Monthly Archives: May 2015

May 28, 2015

First 5 from Belaieff

I continue to be keeping the antlike part of my mind arbitrarily busy with the Belaieff catalog while I relax, meditate, what-have-you, so here’s some more grist for the ol’ broomlet.

Obviously, going through them in order occurs to me. I guess I’ll do 10.

Having done 5, I say: 5 turns out to be a lot! Let’s just do 5 for now.

Hey readers: please click on the title of this entry above (“First 5 from Belaieff”) and go to the dedicated entry page. On the front page, the width is too narrow for the images etc., because of the sidebar. I’ll get that fixed one of these days.

1] Glazunov: Overture No. 1 (on Three Greek Themes), op. 3 (1882)

1ая Увертюра : на три греческия темы : для большого оркестра : сочинение Александра Глазунова. Op. 3.
1re Ouverture : sur trois thèmes grecs : pour grand orchestre : composée par Alexandre Glazounow. Op. 3.
[1st Overture : on three Greek themes : for large orchestra : composed by Aleksandr Glazunov. Op. 3.]

A Monsieur L.A. Bourgault-Ducoudray.

1 Partition (Full score)
2 Parties séparées (Orchestral parts)
3 Piano à quatre mains (Arrangement for piano four hands)

Only the full score, with plate number 1, is currently available, having been digitized in 2009 by the Sibley Music Library at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, superstars in this game and henceforth to be referred to as “Sibley.” Orchestral parts tend not to be held by university libraries and are far less likely to have been scanned or even included in searchable catalogs. The 4-hand arrangement, plate number 3, is out there in Worldcat, just not online.

001Cover 001Title 001Page3

Here we see the outer cover, title page, and first page of the full score. Click any image for the big version.

According to a Belaieff pamphlet, this, their very first publication, appeared on July 11 (old June 29), 1885. The next many scores that follow are all marked as having been published in 1886, so it seems that this one stands alone and was followed by a full year’s delay before things really got rolling. The title page doesn’t yet mention Leipzig, and instead seems to have been produced in collaboration with the existing Rahter/Büttner firm. Arrangements had yet to be made.

The Overture Op. 3 was composed in 1882 when Glazunov was 16 or 17, premiered in January 1883 by Anton Rubinstein, and then possibly revised for publication. It was upon hearing this and the two pieces that follow (opp. 5 and 6) that Mr. Belyayev decided to spend the rest of his life pouring his enormous fortune into the performance and publication and cultivation of new Russian music. He and his father before him had made their money in the lumber business; Scheherazade was funded by many acres of wood. Somehow that feels right to me. Whereas if it turned out he was in the rifle business that would be dismaying. (Or the laxative business.)

I count at least 5 recordings:
Minneapolis/Mitropoulos 1942
USSR/Gauk 1950s?
Hong Kong/Schermerhorn 1984
– USSR/Svetlanov 1990
Moscow Symphony/Ziva 2000

I haven’t heard the Svetlanov, but I didn’t find any of the others particularly satisfying.

On paper and in my imagination, the piece seems potentially perfectly effective, as long as one finds the proper spirit of fun in indulging the faint, generic exoticism of its “Greek” materials. The three themes are taken straight from 30 Mélodies Populaires de Grèce et d’Orient, a collection assembled by Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray, the dedicatee, wherein they’d already been fairly de-ethnicized and squared up. See nos. 1, 20, and 25, in that order.

The trick to performing this kind of music — and “this kind of music” encompasses nearly everything that’s going to follow, too — is to take it seriously without taking it seriously. The crucial nuance is attitudinal rather than strictly musical. It tends to be a dimension of performance that conductors can’t control through any amount of pep-talking or careful rehearsal. Only by force of personality, if at all. What I’m talking about emanates from the social culture surrounding the music, not from the technique; it’s in the players’ subconscious.

At nearly 15 minutes with nothing particular to accomplish, this piece threatens to feel overlong, so I don’t understand why all the recordings insist on taking the slow theme so emptily slow and pseudo-ominous. Seems to me the exposition of all three themes should strive above all to be songlike, hummable, at whatever tempo that entails, and then the development that follows should strive to very explicitly spin out a series of miniature compositional clevernesses (rather than try to actually sell “stirring” or “angsty” in a boring Hollywood/operetta way). And keep it all breezy!

If the 4-hand version were available I’d slap down my own take along those lines. I just hummed my way through it and came out at 11:30. That’s more like it!

2] Glazunov: Symphony No. 1, op. 5 (1881)

Первая Симфония : (Е-дир) : для большого оркестра : Op. 5 : сочинение Александра Глазунова
Première Symphonie : (Mi majeur) : pour grand Orchestre : Op. 5 : composée par Alexandre Glazounow
[First Symphony : (E major) : for large orchestra : Op. 5 : composed by Aleksandr Glazunov]

посвящается николаю андреевичу римскому-корсакову.
[Dedicated to Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov.]

à Monsieur N. Rimsky-Korssakow : Hommage affectueux de son élève reconnaissant.
[to Mr. N. Rimsky-Korsakov: affectionate tribute of his grateful pupil.]

(A fuller dedication appears inside, reproduced from Glazunov’s handwriting. I think it says:)
Дорогому учителю моему Николаю Андреевичу Римскому-Корсакову в знак глубокого уважение и благодарности.
[To my dear teacher Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov as a token of my esteem and gratitude.]

4 Partition d’orchestre
5 Parties d’orchestre
6 Réduction pour Piano à quatre mains par Mme. Nadejda Rimsky-Korssakow

4, the full score, comes to us from the Harvard libraries, scanned by Google in 2007. 5, the orchestral parts, is currently unavailable. 6, the duet, is from Sibley, scanned in 2011.

004Cover 004Title 004Page1

006Cover 006Title 006Page2

These scores were first published in 1886, but the covers seen here indicate that these particular copies are from later: these type styles weren’t adopted for some years, and the Belaieff catalog listing on the inside and back covers (not seen above) makes clear that each of these was issued in 1902 or later. (Note also that the full score identifies itself as the Nouvelle edition revue et corrigée par l’Auteur. I’m not sure when that was added.)

The question then follows: are the title pages seen here in their fullest and most lavish forms? I ask because it seems that after about ten years — once it became clear that his publishing scheme was going to continue indefinitely — Belaieff started to scale back some of the opulence, and would do things like reprint old title pages with simpler color schemes, or previously multicolored title pages in monochrome.

But these are quite multicolored and come off as fairly luxurious, so I assume they’re the full-fledged originals. This is one of the very few of these illustrated title pages to be signed by the artist: “Рисов. Ольга Глазунова” = “Drawn by Olga Glazunov.” Is this the composer’s sister? Mother? Cousin? I can’t find a source to tell me anything about his family or their names. As far as I can tell, Glazunov has never received a book-length biography in English, nor have his memoirs been translated.

The two snippets of music included in the design are themes heard in the second and fourth movement, which reportedly are Polish folk tunes that Glazunov heard his family’s gardeners singing.

Added 6/1/15: I’ve just found that the Russian State Library has scanned a copy of the full score with the original 1886 cover, albeit only in black and white:


The work was composed in 1881–2 when Glazunov was 15 and 16, and premiered in March 1882 to considerable acclaim and prodigy-hype: “can you believe a kid wrote this?” It’s generally described as having made a splash that launched Glazunov’s long career. Basically, by so impressing Mr. Belaieff, it set Glazunov up for life.

It’s about 35 minutes long and I count at least 8 recordings:
Moscow Radio/Fedoseyev 1981
– Bavarian Radio/Järvi 1983
USSR Ministry/Rozhdestvensky 1983?
– USSR/Svetlanov 1989
Moscow Symphony/Anissimov 1995
BBC Wales/Otaka 1997
Russian State/Polyansky 1999
Royal Scottish/Serebrier 2009

(“By some estimates, Moscow has up to 40 orchestras,” each of which has had many different names over the years, and all of which have basically the same names as each other. Plus the conductors have bounced from one to another. Probably so have the players.)

None of what I heard was completely ideal, but to my ears the Fedoseyev recording was the standout for vigor and commitment. People online seem to really like the Serebrier but I thought it was trying much too hard, distorting things to try to “make a case for them,” which of course implicitly makes the opposite case. Who says this music needs help?

The piece is pretty good, earnest and straightforward and fully colored. The sturdy sonata-allegro movements, the first and last, seem to me the most successful. The Scherzo has rather lame material that would require extremely spicy treatment to work, but apart from a wah-wah-wah sad doggy joke toward the end, Glazunov just does standard peasant dance stuff, and the fun feels feigned. The Adagio doesn’t really ever sink its teeth into the emotion it’s going for. I have enough composerly experience to know that this sort of sustained, fluid elegiac expression is actually the hardest thing to craft. A convincing slow movement requires the greatest possible control and boldness, and that’s the movement where it’s easiest for me to imagine the composer as being only 16. But a very, very ambitious 16! The guts it takes to write a thing like this! The fact that the slow movement doesn’t completely land just accentuates how daring he was to risk it at all.

Of course, daring and ambition is different from having anything to say. My impression during the middle movements is just the kind of thing that has tarred Glazunov (and this whole generation of Russians) generally, which is that he seems more proud of his skill than interested in his feelings. That isn’t always necessarily a problem: after all, pride is a feeling too, and a good one. In the first and last movements here, I feel like that pride becomes contagious, to the music’s great credit. But it does become a problem when the ostensible subject of a piece is another feeling not compatible with pride: such as e.g. the urge to carouse (I don’t believe he’s feeling it) or a hovering melancholy (I don’t believe he’s feeling it).

Or rather, I do believe he’s feeling it, but I don’t believe this music has any direct line to the feeling.

Within the next 15 years Glazunov would get enormously fat and become a terrible alcoholic, both of which states would persist for the rest of his life. I have to assume his alcoholism was related to some kind of emotional repression, and I imagine I can hear the seeds of it in this very early work. Building fake emotions to speak on behalf of real ones is a dangerous practice.

Mrs. Rimsky-Korsakov’s duet arrangement is very smartly done. It’s a genuinely performable score, not an unpianistic mess as these things sometimes are. It even sounds pretty good. It could probably be pulled off for an audience — i.e. not just for the amusement of the players. That’s a lot to do with the nature of the piece, which is mostly rhythmic and strongly outlined and suited to being banged out on a piano; subtleties and slow movements never really come off very well in this form. Though I think you could even make something reasonably inoffensive of this slow movement on the keyboard if you sped it up a bit. In fact, lowering the stakes, so to speak, by transferring the music to the quieter, more intimate headspace of the piano, might actually help the movement.

3] Glazunov: Overture No. 2 (on Three Greek Themes), op. 6 (1883)

2я увертюра : на три греческия темы : для оркестра : сочинение александра глазунова. Op. 6.
2me ouverture : sur des thèmes grecs : pour grand orchestre : A. Glazounow : Op. 6
[2nd Overture : on (three) Greek themes : for (large) orchestra : by Aleksandr Glazunov. Op. 6.]

посвящается милию алексеевичу балакиреву.
[dedicated to Mily Alekseyevich Balakirev.]

7 Партитура / Partition d’orchestre
8 Оркестровые голоса / Parties d’orchestre
9 Переложение для форт. в 4 руки автора / Réduction pour Piano à quatre mains par l’auteur

7, the full score, was scanned by Sibley in 2009; the parts, 8, are unavailable. 9, the duet, is also unavailable but its title page, as seen below, is included as a sample on the website for The Beauty of Belaieff, a coffee-table book representing the collection of Richard Beattie Davis. As you can see, it’s a crop and slight lateral stretching of the same illustration.

Actually, I get the impression that the illustrations were squished horizontally to fit the tall narrow layout of the orchestral scores, and that the wider piano editions are the ones that show them in their original proportions. But that’s just a hunch.

007Cover 007Title 007Page3

It’s not clear whether the front cover seen here (as a black-and-white scan) is original to 1886 or not. It has what I believe is the earliest type style.

The piece seems to have been composed in 1883 immediately after the previous Overture on Greek Themes, on exactly the same model, and premiered only a couple months later, in March 1883 (conducted by Balakirev, the dedicatee). Three themes have again been selected from that same collection, this time nos. 5, 7, and 24. Again he uses them in the order they appear in the book!

However, this is a markedly more nuanced and mature work than the first overture. In part it’s because the themes he chose are themselves subtler and more oblique, with rhythmical evasions that lend themselves to rhapsodic treatment — but he also handles the materials with a much greater license and willingness to create moods and events that are completely his own.

Contrary to the “everything Greek I can think of” title page illustration, the piece isn’t nearly as starkly exoticist as its predecessor; apart from a string of standard “rustic” effects in the second theme, its fantasy-nostalgia is mellower and more general. I think the handling of the opening idea in particular is excellent and affecting, and when it recurs toward the end, there’s the feeling of a real operatic drama coming to fruition. I said that the first overture had nothing much to get done during its 15 minutes; this one feels like 19 minutes worth of drama, though I couldn’t tell you quite what the drama is.

The unpredictable handling of form here is quite impressive, to me much moreso than anything in the rather square-headed Symphony. I wish the duet version were around so that I could play through it and discover its ins and outs for myself.

Well, I just followed it through with the full score, which will have to do. Turns out that despite seeming “unpredictable” to my ear, the piece actually has basically the same underlying form as the first overture. It’s just that the proportional emphasis on the development, and especially on the elaborate coda, has been so much increased as to make it feel like a whole different beast. That, to me, is how form should work — as a tool for the composer, not a prescription for the audience experience. Yes, the journey of this piece is in its broadest outlines a “sonata form” journey — i.e. exposition, conflict, denouement, conclusion — but such a heavily inflected version that, from my point of view as a listener, it may as well not be built on an actual sonata form. After all novels and dramas follow the same general structure and certainly aren’t “sonata forms.”

But it turns out on inspection that it is in fact a sonata form. Because that’s just how someone like Glazunov thinks and works.

A few years ago I stole a choice measure-and-a-half from the introductory section of this piece and put it in a piece I was writing. Nobody knows this piece. Of course, nobody knows my piece either. The perfect crime!

About 17 minutes long. I’m aware only of three recordings:
USSR/Gauk 1950s?
Hong Kong/Almeida 1986
Moscow Symphony/Ziva 2000

I actually quite enjoy the slow lushness of the Ziva recording, though there are places where I find myself leaning to try to make it different.

4] Cui: Suite concertante, op. 25 (1884)

ц. кюи : концертная сюита : для скрипки : с сопровождением оркестра или фортепиано : соч. 25
Suite concertante : pour le Violon : avec accompagnement d’orchestre ou de piano : par César Cui. : Op. 25.
[Suite concertante : for violin : accompanied by orchestra or piano : by César Cui : op. 25.]

A Monsieur Martinn Marsick.

10 Partition d’Orchestre
11 Parties d’Orchestre
12 Pour Violon avec accompagnement de Piano (copy 1, copy 2, copy 3)
471–474 (= the individual movements from within 12, made available separately around 1892)
556 No. 3. Cavatina, arrangée pour Violoncelle et Piano (also issued around 1892)
4054 (= 10 as reissued in 1983)

10, the full score, is available courtesy of the Russian State Library (RSL); the 1983 reissue is available at IMSLP. The parts, 11, are unavailable.

12, the violin and piano version, is available in three copies: two from Sibley and one from RSL.

556, the cello arrangement of the “Cavatina,” is known only from the Belaieff 1902 catalog and does not appear in Worldcat, so it must be pretty rare. The arrangement does seem to have turned up in a few cello albums from other publishers over the years.

010Title 010Title-lores 010Page1

Title page x2 and first page of the full score. The first title page is a hi-res B&W scan from RSL; the second is a lo-res color scan from the Beauty of Belaieff site. (Note that the color copy is a later version; the reference to Büttner has been dropped and the plate number has been added.)

012Title1895 012Page1

Title page and first page of the violin and piano score. This title page comes from the first Sibley copy, which has catalog text placing it between 1895 and 1902. (Note that the piano version cuts straight to the tune and doesn’t include the orchestral introduction seen in the full score above.)

012Cover 012Title1902

Cover (B&W scan) and title page from even later copies of the violin and piano score. This title page comes from the second Sibley copy, which has catalog text placing it after 1902. Note the slightly different color contrast; the chromolithography technique seems to have gotten just a tad harsher, less luxe. Hasn’t it? I suppose that may be an artifact of the scanning but I don’t think it is; I think some money is being saved somewhere. I can’t blame them. It still looks pretty damn fancy.

The changes in the prices between the second title page and the third may be beyond my ability to interpret but here’s my attempt. I’m assuming the M above the line is Marks, and the R below is Rubles. This seems confirmed by the “Pf.” over “Cop.” for the cheapest items: “pfennig” and “copeck,” I take it. What we see here is that from 1886–1895, everything cost exactly twice as many marks as rubles, but after 1902 or thereabouts, a mark has dropped to be 7/20 of a ruble (from 10/20). Since the printing is all done in Leipzig, the German price of the full score stays fixed and the Russian price drops.

But at the same time, the prices of all the piano versions drop in both currencies, and not by a consistent percentage or amount. It seems they’ve just been repriced, I guess to accord with some new sense of the market. The price of a complete set of parts has also dropped. And yet the price of individual parts has not; it has stayed the same in terms of kopecks, and so has actually risen in terms of marks. I can’t come up with a theory to explain that. Try your hand at it.

Cui was of the older “mighty handful” generation and was 49 when he wrote this. I can’t confirm that it was premiered by Marsick, the dedicatee, but it seems likely. I found a reference to Marsick performing it in Moscow in December 1885; it seems possible he had been there to premiere it the previous year.

The piece is complete 100% crowd-pleasing “pops” material. Sounds good to me. In fact this piece lays out the terms of what I think ought to be the standard middlebrow contract with the audience: utter directness without pandering. I never get the sense of Cui writing “down” just as I never get the sense of him writing “up.” The piece achieves not just tunefulness but a being at home within tunefulness that is actually more valuable than the tunes themselves. The tunes themselves are perfectly fine (if not overly remarkable) exemplars of a high craft of melody-spinning that hardly even exists anymore. What puts me at my ease listening to a piece like this is the mere fact of dedication to that craft, far more than any particulars of what the craft has generated. It feels like the same thing as dedication to friendly conversation, or to ease, or to good cheer. A good party isn’t one where people necessarily say memorable things, it’s one where people all tacitly and mutually agree that it’s a good party, and share a sense of what that entails. That there is so much that is tacit and mutual about the culture of salon art — which is what the Belaieff catalogue ultimately is — to me can only ever be a positive thing. I just don’t see any value in marking it up with socio-political annotations. I may not be a rich 19th century St. Petersburger, but the music is treating me like I am, so what’s to complain about?

I’m aware of only one recording, of 21 minutes: Nishizaki, Hong Kong/Schermerhorn 1984. This is perfectly passable and listenable, especially in the middle two movements, which seem to be easier. The ensemble gets a little ragged in the first movement, and the last movement could stand a good deal more atmosphere and drama, not to mention flair. Nonetheless, I appreciate that in their unimaginative approach, these players have hit on basically the right attitude: “this music works, so we’re just going to play it.” They play it like a pit orchestra, which is to say like players who are relaxed because they know the attention is elsewhere. All musicians should be so relaxed!

I see no reason why this suite shouldn’t be programmed at minor pops concerts the world over, all the time. As far as I know, it’s not.

The piano version is playable enough and I’m sure one could sell it at a violin recital but I’m not sure I buy it as a fully equal alternative, as suggested on the title page (“accompanied by orchestra or piano”). In its slick suavity, this feels like a fundamentally orchestral piece.

5] Rimsky-Korsakov: Overture (on Three Russian Themes), op. 28 (1866, rev. 1879–80)

н. римский-корсаков : увертюра : на темы трех русских песен : для оркестра : соч. 28
Ouverture : sur des thèmes russes : (Re majeur) : pour Grand Orchestre : composée par : Nicolas Rimsky-Korsakow. : Op. 28.
[Overture : on (three) Russian themes : (D major) : for (large) orchestra : composed by : Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. : op. 28.]

A Mr. Anatole Liadow.

10 Partition d’Orchestre
11 Parties d’Orchestre
12 Réduction pour Piano à 4 mains par l’auteur

10 was digitized at Harvard by Google in 2007. The complete parts, 11, are in fact available in this case, at least in the form of a Kalmus offset, which someone scanned for IMSLP in 2013. The duet arrangement, 12, is not currently available online in its original Belaieff edition, but I was also able to find a scan of a Soviet edition posted to the Pianophilia forums.

013Cover 013Title 013Page2

Often, as here, Google book scans have been subjected to a harsh auto-white-balancing that may have drained some of the legitimate color, and possibly even some detail. For now, this is all we’ve got. Once again, the catalog copy indicates that this particular printing is from after 1902.

Grove describes this overture as “a faithful copy of Balakirev’s work of the same name,” which dates from 1858. I appreciate the tip. They’re right!

The first version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s overture was composed in 1866 when he was 22 (and Balakirev was 29), but unpublished until the Soviet era. The present, second version was revised in 1879–80, when Rimsky-Korsakov was 34–5 and had worked his way to opus number 28. I don’t have access to the score or recording of the first version so I don’t know how different it is, but I’m curious. Interestingly, Balakirev seems to have then gone back and revised his Overture on Three Russian Themes the next year, in 1881.

Richard Taruskin calls the Rimsky-Korsakov overture “practically a plagiarism” of the Balakirev, but apart from a few strikingly similar passages (including the very opening) that’s not really fair — the two pieces are distinguishable not just in materials but in character. And I’m not sure the comparison flatters Rimsky-Korsakov, despite his being generally considered the far superior composer. Balakirev’s piece at least gives an engaging impression of wildness, where Rimsky-Korsakov tends to iron out even his most striking inventions by dutifully repeating them. Balakirev’s piece is about 8 minutes long and Rimsky-Korsakov’s is 12 or 13. My sense of it as a listener (and player of the 4-hand version) is that every compositional moment has been needlessly extended into a full musical sentence, purely for form’s sake, without consideration for the wants and needs of the material itself. The introductory section, for example, seems to me fully twice as long as it has any internal reason to be.

Of course, in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, this same kind of dutiful four-squaring of the musical sentences creates an impression of fantastical expansiveness, a timeless tapestry, not to be followed beat for beat but to be experienced as a landscape extending luxuriously in all directions. I suppose that goes for this piece too: when I let myself go and stop paying attention, I find a certain feeling of security in the unshakeably slow, tree-like quality of its thought processes. Ent music. Hmmmmm! Hmmmmm!

I tried several times to play the duet in a way that gave a genuine and unbroken excitement to the proceedings, especially to the development, but ultimately I don’t think that’s an option. The excitement is always necessarily grounded by being bound to an elaborate sense of propriety, and to enjoy the piece you need to meet it where it lives. Certainly all the tunes and sounds are quite appealing taken in 10-second chunks; it’s up to you to have a mindset that has appetite enough for a full 75 chunks, arranged rosette-style like a standard catering cheese plate.

Rimsky-Korsakov is generally better represented on recording than Glazunov, and certainly than Cui, so this piece has a slightly stronger showing than those above. Without much digging I count at least 10 recordings:
– Moscow Radio/Kovalev ~1954
– Lamoureux/Markevitch 1957
– Moscow Radio/M. Shostakovich 1960s?
Bochum/Maga 1977
USSR/Svetlanov 1985
Berlin Radio/Jurowski 1996
Moscow Symphony/Golovschin 1996
– Philharmonia/Butt 1998
Malaysian/Bakels 2004
Seattle/Schwarz 2010

Of what I heard, the Svetlanov is the most convinced and thus convincing. The recent Seattle recording definitely has the most color and kick, but sort of as an end unto itself; the question is whether that’s what you want.

001Title 004Title 007Title 010Title-lores 013Title

See you next time.

May 16, 2015

Some Belaieff covers


Here are the first 49 Belaieff-issued scores for which I’ve been able to obtain full-color images of the title pages. (Intermingled among these chronologically would be about 20 for which I have only black-and-white images, and 30 for which I haven’t found any images.) These are all from 1886–1890.

I was gathering these and then stacking them up as one of my OCD outlets and figured I’d post it.

Wanna see ’em closer up? Sorry, you can’t here. It’s just one big image. You can click to see it at its full scale, which is only a little bigger, and that’s it.

Wanna hear the pieces? Sorry, though I did consider mapping the image to link to Youtube audio for each piece. I guess I’m still considering it.

I think as many of 23 of these — i.e. about half — are not available on recording and never have been. There are 4 or 5 of them that it’s entirely possible have not been performed at all since the 19th century.

Whereas Capriccio Espagnol (3rd row from bottom, 2nd from left), Prince Igor (3rd row from bottom, 2nd from right), and above all Scheherazade (2nd row from bottom, far right) have gone on to perennial fame and fortune.

It’s 125 years later, and almost every day, Scheherazade is being performed for a paying audience somewhere in the world. That’s serious artistic success! (And note that the dances from Prince Igor are being played at one of those concerts, too. Capriccio espagnol isn’t being played today but it will be in two days. Also not too shabby.)

Meanwhile, say, Kopylov’s Two Mazurkas Op. 3 (2nd row down, 3rd from the left) have never been recorded — not even by Youtubers! — and I can find no indication that they have ever been performed publicly at all. They’re quite nice.

This feeds into a familiar thought for me and for my loyal readers: how much perfectly good culture is inevitably left by the side of the road as the caravan of history trudges wearily ever onward. (Something something Donner Party.) Actually I picture the Cretaceous trail of tears from Fantasia, where that hadrosaur slumps down to die in the dust. Belaieff didn’t publish Rite of Spring so this isn’t quite a perfect loop, but close.

But that old feeling of mine — pity the poor cobwebbed unknowns — has recently given way to a new one: the attic is just another room in the house. Sheet music isn’t a hadrosaur: when it’s left behind, it doesn’t actually die. Things that gather dust are only gathering dust, nothing worse. Shake off the dust and they’re ready to run the race again. Wins and losses aren’t permanent, just passing. Yeah, even the big ones.

Think of Pachelbel’s Canon, written for unknown occasional use (or possibly purely as an exercise) in Erfurt, Germany in the 1680s and promptly forgotten like everything else that happened in Erfurt, Germany in the 1680s. In 1919 the score was published in a German scholarly article on Pachelbel, the manuscript having been dug out of the cobwebs and looked at for the first time in 200 years, at a moment in history when nationalist antiquarianism was booming. Then 20 years later, Arthur Fiedler apparently came across it while trawling through academic sources to collect material for concerts of Baroque music — as well as for concerts of contemporary neoclassical music that could use a little taster of ye olde original. He recorded it in 1940, treating it as exactly what it looks like on the page: a quick crisp bit of old-fashionedness that doesn’t go anywhere. Then after another 28 years of obscurity, one Jean-François Paillard, who surely came to be aware of the piece from the Fiedler performance, made a very 60s-ified arrangement for his ensemble, which got included on a not-very-prominent Musical Heritage Society LP. Over the next couple years, this recording, which as you can hear is absolutely and perfectly suited to its 1968 moment, began to pick up some popularity within the classical market. Then in 1972 RCA Victor included the recording on a cross-marketed compilation LP (called, ahem, “Go For Baroque“) which sold very well… as a result of which, Marvin Hamlisch made the piece the centerpiece of his score for Ordinary People in 1980, thus cementing Pachelbel’s Canon as “a very famous piece of classical music that everyone knows.”

(Yes, it’s true, the immortal Pachelbel’s Canon apparently owes its fame to this album.)

(Is it good or bad that I got through a very long paragraph about Pachelbel’s Canon and its place in “the canon,” and didn’t even touch it? I’d like to see that as a sign of my sophistication and restraint.)

In brief: it took Pachelbel’s Canon 5 steps to go from the dust of centuries to permanent megafame: 1. Antiquarian “hem hem” glasses-pushing dissemination to university libraries; 2. One-off “just something off ye olde heap” obscurity-tourism, tossed at the general market without expectation of interest; 3. Shameless liberty-taking “oh man it speaks to us!” reimagining; 4. Deliberate “now this we can sell!” remarketing as already being famous; 5. Ahistorical “hey, let’s use that piece which is apparently very famous!” by unwitting people who happen to be at the center of the popular culture.

Probably we can imagine a version that skips step 2 and combines steps 3 and 4. And with all the resources of the internet, it’s possible that we can fold step 1 in with the others; nobody needs a little old professor to go through the dusty manuscripts at the library with a notebook and a fountain pen anymore, since the library has already scanned its entire holdings and put them online. So it seems to me that there are really three essential steps to catapulting forgotten works to fame: 1. Finding them and putting the genuine breath of life in them — easier said than done, but doable all the same; 2. Recasting them as already famous; 3. Having them get used in a prominent way by people who have fallen for phase 2.

I suppose the essence of viral internet memes is that phases 2 and 3 are a runaway chain reaction and really just need to be sparked.

So if I wanted to make one of Kopylov’s Mazurkas Op. 3 into an all-time classic, all I’d need to do, basically, is get it used in a TV commercial (or a viral video, same thing), which would immediately signify to everyone that it must always have been an all-time classic, which would thereby become retroactively true.

I don’t intend to try to do that. But it is heartening to look at the covers above and realize that they are not dead, just sleeping, and that any one of them could absolutely be roused if we put our minds to it.

Belaieff had very good taste, I think, and the lavishness of the title pages accords well with the lavishness of the music. Maybe I just have more of an appetite for this sort of thing than most.

Here’s a link to music: a collaborative quartet in honor of rich Mr. Belaieff (based on a motif that spells out his name, “B-La-F” (B = B-flat; La = A)), which is almost never played, but has at least been recorded. First movement is by Rimsky-Korsakov, second movement by Lyadov, third movement by Borodin, fourth movement by Glazunov. Third row down, second from the left.

(And here it is on Spotify. Depending on your situation, pick whichever source is less likely to insert a horrible ad between movements!)

Listen closely during this unremarkable but pleasant piece and see if you can hear the Flump! of a hadrosaur biting the dust. I used to think I could hear such things clearly — “nice try, boys” — but now I think that was always an illusion. There is no Flump! other than the one we fear for ourselves and project. The scent of failure is always imagined.

A better use of my imagination would be to aim it toward the completely reinvigorated, living 2015 embodiment of this piece. Where are the Ordinary People whose lives have to sound exactly like this? Maybe not so far away. I can close my eyes and see a movie to this music without having to force it in the least. And the longer I stick with it, the more recent and full-blooded the movie. If the performance is good enough, I can get up to the present moment. If it’s not, my present moment defines the terms of a better performance, and thus hands me the key.

That’s one way that art stimulates further creativity: in opening myself up to it, I either find that it knows me, or else I find that there are things it doesn’t know, and that in this process of hoping to make a connection, those very things that have failed to connect have ended up perfectly in hand and ready to put to paper.

Perhaps the post-Romantic obsession with artistic “originality” is a mutation of something more primal and more valuable: the urge to express artistically whatever one is carrying that has not yet had the experience of recognizing itself in existing art. In this way, the full emotional holdings of a community end up being shared and shareable. But to do this honestly, an artist has to always be open to the possibility that he/she might in fact be totally accounted for, that he/she might have no “unaddressed” stuff that wants to be expressed. I suspect that this is never actually the case for anyone, that everyone always has something unsaid left to say. But a lot of artists seem to be driven by anxiety that it might be the case, that if they just created from the gut, there might actually be nothing new there, so they don’t dare test those waters. Instead they calculate a surefire newness and give it a sharp defensive edge. Whereas actual artistic originality ought always to register like a sigh of familiarity: all that was lacking was the art itself.

Pencils down.

May 10, 2015

Dragonsphere (1994)

developed by MicroProse (Hunt Valley, MD)
first published March 1994, for DOS (the fossil record on this is very scanty and I can’t find the price anywhere)
[totally anachronistic re-release trailer with sped-up animation, 2014]
GOG package ~90MB. Actual game ~70MB. Original non-talkie version ~13MB.

Played to completion in 5.5 hours, 5/3/15–5/4/15.

[video: complete 3-hour playthrough in three parts]

Fifth of the seven GOG freebies when I signed up on April 8, 2012. Was added to the GOG catalogue May 5, 2011. As far as I can tell, this is the first time anywhere that this game was offered for free. So unlike their prior free games, making this one a giveaway might actually have been GOG’s own business decision, though I’m not sure why. A few years later, the same game was re-released by another distributor for $6.99.

The day I started Dragonsphere, I found myself playing continuously for four hours, which is not usual. Why? Certainly not because it impressed me or won me over in any rational way. Not because it was “good.” Not because I was having “fun” with it. It had something seductive about it that was none of those things, the way that games sometimes do. It had some of that enveloping power, that implacable itself-ness, that draws me along. I was getting something out of it at the furthest reaches of irrationality.

I recently reread an M.R. James ghost story where one of the select details about the apparation — the descriptions are always sparing, for maximum spookiness — is that when it is spotted at a great distance, “there was something about its motion which made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters.” No more really need be said; we all know what kind of subtle horror he means by “something about its motion.” There are kinds of motion that can seem either too fast or too slow, too smooth or too choppy; somehow the sense of motion is very closely linked to the potential for nausea. Time and rhythm is deep stuff.

In Dragonsphere, all the animations are a little too slow and smooth, have a few too many frames. Time passes a little bit over-deliberately. Furthermore the characters don’t have discernible faces; those pixels have been put to other use. Even the inset portraits that appear in their dialogue boxes aren’t very clear and don’t really have eyes that can be looked into. And the voice-over is so completely talentless — it seems to have been done by the development team and not by real actors — that some hidden meaning, some other principle, seems to be driving it all. For the most part, the game seems to be taking place at not quite a comfortable distance, at not quite a comfortable speed, with not quite a coherent psychological underlayer. All of which is accompanied by the droning spaced-out sounds of the MIDI synthesizer, doing its alien impressions of fairytale fantasy music.

That kind of stuff hooks me like a ghost story. When James says that the ghost’s motion “made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters,” note that he does not say that it made Parkins very undesirous to see it. These are quite different things, especially for the reader. The purpose of the sentence is to instill us with dread that we will eventually have to see this ghost at close quarters — or so we hope, anyway! We relish the anticipation of being forced toward what unsettles us. That which is wrong is magnetic.

At least to me. It’s the same psychology as battered spouse syndrome: when things feel wrong, I feel a tickle of excitement at the possibility of righting them, conquering them, pursuing the evil to its heart and cleansing it. And that, after all, is the storyline of most of these fantasy games, so I know I’m not alone. Everyone’s ears prick up when they see a sorcerer’s forbidding black tower surrounded by lightning clouds: we’re gonna hafta go there, right?

So I guess I played for four hours straight because the effect of all that off-ness is that subliminally it felt like maybe an evil wizard had made this game.

“Evil wizards and the men who love them.”

Isn’t the deepest hook of The Lord of the Rings the fact that it has such ghastly evil in it? The plot is that you must go toward the evil, deeper and deeper into it. I’m not sure the morality in the book can come anywhere near explaining the morality that makes people like the book.

That’s the problem with heroic fantasy: it proposes an unhealthy framework for thinking about its own appeal. That’s why I was so dismissive of fantasy for so long: fantasy had told to me to be! Fantasy stories told me in no uncertain terms to make a heroic beeline toward whatever was most terrifying in the world, and leave childish things — like fantasy — behind. I was wary of fantasy exactly as a result of being so fundamentally an adherent of fantasy. This is a philosophical vicious circle that can only cause harm in the long run.

The other night I read (for the first time) “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which impressed me for recognizing this very thing. It’s a journey, like Frodo’s (or King Dragonsphere’s), of a character who is drawn inevitably toward the heart of all evil by the same nameless subrational forces that make us as readers want him to go there… but unlike most authors of fantasy, Hawthorne knows that the sword is double-edged, and ends up delivering a proper moral: beware of stories like this. Resisting the devil and giving in to the devil are more or less the same thing, and come to the same result: leading a devil-haunted life. Pretty profound, Hawthorne! And I know he’s right, because after reading too many tales of heroic resistance, I accordingly made a haunted life for myself.

But I have been cutting down. Nonetheless I still find myself drawn toward distant ghosts. At least the ones that breathe between the pixels of stilted computer games.

Beyond the hypnotic stiltsiness, what’s here is middlingly competent enough, with a few standout details on either side of the line. It has one long logic puzzle that I had to take a lot of notes on, which in retrospect could have been handled better, but at the time I was very pleasantly surprised to have such a thing lobbed at me. There’s also a lame gambling mini-game that you have to play over and over. Otherwise, it’s all basically unremarkable “use X with Y”/dialogue-tree stuff. To its credit, you can’t get stuck or die — or rather, there are lots of dead ends but they’re all single-error affairs and after showing you the animated death, the game automatically restores you to the moment before the error. It’s a pretty short game, which is always fine with me. If the character didn’t walk so slowly, I would surely have gotten through it all in a single sitting.

What’s most distinctive about the game design, I think, is the emphasis it places on the story and the writing, which are a couple micro-ticks more prominent, and more coherent, than in most games of this ilk. There’s an actual plot twist, one with some potential meat to it! Most of that potential is unrealized, of course. But under the circumstances of an adventure game, I can make a meal of potential meat. (Which could be the subtitle for this blog.)

The twist — to only half-spoil it — revolves around the game’s unusual conception of a race of “shapeshifters”: unlike any other shapeshifters I’ve ever read about, these shifters actually take on the mindset and nature of the thing they shift into, which means many of them make a shift and then lose their intention to ever revert. When you visit shapeshifter country, it’s covered with trees and rocks that have eyes or ears, shapeshifters who, by becoming trees and rocks, also became content to be trees and rocks, indefinitely. This is a neat and disturbing idea, and the script runs with it a little ways. But then it clouds the issue of what the rules are, and ultimately backs away from the deeper implications. What a waste of a premise that could have been genuinely interesting! But oh well. Whatever. It is what it is. Forget it, Jake: it’s Dragonsphere.

When I said I was playing Dragonsphere, Beth said, “You should know that in real life, there’s no such thing as a sphere of dragons.” To that I say: maybe.

The titular dragsonsphere in the game is not in fact a sphere of dragons; it’s a sort of crystal ball/palantir thing. Now you know.

This game was produced by a MicroProse sub-studio that was in the process of being dismantled following a merger, and it seems like its quiet, underadvertised release was a casualty of the moment. I wonder, in fact, whether it was actually finished to the developers’ satisfaction, or just got pushed out the door as-is while they were being laid off.

Doug Kaufman: design, writing
Matt Gruson: producer
Brian Reynolds: technical direction
Paul Lahaise: programming
Michael Bross, Don Barto: music
Mike Gibson: art

Plus eight more artists and animators, two more programmers, etc.

May 8, 2015

73. Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962)

2000: 073 box 1 2008: 073 box 2

written and directed by Agnès Varda

Criterion #73: Cleo from 5 to 7.

(The second, current edition only exists as a component of boxset #418 “Four by Varda,” but it retains the original spine number 73.)

One of the bonus features on the disc is a 1958 short film by Varda, L’opéra Mouffe, which centers around vérité footage of hard-looking elderly French people going about their shopping at an outdoor market. The documentary images are casual but pointed, quick keen sideways glances at real life. Many of the shots end just after the subject notices the camera and eyes it with suspicion for a moment.

Stuff like this gives me immediate access to the creative mindset that generated it: I’m very familiar with that good lively feeling of being alert to what’s going on around me, and to the potential cinema formed by my glances. In those moments it seems so simple. My existential window on reality is its own work of art already; it would only need to be captured, as-is.

But I’ve encountered many works of art made in this spirit and generally they fail. The documentary vitality, when it survives at all, usually just ends up exposing the needlessness of the work itself: “Yeah, this does kind of remind me of the feeling I get when life inspires me to make something, which is exactly why it’s such a waste of my time and attention to watch this fartsy assemblage of nothing-in-particular.”

What impressed me about L’opéra Mouffe was that Agnès Varda had actually managed to make something real and personal and worthwhile out of that kind of inspiration. “Oh, that feeling can go somewhere!” I thought — which was a happy thought, as you can imagine.

The observational core of L’opéra Mouffe is stolen footage of real people going about their business, but the film is not only that: it is cut together with music and staged scenes and invention of various kinds, sentimental and whimsical and symbolical and otherwise, and the whole is presented as the artist’s musings on the occasion of her first pregnancy. On paper that sounds extremely female in form and content, which I suppose it is, but often with the poem/diary works of female artists I end up alienated by too-private symbols, whereas this was thoroughly communicative.

Varda’s attention feels complete and uninterrupted. She is equally attentive to her dream and her reality, and to the thing she has made by juxtaposing them, the film itself. This, I think, must be the key to making good on one’s spark of documentary inspiration: remain just as attentive, just as open to experience, even after the moment of inspiration! If you are going to render your point of view into art, you must remain completely aware during the entire process, even as that process inevitably changes what it is that one is aware of. Keep attending to what’s actually going on, or you will betray your real purpose and the art will die. Too often — almost always! — vérité is actually a kind of counterfeit attention, a way of aping and alluding to actual attention, which fled at the approach of the artist’s ego. Somewhere between the moment of inspiration and the final product, most artists stop being open and start demonstrating that they are being open, that they were once and in fact still are very inspired and open — which at that point is no longer true.

But somehow Agnès Varda has her psyche in order and manages to stay honest and alert, and it shows. In the bonus documentary that she put together for the disc (in lieu of a commentary), she informs us that in preparing the new transfer, she took the liberty of making a tiny edit, shortening two consecutive shots by about a second-and-a-half total because it struck her that they would flow a little better. The excised second-and-a-half is shown in the documentary so that we don’t feel cheated, and so that we can consider the subtlety of the rhythmic difference. It is supremely subtle. Unlike every other decades-later “director’s cut” edit I’m aware of, it was not done to settle an old score or change some discrete conceptual element; the edit is a genuine artistic tweak, the result of that continual openness to the work on a musical level, a poetic level. I don’t think most directors would be capable of even conceiving of such an edit to an old film, except as a kind of boast. I didn’t get the slightest impression of boastfulness in Agnès Varda’s personality in the interview footage on this disc. She seems very warm.

This has all been said so that now I can say “and the feature is like that too.” Cleo from 5 to 7 also has quite a lot of stolen Parisian street footage in it, with people glancing warily at the camera or with surprise at the unlikely glamour of Corinne Marchand strolling by. It’s so fully made a thing, scripted and acted and constructed, that at first it’s not nearly as obvious that it flows from that feeling of “Life is art already, just look at it!” But that’s a sign of it being so full a realization of that inspiration. Instead of reminding me of what it’s like to want to make art, it is itself a piece of art.

I don’t want to compare everything to Ulysses, but there is sort of a female take on Ulysses going on here. The city, the day, the hours and the minutes, these are aesthetic enough as they stand, without interference: a universe of endless aesthetic truth — against which one person’s life, any person’s, can never be fully Romantically consequential, even if it is deeply sympathetic.

An interesting thing about this movie is that despite having that kind of universalizing framework, its protagonist Cleo is not a traditional everywoman as you might expect — in fact she’s a sort of celebrity, a pampered pop singer and a glamour girl, the only person in her world with movie-star looks. And there’s no denying that the movie deliberately trades on having a pretty woman on the poster and in every shot. Yet it’s still an everywoman artistic construction Cleo is inhabiting. Her progress is to gradually shed some of her bubble of glamour until she touches down on human contact at the end… but of course the glamour never goes away because it’s a movie!

Is the movie chiding us for envying the beautiful people, or is it saying “spoiled beautiful people are still people underneath,” or is it only half “problematizing” her looks (insofar as they’re written into the plot) and half genuinely reveling in them, as nouvelle vague chic? Or something else? I don’t know, but I find it a stimulating uncertainty.

At the beginning, beset with morbid anxiety, Cleo looks in a mirror and thinks to herself, “As long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive more than others.” The feminist thrust of the script eventually makes clear that Varda sees this as a kind of oppressive role-playing that keeps Cleo from her real self. But at the same time, the film is a film, it’s a visual and magical reality, and in its terms, there is something very true about what Cleo has thought: her beauty is equivalent to life, in the purest cinematic sense, in the mind of the movie-watcher. Look at the box art! And I think Varda knows this, or at least is sensitive to it. So there is a kind of philosophical ambiguity to the whole thing even after one has seen it all and heard the official line.

Another one of the bonus features is a clip from 1993 with Madonna (!) and Varda appearing together on a French interview show. Madonna says she had at one time been interested in doing a remake of this movie. This feels fairly absurd on the surface of it, but I can understand why this movie would appeal to her. There is a Madonna-like ambivalence in it about the significance of constructed identities and of being attractive; the movie basically is about how it’s not real to be chic and attractive, but of course one must be the most attractive person in the universe to have the opportunity to learn this lesson good and properly. Because lessons are for protagonists, and we all know what protagonists look like.

The last section of the movie is Cleo finding a real human connection with a soldier who shows up and starts talking cheerfully and openly with her. But we must also be aware, as she is aware, that what he is doing is hitting on her, that he has approached her for superficial reasons like anyone else, and that this cheerful openness is his tried-and-true way of endearing himself to chicks. That doesn’t preclude its being genuine or human. That’s the complexity of the movie. Despite the feminist undercurrents, it does not actually offer its protagonist any real break from her world of chilly, brittle sex appeal. Not even at the very end, I think. It’s only an hour and a half of her life, after all!

(The title is a play on what is apparently a standard French insinuation about men meeting with their mistresses from 5 to 7; the actual 90-minute movie only runs from 5 to 6:30.)

This brings to mind the thing that Kenneth Lonergan said about You Can Count On Me: that in real life, people don’t generally change very much or very quickly, so for a person to change even a little bit in the course of a movie should be portrayed as a big deal. This movie ends where that one did, with a glimpse of the potential for change rather than change itself.

Cleo has a freer-spirited friend in the movie, first seen modeling nude at a sculpting studio. Cleo says she could never model nude, that she would worry about the artists finding faults. The friend says: “Nonsense! My body makes me happy, not proud.” This I think is the moral of the movie: life should make us happy, not proud — as should youth and beauty and health, if applicable. This is also, probably, the answer to any questions about why this movie can be rather arbitrarily about a head-turning Hitchcock blonde and still be feminist: because real life is all-inclusive.

Of course, it’s not actually a movie with a moral. It’s that spirit of observational inspiration — of thinking “hey look, the world is already a movie, going on right now” — spun out as it rarely is, into a genuine work of film art. One is drawn into its circle of sympathy and ends up looking at it just the way the model says she feels the sculptors look at her, beyond any vanity. I enjoyed its humanity and openness, and did not find faults, because I wasn’t seeing it that way.

(Well, except… the one and only quibble I had was with the incongruous indulgence in the middle when Cleo and her friend watch a twee little silent short that Varda made with her rather famous friends. This pulls you right out of the flow and forces you to think about “Agnès Varda” and the historical moment, which is really the last thing you want in a movie. Luckily it’s brief and can be more or less overlooked.)

Connection to the preceding: a guy plays at an upright piano while chatting with the heroine. I mean, there’s plenty of dull stuff: driving around Paris, black-and-white, singing, whatever. I’m probably missing a really good one, though.

Yeah, the movie’s black-and-white. The title screen above is a fake-out: only the opening tarot card sequence is in color. Agnès Varda gives a pat explanation for why this is so, but I’m not sure her reason for doing it is the reason that it works. But it definitely works wonderfully. Besides the fact that a tarot reading is a great opening for any movie, the sudden cut from seductively cozy Wes Anderson tabletop color close-ups to uneasy black-and-white faces creates a very powerful philosophical jolt right at the outset, which throws one’s doors very wide open to whatever will follow.

Actually, that’s kind of the same as what Agnès Varda says about it, isn’t it. I guess she was right after all.

Music is by Michel Legrand, who shows up in all his 1962 youthfulness as “Bob the songwriter” and fools around at the piano in Michel Legrand style. Then he hands a new song to Cleo and she sings it in a sequence that is obviously the musical centerpiece of the movie — the piano accompaniment gradually fills out with full orchestra — but can’t be my choice here because it’s a song and I don’t do songs. (The backing track for the song actually recurs later without the vocal, but I still can’t use it because there it’s covered with dialogue.)

Our options for unobscured music are in fact very limited: we basically have to go with the short cue that brings us into Cleo’s world immediately after the title sequence, at the start of Chapter 1, as she goes down the stairs and then out onto the street. I have omitted a couple of lines in the gap between the two parts so that we can listen to more than a minute of uninterrupted music.

Michel Legrand might have written “the circle of fifths” again and again throughout his career, but he had a real feeling for it. He was never phoning in the circle of fifths; he always meant it. This bare little cue, which seems to have been conceived mostly as something that could sync to her footsteps, turns out to be very effective stuff.

It doesn’t take much to do good work; you just have to mean it!


May 2, 2015

Tyrian 2000 (1995/1999)

Tyrian-cover Tyrian2000-cover
developed by Eclipse Software
Tyrian first published as shareware by Epic MegaGames, September 11, 1995, for DOS, $35.
Tyrian 2000 first published by XSIV Games (Stealth Media Group), November 18, 1999, for DOS, $19.99.
[original site]
GOG package ~24MB. Actual game ~13MB.

Played to completion in 6.5 hours, 4/28/15–4/30/15.

[video: complete 2.5-hour playthrough]

Fourth of the seven GOG freebies when I signed up on April 8, 2012. Was added to the GOG catalogue December 14, 2010. The game had been declared freeware by its authors on August 17, 2004.

You’d be shocked at how much text was just here that isn’t here anymore!

I don’t actually have a lot to say about Tyrian.

I do have a lot to say about shareware, the shareware era, my attitude to games at the time and now. But trying to use the obligation to say something about this as an opportunity to instead talk about that is turning out to be one of those hot ideas that doesn’t pay off. It’s tedious to explain myself when there’s no actual vroom behind my thoughts urging me to get them out. These are old thoughts and remain asleep even as I try to yank them into service, so what’s the point? It seems like disrespect to the past self who thought they were interesting to steal his pride and use it with so little feeling. He’ll be back and eager to talk at some point. I leave his thoughts to him.

You know, my head is pretty cloudy and unessayistic a lot of the time, which makes this site sort of burdensome insofar as my ambition is to do some kind of justice to how interesting I think I am. It can’t be done! It cahhhn’t be done. So that’s where a lot of the underinspired heave-ho writing comes in. Even if I do ultimately get some points across, it’s not worth the haul. Some of the time I genuinely have the strength to just toss them across effortlessly, or the acuity to skip them across like clever stones. So why subject myself to hard labor when I’m out of sorts?

Tyrian is a show-off game from an era of showing off. (There, that’s already better than all the grind I deleted.) It’s supposed to be great because it’s so exactly like things you never thought you’d be able to have, but now you do: it’s an arcade game you can play at home!

It does indeed have that going for it. But like so much shareware, it doesn’t know what to do with that, other than pile it on indiscriminately. It’s like the mega-ice-cream-mountain special of vertical shooters. You know, the if-you-can-finish-it-it’s-free-and-you-get-your-photo-on-the-wall-over-the-register. It has all the taste and distinction of those things: 20 scoops and 4 bananas and all 10 sauces and all 12 toppings and an American flag and sparklers and the teenage waitstaff will sing the song when they deliver it.

That kind of narrow excess was typical of shareware days, and gave those games a special quality, of previously unimaginable luxury: we have everything now, finally. From here out, we’re living large! PC games in 1994 were living a nouveau-riche fantasy, diving in their Scrooge McDuck treasure horde of luscious pixels. We waited a long time for this shit, always having to envy those stupid arcade machines. Well, look at me now! Look! Look at me now! (Quoth Tyrian.)

Shareware is sort of an Uncle Moneybags gesture to begin with. Here you go kid: the first part of the game’s on me. Knock yourself out.

Unfortunately for the shareware model, that’s all I ever needed, as a teenager. And it still is. For the most part I just enjoy seeing what things are like. “Wow, look what it’s like!” can be a perfectly complete and fulfilling way of enjoying a game. So why would I ever pony up for Episode Two: More of the Same?

I’m happy to go to the grocery store and just eat what’s on the toothpick. That’ll do me. I’ve had some great free sample experiences. The first five minutes of Tyrian were, and still are, full of decadent charm.

Then for some reason I played for 6 more hours.

(Part of what I drafted and deleted was my admitting that I very well might have played Tyrian to my satisfaction, i.e. played those first five minutes, back in 1995. In fact it seems likely. But I can’t confirm it with a specific memory.)

By halfway through the game, you acquire so much space bullion (or whatever) that you can afford absolutely any weapons you want, which can be combined into an array of guns so overwhelmingly powerful that just holding down fire fills the screen with bullets and obliterates your enemies instantly. For the most part, a little side-to-side motion is all that’s necessary to keep everything under control. It felt more like I was dusting than fighting for my life. Dusting and watching animated explosions. That’s pleasant enough, and certainly a fine way to bask in the decadence of how amazing one’s 486 with VGA is. But so much rolling decadence can be monotonous. Jamestown was short, and the dramatic progression of each level was gleamingly polished. Where this really is The Overkill Sundae Matterhorn Special in every aspect. The levels aren’t drama-less, and there’s definitely plenty of variety over the course of the whole game, but they all feel padded and padded and padded. Yep, more. Yep, more. That’s the selling point.

There is an avalanche of wacky amateur sci-fi text to read in this game, crammed to bursting into the gaps between levels, but man oh man, I just couldn’t. Not another bite, sorry. Fine, so my picture isn’t going above the register. I still played all the way to the end, dammit.

I will give Tyrian this: none of the enemies are Giger-Freudian or otherwise overtly gross. Given the tendencies of this genre, that shows admirable restraint. (I have no problem with a final boss that looks like a big nose.)

[Tyrian 2000 is just Tyrian (1995) released by a new publisher in 1999 with a few extra levels added on at the end, plus a triumphal picture of a banana.]

Jason Emery: programming, level design
Alexander Brandon: writing, music, design
Daniel Cook: art, design
Robert Allen: producer

And about seven more.