Wednesday, February 16, 2011


  • Spoon Fed (Riverhead Books, 2010), by Kim Severson: enjoyable. A breezy memoir in nine chapters, each centered on one or another well-known cook, all women, who helped the author with one or another insight in overcoming various personal hangups and getting on to maturity, it falls into the tell-all inspirational category. I've known four of these illustrious women well enough (Marion Cunningham, Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, Edna Lewis) to recognize descriptions and dialogue as perfectly accurate: Severson's a good reporter. (She was a food writer at the San Francisco Chronicle before joining the New York Times, at first and for years writing about food, more recently serving as Bureau Chief in Atlanta.)

    Writing away from interviews originally written for the Times, Severson writes about her own life as an adolescent misfit, an alcoholic, a Lesbian; a daughter, wife, and mother; a journalist who worked her way from Anchorage to San Francisco to New York. She cites these eight cooks — the other four being Leah Chase, Marcella Hazan, Rachael Ray, and her mother, Anne Zappa Severson — as having helped her cope with her problems, offering (sometimes without even realizing it) life lessons. Bottom line: things are as they are; play the hand you're dealt as well as you can; stay the course; look out for others.

  • Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization (Brookings Institution Press, 2007), by Akbar Ahmed, is an introduction, primarily no doubt for Americans, into the three major strains of Islam (mystical, fundamentalist, and open, to generalize; approximating, I think, Sufi, Shia, and Sunni) as they currently respond to an increasingly globalized world. The "journey" of the title refers to travels this anthropologist made with a team of students — young men and women, some Muslim, some not — to the centers of these three branches and to mosques and mudrassas from Damascus to Jakarta.

    I wish I'd found this book more readable. It's repetitive, sometimes unclear. The idea is fascinating: an extremely knowledgable man (Ahmed has been, among other things, the Pakistani Ambassador to the United Nations) leads his young students on a long journey in Muslim lands, visiting schools and homes, discussing contemporary issues frankly with students, imams, people in the street, government officials. Much of the description is lively and fascinating, and the difficulties faced by these various Islamic responses to globalism are sympathetically drawn.

    But the author is often too self-congratulatingly present, and his students, though frequently mentioned, never really revealed in their own responses. Geert Mak's fine In Europe (see my entry of three years ago here) came too often to mind as an invidious comparison: I kept wishing Ahmed were as invisibly yet intelligently present in his similar survey.

  • Tintin and the Secret of Literature (Counterpoint, 2008), by Tom McCarthy: An absolutely fascinating discussion of the internationally popular series, applying contemporary literary criticism techniques, finding implications in the artistic and intellectual content of writers extending from Poe and Baudelaire to Sciascia, with Raymond Roussel always lurking just offstage. To be read and re-read.

    Such were my quick comments on finishing the book, a month or so ago, as I added them to the Librarything page on the book, where three or four other reviews had variously irritated me. (Two examples: "I'm torn with this book… his references are somewhat out there…" and "…a fairly perceptive enumeration of some of the things that make Tintin special mixed with an embarrassingly bad attempt at showing off the author's knowledge of French literary criticism.") A better, more extensive, more professional review by Matt Bowman can be found here at The Quarterly Conversation, a website I'll likely return to.

  • Frankenstein (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, n.d.), by Mary Shelley: A great book, for the story, for the writing, for the extensive meaning. Subtle allegory. Beautiful and faithful descriptions of the settings — the description of the Mont Blanc glacier over Chamonix is riveting, haunting. The ironic first-person narrative is wrapped in an intriguing flashback, beautifully establishing the early 19th-century cosmology. In this edition, irritating footnotes and endnotes distract from the reading; but the central idea of the book, of course — whether man should attempt to create life, and whether, if he succeeds, his ambition is likely to overwhelm him — is as relevant now as it was two centuries ago. Perhaps more so.

  • Jane Eyre (Random House, 1943), by Charlotte Brontë. A fine, literate novel, straightahead, marred perhaps by a few coincidences, but ironic in its first-person narrative, nicely phrased, peopled with interesting and memorably delineated characters. Quote: ”Well, propensities and principles must be reconciled by some means.“

  • Wuthering Heights (e-book), by Emily Brontë. Yes, early last month I went on from Frankenstein and Jane Eyre to this. I'd read Jane Eyre in the edition that had long been on my mother's bookshelf; a Random House publication from 1943, it came with Wuthering Heights as a companion volume, both illustrated with scary Expressionist wood-engravings by Fritz Eichenberg. Alas, I couldn't easily get that edition of Wuthering Heights, so read it as an e-book on my iPad. I found it heavier going than its sister, less straightforward and clear, but deeper and more resonant. I'd love to sit down with Edgar Allan Poe and discuss this book. Come to think of it, what did Henry James think of it? (Ah: he dismissed it as "a crude and morbid story." But what did he really think of it?)
  • Wednesday, February 09, 2011

    The Genuine Article: Chekhov's Seagull in Mill Valley

    SLAVIC LANGUAGES LACK the definite article, as anyone with a Czech in the family can attest. So Libby Appel's version of Anton Chekhov's least-performed major play, now running at Marin Theatre, is called simply Seagull, promoting that bird from what's too easily little more than shtick to pervasive metaphor. It's clear in any case, of course, that Seagull stands for Konstantin Gavrilovich, the male lead; Kostya (as he's nicknamed) shoots the damned thing in the first act, then shoots himself in the last. (Oh. Spoiler. Sorry. I assumed you already knew.)

    Seagull also stands for a force of Nature, like the lake brooding in the backdrop of the stage; the lake visible through the makeshift stage set up outside Sorin's country estate for the production of Kostya's play, an experiment in "new forms" and abstraction. Unlike Chekhov's other three major plays, in many ways more finished perhaps because less ambitious, The Seagull — sorry; I'm so used to using the article — is among other things a play about theater: about acting and actors, certainly; about writers, yes; but also about itself. I always think of Chekhov as the first truly modern playwright: this first play of his Big Four features recursion among its fingerprints; it's what Francis Ponge calls a momon, a work about itself. Chekhov himself is all over the cast list, from the young visionary writer Kostya to the successful hack writer Trigorin to the country doctor Yevgeny Sergeyevich, whose objectivity and practical acceptance of the conditions of life, while bordering on cynicism, brings a gentle note of reality to the proceedings.

    There's so much to think about here. The histrionic women in this cast — three of them, of course, stage ladies seem generally to come in threes — drink and flail and wheedle and dictate. In this version, some lines have been restored giving even Polina Andreyevna her measure of desperation, so there are four failing ladies. Four of the men, too, portray various kinds of ineptitude. It's a human comedy; another aspect of Chekhov's modernity is the source he provides such diverse followers as Pirandello, Beckett, and Federico Fellini. Throwaway jokes collide with terror, cruelty, and anguish.

    Marin Theatre's production is worth seeing. (It runs through Feb. 27.) Apart from the servant class, who in any event have little material to work with, the casting, and the individual roles, are quite well played; and the more difficult the role, the better the performance seems to be. John Tufts was remarkably strong as Kostya; Tess Malis Kincaid every bit as resourceful and commanding as his mother, the actress Irina; Christine Albright and Lis Sklar memorable (and very different) as the young women Nina and Marya; Craig Marker made a sympathetic character out of the weak, amoral Trigorin; Howard Swain was the well-detailed doctor Yevgeny. Smaller roles were just as well portrayed: Peter Ruocco, Richard Farrell, Julia Brothers, Michael Ray Wisely.

    Jason Minadakis directed carefully and effectively, though curtains seemed mistimed and curtain lines sometimes tossed off too lightly. The large cast was well distributed onstage; even in large ensembles there never seemed to be a dead area. Robert Mark Morgan's scenic design caught the accelerating ennui and oppression of the play nicely, and Chris Houston's music — an onstage piano is used to very good effect — was atmospheric without being distracting.

    The translation is by Libby Appel, who relied on a literal translation by Allison Horsely. Oddly anachronistic vernacular sometimes distracts — phrases like "desk job" and "will do" don't seem to me to belong in Chekhov's world. But this adaptation is strong, passionate, energetic, and detailed.
  • Anton Chekhov: Seagull continues through Feb. 27 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley; tel. 415.388.5208
  • Monday, February 07, 2011

    Keener sounds: Robert Erickson at Mills College

    "WHAT IS IT FOR?", Ann asked, as we sat in her small comfortable small living room after the concert. We'd been reflecting on the concert we'd just heard, and its small audience — no more than forty or fifty people, I'd guess, scattered through the nicely restored concert hall out at Mills College.

    It was a one-man concert: five pieces by Robert Erickson (1917-1997), who was my composition teacher, and who I suspect guided my career in other ways, and whom I thanked, partly, by writing his biography, Thinking Sound Music. (In fact it was Ann whose Fallen Leaf Press published the book, back in 1995.)

    "I mean," she went on, "why do composers go on writing music; it's so hard." Left unsaid: "And so few seem to understand, or be interested, or even be aware."

    Another few beats of silence, while I thought about my grandson Simon, another composer. Well, I thought, what is life for; it's for making more life. Same for music: we go on composing, so the next generation can compose.

    A high percentage of the audience had in fact been other composers; many of us Eridkson's students, at one time or another. We're a loyal crew, partly for human reasons, partly for musical. Human: Bob was enterprising, patient, affable (though he could be crusty too), generally optimistic, practical, generous. (He refused any payment from me for my lessons, knowing I had hardly any money to spare.)

    Musical: well, those reasons were evident at the concert. If there are musical "mavericks," Erickson is certainly among them. He was born in Marquette, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and grew up in a Swedish-American family in a backwoods setting; but his intellectual curiosity and his remarkably sensitive ear — encouraged by early teachers — took him ultimately to Chicago where he met Modernism. Industry, Modernism, and an innate gregariousness informed the rest of his career: teaching, broadcasting (he was an early music director at Berkeley's KPFAA), writing, above all composing.

    We're so conditioned these days to think in terms of quantity. There are billions and billions of us humans on this planet, millions and millions in this state: if a concert has a small turnout, something seems wrong. But as Gertrude Stein said,
    I am writing for myself and strangers. This is the only way that I can do it. Everybody is a real one to me, everybody is like some one else too to me. No one of them that I know can want to know it and so I write for myself and strangers.
    Composers compose similarly, I think, though with luck we all work for colleagues as well as ourselves and strangers.

    Unfortunately the fundamentally paranoid streak in the American temperament, which promotes healthy skepticism to outright mistrust, leads audiences — and, worse, what critical establishment remains — to reject convivia not themselves embraced as exclusive and "elitist." (Think, for example, of the contempt lavished on Stein's own salon.) So we who "like," want, and listen to new music have in the last fifty years become increasingly marginalized, not by our own activity (or lack of activity) but by what you might call a culture-historical process.

    (The late Milton Babbitt wrote about this a generation and more ago, in an essay commissioned by the magazine High Fidelity. He called his article "The Composer as Specialist," but the editors re-titled it, without consulting him, "Who Cares If You Listen?" The title, much more widely read than the article itself (which in this online version is dry and "difficult", like much of Babbitt's music), contributed to the marginalization of new music in the United States.)

    Erickson tended to shrug off failure and rejection. He preferred to focus on the positive values of whatever resulted from his work, the performances of his music, the work of his students; he met indifference or, worse, distraction — faculty meetings, for example — with a cheerful kind of inattention. He knew, I'm sure, that it's Pythagorus, Euripides, and Epicurus who are remembered, who are "important," not the hundreds of nameless citizens who ignored them at best, hounded them at worst.

    Still, it's hard not to be discouraged at the inattention of even the musical community to work of such interest and beauty as Robert Erickson's. He taught at UC Berkeley, San Francisco State, and the San Francisco Conservatory: interestingly, only Mills College, among the important Bay Area music departments, seems to be curious about his work and influence. (He never taught at Mills, but one of his most celebrated students, Pauline Oliveros, oversaw the relocation of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, one of his "step-children," to Mills College in 1967.)
    AND WHAT OF HIS MUSIC did we hear Saturday night at Mills College? The evening began with a clip from a San Diego television story about Erickson's activity as a soundcatcher, prowling towers, airports, and electric substations with a shotgun mike and a portable tape recorder: he was always keen to find new sounds in everyday modern life, sounds that could contribute to his composition, either directly as sonic ingredients or indirectly as suggesting areas of sonic awareness.

    Then came an electronic example of that: Roddy (1966), for tape; a work of musique concrète whose original sounds were improvised (following the composer's scenarios) on a percussion instrument made by clamping various lengths of steel rod to the sounding board of a piano, then altered and edited in the Tape Music Center studio.

    To my ear the "performance" of the tape — I mean its playback in the spacious Mills College Concert Hall — was more artifact than expression. Roddy, like much tape music, seems to me to be chamber music, to need intimacy between listener and sound source; the separation of the loudspeakers, their distance from the listening ear, and the awareness of a lack of listening community within the audience all made the piece more intellectually interesting than artistically expressive. But the rest of the program more than made up for this.

    I had never heard the Trio (1953), for violin, viola, and piano, in a live performance before, and was charmed and fascinated by its eccentricity. The piece is tonally melodic, brusque and edgy in its architecture. The piano writing is non-pianistic, often single-lined though also often chordal, given (like the string material) to insistantly repeated notes. Erickson never showed much interest, as far as I know, in jazz for itself; but his music often reminds me of bebop. (A lyrical episode reminds me, oddly, of Dvorak.)

    But this Trio also made me think of his Swedish-American heritage. Violinist and violist saw away at their instruments, alternating between careful collaboration and go-it-alone soloistics, with a determination (and a beauty and skill, in this performance) that seems utterly unselfconscious, utterly uninterested in musical conventions other than those dictated by the instruments themselves. Two quick movements, three minutes, then four; and it's over.

    Next came Pacific Sirens (1969), for tape (altered environmental sounds, this time from the ocean near San Diego) and a group of sustaining instruments (in this case cello, trombone, flute, bass clarinet, trumpet, clarinet, two contrabasses, and three percussionists). Conducted (which in this case really means rehearsed and shaped) by Steed Cowart, the performance seemed utterly authentic, with all the contemplative beauty I remember from performances years ago. The instruments handed off sustained pitches effortlessly, overlapping and merging, occasionally emerging more or less soloistically (trombone; flute-and-trumpet; rolls on suspended cymbals and drums), as one's attention, at the beach, drifts from one suddenly isolated observation of sonic or visual or even tactile detail to another, always aware simultaneously of the more generally undistinguished fabric of all these cumulative events.

    After an intermission, Gloria Justen returned to play Summer Music (1974), another environmentally responsive piece; its ongoing, meditative violin melody counterposed to a tape recording of processed and filtered natural sounds — a babbling brook, in fact, considerably altered but retaining its sounds-of-nature atmosphere. And the concert ended with a truly magnificent performance of The Idea of Order at Key West (1979), a setting of Wallace Stevens's poem for soprano, flute, clarinet, trumpet, viola, and cello.

    Where Pacific Sirens is concrete, using natural sounds as if to anchor the music's process, the procedure Erickson uses to build a sonic artistic statement reflective of his impressions on reading about the sirens who sang to Odysseus and the moaning, singing sounds sailors still hear when rounding certain rocks on the Italian coast; The Idea of Order at Key West is more abstract. Like the unnamed "she" of the poem, the composer makes his music
    …beyond the genius of the sea,
    The water never formed to mind or voice,
    Like a body wholly body, fluttering
    Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
    Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
    That was not ours although we understood…
    The music proceeds by repeated held tones, spinning into more quickening elements, always contrasting those two ideas but within no immediately apparent structural process: it is incantatory, improvisatory, yet clearly carefully (if intuitively) measured out. Many composers have turned to Stevens for material; few, perhaps none, have so persuasively achieved a sonic equivalent of his poised, intelligent, crystalline yet often decorative poetry.

    What Stevens writes about — the nature of song as a generative, mediating influence between singer and setting — is a central issue of music itself, and certainly of the composition of music. "She" is of course Wallace Stevens, and Robert Erickson, as she measures
    to the hour its solitude.
    She was the single artificer of the world
    In which she sang.…
    as the poet and the composer are the single artificers of theirs, in their "Blessed rage for order…
    The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
    Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
    And of ourselves and of our origins,
    In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

    Looking over these notes I realize how cunningly the program had been chosen and arranged, clearly and overwhelmingly setting Erickson in place as a composer whose music mediates musicianship and the environment. Perhaps this explains his neglect by the musical establishment, which is nothing if not urban, metropolitan even. The immediate effect of the material in the early Trio is very different indeed from that of Pacific Sirens or The Idea of Order at Key West; but on reconsideration they represent different moments in a body of work that's personal, intuitive though tremendously knowledgable, patient, aware of tonality but careless of conventions.

    The perfomances were marvelous; all the musicians deserve mention. They were, first of all, Christine Abraham, the magnificent soprano in The Idea of Order at Key West. She has a very fine instrument; her elocution was spot-on; and her musicianship admirable. I can't imagine anyone singing this demanding cantata better. Then there was Gloria Justen, violin; Nils Bultmann, viola; Belle Bulwinkle, piano; Gianna Abondolo, cello; Jen Baker, trombone, Tod Brody, flute, Rachel Condry, bass clarinet; Tom Dambly, trumpet; Peter Josheff, clarinet; Adam Lowdermilk and Richard Worn, contrabasses; and Daniel Steffey, William Winant, and Anna Wray, percussion. Steed Cowart presides over this Mills Performing Group.

    Fortunately, while neglected by the concert hall, Robert Erickson is fairly well represented by recordings, including all titles mentioned here except Roddy and, regrettably, the Trio. (Maybe the Mills Performing Group will rectify that omission.) Four works can be downloaded free at Community Audio, among them The Idea of Order at Key West.