Saturday, May 12, 2018

Two books: The Elegance of the Hedgehog ; Mother Tongue

Eastside Road, May 12, 2018—

Muriel Barbery : The Elegance of the Hedgehog
tr. from the French by Alison Anderson
New York : Europa Editions, 2008
isbn 978-1-933372-60-0
Tania Romanov : Mother Tongue
Palo Alto : Travelers’ Tales, 2018
isbn 978-1-509521-27-1
TWO VERY DIFFERENT BOOKS, a novel and a travel memoir, both full of insights into the human condition, individually and societally. I do think it important to read such books ; it enlarges our view of that condition, sharpening our awareness and sensitivity to the plight of others and thus deepening our understanding of the successes and failures common to us all.

Not everyone likes The Elegance of the Hedgehog. For many tastes it is, I suppose, too French, centered on life in an upscale six-storey Paris condominium, and too “intellectual,” with its (necessary) references to Marx, Husserl, Tolstoy, Mozart. But one reason it should be read by middlebrow American readers is its reminder that more literate societies are aware of such cultural identities: this is a theme of the novel.

It concerns one Renée Michel, a fortyish, plain, short, quite private widow who has worked as concierge in that condominium most of her life. There: she’s a concierge ; how many American readers will be comfortable with that? A sort of European version of a New York “super,” she sweeps the lobby, polishes the brass buttons of the elevator, receives deliveries, and keeps track of the comings and goings of visitors. To most of the residents she is invisible and inconsequential ; any meaningful private life she may have — let alone interesting ! — is unthinkable.

Except, in the course of the novel, Paloma, one of the several children in the building, a bright, observant, self-assured twelve-year-old who, though a girl, reminds me of Holden Caulfield for her uncanny identification of everything phony in the complacent society surrounding her: “ ‘Life has meaning and we grown-ups know what it is’ is the universal lie that everyone is supposed to believe.”

The men heading these families — a food critic who must have modeled for the animated film Ratatouille, a government minister, others presumably independently wealthy — are mostly absent from the narrative. Their wives are intent on shopping for identifiers of their social position and, to an extent, raising children who will take their place on this empty social staircase. Except for Paloma, whose first-person narrative alternates with the concierge’s in the elegant, effective structural balance of this novels, finally of course converging in a literal deus ex machina ending that has disappointed many readers but seems to me perfectly viable, both artistically and logically.

The book recalls others: Georges Perec’s W, or the Meaning of Childhood for its structure ; Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard for its moving death scene. It is often funny as well as sardonic and, think I, pointedly accurate in its view of intellectually empty, culturally joyless contemporary society. And the characters are memorable.

Mother Tongue is, as I’ve said, quite another matter — artless rather than polished, straightforward rather than complex, descriptive rather than suggestive. The author, who I hasten to say has been an acquaintance for a number of years, was born in Serbia in 1949 to an White Russian (Ukraine) father and a Croatian mother, and spent her early childhood in a refugee camp in Trieste; the family finally reached the United States in 1953, settling in San Francisco. (I met her in Healdsburg, where she ultimately retired with her husband.)

The book is a record of her parents’ and (maternal) grandparents’ generations in what was then Yugoslavia, from the years just before World War II, when Mussolini’s ambitions reattached much of Slovenia and Croatia to Italy, through the formation and eventual crumbling of the Yugoslav state, down to the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The result is an absorbing, memorable book full of attractive and sympathetic characters and non-judgmental political insights. Romanov begins with an account, humorous and evocative, of a trip she took with her husband and her aging mother — recovering from her husband’s recent death — to Istria, where they tried to find the family house and surviving cousins. From there the book flashes back to the grandparents’ time, when more-or-less secure and independent village life in such backwaters fell victim to the post-World-War-I realignment of the old Austro-Hungary.

Much of 20th-century history is the search for a new kind of security in the wake of destroyed imperialisms, and the case of the Balkans is particularly poignant. Settlers brought in by Italy displaced workers and farmers who’d been in Istria for centuries (though the grandfather proudly maintained his descent from immigrants from Montenegro, four hundred years earlier). For a time Tito’s benevolent dictatorship seemed able to hold society together, but in uncertain times, caught between the Soviet and American empires east and west, tribal assertiveness overcame any sense of community. Where once Christians and Moslems, Ukrainians, Serbs, Kosovars, Croatians, Montenegrins and Slovenians intermarried and lived in peace, inevitably the decline of social structures, weakened by interference from outside and exacerbated by power-hungry individuals within, led to violent conflict.

All that social history lies well below and behind the surface of Mother Tongue : to the credit of the author, I think, who intends to present simply the immediate human individual view of these circumstances, the excitement of transition, the triumph of survival and — in the case of her parents — transplanting to a promising new society.

The family members Romanov found in her journeys, with and without her mother, are engaging and sympathetic, sketched with a fond and expressive pen. The history is sad, inevitable, but ultimately, for the lucky, survivable. The book is warm and thoughtful.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

How big a frog? how small a pond?

Eastside Road, May 3, 2018—
Fame or sanity

ah, old pond
frog leaping into
water noise

THAT'S BASHŌ*, of course; I'm thinking about it in connection with a friend who reaches out yet again, anguishing over public neglect of his work. He is a painter and a good one. We have known him for years; several of his paintings are on our walls.

For a time he was in the San Francisco Bay Area, to my mind a significant locus of painting (as of litereature, of music, of cuisine, of so much) — an area as rich with history and creative energy as any Paris, Vienna, London, or New York. Already then uncomfortable, I suspect, with his view of his place in such a center he ultimately settled in Santa Fe, ironically itself a smaller version of the same kind of cultural and artistic focus.

Here’s the problem: how does an artist (a composer, a writer, a painter) live and work with any degree of contentment in a global society addicted to fame? Why, my friend asks, does the art community — meaning the galleries, the museums, the critics — celebrate garbage instead of the true and faithful work he is doing?

By “garbage” — my shorthand, not my friend’s — he means gimmicks, the trendy, the wannabe intellectual. Doggy art: Giant topiary poodles; photographs of Weimaraners. And so on.

I tell him I think art is always local. By that I mean the artist responds to his life experiences, with the means and techniques he has learned. So the results of his work — his paintings, poems, musical compositions — are best given to his own community. Forget the international market; let it go to its own devil. I'm not sure it's better to be a big frog in a small pond than a small frog in a big pond, but only because I think it's best to be an appropriately sized frog in one's own local pond.

Think of the exceptions as accidents. Rauschenberg, Thiebaud, Philip Glass, writers whose names I won’t think of because I rarely read current work — they are lucky beneficiaries of an essentially unjust system. Envy their wealth at the expense of your own contentment.

Of course in a just society one must make a living. In my youth I was impressed by the composer Charles Ives, who early decided not to pursue a career in music, so that he’d be free to write his kind of music, not music that would satisfy a paying public. Make a living in a related field, if you like — I myself chose journalistic criticism and a little bit of teaching. Or in a totally unrelated field.

The danger is that you will be considered a hobbyist or a dilettante. The greater danger is that your work will turn inward, lacking the feedback and commentary and coexistence with the work of others that enables it to stretch and grow.

Like so much else of the social sphere, art — and works of art, and the artists who make them — has thrived or not within successive forms of societal structure. The largesse of wealthy individuals, the support of social institutions, the whims of monarchs — and since the rise of capitalism the vagaries of the commercial market.

Recognize this, and make a living, and do your work. (And mind your business, my grandfather would have added.)

And don’t, I told my friend, don’t subscribe to the art magazines. Don’t read about the latest trends, the latest superstar; it’ll only make you resentful.

All that said, there is the question of marketing, even within your own community. You can buy my own books by clicking here. Be careful about the shipping fees!

*My translation, in 3-5-3, replacing the original 5-7-5

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Performing Music of the Grand Siècle

Eastside Road, April 25, 2018—
Performing Music of the Grand Siècle

Douglas Leedy

Continuing an occasional upload here of miscellaneous writings, mostly on musical subjects, by my friend the late Douglas Leedy, I post here a short review he wrote of a book on the performance of French Baroque music.
—Charles Shere
Performers devoted to Baroque music usually find the most difficult style to capturer is the French. With more and more first-rate recorded performances of early music available, it becomes easier to study different musical accents, including the French, by ear. One of the real revelations of musical style, and a very recent one, has come through excellent new recordings of large works by Lully and Charpentier, the two most important composers of the grand siècle or “great age,” the reign (1661-1715) of Louis XIV, an era that was graced also with music by d’Anglebert, Corbetta, Chamonnières, Louis and François Couperin, Visée and Marais, among others. the musical style of this period, important enough in itself, has special significance because of its influence on music outside France from Purcell to Bach and beyond into the classical style.

A remarkable new book that providers almost everything you need to know about the elusive, elegant grand siècle style is Betty Bang Mather’s Dance Rhythms of the French Baroque, modestly subtitled “A Handbook for Performance” (Indiana University Press, 1987; $37.50). The title of the book is a bit misleading; it is more for singers and instrumentalists than for dancers. But by presenting grand siècle music from the point of view of the dance (which was inseparable, in France, at least, from almost all secular music of the era), while at the same time making the connection to verse rhythm and poetic rhetoric, Mrs. Mather gives us important and truly indispensable insights into the music. As she says in her preface, “Our chief goal is to help modern performers give life and soul to French Baroque dance music through understanding why French dancing masters, librettists, composers, dancers, singers,, and instrumentalists created and articulated music as they did.”

Beginning with a lucid discussion of those two great opposites, Reason and the Passions, which grand siècle musical rhetoric unites, Mrs. Mather devotes chapters in turn to the subject of guitar strumming patterns, poetic rhythm, rhetorical proportions (what we would call “form”), tempo and meter, text pronunciation, and bowing and articulation on different instruments. Dance steps (and the progression of larger dance units, similar to the musical phrase or period) are carefully described and explained, beginning with the simpler Renaissance steps that led to the dance types of the grand siècle. Mrs. Mather is a specialist in Baroque woodwinds, and her mastery of the French style is evident in her sure-handed synthesis of its components.

It is as difficult to describe a dance-step in words as to describe how to play a musical instrument. The author does an admirable job, including also a brief instruction on interpreting the visually elegant 18th-century dance notations of Feuillet. Most musicians with a burning desire to try the steps — and the physical movements of the dance convey an unexpected wealth of insights and clues for musical performance! — will want an expert to show them the basics.

There may be as few frustrations for users of this book: Some of the author’s explanations fall short, some of the terminology confusing or cumbersome (“arsic-thetic,” for example), the subject of “affect” seems slighted, and some important terms (e.g., “break,” “petite reprise,” “mensural proportion”) are not defined clearly and are not to be found in the index. A glossary of terms would be very helpful.

Yet it would be hard to name a single volume with so much information on this subject: One of its useful features is that it summarizes recent research in a number of related areas, for example, on the controversy over the rhythmic interpretation of ornaments. The last third of the book takes up in detail 15 dance types from allemande, through folies and menuet, to saraband, giving for each one the tempo, dance steps, typical guitar rhythms and bowing patterns among other information. To get the most out of this part of the book, the previous chapters, cumulative in effect, need to pretty well understood. The reader especially can’t afford to skim over the presentation of the rhythmic patterns derived from Greek poetic meter. Those were considered by musicians of the time to be the rhythmic basis of dance music; for us today they provide some surprisingly valuable information for performers — it can make a difference, for example, in triple meter whether the figure dotted quarter-eighth-quarter* is interpreted as a “divided trochee” or as a “ternary dactyl.”

The book abounds in musical illustrations, both instrumental and vocal, and at its close Mrs. Mather appends six complete “dance songs,” mostly by Lully, which in effect summarize her study. This is an essential — and enjoyable — book for any performer or devotee of Baroque music.

Screen Shot 2018 04 18 at 4 07 04 PM

Saturday, April 21, 2018


Portland, Oregon, April 21, 2018—
Today, a bright spring day here, is my youngest granddaughter's wedding day.

Edmund Spenser wrote his Epithalamion to celebrate his wedding, on June 21, 1594, to Elizabeth Boyle. In twenty-four stanzas he describes the entire wedding day, beginning while it is still dark and he anxiously waits for his bride to awake, continuing through the actual ceremony, and ending with the hope that “the sweet pleasures of theyr loves delight… may raise a large posterity, Which from the earth, which they may long possesse, With lasting happinesse” may finally rise to heaven.

The poem is long, complex, and intricate, like marriage itself, with reference to both Greek mythology and Christian symbol. It has a complex pattern of rhyme and meter; it numbers 365 lines, for example, one for each day of the year.

Spenser’s language is early modern English, which sounds quite different from our English, more French, and without silent vowels. I have kept the original rhyme and meter as much as possible while slightly adapting the original meaning to this special day, “forever holy” to many of us.

Stanza 14, from Epithalamion

Now al is done; bring home the bride againe,
Bring home the triumph of our victory,
Bring home with you the glory of her gaine,
With joyance bring her and with jollity.
Never had man more joyfull day then this,
Whom heaven would heape with blis.
Make feast therefore now all this live long day,
This day for ever to me holy is,
Poure out the wine without restraint or stay,
Poure not by cups, but by the belly full,
Poure out to all that wull,
And sprinkle all the postes and wals with wine,
That they may sweat, and drunken be withall.
Crowne ye God Bacchus with a coronall,
And Hymen also crowne with wreathes of vine,
And let the Graces daunce unto the rest;
For they can doo it best:
The whiles the maydens doe theyr carroll sing,
To which the woods shal answer and theyr eccho ring.

my adaptation:

It’s done: you’re married, Framza, with a single name,
And soon be on your way to your own home —
Fly home in glory, happier than you came.
Where doesn’t matter: Portland, Venice, Rome —
No one has seen a day more joyful than this one,
No matter how much favor he’s been shown.
Let’s party on, the rest of this whole day!
This day will always be holy to you—
Pour out the wine! No measure, no delay,
No half-full glasses: fill them to the brim
Pour out for her and him.
Sprinkle wine on the door-posts and the walls;
Let them get drunk and happy just like us!
And crown the jolly god of wine, Bacchus,
Vine leaves for Hymen, for the god of marriage calls.
Let the Three Graces dance among the rest,
For they can do it best,
While all the maidens sing their wedding song
And all of Nature answers back the whole day long.

—for the wedding of Francesca and Hamza, April 21, 2018

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Three years since Leedy left

Bhishma at the harpsichord  A Basart
Eastside Road, March 28, 2018—

IT IS SOME TIME since I have posted, and longer, much longer, since I have posted about my late friend the composer and scholar Douglas Leedy/Bhishma Xenotechnites. This is the third anniversary of his death, which I wrote about at the time.

Flawed, no doubt, as are we all: but a gentleman and a scholar, and a noble man. He lived alone, almost a recluse at the end of his life, though when we met, in the middle 1960s, he was friendly and gregarious, a quick wit and a pleasure in groups.

He played French horn, and harpsichord (as you see), and various Indian instruments, and harp, and recorders, and mbira, to my personal knowledge. He sang with a quiet, rather intense voice, very melodic.

He was a marvelously gifted mimic who could jump from Groucho Marx's voice to Bernie Sanders or Janet Yellen or Pierre Boulez or an Indian railway conductor at the snap of a finger. He read Greek, Latin, Italian, French, German, Polish, and English (and had little patience at my linguistic laziness but was always ready to help).

Enormously well read, opinionated, respectful, credit where due, no suffering fools.

Fastidious at the table, in the kitchen, with his pencil.

When a very dear friend dies it's my weakness that I can hardly bear to confront his figurative remains. (I have recordings of interviews between my mother and her father that I still can't bear to listen to.) But for too long I've been sitting on various writings he sent me over the years, at first typed, then beautifully hand-written when his wasting disease made typing impossible.)

I hesitate to announce a project, and make no real promises: but I thought I'd commemorate this sad anniversary with the first in perhaps a series of monthly or bimonthly uploads of these essays. I do this in some humility, knowing he'd have reservations about their typographical appearance, and would undoubtedly have afterthoughts about the content itself.

Many of these writings are in fact drafts, and there are marginal pencilled annotations I can't always make out. Then there's the frequent problem of fonts — Greek, mathematical, musical. In the present case I've simply reproduced his own musical examples rather than set them in type.

Bhishma did not favor the idea of intellectual property; he was a most generous scholar. I hope no one will misrepresent his work, his thought, his ideas; but I feel very strongly that they deserve to be saved and shared.

Almost at random, I begin this trajectory with his fascinating contemplation on the musical interval of the fourth:


You can download the essay as a pdf
You can download the essay as an e-book

Let me know if you find egregious errors, or if you have comments to share.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Steak and potatoes

ST. VALENTINE has come and gone, bringing Ash Wednesday with him — a curious and perhaps ominous conjunction that I don't recall ever experiencing before. But perhaps it means nothing.

Dinner last night was superb: Cook found a fine thick rib-eye at the local meat counter, and prepared it inspired by a recent NY Time recipe by David Tanis involving salt and pepper, garlic and rosemary. The steak sweats in those flavorings half an hour or so, and is then cooked on one side in a very hot skillet, then turned and finished in the oven.

Potatoes as she often cooks them, in butter, with salt, pepper, garlic, and chopped parsley.

We did not have salad: instead, my favorite green leafy (well, one of them): Swiss chard.

     🍷Dolcetto, Pecchenino "San Luigi" (Dogliani), 2016: ottimo, as the Italians say, simply the best.

Best of all, there was enough left of this feast (except for the chard) to have exactly the same meal tonight!

RESTAURANTS VISITED, with information and rating: 2016      2015     2017

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

’Pataphysical Mechanisms

Charlotte Posenenske: Series D Square Tubes
Photo: Johnna Arnold
on view at The Wattis Institute
through Feb. 24, 2018
Eastside Road, February 13, 2018—
MUCH CAN BE SAID — or written — about the show closing soon at the Wattis Institute, which, in the words of its curator Anthony Huberman,
test[s] existing systems with inefficient mechanisms, impossible tools, and elaborate protocols that misalign outputs from their inputs.

A precursor of the show was Pontus Hultén's memorable (and Walter Benjamin-haunted) The Machine at the End of the Mechanical Age, which the lamented Henry Hopkins brought to the old San Francisco Museum of Art fifty years ago. That show, though, pondered machines, while this one ponders mechanism: the workings of machinery, whether physical machinery of substance or metaphorical machinery of concept.

(Mechanism:machine :: mind:brain)

Another ghost haunting the Wattis Instituter: Marcel Duchamp. At every turn. On entering, Charlotte Posenenske's marvelous make-to-order sculptures assembled by gallery staff, from industrial ductwork, to Posenenske's instructions. They immediately recall Duchamp's Pulled at Four Pins and Malic Molds, which I believe were inspired by Duchamp's amused liking for sheet metal installations of various kinds, particularly rooftop installations.

(Of course I'm influenced by personal biography: my father was a sheet metal worker; I grew up smelling muriatic acid and solder and contemplating, fascinated, the emergence of three-dimensional forms from two-dimensional sheets of tinplate.)

Pushing the mind-body metaphor, Posenenske's duct-sculptured is inescapably figurative. The pathetic fallacy of the Industrial Age is the equivalence of mankind and machine. Fallacy has always its humorous side, the humor of absurd inevitability; Posenenske's work is the perfect introduction to the show.

Danh Vo: Twenty- two Traps
Photo: Johnna Arnold
Further into the Wattis galleries you stumble into a sculptural installation of iron spring traps, most of them likely from the 19th century — traps whose intended prey ranged from rats to bears. Duchamp's Trébuchet comes to mind: a strip of oak flooring with four ordinary coat-hooks attached to it, to be screwed down the floor to trap the unwary. One concept of conceptual art is its forcing of the viewer's mind to ponder — that word again — the continually expanding ramifications of the ideas implicit in the seen work, and rarely has "work" been a more appropriate word for it.

Has Mechanisms trapped you yet? Then perhaps it's time to consider the beautiful, pristine, contemplative, dedicated and disciplined work of the late Jay De Feo: a series of her inimitable mixed-media drawings on one wall, an installation of a grid of Xerox manipulations on another. In general De Feo worked from a real and ordinary object (a familiar readymade?), utterly divorcing it from its usual context, considering it as a three-dimensional thing valuable, for the moment, for her, as a bearer of form, defined by the curves and sheen of its surface, and above all a challenge (always successfully met) to the expressive ability of her hand and arm.

You see this in the mixed-media drawings, of course, whose beauty and truth led me to this installation in the first place; but also in the wonderful Xerox manipulations which, again, reduce three dimensions to two, another challenge to the mind's comprehension of what the eye sees.

Louise Lawler: Formica
(adjusted to fit, distorted for the times,
slippery slope 1)

Photo: Johnna Arnold
Now we're ready for Louise Lawler, who prints her photographs specifically for the site displaying them. Formica (adjusted to fit, distorted for the times, slippery slope 1) is perhaps an extreme example of this: normally she stretches her photograph in one dimension or the other in order to make it fit the dimensions of the exhibition space; in this case she also distorts it, partly to mimic the curvature of the roof above, partly (no doubt) to refer to the distorting manifolds of the intellectual subject of the exhibition. And, the artist specifies, to reflect the distortion of the res publica since the most recent presidential election.

(It should be noted that the subjects of Lawler's photographs are themselves works of art, photographed as they are installed in galleries, that their display in other settings will be a kind of transplanting, thus a function within a cultural and societal mechanism.)

Another side of De Feo's example is explored in the elegant small sculptures of Zarouhie Abdalian, who chooses small metal hand tools, refines and nickel-plates them, and then assembles them into compositions without in any way attaching them to one another. You're forgiven for recalling a chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table. If you bump the sculpture stand (please don't) the assemblage is likely to fall apart and gallery staff will have to reassemble it (recalling their assembly, though with bolts and nuts, of the sections of Posenenske's ductwork). Another trap.

There seem to be endless discoveries in this installation. One more: Aaron Flint Jamison's Greaser, a slab of purpleheart (hardwood) formed of invisibly joined pieces, nearly twelve feet tall and perhaps half an inch thick, with a machine attached to its midsection causing it to vibrate nervously to a resonant frequency. The elegance of anxiety, or of excitation.

Mechanisms is accompanied by a catalog whose abstraction and intricacy requires more concentrated attention than I have had time to give until now; I hope to remedy this. There is also an extremely helpful guide to the exhibition with floor plans and detailed descriptions. The entire affair — exhibition, concept, catalog, individual works — can be exhausting, invigorating, meaningful, or overwhelming, depending on your mood and state of mind. So are we ever victims of our surroundings.

CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, 360 Kansas Street, San Francisco; (415) 355-9670