Saturday, March 29, 2008

Gerhard Samuel 1924-2008

…s'il est de certaines paroles qui ne sont que les feuilles d'un arbre, il est de certains silences qui sont ceux de toute une foret.

Jean Biès: René Daumal

It is sad to hear of the death of Gerhard Samuel, of a heart attack, at the age of 83, in Seattle, where he had lived in retirement since 1997.

Gary, as we all always called him, was a mentor to me at first, a casual teacher, my first conductor, and an acquaintance; not only one of the leaves on the tree that led me to my maturity, but one of its most powerful branches; and now I hear in this new silence of his so many notes, so many tones of the music he led me to hear and, ultimately, to find.

I suppose I met him in 1963, the year I studied music, freed from the necessity to hold down a full-time job by the generosity of a patron (Edith Fitzell, a wonderful woman to whom I owe nearly everything of my life). As I wrote in my memoir, Getting There:

Let it be music, then: and I began studies, private lessons with Gerhard Samuel, who then conducted the Oakland Symphony. The first lesson was discouraging for both of us, I’m sure. He went to the piano and played four notes, one after another, and asked me to identify them. I couldn’t. They were G, D, A, and E; the open strings of a violin. Well, no matter, let’s work on them, he said, and before long they were burned into my mind, and we went on to more interesting things. I think he must have known I was not a performer, that I lacked every performing instinct. I would not practice; I didn’t play piano; I hadn’t touched a violin since I was seven years old. But clearly I did have some musical qualities; while he never praised them to me, I heard from others that he’d recommended me to them.

My “studies” with him involved attending all the rehearsals of the Oakland Symphony, listening for balances in every part of the hall, getting to know the music being prepared — not only from the score, which provided the notes and the form, but from the rehearsals, which revealed the importance of situational negotiations on such things as tempo and volume, the prominence of this group of instruments or that, the psychology of communication as conductor, section leader, or instrumentalist — not to mention the composer! — adjusted their various individual takes on the music to the evolving group process by which it came to life, finally, before an audience of two thousand people.

The early lessons with Gary were in his home in the Oakland hills, a tastefully furnished “ranch house” he’d named Villa Orpheus. The orchestral rehearsals were in the old Auditorium Theater, a fine small cube of a hall providing wonderful acoustics to an audience of two thousand. The first time I attended a rehearsal I think Gary introduced me to the orchestra, simply by way of explaining a stranger in their midst with no instrument in his hands. I was asked to turn pages for one of the bassoonists, who for some reason was playing not from his own part but from an orchestral score. (I later learned he was preparing to audition for Gary’s assistant conductor.) Awkwardly approaching an empty chair next to him I stepped on his wallet of spare reeds, lying open on the floor in front of him. I’m sure I smashed two or three. He was quite graceful about it, and later Robert Hughes proved to be an enthusiastic supporter of my music, commissioning in fact two of my best pieces — perhaps more because of his generalized enthusiasm for all things new than for the intrinsic appeal of my own music.

Gary invited me to attend the festival he had co-founded with Hughes and the composer Lou Harrison that year in Aptos, a hundred miles to the south, but I declined to go, thinking it too generous an offer. Gary was enthusiastic about and sympathetic to new regional music, and had asked to see the music I’d written by then. He seemed to like the songs — especially a fairly long one, setting Dylan Thomas’s “In my craft and silent art” for voice, recorder, and piano…
One of my first visits to the Berkeley radio station KPFA came in the summer of 1964, when I was asked to join a live-broadcast conversation with Gary in an interview conducted by the then-music director Will Ogdon. The subject was the Cabrillo Festival, which Gary had invited me to attend, finding me housing for one weekend. I was in on the conversation to provide a sort of review of the concerts, and I did that by listing Cabrillo's superiority, in terms of repertoire and performance, over the three-day Ojai Festival I'd heard a month or two earlier.

Comparisons are odious, Gary immediately said, deflecting all talk away from Ojai, and I learned two lessons at once: First, you do not commend one thing by demoting, irrelevantly, another. (I tried to remember that all the years afterward that I found myself working as a critic.) Second, you can draw attention where you want, and away from where you want, by taking a high moral position.

In 1965 Gary premiered my Small Concerto for Piano and Orchestra at the Cabrillo Festival, with the late Nathan Schwartz as the soloist. He'd had the score for some time, and had clearly studied it. He asked me to join him one morning at breakfast and asked me a few questions about it: what I thought of it, what music I liked, what the tempi and textures should be, that sort of thing. The concerto is in three movements, but is small in scale. I'd originally called it Concerto for piano and small orchestra, but he pointed out that I'd called for two Wagner tubas, a harmonium in the wings, English horn (muted!), and so on: the orchestra wasn't really small, but the concerto itself was. So we re-titled the piece.

It ran a little over six minutes, and when the tepid applause had died down he turned to the audience. "Since familiar patterns seem to be more enjoyable than unfamiliar ones and we would like to have this piece something you would look forward to hearing again we're going to play it once more." And they did, and I was grateful. (The piece has yet to receive another performance.)

A couple of years later Paul Hertelendy asked me to take over for him for six months as music critic of the Oakland Tribune, and I asked Gary what he thought of the idea. Don’t do it, Gary said; you’ll be forever marginalized, your music won’t be played, you’ll be seen as a part of the enemy camp. I was surprised at his vehemence and took his comment as strictly a personal expression and decided to give it a try, but in large measure he was right, I think. And he never performed my music again, though we stayed in touch.

The last time I had anything to do with him professionally was when the San Francisco Symphony inaugurated its "New and Unusual Music" series, in 1980, I think. Gary was invited to conduct one of the concerts, highlighted by Roman Haubenstock-Ramati's Credentials, or Think, Think, Lucky, a piece I greatly admired and had studied fairly closely. Composed twenty years earlier and set out in "graphic notation," the piece failed to persuade the musicians, and Gary had a rough time of it in rehearsals; after the performance itself, two or three of the musicians made rude sounds to express their contempt for the piece, or perhaps for the conductor. This produced a certain scandal, particularly when it turned out only one of the critics present realized (and reported) what was going on. Gary was, I thought, philosophical about the whole thing.

Gary's career with the Oakland Symphony ran for twelve seasons, from 1959 to 1971. In that time he continued the orchestra's historic commitment to contemporary music with performances of truly avant-garde work as well as the merely new: he led west coast orchestral premieres of the Ives Fourth Symphony, Terry Riley's In C, Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen, and music by Henry Brant and Witold Lutosławski. He led the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra from 1961 to 1971; he convened a few seasons of Oakland Symphony Chamber Orchestra concerts in which he continued to feature new scores; he even led a few operas in the old Oakland Auditorium Theater for school presentations: I remember a fine production of Rossini's La Scala di seta.

He was instrumental in the creation of the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra, which he handed to his assistant conductor, Robert Hughes; they continued the commitment to new music, culminating in an eloquent recording of Lou Harrison's Second (Elegiac) Symphony. And, most important perhaps, Gary was the founding conductor of the Cabrillo Music Festival, which he led for six seasons, firmly establishing yet another commitment to the performance of new music in presentations that did much to persuade audiences, if not always critics or boards of directors, of the perfectly normal place for such sound in the musical culture of their surroundings.

His programming was thoughtful and intelligent. I remember, for example, one subscription concert that went from Mozart's Masonic Funeral Music to Wagner's Siegfried's Rhine-Journey to Krzysztof Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. And his response to unfolding events was always humane and sympathetic: when JFK was assassinated he asked Darius Milhaud, then on faculty at Mills College, to commemorate the event, and within a few days was able to perform The Murder of a Great Chief of State, a piece which though neglected since quite measured up, I think, to the occasion.

In all this time he continued to compose. The first piece I recall hearing was an expressive 12-tone piece setting poems of Emily Dickinson; later scores turned away from serialism toward the neo-Impressionist collage-pieces that set in during the 1970s. I recall a concert he led as a guest conductor, after he'd left Oakland, when he joined a new piece of his, Looking at Orpheus Looking, to a performance of the Mozart Requiem: the entire concert was thrown thereby into the mode of retrospection — not nostalgia, but a reflective kind of perspective leaving Mozart (and Orpheus) in their own places, but linking those places the more organically to our own.

There are a few obituaries online, from San Francisco and Cincinnati and Seattle to begin with, all places where his presence made a difference to the musical and greater cultural scene. Some of them refer to difficulties his new-music loyalties presented with conservative boards: I myself feel strongly that his lifestyle, gay and liberal, was even more of a problem in the Oakland of 1970: it was notable that a requirement for his successor on the podium would be that he be a married man. Gary was truly a man of many parts, charming and irascible and impatient and generous; and above all a man of his time, of the postwar period reaching its peak in the glorious open-minded 1960s. It is sad to note his passing.


IT TOOK A MONTH, but I've read White-Jacket, and have reached the longed-for point that finds Moby-Dick next in line.

It's this damned compulsion I have, not unrelated to a certain pedantic quality apparently innate, to read the products of important writers in the order in which they were written — partly in order to trace the apparent development of the minds that made these unique books; partly to assure myself, perhaps, that there is an orderliness in the workings of the human creative mind.

Well. My first reaction was, of the five books of Melville's I've read — Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849), and this White-Jacket (1850) — the last-named and most recently read is by far the least consequential. Typee and Omoo are realistic invocations of Melville's experiences in the Society islands, apparently quite fictional though based on his own experience as well as his enterprising reading of other accounts. I read Omoo in 1995, and therefore Typee some while before that, and recall them only vaguely now, but remember the sharp visual details Melville depicts (having visited those islands myself a decade earlier); and the persuasive description of the native Polynesians, and the collisions of their culture and that of the European and American visitors, and, more to the point, the individuals who expressed those cultures. (And it doesn't hurt, or didn't, that I read these books with a special fondness for Pierre Loti's Le mariage de Loti, I can't think when I must have read this, long ago).

Those books are fraught with nostalgia, having been written not that long after the publication of Rousseau's theory of the Noble Savage, and not that long before the awakening, in the 1960s, of the idea that Rousseau's theory might not have been that far off the mark. But beyond their celebration of the innocence, the guilelessness (at least in European eyes) of the Polynesian temperament, they were also both fresh and delightful for their descriptions of these fragrant, green, sea-bound, open-to-the-skies islands, and the similarly open (if, as Gauguin would soon show them, sometimes petulant and bored) strangers.

In his first two novels Melville does all this very well indeed. In his third, Mardi, he goes much further. He begins in a similar mood, apparently fictionalizing his own (or someone else's) experience in the South Sea; but before long turns philosophical. There's something of science-fiction to this novel: speculative, idealism-directed meditations, always grounded on the local-color of the locale — which, however, seems to tilt from the Society Islands toward some sort of fantasy-Japan: or, rather, an updated Laputa. I'm sure Melville had Swift in mind: Mardi is a sort of confluence of the third and fourth books of Gulliver's Travels.

In Redburn Melville tried something new, and, I think, succeeded. His public had lost its fascination for the South Seas, and its patience for philosophical speculation. He turned to a simple story of a hayseed New York country boy shipping out, desperate for funds, on a merchant vessel bound for Liverpool. The result was detailed and continually interesting, if not up to the mark Richard Henry Dana had set with his Two Years Before the Mast (1840). Wellingborough Redburn is a pleasant enough fellow, green and naive but with a speculative bent:
It is really wonderful how many names there are in the world. There is no counting the names, that surgeons and anatomists give to the various parts of the human body; which, indeed, is something like a ship; its bones being the stiff standing-rigging, and the sinews the small running ropes, that manage all the motions.

I wonder whether mankind could not get along without all these names, which keep increasing every day, and hour and moment; till at last the very air will be full of them; and even in a great plain, men will be breathing each other's breath, owing to the vast multitude of words they use, that consume al the air, just as lamp-burners do gas. But people seem to have a great love for names; for to know a great many names, seems to look like knowing a good many things; though I should not be surprised, if there were a great many more names, than things in the world. But I must quit this rambling, and return to my story.
And so on: there are a good many such passages. Nine years after reading Redburn, I turn finally to White-Jacket; and whether the fault is Melville nodding, or my aging, the trick's lost its interest. The observant,, thoughtful young man who signs on to an American navy frigate in Peru, and puts on his distinctive white jacket, however slight the irony with which Melville reports his moods and discoveries, grows tedious in his lectures on the curiosities (and injustices) of life on board the USS Neversink, whose very name gives the game away: there's little poetry in Melville's treatment of his subject, and much haste.

There are marvelous passages, lime this description of a calm off Cape Horn:
Here we lay forty-eight hours, during which the cold was intense. I wondered at the liquid sea, which refused to freeze in such a temperature. The clear, cold sky overhead looked like a steel-blue cymbal, that might ring, could you smite it. Our breath came and went like puffs of smoke from pipe-bowls.

But most of the time Melville, through White-Jacket, seems content with either describing the daily comings and goings on board the frigate, which are not all that interesting 150 years later, or with complaining about the harsh interpretations of the even harsher Articles of War which underlie the law of the ship — and which should interest us, as they apparently haven't changed that much before running our present administration during this "war on terror."

It doesn't help, of course, to read the notes in the Library of America edition, which divulge the extent to which Melville cribbed pages from previously published books for his own purposes. On the other hand, to do him credit, White-Jacket brought the injustices of the naval interpretation of military justice to public attention, and helped to soften it: Melville was an early member of the fine line of American fiction-writers with a sense of social responsibility (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck).

And I suspect that if and when I finally turn to my next Melville novel I'll find that White-Jacket's philosophizings and mullings-over and fascination with the Shakespeare-, Bible-, and Shelley-quoting fulminations of his crew-mates will have led to Moby-Dick itself.

I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Discursive wit

THE BAD NEWS FIRST: Jonathan Williams has died. A fine obit on Ron Silliman's blog brings this to my attention: one of Ron's many virtues is his care to alert the community to such events, which grow, alas, more frequent.

I really know of Williams through only one of his many books, The Magpie's Bagpipe [San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982], a selection of essays. I bought it (used) in 1985, in Capitola of all places, after having opened it at random and read
The large armadillo-=like lady who rattles her bracelets and clicks her compact two minutes before the end of Das Lied von der Erde is not my friend. It is from her million-headed inattentions and carelessnesses that I have tried to remove myself by going to Carnegie Hall to hear Gustav Mahler's song-symphony. Yes, "I too know that the blackbird is involved in what I know," said Wallace Stevens, and I'll add armadillos, but that is something quite different. The lady, then, must be a friend of John Cage's, who once told me he hated all music except his own, and who now tells me that perhaps the noises of the environment are more interesting…

["Surely Reality is More Interesting"]

It was Walter Pater's contention that "all arts aspire to the condition of music." Ezra Pound agreed and insisted that poetry atrophies when it gets too far from musc. Goethe declared that architecture was just frozen music. And Arthur Dove gives us a clarification (and alarming complication) in notes to his exhibition at Stieglitz's the Intimate Gallery (1929):
There is no such thing as abstraction.

It is extraction, gravitation toware a certain direction, and minding your own business.

If the exact be clear enough its value will exist.

It is nearer to music, not the music of the ears… the music of the eyes.

["Some Speak of a Return to Nature— I Wonder Where They Could Have Been"]

And so on. You see from this that Williams rambles; his is a large play-space; he turns phrases memorably. Discursive wit is my ice-cream. Now Williams is gone, though The Magpie's Bagpipe is still up there on the shelf, between Emmet (Sweethearts, Something Else Press, 1968) and William Carlos (various). So Jonathan Williams is not really gone: but I wish I had met him while he was closer.

THE GOOD NEWS: To Mills College last night, there to see a solo presentation by Margaret Fisher, dancer, choreographer, video producer, author; stage director of my opera The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even when its first act was produced at Mills in 1984; a strong and handsome woman of immense intuitive intelligence and patient expression. (And, I must add, a longtime friend.)

The Ensemble Room of the Mills Music Building (which is otherwise being extensively reconstructed) was packed, and a number of faces there were familiar from years ago, from the 1970s and '80s. There were four items on the program:

• A silent viewing of stills from the opera: photographs by Margaret and by Larry Neff, with members of the cast in Cynthia DuVal's memorable costumes (see some of these online). Twenty-five years, nearly, since that production: I really should "finish" that opera one of these days! (Why? Duchamp didn't "finish" the Large Glass…)

Letters of Duchamp, the striking 1994 twelve-minute video record of the live production of that name, a longer three-act strictly choreographic treatment which I suspect was planned for the central scene of the opera, Act II scene 3, but whose music relied only on my first piano sonata (Bachelor Machine, since there's no recording or even synthesization of the rest of the score. Malic molds, chocolate grinder, bicycle wheel, the marvelous Eliane Lust playing a piano on a platform slowly towed across the stage by strongman Jerry Carniglia…

• a new piece, Heaven's Dark Side: the body, a vocalized meditation on etymology, opposition, and resolution. Nearly half an hour long, this featured Margaret mostly unseen on a balcony above the stage (bride-space from Duchamp?) declaiming, in an exaggerated Georgia accent, a text contemplating Light and Darkness, occasionally wandering into a fictionalized birdsong Sanskrit and a "chiselled" quasi-pedantic Latin. I was particularly struck by her fastening on the Latin word caelum, which she divides into two cells -lum, relating to luminous, illuminate and so on) and cae-, relating to caecus, "blind".

This sends me online where I learn (among much else) that
Cælum is a Latin word meaning both "sky, heaven" and "tool with a sharp beveled point, used in engraving or carving stone." (You'll sometimes see this latter definition over-simplified to "chisel.")
and I begin to wander into uncertain fields: the heavens (celestial, cielo, ciel) as caesura between dark and light, blindness and vision; though the skies themselves are in fact dark half the time, or were before the modern invention of light pollution.

The middle of this piece, Heaven's Dark Side: the body, was in fact seen: Margaret stood perhaps ten minutes on her right leg, her left knee bent, her hands and arms dancing in insectlike motions, while she continued her dispassionate but strangely accented sermon, a Yoga Bride-preacher in a celestial (ceiling) pulpit; and then it was dark again, and she continued; we'd been enlightened, and were then returned to our normal state of enlightenment…

• A thirty-minute video, Exquisite Corpse, a "surreal" (for lack of slower accuracy I'll use that word) video-story recounting seven tales spun, exquisite-corpselike, in a Haifa bomb-shelter, with a magnificent score by Robert Hughes. I can't say enough about this piece; in fact I can't say much: I have to see it again, and again. It is intelligent, and fascinating, and enterprising, and rich and deep, and, I think, Important. It has discursive wit, and I want a copy; I hope it finds distribution.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Joshua Tree and environs

BETWEEN TWENTYNINE PALMS AND AMBOY the road runs quite straight, east-west at first, then turning north to rise easily to Sheeps Hole Pass, after which it changes direction to skirt Bristol Lake (dry), finally running due north again to cross it and then meet the old Highway 66.

Somewhere on that first stretch, heading east, we stopped at what seemed a new community park. "Community" seems to me a fugitive notion thereabouts. Every now and then on these desert roads — Amboy Road, or the road to Adelanto — you'll see a cluster of mailboxes, perhaps half a dozen, perhaps twenty; and you'll understand that out that unpaved road into the desert there are houses, or cabins, or prefabs or trailers, hidden by imperceptible rises, lost among sagebrush, old cars and pickup trucks, now and then some aging plastic play apparatus.

Some of these houses are nearer the main road, and newer, and generally surrounded by Cyclone fencing; and you wonder how long it'll be before they in their turn deteriorate into the careless decay of those older shacks which seem unchanged from my first view of such habitations, in the summer of 1944, when we drove through the desert on these roads.

I wonder, too, who the hell lives here, and why. What do they read, what music do they hear. Are they as struck as we are by the fragrance of the desert bloom we've come to see. Do they think about world affairs; do they vote; are they concerned about the economic situation.

In Joshua Tree we stopped at a nursery to ask where Lou's house might be found. A couple in their fifties or so were in the office, lounging and conversing. Thin, tanned, muscular, good-looking desert people. The woman had a faint German accent: she was from Nurenberg, but had "moved to Paradise" many years ago. Their greenhouse had been damaged a week or two ago by a sudden storm, and there would be work to do and repairs to make, but they didn't seem put out about it. They told us where to find Lou's house.

In town we stopped at a Salvation Army thrift store: Lindsey's on the lookout for a roasting pan. The usual evidence of our consumer culture: lots of synthetic-material clothing, worn a few times and then discarded; videotapes and CDs (but not for me); a few banged-up kitchen appliances; dishes, pots and pans whose age suggested they'd been left behind by the dead, the dead who'd died in the full course of their lives. It's nice to browse in such places: we found a rectangular Pyrex baking-dish, long missing from our own kitchen battery, and it'll remind us of Joshua Tree every time we use it.

Lou and Bill built their straw-bale house toward the end of their own lives and fortunately lived to enjoy it. (Not that they didn't enjoy planning and building it.) I wish I'd visited it during their lifetimes; I'd love to see it lived in, with music sounding — the vaulted ceiling must provide wonderful acoustics. As it was, we pulled into the driveway and took a couple of photos, then drove off. A little further up the road, the fellow at the nursery had told us, was another remarkable house, a concrete palace with a roofline that reminded me of the Sydney opera house, perched on the side of a hill and looking out away from the roads.

But we weren't on an architecture tour; we were looking for flowers. We turned up Amboy Road, driving a mile or two north, then via a country ninety-degree corner east. The mailbox clusters appeared less frequently, but before long we came to that improbable community park, a country firehouse next to it. There was a ramada, a thinly planted desert garden, and a miniature half-basketball court, freshly built and apparently yet to be initiated. It even had a desultory three rows of low bleacher benches, in case a crowd ever turns out to watch.

I will wait until tomorrow or next day, though, to continue this. Today, after getting this far here, I spent three or four hours gardening. Unusual for me: perhaps those wildflowers inspired me. Then we went to the gym for an hour. Then, on the way home, we were tail-ended, our car pretty well totaled. Neither of us was hurt. The other driver was drunk, poor man, and marched off in handcuffs. Lindsey rented a car while I escorted our poor Camry home. Tomorrow will be spent on the telephone, no doubt.

And here's Friday's twilight. The Eastside View is beautiful.twilight.jpg

Friday, March 14, 2008

Driving down to Victorville

Monday, March 10—

IT'S SO RICH, SO BEAUTIFUL, I exulted aloud, it's such a fabulous, wonderful world, that has the Sibelius Third Symphony in it, that we can hear it, and sing with it, as we drive through the Great Valley. The landscape of Sibelius, so appropriate to a drive like this.

Allegro moderato: How is it I, who am so terrible at multitasking, and who so hate distractions while listening to music, can so easily keep this music in mind while driving 75 miles an hour? Is it because Sibelius has composed so persuasively, maintianing the forward motion but emplacing within it those suddenly unforseen events, openings in the flow for melodicles, changes of texture and apparent timing, exactly corresponding to the changes in this rolling California landscape off to the right, this steady linear landscape to the left, the skies overhead? And the punctuating climaxes — one hesitates to use that word; the peaks in a ridgeline are not "climactic," they are simply events — those events, articulating the movement as do the experienced but unconsidered events in this drive: passing a car or truck we've seen before, a familiar landmark…

Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto: impossible not to begin singing with this insinuating thing, these few adjacent notes in their supple, enchanting phrases, repeating constantly because it is their nature, and their nature is not to be fooled with; Sibelius seems to submit his composer's skills to their own existential undeniability. I think with the violas and cellos, the clarinets and bassoons, and sing with them, and the horns, their two-note punctuations, and the pizzicato basses whose own distinct rhythm expands on three against two, enlarges this compositional technique into a glimpse into the discernible but subtle geological ratios underlying the landscape…

Moderato - Allegro (ma non tanto): Fragmentation; fragmentation. The opening suddenly makes me think of the introduction to the finale of B**th*v*n's Ninth, picking up this idea and that, worrying them, setting them aside — apparently, for nothing's ever conclusive, even inconclusiveness… and this opening is just that, not an introduction but an opening into something, an opening that continues to open… and then that almost willful resolution in a tune as real as the Andantino, a folk-like march that simply strides to its arbitrary stop…
Of course I wasn't thinking like this during the drive; I was hearing and singing and seeing and exulting. We drove for something like nine hours: news, Sibelius, silences; flowers, orchards, fallow fields; stockyards, rest stops, truck stops; plains, valleys, hills.

Lindsey took over a little before Bakersfield, and I looked moodily out at the Tehachapi pass with its clutter of wind-generators, and thought about the change over time: no longer able to see out to the north of the highway, that delicious oak woodland just before Tehachapi. No longer startlingly isolated, that formal cypress grove. The wind-turbines getting ever so much bigger and more numerous. The towns of Mojave and Boron now bypassed: a good thing, I suppose, since we want to get on, but I miss them.

At the four corners of Kramer Junction, the intersections of highways 58 and 395, still an arbitrary and I should think dangerous moment in the desert, we turn south. I study the road atlas, looking at the dashed lines of hoped-for streets gridding the desert off into subdivisions: just whose hopes are these, I wonder, that would destroy so beautiful a landscape? And then we come to Adelanto, City of Possibilites, where the hopes have been realized and the bedrooms-and-garages sprawl far and wide.

And, finally, Victorville, and its Steer 'N' Stein, with its life-size wooden Indian and even more terrifying life-size plastic Cowboy, and waiters carrying alarming armloads of steaks to the overweight diners noisily conversing all around us. At the next table, two women, neighbors perhaps, with four little girls and two little boys between five and ten years old, requiring repeated visits of waiters and waitresses, more sodas, ketchup, doggie boxes and bags and even cups for the extra soda; and just before they finally leave one of the little girls returns to the plastic cowboy, whose legs she'd embraced several times already, and kisses his fly and looks round with shy mischief; no one but Lindsey and I seem to have noticed.

The Travelodge was perfectly comfortable, and I get out my iPod and listen once again to the Andantino con moto, and then read a bit of White-Jacket, and fall into a fitful sleep.
HERE LET ME ADD some comments on Sibelius from other sources. First, from Alex Ross, who so admires Sibelius that he devotes a chapter to him in his book The Rest is Noise — without, however, writing particularly descriptively of the music:
…the Third speaks in a self-counsciously clear, pure language. At the same time, it is a sustained deconstruction of symphonic form… [In t]he final movement the listener may have the feeling of the ground shifting underfoot.
Eric Blom, in the fifth edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians is more discursive and, I think, persuasive, going quite to the matter of this magnificent composer:
This elliptical manner may disconcert the hearer who expects a certain amount of relaxation into decorative or transitional passages in a symphonic movement, and to him Sibelius may seem almost brutally abrupt and cursory; but familiarity with this compact and pithy style is satisfying to those who can accustom themselves to understand the general statement of a syllogism without the adduction of minor premises and conclusions.
(Dropped from the Fifth Edition, alas, is a delightful paragraph quoting Sibelius as having said "ah, bah" to some inteviewer's comments on his music; I don't recall the details.

Retained, however, is the equally delightful footnote explaining the odd spelling of SIbelius's first name, which was originally Johan.
[The] French form of the first baptismal name was first used by Sibelius when as a youth he found a number of visiting-cards printed for his uncle, the sea-captain Jean Sibelius, who may himself have adopted it because of his international calling. The young musician thought that these cards should be used and, having once adopted this name, he kept it for ever after.
What's in a name, Juliet asked: a great deal, I think.)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Amboy redux

BACK, AND NOT UNHAPPY TO BE SO — this is a pretty nice place too — from a three-day drive in search of wildflowers, as I mentioned the other day. Four quite memorable events crowd out a number of only slightly lesser ones, and I’ll revisit them here, one at a time, now that I’ve uploaded the two hundred photos I took.

Let’s begin with Amboy Crater, which we visited Tuesday (and which I wrote about here that evening). It appears first off to the northwest, as you approach it along Amboy Road driving north from Twentynine Palms. You cross a dry lake, Bristol Lake, and Amboy Road dead-ends into the old Highway 66, the town of Amboy just to the right (“town” is a bit grand, “settlement” might be better), the crater a few hundred yards to the left.

Here you see the cindercone from the turnoff onto the road leading to a parking lot a hundred yards or so in, out of sight off to the right. It’s about a mile and a quarter away, and rises about 250 feet above the desert floor. The footpath from the parking lot is also about a mile and a quarter long to the base of the cone, meandering a bit across sand and scree and taking you around to the other side of the cone, where there’s a natural opening.

Here there’s a bit of a scramble up some loose lava scree, and the footing’s not so easy. Then you’re inside the cone, with your choice of three more scrambles to get up to the rim. (All this is very clearly seen on Google Earth: do a search for “Amboy Crater” and put a slight tilt to the view.)

From the rim, looking north, this is what we saw: you can see the footpath leading north toward the parking lot, and the incredible fields of Desert Sunflowers.

What you don’t see are the other flowers: primroses, desert stars, dandelions, yellowcups, the infrequent stately lily, great expanses of sand verbena, and (perhaps my favorite) the desert fivespots.

You can see them, however, online; where you can download photos sized just right for your iPod or PDA, in case you don’t like carrying field guides. (We do.)

We arrived at the parking lot at one o’clock: the day wasn’t too warm, and there was a pleasant breeze: even with dozens of stops for photographs we were on the rim by 2:30, and the walk back was quick and, once down from the rim, easy. The morning had been eventful enough — I’ll post about that tomorrow or next day — but this was a real highlight. There was one disappointment: the town of Bagdad, six miles west on the “National Trails Highway” (as old 66 is apparently now officially known) has completely vanished, reclaimed by the desert as Wikipedia puts it. But Amboy Crater is one of those sights, and sites, that will always be in mind, from now on.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Amboy Crater

UP LATE, THE MOTEL CLOCK not having been reset for Standard Time; to a locally greatly admired coffee house for breakfast, only to find it closed and for lease between two adjacent (or nearly so) Starbuckses; then on through Apple Valley and to Joshua Tree.

We stopped at the Nat'l Park visitor center, then found Lou's house, a pretty little stucco building with a vaulted roof and the fine thick walls that come only from heavy cut stone or -- as in this case -- straw-bale construction.

I was a little surprised at the setting: the usual scramble of modest houses, too many cars and pickups, plastic bags blowing around, ambition, entitlement, an grit you associate with desert subdivisions.
It's dispiriting; but there it is.

On then to Twentynine Palms, not very interesting, and then the road up toward Amboy. And then, oh good heavens, the wildflowers. I'm not going to try to list them here: I'm writing this (partly as an experiment) on a folding keyboard, and sending it from my pocket Treo; I'm not easily able to consult references or provide links.

Let me just say there were lupins, poppies, five-spots, lilies, salvias, and dozens of things I can't identify. Whites, yellows, pinks, violets (I see I forgot to list the verbenas).

And the scent! You can't imagine the extent to which the scent fills your nostrils, and the car... the closest I can come to describing it is a just-opened honey-jar, sweet, complex, dry, floral, a bit exotic. (At one point I thought of the tree-blossoms in Tahiti.)

We drove on up the highway, over Sheep'sfoot Pass, across the Bristol Dry lake, and then turned west on the old Highway 66, now known locally as National Trails Highway. In less than a mile you come to a dirt road leading in to a trailhead to Amboy Crater, a cindercone we'd been looking at for the last ten miles or so.

At the parking lot we had lunch in one of the ramadas; then hit the trail for the Crater. It's a 3.5-mile round trip, and you climb 250 feet to the lip of the crater.

The entire trip was through fields of yellow and violet. I don't know when I've walked among so many flowers, or so many kinds of flowers. The scent, again, was nearly overwhelming; fortunately, there was a bit of a breeze. (It also helped offset the temperature, which crowded ninety degrees.)

The view from the top of the crater is memorable. Unfortunately my phone camera doesn't do it justice; you see here only a small part of the walk back to the car.

And then the drive up to the dread town of Ludlow, which I always associate with blown tires; and Barstow, and Highway 395, and then a new drive to us, the magnificent Walker Pass highway across the southern Sierra.

We're spending the night in Kernville. Dinner... Well, that will have to wait for a report on the other blog, when I'm home and have the proper software...

Monday, March 10, 2008

On the road again...

DOWN HIGHWAY 5, then, in search of wildflowers. We didn't get away until 10:30 or so, what with one thing and another, and didn't see any flowers to speak of -- excepting mustard, of course, those invasive but attractive fields of yellow -- until we'd rounded Altamount Pass and were heading due south toward Westley.

Then, there they were, west of the highway looking into the sun: subtle but beautiful washes of the California colors, blue and gold, lupin and poppy. They washed up the hillsides like delicate washes of watercolor, lending depth to the green convolutions of the hillsides.

Down past Santa Nella, Harris Ranch, Kettleman City with its stockyards; across to Wasco, through Bakersfield on its freeways, and up the memorable grade to Tehachapi. I always remember the day the Mercedes lost a fan belt, and I had to trudge for help to the Forestry station, and a trucker gave me a lift back, and somehow I contrived to fix the belt, and find some water for the radiator. Those days fortunately are gone.

(There were others: water pump in Barstow; tire in Ludlow; brake cable in the Santa Cruz Mountains... such things don't seem to happen any more. I don't mind.)

I love that country up the grade from Bakersfield to Tehachapi, and always look forward to it. Alas, a dividing wall has been installed between the directions of traffic, and you can no longer see that fine open wooded countryside off to the north, not if you're traveling east, that is. I contented myself, since Lindsey was driving, with watching the railroad as it made its unbelievable circles and spirals uphill to the pass. There was even a freight train, a very long one, tracing the route for me as if I couldn't reconstruct it from memory...

The highway bypasses Mojave now, and Boron, but there's still that awkward stop at Four Corners: and here we turned right, south, to drive down past the eastern edge of the Marine base, finally finding Adelanto (The City of Unlimited Possibilites, its gatepost proudly proclaimed), and then surprising miles of tracts of high-density condos and apartments and bungalows cheek by jowl. So much room here, in the Mojave Desert; yet these ticktacks are jammed together as if they were agoraphobe.

There was an athlete's equipment bag on the floor in the motel office, and a couple of cricket-bats leaning against the all. Cricket, I said, cricket, those are cricket-bats, I can't believe anyone plays cricket here.

I do, said the slender Indian boy behind the desk; I do, and we have three teams here.

Victorville is a city of ninety thousand, he told me; most of them work right here, though some work "downhill," which turns out to be a manufacturing center to the south, just where I'm not sure. Ninety thousand souls, and, according to the World Wide Web, 78 restaurants. We chose the one with the best reviews -- well, review; there was only one -- Steak and Stein. I suppose I was thinking of Gertrude. It could have been better.

No photos: this traveling laptop lacks iPhoto. No Eating Every Day for a few days: it also lacks iWeb. I thought I'd prepared everything. I hadn't.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Melville and Dana on music

Having begun reading Herman Melville's White-Jacket, in the Library of America edition, I see a couple of notes taken while reading his Redburn, nine years ago, on the subject of, of all things, music. One doesn't think of Melville as an author interested in music. But such was the extent to which music was an integral part of ordinary daily life, 150 years ago, that even an author specializing in the South Sea islands, or ordinary seamen's lives on the main, found it both necessary and interesting to comment on it. From the LOA edition, page 273:
Now, music is a holy thing, and its instruments, however humble, are to be loved and revered. Whatever has made, or does make, or may make music, should be held sacred as the golden bridle-bit of the Shah o Persia's horse, and the golden hammer, with which his hoofs are shod. Musical instrumentts should be like the silver tongs, with which the high-priests tended the Jewish altars--never to be touched by a hand profane...

And there is no humble thing with music in it, not a fife, not a negro-fiddle, that is not to be reverenced as much as the grandest architectural organ that every rolled its flood-tide of harmony down a cathedral nave. For even a Jew's-harp may be so played, as to awaken all the fairies that are in us, and make them dance in our souls, as on a moon-lit sward of violets:
And he goes on to discuss the possible origins of music's power "that so enters, without knocking, into our inmost beings, and shows us all hidden things", and so on.

And, further on, p.303:
So one night, on the windlass, [Harry] sat and sang; and from the ribald jests so common to sailors, the men slid into silence at every verse. Hushed, and more hushed they grew, till at last Harry sat among them like Orpheus among the charmed leopards and tigers...

THERE'S A MARVELOUS PASSAGE in Two Years Before the Mast (which book incidentally Melville cites approvingly in White-Jacket, when he rounds Cape Horn) describing a songfest ashore, somewhere down near Pt. Mugu I think, with sailors singing their native songs, English and German, French and Spanish, and none so compellingly as the Italians, whose entire sensibility seems centered on song.

Two Years Before the Mast, chapter XX
Leisure--News From Home--"Burning the Water"

After we had been a few weeks on shore, and had begun to feel broken into the regularity of our life, its monotony was interrupted by the arrival of two vessels from the windward. We were sitting at dinner in our little room, when we heard the cry of "Sail ho!" This, we had learned, did not always signify a vessel, but was raised whenever a woman was seen coming down from the town; or a squaw, or an ox-cart, or anything unusual, hove in sight upon the road; so we took no notice of it. But it soon became so loud and general from all parts of the beach, that we were led to go to the door; and there, sure enough, were two sails coming round the point, and leaning over from the strong north-west wind, which blows down the coast every afternoon. The headmost was a ship, and the other, a brig. Everybody was alive on the beach, and all manner of conjectures were abroad. Some said it was the Pilgrim, with the Boston ship, which we were expecting; but we soon saw that the brig was not the Pilgrim, and the ship with her stump top-gallant masts and rusty sides, could not be a dandy Boston Indiaman. As they drew nearer, we soon discovered the high poop and top-gallant forecastle, and other marks of the Italian ship Rosa, and the brig proved to be the Catalina, which we saw at Santa Barbara, just arrived from Valparaiso. They came to anchor, moored ship, and commenced discharging hides and tallow. The Rosa had purchased the house occupied by the Lagoda, and the Catalina took the other spare one between ours and the Ayacucho's, so that, now, each one was occupied, and the beach, for several days, was all alive. The Catalina had several Kanakas on board, who were immediately besieged by the others, and carried up to the oven, where they had a long pow-wow, and a smoke. Two Frenchmen, who belonged to the Rosa's crew, came in, every evening, to see Nicholas; and from them we learned that the Pilgrim was at San Pedro, and was the only other vessel now on the coast. Several of the Italians slept on shore at their hide-house; and there, and at the tent in which the Fazio's crew lived, we had some very good singing almost every evening. The Italians sang a variety of songs--barcarollas, provincial airs, etc.; in several of which I recognized parts of our favorite operas and sentimental songs. They often joined in a song, taking all the different parts; which produced a fine effect, as many of them had good voices, and all seemed to sing with spirit and feeling. One young man, in particular, had a falsetto as clear as a clarionet.

The greater part of the crews of the vessels came ashore every evening, and we passed the time in going about from one house to another, and listening to all manner of languages. The Spanish was the common ground upon which we all met; for every one knew more or less of that. We had now, out of forty or fifty, representatives from almost every nation under the sun: two Englishmen, three Yankees, two Scotchmen, two Welshmen, one Irishman, three Frenchmen (two of whom were Normans, and the third from Gascony,) one Dutchman, one Austrian, two or three Spaniards, (from old Spain,) half a dozen Spanish-Americans and half-breeds, two native Indians from Chili and the Island of Chiloe, one Negro, one Mulatto, about twenty Italians, from all parts of Italy, as many more Sandwich Islanders, one Otaheitan, and one Kanaka from the Marquesas Islands.

The night before the vessels were ready to sail, all the Europeans united and had an entertainment at the Rosa's hide-house, and we had songs of every nation and tongue. A German gave us "Och! mein lieber Augustin!" the three Frenchmen roared through the Marseilles Hymn; the English and Scotchmen gave us "Rule Britannia," and "Wha'll be King but Charlie?" the Italians and Spaniards screamed through some national affairs, for which I was none the wiser; and we three Yankees made an attempt at the "Star-spangled Banner." After these national tributes had been paid, the Austrian gave us a very pretty little love-song, and the Frenchmen sang a spirited thing called "Sentinelle! O prenez garde a vous!" and then followed the melange which might have been expected. When I left them, the aguardiente and annisou was pretty well in their heads, and they were all singing and talking at once, and their peculiar national oaths were getting as plenty as pronouns.

I can't find my copy, so I set the above here from the Project Gutenberg edition. Reading it, I see that Dana goes on to a fascinating description of national types and their languages. All this was apparently interesting enough to strike Dana as worth writing about; but was also normal enough to have been apparent to him. It's odd to think that the United States was more open to this kind of contemplation in the 1830s than it is today, 180 years later, but there it is:
The next day, the two vessels got under weigh for the windward, and left us in quiet possession of the beach. Our numbers were somewhat enlarged by the opening of the new houses, and the society of the beach a little changed. In charge of the Catalina's house, was an old Scotchman, who, like most of his countrymen, had a pretty good education, and, like many of them, was rather pragmatical, and had a ludicrously solemn conceit. He employed his time in taking care of his pigs, chickens, turkeys, dogs, etc., and in smoking his long pipe. Everything was as neat as a pin in the house, and he was as regular in his hours as a chronometer, but as he kept very much by himself, was not a great addition to our society. He hardly spent a cent all the time he was on the beach, and the others said he was no shipmate. He had been a petty officer on board the British frigate Dublin, Capt. Lord James Townshend, and had great ideas of his own importance. The man in charge of the Rosa's house was an Austrian by birth, but spoke, read, and wrote four languages with ease and correctness. German was his native tongue, but being born near the borders of Italy, and having sailed out of Genoa, the Italian was almost as familiar to him as his own language. He was six years on board of an English man-of-war, where he learned to speak our language with ease, and also to read and write it. He had been several years in Spanish vessels, and had acquired that language so well, that he could read any books in it. He was between forty and fifty years of age, and was a singular mixture of the man-of-war's-man and Puritan. He talked a great deal about propriety and steadiness, and gave good advice to the youngsters and Kanakas, but seldom went up to the town, without coming down "three sheets in the wind." One holyday, he and old Robert (the Scotchman from the Catalina) went up to the town, and got so cozy, talking over old stories and giving one another good advice, that they came down double-backed, on a horse, and both rolled off into the sand as soon as the horse stopped. This put an end to their pretensions, and they never heard the last of it from the rest of the men. On the night of the entertainment at the Rosa's house, I saw old Schmidt, (that was the Austrian's name) standing up by a hogshead, holding on by both hands, and calling out to himself--"Hold on, Schmidt! hold on, my good fellow, or you'll be on your back!" Still, he was an intelligent, good-natured old fellow, and had a chest-full of books, which he willingly lent me to read. In the same house with him was a Frenchman and an Englishman; the latter a regular-built "man-of-war Jack;" a thorough seaman; a hearty, generous fellow; and, at the same time, a drunken, dissolute dog. He made it a point to get drunk once a fortnight, (when he always managed to sleep on the road, and have his money stolen from him,) and to battle the Frenchman once a week. These, with a Chilian, and a half a dozen Kanakas, formed the addition to our company.
(Kanaka was the usual name for Hawaiian natives in Dana's day.)

I'm reading White-Jacket now, and it, too, astonishes me with the intelligence — meaning both brain-power and quantity of information — and the sense of communality expressed by the most ordinary of seamen on a navy frigate a century and a half ago. That, and, of course, the durability, the strength and patience. What a long way we've come since then.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Mount Analogue

IN 1968 I BOUGHT, second-hand, spurred by what information I no longer recall, a copy of the Vincent Stuart edition of Roger Shattuck's translation of René Daumal's Mount Analogue: An Authentic Narrative. It came to mind again a few weeks ago in a conversation with grandson Simon, 18, who has been climbing mountains in Ecuador. I'm no mountain climber: the closest I've come to the sport was an ascent of Chamechaude, in the French pre-Alps, back in 1976: but mountains are in mind right now, as I'm contemplating a stroll in the Alps this summer.

Chamechaud.jpgChamechaud, seen from the north, 1976

So I took Mount Analogue down from the shelf the other night and read through it again. It's such a strong, brilliant, clear book that virtually every detail I'd recalled from 1968, as well as the general quality of the book, came right back into focus. Daumal was, some think, the finest French author of his time; certainly the most promising. Born in 1908, possessed of a brilliant mind, he was publishing by the time he was twenty. By then he'd experimented with all sorts of drugs, had internalized everything the Parnassiens and Symbolists could offer him, had begun serious study of Indian thought and literature. From then on his principal physical battles were with tuberculosis, and he died in 1944, only 36 years old, in mid-sentence: Mount Analogue is incomplete.

Perhaps it could never have been completed. The mountain of the title is enormous, dwarfing Everest, situated in the South Pacific, unknown because of its capacity of bending space, thus rendering it both invisible and insensible to instruments. It provides the link between Earth and what one could be forgiven for calling Heaven, and its difficult ascent, available only to superbly conditioned adepts, has a physical property of reinforcing an egoless desire for Transcendence.

The novel describes the plans of the author and, even more important, one Father Sogol to outfit an expedition to the mountain. Eight explorers meet to discuss its probably location, then set out, with four crewmen, on the yacht Impossible, to find it. Sogol combines science and logic to succeed in the search; we visit the island; we learn of the unique communities that have grown up on its shores; we begin the ascent — and then the manuscript fails us.

But it doesn't matter. Sogol is so striking, the descriptions so detailed and winning, and the mood and humor of the book so serene and, in a word, good, that in its imperfect state Mount Analogue is perfect enough.

Several online reviewers have mentioned Jules Verne in describing this book. Oddly, Verne never came to my mind, though I enjoyed Verne hugely when I was a boy. Instead I thought of Melville's Mardi, similarly philosophical and idealistic; and of Raymond Roussel's Locus Solus, whose central figure, Martial Canterel, may have inspired aspects of Daumal's Father Sogol.

I thought of Duchamp, too: the artist's language-play and absurd physics — think of infra-mince, the impossibly small values like the weight of sighs — prefigure Sogol. (And, of course, draw on Roussel.) Daumal was a ’pataphysicien, often a very amusing one; but he was also extraordinarily earnest, without ever lapsing into sermonizing.

My edition of Mount Analogue carries a fine introduction by its translator, who notes
[Daumal] had to struggle with the temptation to which poets are prone: the tendency to conceive of life and reality entirely through language. Mount Analogue, in its simplicy of expression and universality of meaning, probably represents Daumal's ultimate reckoning with the problem of language, vehicle and obstacle.
And in fact, early on, Daumal refers to the subject:
The different branches of symbol interpretation had for a long time been my favourite field of study… Furthermore, I had an alpinist's passionate love of mountains. The convergence of these two contrasting areas of interest on the same object, the mountain, had given certain passages of my article [a study of the symbolic significance of the mountain in ancient mythologies] a lyric tone. (Such conjunctions, incongruous as they may appear, play a large part in the genesis of what is commonly called poetry; I venture this remark as a suggestion ot critics and aestheticians who seek to illuminate the depths of that mysterious language.)
The description of Father Sogol's studio is meticulous and striking: it's festooned with hanging scraps of paper on which are written
a veritable encyclopedia of what we call "human knowledge". A diagram of a plant cell, Mendeleieff's periodic table…, the keys to Chinese writing, a cross-section of the human heart, Lorentz's transformation formulae,…
and so on for an entire paragraph. Sogol thinks and speaks while pacing among these pendant notes, with
an exceptional faculty for seeing ideas as external objects and for establishing new links between ideas which appeared totally unrelated.
Daumal reveals certain laws and principles: that of considering a problem as solved, in order to get sufficiently past the problem to be able to deduce its solution. And the "chameleon law," according to which behaviour is governed by "inner resonance to influences nearest at hand."

Daumal got up from his writing-desk, we're told, in the middle of that final incomplete sentence, to answer his door: a friend was visiting to encourage him (knowing of his illness and likely impending death) to draw up some notes describing his plans for the book's conclusion. They are included in this edition, and one of them answers the perennial question, Why climb?
Just this: what is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. In climbing, always take note of difficulties along the way; for as you go up, you can observe hem. Coming down, you will no longer see them, but you will know they are there if you have observed them well.

When you strike off on your own, leave some trace of your passage which will guide you coming back: one stone set on another, some grass weighted down by a stick. But if you come to an impasse or a dangerous spot, remember that the trail you have left could lead people coming after you into trouble. So go back along your trail and obliterate any traces you have left. This applies to anyone who wishes to leave some mark of his passage in the world.
A delicious book, firm and thoughtful and detailed, humorous and poignant (without intended poignancy, bien entendu!), exceptionally wise, aware of its antecedents and careless (and innocent, as far as I know) of followers. I can't imagine being without my copy.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

toujours gai


drawing by George Herriman, from the book The Lives and Times of archy & mehitabel

TO THE LOCAL CAMP ROSE PLAYERS Saturday night, there to see archy & mehitabel in shinbone alley. I set the title in lower case in tribute to the lead character archy, the miserable cockroach hero of Don Marquis's collection of columns from the old New York Sun, who hurls himself headfirst to the typewriter keyboard every night, ghost-writing Marquis's column painfully (and unable to operate the shift key), because, as he says in his first missive,

expression is the need of my soul
The columns appeared in the months before the United States joined the First World War, at a time when vers libre and the Armory Show were introducing New York to Modenism, when New York was high on energy and pregnant with cynicism but still fraught with sentimentality.

In 1940 a collection of Marquis's work appeared as The Lives and Times of archy & mehitabel (Garden City: Doubleday Doran & Co.), to considerable success, and in 1954 (probably in the rush of enthusiasm following the emergence of the 12-inch "LP" record) Columbia Records released a "concept album" musical adaptation with a book by Joe Darion and Mel Brooks and music by George Kleinsinger. The cast featured Eddie Bracken as archy and Carol Channing as mehitabel: their songs and philosophical conversation was stitched together by continuity narrated by David Wayne.

I suppose the musical's place in history will be its priority to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, which made the T.S. Eliot estate rich but did little, in my opinon, to further the musical as an art. I first heard the Darion-Kleinsinger recording shortly after it was released, and before it was expanded into the full-length musical that opened in 1957, with Eartha Kitt replacing Channing. The LP was a favorite of our friend Gaye's, and I must have heard it repeatedly in the apartment she shared with Lindsey and a couple of other girls in the year we were courting. It inspired me to give Lindsey a copy of Marquis's book on our first, poverty-struck Christmas, in a ratty edition printed during World War II:
This book is complete and unabridged, manufactured under wartime conditions in conformity with all government regulations controlling the use of paper and other materials
(those were times when society, through government, took its public activities seriously and respectfully.)

So we looked forward to hearing the musical, and Gaye lent us LP (somewhat worn, it must be said), and Kleinsinger's wonderful melodies and Marquis's sensitive if sometimes sentimental poetry have been in my ears these last few days. Mehitabel, for example:
i know that i am bound
for a journey down the sound
in the midst of a refuse mound
but wotthehell wotthehell
and then her tomcat Bill:
persian pussy from over the sea
demure and lazy and smug and fat
none of your ribbons and bells for me
ours is the zest of the alley cat…
we would rather be rowdy and gaunt and free
and dine on a diet of roach and rat
Well, it's nearly a hundred years since archy first hurled himself headfirst to that letter e, and the cynical Bohemianism, the insouciant big-city back-alley wotthehell is perhaps a little dated. Indeed The Lives and Times of archy & mehitabel closes with a few prescient lines in which archy relays what the ants are saying:
…america was once a paradise
of timberland and stream
but it is dying because of the greed
and money lust of a thousand little kings
who slashed the timber all to hell
and would not be controlled
and changed the climate
and stole the rainfall from posterity
and it wont be long now
it wont be long
till everything is desert

ants and scorpions and centipedes
shall inherit the earth
It was about the time that James Thurber released his illustrated book The Last Flower, the first book I remember reading, about an earth blasted by war and fatigue; and it was the time, the early 1940s, when the Limited Editions Club published a book-length poem by either William Rose Benét or his brother Stephen Vincent, a book whose bleak descriptions of insects and robots eradicating humanity scared hell out of me in my early adolescence.

Needless to say, Shinbone Alley lacks all element of scariness. The musical is I think necessarily more discursive, less focusse, than the original LP, but it sure is worth knowing. (I'm told a film version is pretty lame.) Camp Rose, on the river side of Healdsburg's Fitch Mountain, is a rambling frame building whose lowest floor — I don't want to call it a basement — houses a low-ceilinged theater seating thirty-six, with a wide, shallow stage perfect for revues and musicals.

There the Camp Rose Players have been putting on shows for over thirty years, if I read their website correctly. It's community theater with all its flaws and heroic features, and the features get the better by far. The night we went Cheryl Kopczynski, as mehitabel, was recovering from a bad cold, not up to speed, rewarding nevertheless for her laconic impersonation. Bill Garner was a fine, engaging, pathetic little cockroach; Warren Weston a perfect theater cat; John Guilfoy nicely threatening as Big Bill, and the minor characters and chorus well individuated and personable. And the costumes, by Anna Settle, were quite wonderful: no glitzy Cats stuff here, but believable back-alley enterprise.

We'd been looking forward to seeing this for a long time, and Camp Rose did not let us down. Gaye's LP is now safely on my iTunes, the book's down from the high shelves, and what with Geert Mak's In Europe, the return to Gertrude Stein, and last night's reading of Réné Daumal's Mount Analogue, I'm plunged back into the entre-les-guerres: may we all soon in fact enter another such period. (This "downturn" begins to look like a real Depression: maybe we will!)


If anyone can tell me why line-spacing squeezes up after blockquotes — and, more useful, if anyone can tell me how to avoid this, and how to force single-spacing in other places, like inside those very blockquote — I'd appreciate a comment to that effect!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Shock of Recognition

LOOKING IT UP ON THE INTERNET I find (as I should have known) that the phrase originated, apparently, with Herman Melville (which makes me think my next reading should be Melville: I'm gradually working my way toward Moby-Dick). Hugh Blackmer's website tells me that what Melville actually wrote, in his essay "Hawthorne and His Mosses" was
…genius all over the world stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round
It's worth reproducing the entire paragraph, in fact, because it builds so beautifully to that final observation
And now, my countrymen, as an excellent author, of your own flesh and blood,--an unimitating, and perhaps, in his way, an inimitable man--whom better can I commend to you, in the first place, than Nathaniel Hawthorne. He is one of the new, and far better generation of your writer. The smell of your beeches and hemlocks is upon him; your own broad prairies are in his soul; and if you travel away inland into his deep and noble nature, you will hear the far roar of his Niagara. Give not over to future generations the glad duty of acknowledging him for what he is. Take that joy to yourself, in your own generation; and so shall he feel those grateful impulses in him, that may possibly prompt him to the full flower of some still greater achievement in your eyes. And by confessing him, you thereby confess others, you brace the whole brotherhood. For genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.
All this comes to me in the course of writing to a friend, Alvaro Cardona-Hine, in the wake of re-reading his childhood memoirs The Half-Eaten Angel and A History of Light. About the latter I wrote, on a website called Goodreads,
Continuing the lyrical poignancy of The Half-Eaten Angel, this slim collection of prose-poem love-letters by a precocious twelve-year-old boy reads like healthy Colette. Full of the wonder of awakening. An example: "The day you came through my door, my own private door, wearing the furiously white light of your certainty, I had no need for more world, all the world I ever wanted to taste I would taste through you."
(Goodreads seems to be a sort of Facebook for readers; it's my impression so far that it's visited mostly by intelligent and literate women, the sort we used to call "housewives," intent on enlarging their community of books. I'll get in trouble for having written this.)

I THINK ABOUT THAT WORD "shock" and wonder the extent to which Melville thought about it. The word always brings two things immediately to mind: the sensation of a pulse of electricity, as I felt it when, ten years old, I accidentally stuck an index finger into an empty light-bulb socket while scrambling around among the rafters of the communal laundry building in the small Oklahoma town we were spending that year in; and the sight and even more the smell of ricks of hay we'd cut in our pasture the following year, hay we'd mowed with scythes and raked by hand and stacked in sheaves to dry in the California sun.

I think Melville likely knew only the second of these senses in 1850; that and another sense, the disarray (itself really an orderly kind of disarray, for as my grandson likes to point out "nothing can be truly random") of a head of hair, or one's emotions on having been suddenly confronted with something. My Macintosh dictionary tells me the word is from the
mid 16th cent.: from French choc (noun), choquer (verb), of unknown origin. The original senses were [throw (troops) into confusion by charging at them] and [an encounter between charging forces,] giving rise to the notion of [sudden violent blow or impact.]
I'm sure Melville uses the word in all these senses; and they all arose in my consideration this morning of an imaginary conversation among Alvaro, another friend Henry Bridges, and myself, a conversation centering on Alvaro's paintings, which I wrote about here last Saturday. (That's Henry's portrait of me up at the top of this post.)

Henry visited last Saturday, when my mind was full of enthusiasm for Alvaro, and I read some passages from The Half-Eaten Angel to him, and when he was home again, Henry I mean, he looked up Alvaro's work on his website, and then wrote to me his feelings about Alvaro's work, and I forwarded that to Alvaro, who then wrote to me, which set me to thinking further about all this and trying to develop this imaginary conversation, a difficult one to transcribe here as I've not secured permissions from either Henry or Alvaro to reproduce their comments. So I can only repeat a few of my own, as I'd written them to Alvaro:
I am excited; excited by [Henry's] prose, by his re-statement in words of your statements in paint, and by a sudden "shock of recognition," to use Melville's phrase… recognition of my own feeling about your work explained to me as I had never "understood" it before. So your painting, and Henry's description of his reception of it, opens that little creaky door in that not-often-visited corner of my mind. But what does he mean?

I think he writes first of the spaces within your paintings (which are the spaces your paintings themselves enter in order to re-state them), spaces clearly defined by your color fields and their edges ("tiles," he calls them). He then mentions a sort of dialectic that appears between the literal images in your paintings, the animals or birds or what have you, and the quality of the paint-handling that presents those images, which (at least in Henry's mind, and in mine too) produce work in which not only the images are images, but the way those images are limned are also images, images that intensify by transcending the more literal images.

And then, best of all, that dialectic not only emerges clearly itself, but the clarity with which it emerges defines, in pictorial or painterly ways, a vision of clarity, what Henry calls "a heightened sense of clarity". This "opens up ... space to ... the imagining mind", which is your mind, and Henry's, and mine. And then, "to state it differently," he lapses into a kind of poetry… similar to your own poetry as I find it in The Half-Eaten Angel and A History of Light….

All this has to do with what Joan Retallack called continuity and contiguity, as I wrote about that a few days ago; I suppose Retallack's an unknowing participant in this conversation. And, come to think about it, this kind of imaginary conversation, web-based and disjunctive, is the kind of community that I was thinking of in response to Ron Silliman's thoughts on the Community of Poets.

I suppose in a century or two, if we're given them, the human consciousness will become a sort of meta-consciousness, the Jungian concept of racial memory will become a more evident and verifiable species awareness, originally facilitated by this Internet which may one day leave its present technological grounding behind and exist instead, and simply, in a neural network the humans of that day will take for granted, as we take language and gesture for granted.

And then there will be no more Continuity and Contiguity; all will be merged in one splendid Awareness, and with any luck we'll hardly need to talk about it any more, let alone think about it, and we can get back to simple pleasures of daily life.