government policy.

    "It was obvious how militarised this place was," said Linda Arrigo, who was a teenager in Taipei in the 1960s. "There were military police all over the streets, signs saying 'Communist spies turn yourself in.' You would go to the post office and you would see them unravelling films, to look at every frame of the film. Even as a child, I met people who told me about students, people disappearing."

    The restrictions began to erode after the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975.

    But by the 1980s, increasingly emboldened opposition forces and citizen protest movements had begun to challenge the existence of martial law.

    The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) - today's governing party - was illegally established in September 1986, before martial law restrictions were revoked.

    Antonio Chiang was the publisher of a weekly opposition magazine, The Journalist, which began publishing before the lifting of martial law and was regularly suspended, banned and confiscated.

    When people get old, some get stubborn, some get wise; we were lucky Chiang [Ching-kuo] got wiser," he said. "He realised his time was numbered; he had no hope to go back to China. To survive, the party had to identify with this land, this people - so democracy was the only way for Taiwan to survive. If Taiwan didn't reform enough, there would be no difference between Taiwan and China - and then, why would the US, the western world, support Taiwan?"

    Older people educated under Chiang Kai-shek still experience cognitive dissonance when it comes to 'identifying with this land' and accepting that the KMT, as a party, now enjoys no special privileges. For Taiwan's young people, of all political stripes, this is simply reality. They live in a free country.

    Opening up to China had the ironic (and unintended, on both Kuomintang and Communist sides) effect of building Taiwanese identity. The seminal moment was the removal of Taiwan's ban on travel to China in months after lifting of martial law.

    Initially, it was a measure applied only to those with close relatives there - many of them elderly former KMT soldiers desperate to see their homeland and sweep their ancestors' tombs.

    "Coming to Taiwan was a painful experience," said 78-year-old He Wen-De, a former KMT soldier from a poor peasant family in China's Hubei province. "At that time, life was difficult. We missed our families and we had no opportunity to return," he said. "I didn't get a single letter from them after living in Taiwan for more than 20 years; the KMT withheld the letters. If I hadn't gone back to China, I wouldn't even have known about them."

    But when they were finally allowed, these visits brought a range of emotions, and there were also social changes following the Chinese cultural revolution. Many came back to Taiwan disillusioned, with heartbreaking stories of giving all their money and possessions to poor relatives, yet happy to return to Taiwan - a place they now saw as home.

    The effect was reinforced as young Taiwanese students and professionals travelled internationally. They increasingly encountered colleagues from China and were obliged to notice how their culture differed from China's and explain their nationality to foreigners. The experience reinforced a sense of distinct Taiwanese identity.

    The BBC summarizes the situation today.

    As a society today, Taiwan is still dealing with the legacy of its martial law period, and is grappling with how to right the wrongs many suffered during that time. Even so, analysts agree that democracy is fully-entrenched.

    "It's 100% democracy. People are not happy, but they are not desperate to go back. They have no nostalgia for the bad, old past. They want a good future," said sociology professor Michael Hsiao.

    "It's immature, lousy, chaotic... But we have a democracy," agreed Mr Chiang. "We have a vital media, a strong opposition, lively party politics and judicial independence is on the march. It may be chaotic, but there's no way to turn it back."

    Here's to moving forward. Gambai.


    Caroline Gluck. 'Remembering Taiwan's martial law.' BBC. 2007 07 13.

    . 'Taiwan marks twentieth anniversary of lifting of martial law.' VOA News. 2007 07 16.

    Associated Press. 'Taiwan marks twentieth anniversary of martial law lifting.' AsiaOne. 2007 07 14.

    'Former president Lee Teng-hui credits public over Chiang'. Taipei Times. 2007 07 16.

    'Photo expo commemorates lifting of martial law in 1987.' The China Post. 2007 07 16.

    Photo ©2007 Alton Thompson. Presidential Palace on Twentieth Anniversary of Lifting of Martial Law.



    Marc Chagall

    When I assess my art, I take the painting and put it next to a God-made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art.

    - Marc Chagall

    On this date in 1887 the world became a richer, more vibrant place. Here is how The Columbia Encylopedia (courtesy of Answers.com) summarizes the visionary career of Marc Chagall, born in Belarus on July 7:

    In 1907, Chagall left his native Vitebsk for St. Petersburg, where he studied under L. N. Bakst. In Paris (1910) he began to assimilate cubist characteristics into his expressionistic style. He is considered a forerunner of surrealism. After some years in Russia, Chagall returned to France in 1922, where he spent most of his life. His frequently repeated subject matter was drawn from Jewish life and folklore; he was particularly fond of flower and animal symbols. His major early works included murals for the Jewish State Theater (now in the Tretyakov Museum, Moscow). Among his other well-known works are I and the Village (1911; Museum of Modern Art, New York City) and The Rabbi of Vitebsk (Art Institute of Chicago). He designed the sets and costumes for Stravinsky's ballet Firebird (1945). Chagall's twelve stained-glass windows, symbolizing the tribes of Israel, were exhibited in Paris and New York City before being installed (1962) in the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center synagogue in Jerusalem. His two vast murals for New York's Metropolitan Opera House, treating symbolically the sources and the triumph of music, were installed in 1966. Much of Chagall's work is rendered with an extraordinary formal inventiveness and a deceptive fairy-tale naïveté. Chagall illustrated numerous books, including Gogol's Dead Souls, La Fontaine's Fables, and Illustrations for the Bible (1956). A museum of his work opened in Nice in 1973.

    We may lave the last word with the artist himself:
    It is our duty to colour our own lives with shades of love and hope . . .
    In art, as in life, all is possible when conceived in love.

    - Marc Chagall



    Unchained Melody

    You can do a lot worse in life than collaborate on a song that is one of the most recorded of all time--a song that says what it has to say simply and directly and allows singers and listeners alike the room to make it their own.

    A day after musicians the world over are feeling the loss of Beverly Sills, the Associated Press reports a departure from the world of commercial music: Hy Zaret, lyricist for 'Unchained Melody.' The song, with music by Alex North, has become one of the most recorded songs in the world since its launch in 1955. Renditions of 'Unchained Melody' have been made by Al Hibbler, Les Baxter, U2, Elvis Presley, Lena Horne, Joni Mitchell, Guy Lombardo, The Righteous Brothers, Il Divo, Vito & The Salutations, Gareth Gates, The Lettermen, Barry Manilow, Robson Green and Jerome Flynn, Cyndi Lauper, Roy Orbison, The Manhattan Transfer, and LeAnn Rimes.

    Here in Taiwan 'KTV' outings--karaoke parties with friends--are hugely popular. KTV evenings feature a generous helping of songs in Mandarin, Taiwanese and Japanese. Yet even here, on the other side of the world from where Hy Zaret plied his trade, no evening of song is complete without a rendition, in the original English, of 'Unchained Melody.'
    Oh, my love
    my darling
    I've hungered for your touch
    a long lonely time
    and time goes by so slowly
    and time can do so much
    are you still mine?


    Ludivine Sagnier

    Joyeux anniversaire to actress Ludivine Sagnier.




    Remembering Beverly Sills

    NPR reports today on the death at age 78 of soprano Beverly Sills. Affectionately known as 'Bubbles,' Ms Sills gave a silvery voice to Baby Doe and Cleopatra and a genial, smiling face to American opera, especially the New York City Opera. NPR offers links to audio and video files that document Ms Sills career and the story by Tom Huizenga. Comedienne Carol Burnett, a friend of Sills, offers a personal remembrance.



    Aung San Suu Kyi

    Today marks the birthday of Aung San Suu Kyi *, elected president of Burma (Myanmar) in 1990. Ms Suu Kyi's reward for garnering such decisive popular support was to be arrested at once by Burma's military leaders. She has spent eleven of the last eighteen years of her life under house arrest in Rangoon. Communications services are cut and she is denied access to foreign visitors.

    For her efforts to bring democracy to Burma Ms Suu Kyi has been awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament, the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the the Nobel Peace Prize.

    Suu Kyi's latest period of detention began in 2003 when over a hundred of her supporters were beaten to death my military police. Her incarceration was scheduled to expire last month but was extended another year by Burma's military rulers. The UN and other international organizations have declared her continued detention a flagrant violation of international law.

    Aung San Suu Kyi has called on the people of the world: 'Please use your liberty to promote ours.' Today, as she turns 62, millions of people around the world are answering that call.

    BBC Country Profile: Burma

    The Burma Campaign for Democracy, UK
    Aung San Suu Kyi (Profile and Timeline)

    Aung San Suu Kyi (Answers.com)
    National League for Democracy, Burma (Answers.com)

    * Pronounced Ong San Soo Chee.



    Eine kleine Schreckmusik

    I get a little bored hearing the world's greatest music played flawlessly by world-class musicians each week. All that perfection makes me restless.

    So, permit me to sing (off-key) in praise of bad musicians. But not just those unable to hit the notes. This is a special type of bad. Let's hear it for artists with tin ears who've proudly lowered the bar of musical performance.

    Thus confesses Marc Shulgold, music critic for the Rocky Mountain News (USA). His candor launches an engaging survey of a specialized taste (as it were) among music lovers. The genre is is not to be confused with simple lack of ability, or with the kind of cringe material encountered in crossovers. As Shulgold explains:
    Anyone can pick up an instrument they've never clutched and elicit dreadful sounds from it. [...] But being adorably atrocious is tricky - it demands an earnest striving to hit all the notes, but with results that must border on the amusing without being dull or overly painful.
    Tune in (but not too precisely) for a primer on the artists who have made the genre what it is. Not to be missed is Shulgold's consideration of American soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, a diva who is to the history of song what director Ed Wood is to cinema.

    Shulgold's 'Best of the Worst':
    Florence Foster Jenkins
    The Really Terrible Orchestra
    Portsmouth Sinfonia
    Jonathan and Darlene Edwards
    Elva Miller

    (Warning: some sites provide audio.)