Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Cacophony of Shouts

Inside the Sagrada Familia
For over a week, I have devoted the bulk of my free time to completing my essay on James Joyce and Salvador Dali (which I will be presenting at the North American James Joyce Conference in Pasadena on June 16th). After finishing it the other day, I've been immersed in some further residual readings related to my study of these two 20th Century master craftsmen. One book in particular has really been sparking my interest, the extravagantly titled Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali as told to André Parinaud. It's from the early 1970s so Dali, who had been a famous artist for about 5 decades already, has plenty of interesting things to say. I've been most fascinated by his discussion of the paranoiac (a main aspect of my paper) but I will get into it all of that here later on, I'm planning on writing a big post detailing all of the books used for my essay.

So I was reading it today and Dali was speaking very favorably about an architect, Antoni Gaudi, who hails from Catalonia, Dali's hometown in Spain. I had never heard of Gaudi or his works before and so I had to look him up after reading such laudatory praise as this:
The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

What I love about Gaudi is his vitality. His brain is at the tips of his fingers... I remember Lorca [Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet, a friend of Dali's] in front of the admirable facade of the Sagrada Familia claiming to hear a griterio---a cacophony of shouts---that rose stridently to the top of the cathedral, creating such tension in him that it became unbearable. There is the proof of Gaudi's genius. He appeals to all of our senses and creates the imagination of the senses. Gaudi researched this deeply by studying applications of acoustics. He turned bells into organ pipes....
Everything in his work, light as well as silence, "transports us elsewhere," and none was more adept than he at using bad taste to throw us, decondition us, tear us away from the sterility of good taste. He provokes us down to our innermost depths. Through him, everything is metamorphosis, nothing is taboo nor set any longer, the Gothic rejoins the Hellenic, which in turn merges into Far Eastern forms....The Sagrada Familia is a magnetic tuning-fork whose waves spread ceaselessly and penetrate all minds receptive to the irrational that often practice and live art nouvea unwittingly. (pg 146-147)

Needless to say, I'm in awe.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

More Mind Fusion

"De la musique avant toute chose..."
("Music before anything else")
- Paul Verlaine, Art Poétique

I'd like to share a few more examples of the records that appear on Volume 2 of Madlib's Mind Fusion series I talked about in the last post. The essence of this first song embodies, for me, the whole approach of these Madlib mixes and serves as a nice introduction to the catalogue of forgotten beauties that this musical savant seeks to entertain us with.

This next one is an epic 1960s Italian song with great drums.

That song is by the famous Italian composer Ennio Morricone who also produced the legendary soundtrack to the trilogy of Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns in the 60s. Of all the great musical notes in that classic film series, the one that I've always been most struck by is the poignant little pocket watch tune that plays an important part in the second film of that trilogy, For a Few Dollars More.

And, last but not least, a glorious explosion of drums and piano, again from Mind Fusion Vol. 2:

(I just want to point out that this isn't even the best mix in the 5-part Mind Fusion series. That would be Volume 3 which contains about 70 minutes of nothing but gems. Unfortunately, there is no extant tracklist for Volume 3 and I've only been able to identify one song, though it's a beauty.)

The Flight of the Oriole

For the last 2 or 3 weeks I've found myself listening almost exclusively to Madlib's Mind Fusion series, a pretty rare set of cds featuring a vast display of old soul-jazz-funk-psychedelic-global-whatever records (there are 5 albums/mixtapes in the series, 2 of them feature Madlib-produced hip hop remixes, 3 of them are diverse DJ mixes from Mind Altering Demented Lessons In Beats' famous 5-ton collection of vinyl and those mixes are superb).

The song above is from Volume 2 of the series (you can see the full tracklist here) and this tune has captivated me from the first time it hit my ears. It's jazz/soul with an old nightclub feel (the singer, Lorez Alexandria, had performed in Chicago nightclubs in the 1950s but this song is from her 1978 album How Will I Remember You?). I'm entranced by the blend of fast-tapping drums, deep bass strumming slowly, and the singer's strong voice and delivery. Her voice darts and floats like a bird as she sings the seductive story of a ladybird, a Baltimore Oriole, using avian archetypes ("no time for a lady to be dragging her feathers around in the snow"). A bird's eye view of the track reveals the full synthesis of meaning, content, and flavorful delivery---her French-sounding pronunciation of the "r" in Oriole even brings to mind the French word orielle which means "ear" and it's as though the temptress described in the song is also tempting the musical ear of the listener (the oriole is, after all, a songbird). It becomes clear that this was all purposely done by this very talented musician, her bio states that her "clearly enunciated delivery...was always highly sensitive to the import of the lyric she was singing" and the info shown at the bottom of the YouTube clip describes her as "superior at interpreting lyrics."

*   *   *

The Baltimore Oriole first received its name because the bird's orange-and-black feathers resembled the coat of arms of Lord Baltimore, a British coloniser in the 1600s who was the first proprietor of the colony of Maryland in North America. The Baltimore Oriole is (surprise!) the state bird of Maryland and, following the pastoral tradition of naming baseball teams after state birds, Baltimore ballclubs have used the symbol of the Oriole for almost 130 years now.

The Baltimore Nine in the 1890s
The original Baltimore Orioles baseball franchise was founded way back in 1882 (the year James Joyce was born). They were a charter member of the American Association, an old professional league that lasted for ten years. When that league folded in 1892, the Orioles joined the National League (yep, the same National League that the Mets and everyone else play in today) and became a powerhouse, winning three consecutive pennants.

The National League during the 1890s was a scary place, the games often filled with violent, dirty play, the umpires were often spat on, punched, or shoved and the fans involved themselves in the game's quarrels to a degree unlike anything we could imagine nowadays. In their tame moments, they were known to hurl rotten eggs or beer bottles at the on-field arbiters. As Bill James wrote in the Historical Baseball Abstract,
 "the fans never actually killed an umpire. They tried. Umpires required police protection countless times, and there was an incident in Minnesota in 1906 in which a crowd got hold of an umpire with apparent intent to do bodily harm, but was dissuaded by a local athlete. A good many umpires have been killed in on-field accidents, some of them in the minors. But if they didn't kill one (deliberately) in the 1890s, then it just wasn't destined to happen, because they sure tried." (pg 53)
During this violent era, the Orioles were known as the absolute dirtiest team of them all. In 1894, the Orioles started a fight on the field in Boston that got so ugly it ended up with the the fans rioting and starting a fire that destroyed the ballpark and 170 surrounding buildings. Led by third baseman John McGraw, who would eventually go on to become one of the greatest managers of all time for the New York Giants, they played rough and they succeeded with it.

But just as the 20th century dawned, the National League decide to get rid of four teams including the Orioles. Members of the defunct team went to the brand spankin' new American League and made their own Baltimore Orioles team though they'd only last a couple of years before moving to New York and becoming the Highlanders (eventually changing their name to the Yankees).

The Orioles of today that we know and love were originally the St. Louis Browns, another team in the early American League, until the franchise transferred to Baltimore in 1954 and took on the name of the famous old B-more ballclubs. The newly minted Orioles stunk during their early years in the American League but they would eventually build up a pretty spectacular team that managed to stay in contention virtually every year from 1960 to 1983, winning three World Series titles along the way.

Those Orioles teams pulled off the exalted feat of playing in the Fall Classic for three consecutive years from 1969 to 1971, though they only won once during that span (in 1970). In 1969, the highly-favored, powerhouse O's went up against the scrappy New York Mets. The Amazin' and lovable Mets pulled off the upset, defeating Baltimore in 5 games, winning their first ever World Championship in a series that featured a handful of legendary moments. Here's the Mets segment from Ken Burns' wonderful baseball documentary:

*   *   *

Having departed San Diego and lost the luxury of rooting for and seeing a nearby baseball team (the Padres) on the regular, I've found thus far this season that I'm clutching to my Mets fanhood as tightly as ever. I'm now deep in the heart of Texas, the state's two pro ball teams are each at least three hours away from me and I've got absolutely no interest in either of them anyway. I don't have cable, so I can't pick up their games on TV and while I do watch baseball on, I'm blacked out from watching any games involving a Texas team. So, early on in the season while league storylines are still developing, I've latched onto my ol' Mets.

This year's team got off to a terrible start but they've looked pretty respectable lately as their deep offense has awoken from its offseason hibernation. As I mentioned recently, I've been particularly glad to see Carlos Beltran back in the lineup and mashing the ball like he used to. As I cooked dinner the other night, I watched and cheered loudly as Beltran launched three homeruns against Colorado.

This weekend, the Metropolitans make their only trip to the city of Houston (though they do return to Texas to face the Rangers in June) and I've been trying to figure out a way to head over there to see a game but my schedule doesn't allow it and it's a three hour drive each way. I can't help but be annoyed by this, though, because my favorite baseball team is playing within driving distance from here and I'm unable to go see them.

I didn't even get to watch last night's game live as it was blacked out. The Mets went about their business anyway and blasted three monstrous homeruns in a nice comeback win against the Astros. For tomorrow afternoon's tilt, featuring the knuckleball-flinging sensation that is R.A. Dickey taking the hill for the Mets, I'll probably resort to tuning into the game's radio broadcast to keep up with the happenings of the National League New York Nine.

*   *   *

The inimitable Joe Posnanski wrote a nice blog post that briefly examines the reborn Carlos Beltran (leading the NL in extra base hits at the moment) and compares him to Derek Jeter while also painting a humorously accurate and well-written portrayal of New York City and her relationship with her baseball teams. As anyone who's spent time in Manhattan knows, the best way to get a glimpse of what's going on with the local teams is to drop a quarter and pick up the often absurd New York Post tabloid. Sayeth Joe:
"I look to the Post front page for overreaction, for gut punches, for the very thing that New York cops, construction workers, store owners and waitresses and anyone else you might run into would say."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Three Baseball Book Reviews

Reviewing the three baseball books that have occupied my mind the last couple months.

Baseball Prospectus 2011

I never really thought about this until now, but it's incredible to realize that every year (for 8 years and counting) I devour the entirety of a book that is literally the size of a phonebook. Usually, I will gradually cruise through the Baseball Prospectus annual throughout the summer until I've finished it. This year, I surprised myself by zipping through the whole thing in less than two months.

The arrival of the new BPro publication is a yearly ritual for me as I'm sure it is for many other devout baseball fans. In the foreword to this year's edition, Joe Posnanski gives a rundown of the exact manner in which he approaches the great tome every year. For me, I spend a few days just flipping through it, reading bits and pieces and soaking up the feeling that a new baseball season is upon us. Then I start reading through the essays of each team (starting with the crappy ones, saving the best teams for last) along with the capsules for their key players. One of the many beautiful things about this book is that after reading the whole thing, it then becomes an essential reference book; a perfect, handy (though heavy) guide to flip through whenever watching a ballgame.

Now, as an annual devourer of these books, I find myself scrutinizing the mistakes and typos (there are plenty, as usual) and holding it up to a very high standard. I expect a lot from this book and it's something I look forward to reading every year, not just because of the sharp and thorough baseball analysis, but because the quality of the writing is usually excellent. The Prospectus think-tank has seen a lot of turnaround among its ranks these last few years, though, and the quality does occasionally reflect that. Some of the writing is very bland and doesn't offer anything new or special in the way of baseball analysis---I was particularly unimpressed with the team essays for the White Sox, Rangers, Giants, and especially the Mets. It also becomes very obvious when you read through the player essays that the writer isn't looking at the same stats that the reader is being shown. In that respect, they actually got a bit sloppy this year.

That's not to say that there weren't big improvements in this year's book. The format and design of the player capsules (of which there are over 1,600 making up the bulk of the book) received a major overhaul from past editions. The capsules were cleaned up, some staple stat categories removed and the info condensed to conserve space. It was a visual shock at first, but my eyes quickly got used to it and I actually think the presentation is much smoother than its ever been. A pet peeve of mine with these books, though, is a complete lack of any creativity at all in the appearance. The look of the text is as cold and bland as an instruction manual. And yet the wit and spirit of the written content is lively, occasionally causing me to burst into laughter. (I also get a lot of enjoyment out of the lists of player comps which sometimes bring up amazing old baseball names like Puddin Head Jones and Vinegar Bend Mizell.)

It seems like the best chapters were those for the lesser teams. I loved the Orioles team essay which put into perspective the nearly unprecedented turnaround the team had last year; the Nationals got one of the best essays in the book, one which compares them to Dave Dombrowski's successful Tigers teams and even speaks of a growing Nats bandwagon; the Astros, perhaps the shittiest and most boring franchise in baseball right now, received an insightful and humorous assessment, same with the Indians. As for the good teams, they certainly present a great case for why the Reds will be a competitive force for the upcoming future (a great defensive team with tons of young talent) and pick apart the always interesting Colorado Rockies.

On my eighth or ninth edition of this book, it's pretty clear they have developed a formula for the writing style which always features lots of snark and cultural references to bring much needed levity to a scientific, numbers-heavy content. They can tend to pile it on a bit thick, though, and the same jokes (this year it's obesity humor) repeated over and over fall badly flat. Despite its flaws, this vast text is still a delicious treat that doesn't lose its flavor even months after you've completed it. A worthy addition to the annals of Prospectus annuals.

The Extra 2%

This book felt very much like an unofficial sequel to Moneyball or, perhaps, a nephew to Michael Lewis' famous book. The author certainly doesn't hide that, often referencing the book that told the story of the shrewd Oakland A's front office. Just like Moneyball, this book has a great story. The worst-to-first scenario played out so ideally for the Rays that, honestly, it's a meatball pitch for any astute baseball writer to hit out the park and Jonah Keri does just that.

He's certainly got a gift for storytelling and juggling different scenes in a narrative, often jumping nimbly between decades or individual seasons while following a general chronology of the Tampa Bay Rays' history. After its inception in the late 90s, the organization was so unbelievably pathetic in every possible way that it's often comical. The team president was a world-class schmuck who wouldn't even let the employees use e-mail, considering it to be just a fad. His business manners pissed off everyone: the employees, the fan base, local businesses, even the city itself.

Three Wall Street honchos eventually took over the reins and completely changed everything about the organization, from the team name (exorcising the "Devil" out of "Devil Rays") on down to the allowance of outside food to be brought into the ballpark and free parking. They needed to revamp the team's image and they not only accomplished that, but they built a powerhouse that managed to win the AL East two out of three years with a minuscule payroll.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the team's manager, Joe Maddon, covering his background and ascent to the role of major league manager. Maddon is a highly interesting character; a baseball lifer with broad intellectual interests who frequently goes against the grain and the accepted baseball wisdom in his machinations. The chapter entitled "Mystery Men" was also great, describing the Rays' manner of seeking out bright sabermetricians to build a powerful braintrust of brilliant baseball minds on the cheap. The whole Rays story is a great one, enough to make me a fan of theirs, but what makes this book special is that it's written in an extremely readable, smooth manner.

The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2011

At the inception of my deep intellectual interest in baseball, one of my must-read websites was the upstart Hardball Times. The staff has changed a lot over the years as many of their original writers have gone on to bigger gigs, but they still produce plenty of great (and free), cutting edge baseball content. I was one of the few people that bought their first venture into book publishing and I've been getting their Annuals every year since.

The timing of the book's release is a bit awkward, though. First, they were releasing the book at the conclusion of each season to examine what had happened that year. And now this last iteration was released so soon after the season that its content doesn't cover the playoffs or World Series. Repeating the same exact cover art for a few years in a row doesn't look great either. Nevertheless, this an awesome book.

It is split into halves: a collection of essays and studies on various aspects of the game in front and full thorough stats for every team in the back. This year had a bunch of excellent essays including a really long one (15 pages) by legendary analyst Craig Wright on the proper way to get the most of a pitcher. That's really the must-read essay in the book that's worth the purchase price on its own. But I also loved Steve Treder's piece on the reasons for last year's low scoring levels (an interesting relationship between pitcher, batter, and umpire is apparently behind it); Jeremy Greenhouse used the data goldmine of Pitch f/x to identify the pitchers in the game with the best "stuff" (hardest throwers/best movement) and location yielding fascinating results in a well-written piece; Sean Smith examined the oft-asked question of whether or not catchers have a real impact on the performance of their pitcher and the results were groundbreaking (backstops do have a noticeable effect). There's also an intricate though highly readable breakdown of Barry Zito's fall from grace and return to respectability as well as an eye-opening little piece by Tom Tango that might make you see the game a bit differently (with regards to balls in play, at least).

The cover boasts "timeless commentary" and, in fact, I do find myself digging out last year's edition of the same book to read some of the essays because, for the most part, they don't lose their luster. And this current edition is already about 6 months old but I've been reading it constantly. Great, informative, worthwhile reading for a baseball nut.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Initial Public Offering

The Beckman Auditorium at Caltech in Pasadena
The preliminary version of the academic program for the upcoming James Joyce Conference has been released and yours truly is scheduled to present on Thursday, June 16th. That is, of course, "Bloomsday" otherwise known as the most famous and perhaps important day for Joyceans and I've got the first slot that morning. My presentation will be an analysis of the two great 20th Century masters, Joyce and Salvador Dali. I'm not sure if it's open to the public or not but it will take place in the auditorium at the California Institute of Technology. See the full event program here.

I'm pretty thrilled about the whole thing but also, as an academic outsider who hasn't endured public speaking in almost four years, quite nervous. Here's hoping you'll be rooting for me.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Tony Sipp Soliloquy

Here's a little lyric I wrote up while watching the exciting ending to last night's Tigers-Indians ballgame. In the top of the 13th, the Tigers hit two deep shots in a row that looked like homeruns but were caught at the wall in centerfield.

Tied in extra innings, long night in Cleveland
              Indians and Tigers toil.
Detroit thumps bombs, roaring bereavement:
            warning track catch, runs foiled.
Tony Sipp zips overhand heat,
            deep fly balls ensue.
Prospectus reference sought for statspeak,
           on Cleveland: he's Tony who???
Sipp with two P's, the capsule reads...

"power southpaw reliever" with strikeout stuff
If to deep flies the wall catches up,
           he'll last in this league a decade or up.
Good enough.