Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Duchamp Opera


I'M THINKING ALOUD, or rather my fingers are, mulling over what on earth I'm going to say for half an hour this evening about my Duchamp opera. Marcel Duchamp worked on his Large Glass, La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même, for twelve or fourteen years, definitively abandoning the project in 1923. It's two things: 1) a painting on glass, say two meters high, painted in mixed media (oil paint, lead foil, lead wire, dust, varnish) on two panes of glass; 2) a collection of notes, memos, and drawings that accumulated over the years he was working on the thing and was subsequently published in at least three different collections.

One of those collections, The Green Box, was published in a typographical version by the English artist Richard Hamilton, translated into English by George Heard Hamilton, in the early 1960s; this was my introduction to Duchamp. Soon afterward, the first retrospective of Duchamp's work was given by the Pasadena Museum; Lindsey and I borrowed Mom's car and drove down to see it. I was hooked.

two pages of The Green Box

I'd already begun setting some of those notes and memos to music, working right in my copy of Hamilton's book; before long it became clear I was thinking of an opera. The Large Glass seemed to me to be a deep, detailed, resonant and serene landscape, and as Gertrude Stein says landscapes are suitable for only two things, battlefields and plays. We mostly all prefer plays, and I prefer my plays with sound.

That was 1964-1965. Two years later an early version of the music was performed in Berkeley, in October 1967. The next May Duchamp died. I was then working at KQED, and I wrote and produced a 40-minute obituary program, describing the evolution of Duchamp's work from his earliest paintings through to a guided tour of the Large Glass. For that purpose I made a fullsize replica of The Glass, paintings its elements on sheets of acetate.

In the meantime I'd been reading the growing number of books about Duchamp and his work, learning enough French and Italian to handle some of the best, and translating about half of Jean Suquet's Le Miroir de la mariée. And when in the middle 1970s we were able to begin traveling in Europe one of my first projects was to make a sort of pilgrimage of the places Duchamp had lived in, photographing them. On one occasion I even met his widow, Teeny Duchamp: Why didn't you visit us, she asked; I didn't want to intrude on you, I answere; The ones you want to visit always feel that way, she answered.

portable cardboard model stageset

I made a traveling kit of things related to The Large Glass and to my projected opera: a collapsible cardboard model stageset, with flying or detachable set-pieces, some repeating Duchamp's imagery, others things of my own — that's the score to Variations, for harp and percussion, on the back wall stage left. With it of course went the Hamilton edition of The Green Box and my steadily growing collection of manuscript pages and drawings.

In 1980, I think it was, the first scene of the first act was staged in San Francisco, with a young John Adams conducting the Conservatory New Music Ensemble. Somewhere I have a grainy black-and-white video of the event, which was not entirely successful. By then I was teaching part-time at Mills College, and in 1984, there, the entire first act was staged, in a wonderful mise-en-scène by the dancer Margaret Fisher, and the first three scenes of the second act were performed in concert form.

Margaret Fisher's model stageset
We were working toward a complete production, to be given a year or two later at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but the funding was lost.

There exists an audio recording of the Mills College performance, though the original recording was lost in the Oakland Hills fire. The video of the Mills College performance is unfortunately only of archival interest. When the full production in San Francisco was scuttled I lost interest in the opera and turned to other things. I don't know if I'd want to have to work on a complete production, in the unlikely event one ever becomes possible. Some things are best left mythic.
Okay. Get to work on the talk!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Bride concerto

HERE WE ARE again, revisiting old work instead of doing new work. I think it's one of the great drawbacks of technological improvements: the greatly enhanced ability to revisit, review, revise, Lou Harrison's motto was Cherish. Consider. Conserve. Create. Mine seems to have devolved to Revist. Review. Reconsider. Revise.

The project at hand is honorable, though, because it's attached to an event by its very nature retrospective: the Duchamp show in Healdsburg at the Slaughterhouse Space. This installation, which closes November 7, gathers visual work by XXX artists — painting, sculpture, video, installation — in the haunting and endlessly beautiful atmosphere of a former slaughterhouse. (These four photos give only a rough idea of the space.) Recorded music from or associated with my Duchamp opera runs continuously as you investigate the exhibition.

IMG_0747.jpg IMG_0746.jpg

Among the events associated with the exhibition is a short talk I'll be giving next week, describing the translation of Duchamp's painting to the rather different medium of staged opera. I've written about this before on this blog; today, since I just finished re-notating its first movement, I'll introduce you to my concerto for violin with harp, percussion, and small orchestra, one of two solo concerti concealed within the long fourth scene of the second act of the opera. There a solo piano often represents the Bachelors; the violin represents the Bride. Both have prominent roles in a Ballet with chorus and vocal soloists in that scene, and much of the music can be extracted, stripped of its vocal material, and performed as purely instrumental works. The piano concerto has yet to be realized, though a version of it has appeared as a solo work, the Sonata: Bachelor Machine of 1989.
For that matter the Violin Concerto has not yet been fully realized, even though it, like the rest of this long scene, was completed in 1985: the opening movement, which contains a number of passages written in non-standard “graphic” notation, has yet to be transcribed and performed. In 1989 I extracted the second, third, and fourth movements of the concerto for the Cabrillo Music Festival, where it was performed on a concert of works in progress. I was told the Concerto was particularly interesting to the program committee because of its many silences and light texture, and there was some dismay when I mentioned that I hadn’t yet finished putting notes in.

One small joke in the score is its snare drum: the part was lifted literally, and without permission, from Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra (1959). After the concert, when I asked what he thought of my concerto, he suggested that I transpose the whole thing up an octave. When I told him that I’d lifted his snare drum part, he suggested that I should have taken the solo violin part.

There remains the question of what this Violin Concerto is “about.” Beni Shinohara, who played the piece beautifully, asked that very question while the piece was in rehearsal, and I told her about one of the underlying themes of Duchamp’s painting — its ironic erotic atmosphere, in which the Bride, always swaying out of the Bachelors’ reach, remains in a constant state of unrelieved excitement. “I thought it was something like that,” Beni replied, and played it beautifully.

I've entered these notes, a snapshot of the opening measures of the score, a .pdf of the Romance which served as the opening movement, and an .mp3 of the opening of the performance of that movement on my website.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Food, art, community

I WROTE ABOUT last Saturday's Futurist Banquet over at Eating Every Day, but find I have more to say about it; and comments more general than my eating blog is meant to convey. Over there I simply record the day's intake, really, though of course I hope there's occasionally something more interesting than the daily inventory. There I list and describe; here I usually intend something more speculative or fanciful. There I hew to discipline: I may go a day without posting, but never three. Here I would like to publish frequently, but more frequently, especially lately, find reasons to abstain.

But this Futurist Banquet — now there was something to experience, to celebrate, to consider, to think over. And the more I think about it, the more I discuss it, the deeper and more complex, even dense and manifold, it becomes.

I can't give the event justice; that would be a scholar's work, certainly a critic's. I've only seen two other discussions of the event so far, here and here; each has better photographs than mine, the first of them has video as well. Each of them steered me further to the webpage describing the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's series of events connected to its show Metal + Machine + Manifesto = Futurism's First 100 Years, among which this banquet was the only event I attended. (If I lived closer to San Francisco I'd have attended others.)

(Since writing that paragraph — this blogging sometimes spans a couple of days — I've found much the best account, written by Marcia Gagliardi for her Tablehopper blog, here, complete with links to a number of YouTube videos and Flickr still photos.)

Here's what SFMOMA promised us:
Feeding on Futurism's appetite for destruction, OPENrestaurant revisits F. T. Marinetti's provocative Futurist Cookbook from 1932 — which combined polemics with actual recipes designed to transform society — and realigns the movement's arguably fascist palate with a more sustainable approach to life. Look for cyclists delivering a locally sourced "wild beast" and a women-only kitchen carving edible sculptures against a backdrop of stadium seating, emergency sirens, and spinning walls. Guests attending this clamorous banquet can expect to exalt in sounds, smells, and constant motion, and delight in, among other things, beef ice-cream cones, avocado cocktails, and flying panforte.
All this added up to a sort of closing bookend to a mute conversation I've been having with myself (and, in my imagination, with Curtis Faville) about the position of cuisine among the items generally though of as making up a culture. The opening of that conversation has to do with the significance, now in the early 21st century, of cuisine as an "art," whatever that is. This close is not about art; it's about rite. (I'm aware of Walter Benjamin's comments on the links between the two.)

The Futurist Banquet was given, after all, in the context of "high art"; the locally much-vaunted SFMOMA building was intended as its architect to be a sort of contemporary cathedral, a great public space offering refuge, reflection, but also social and even commercial activity, just as did the great buildings of the European age of cathedrals (and, though he didn't say so, the earlier one of the great Mediterranean-basin mosques). (I write this from memory: I interviewed Mario Botta a number of years ago, when his design for the building was first announced.)

I disliked the building when it was completed. It's too small, physically, for its ambitions; it keeps changing its mind about its materials; its reliance on artificial light and materials greatly compromises its evident (though vague) yearning for transcendence. It doesn't make me think of Chartres, or Winchester, or Cordoba; it makes me think of the Greyhound bus station in Oakland.

But the engineers of this Banquet overcame all this with one simple, elemental, authentic stroke, bringing in the fragrance of fennel and flesh. The Futurists of Marinetti's day were in many ways a bunch of dilettantes, men (no women) of independent means, well-read; brain workers. They meant to replace backward, peasant- or bourgeois-based, complacent society with industry, war, discipline, above all energy.

To their credit, the engineers of this Banquet — I'm not sure exactly who they were, though OPENrestaurant clearly played the central role — went a big step beyond the Futurists. Relegated them to the past, in fact: with respect no doubt; with charity; but still with recognition that the Futurist moment is well behind us. What we need now is to replace a complacent industry- and war-based society with one more holistically grounded in a more natural economy.

That smell of burning flesh and fennel galvanized the crowd, immediately summoning instinctual responses. And by doing that it brought many of us out of our individual preoccupations — fashion, tech, art, whatever it was motivated our curiosity to attend in the first place — and knit us into an impromptu community. All around me, as the 1200 feet of aluminum foil was stripped from the carcass (I thought of Duchamp's "Halo of the Bride"; others thought of the Shroud of Turin), as the women carved the steer (I thought of avenging Furies; others thought of vestal virgins), I saw facial expressions, heard involuntary vocalizings, that revealed surprise and awe and utter focussed awareness — you can see this too, in the YouTube videos — that can only be compared to religious experiences.

By a lucky coincidence we'd already planned a trip to a Portuguese community in the Central Valley, Thornton, where we'd see a bullfight, two evenings after the Futurist Banquet. The Portuguese end their bullfights with a line of eight forcados challenging the by now spent but still dangerous bull. At an invisible signal the lead forcado suddenly runs headlong at the steer, leaps over his head and between his horns, and grabs the animal around the neck; his companions rush to follow him, the last of them grasping the bull's tail; after quite a tussle the animal is brought to the ground.

That leap between the bull's horns always makes me think of the Cretan bull-vaulters. The bullfights, even the bloodless Portuguese bullfights, are of course illegal in California, as I understand it; but because they are associated with the religious celebration (in Monday's case the celebration of Our Lady of Fatima) they are exempt from this ban. In spite of Walter Benjamin, the component of RItual (and awe) are still associated with art, for bull-dancing, even bull-fighting, like cuisine, is an Art, an art enduring from less sophisticated societies, whose communities gathered around fundamental needs and instincts.

The smell of flesh and fennel must have permeated the fires on the beach before Troy, the sacrifice of Abraham, the underground temples of Rome, and the forecourts of the mosques and cathedrals. They finally made an honest woman of Mario Botta's temple to modern art, and I was very lucky and grateful to be there. Proud, too, that so much of the inspiration and the work and the spirit of the event is attributable to the community that has evolved through the years at Chez Panisse.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

There is too much to think about.

AMONG THE BLOGS I follow, using Google Reader, one of my favorites — once past the truly wonderful blogs my daughter and granddaughters maintain* — is Languagehat. The author of this blog has two enthusiasms I share: language, of course, and hats: but the latter rarely find their way into his blog, more's the pity.

I'm particularly taken by his recent entry, which refers to and includes his own translation of a short text — texticle? — by Ivan Bunin, Kniga ("Book"). Because if there's a subect besots me more than hats and language, it's books; Languagehat wrote pithily on this a few days ago. So to get back to this blog of my own, neglected these past two weeks when too many other things crowded it off my front burner, here's a gentle suggestion that you might well enjoy reading Book, and Languagehat in general.

And, speaking of books, there's Curtis Faville's assay of Powell's Books, over on his Compass Rose.

*Giovanna Zivny: Giovanna's Trifles, mainly on food and drink and life in Portland.
Grace Zivny: Grace on the Go, on life as a graduate student in The Netherlands, and food and drink, and baseball, and other matters.
Francesca Zivny: A Casa a Caserta, on life as an exchange high-school student in Italy: the food, the family, the classes, the driving…
Emma Monrad: Emma Goes to College, on life as an art-school student, photographer, and bonne vivante in Portland.
Toute la famille (Zivny): Baseball Without Borders, on, well, baseball, as it looks and is in the world beyond these United States.
Do look in on these; I think you'll enjoy them.