Saturday, August 17, 2019

Approach to the thirteenth heptad

Small anx dr. Tim, L-judy rr- Cheryl, packing leave cabin.

 

letter to Bhisbma re disappear ink   


Duchamp stuff ; early mss. 


A dozen sevens on the dissolution of the mind 


Cold December evening in Rovaniemi rainy morning in Amsterdam sunny afternoon at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port etc


A. T. on the floor


Bronze Age coprolites


Epicurus Mozart and Cage my guys


Faville on birth by helicopter over desert, and amazing comment



Tuesday, July 30, 2019

La Finta giardiniera, In the Penal Colony in Portland

Eastside Road, July 30, 2019—
[as posted to San Francisco Classical Voice today]

PORTLAND OPERA neatly framed the human condition with two perfectly satisfying productions over the weekend. Mozart's first great comedy, La Finta giardiniera (1774, at 18!), a zany exposure of human folly, and Philip Glass's In the Penal Colony (2000), profoundly frame the Age of Reason. Mozart, a humanist, often hilarious, celebrates with spectacular and witty vocalism; Glass, a philosopher, troubled, examines with persuasive declamation.

In the Penal Colony, based on Steven Berkoff's play adapted from Franz Kafka’s 1914 short story, describes a neutral official visitor’s observation of preparations for the execution by a uniquely cruel torture machine of a prisoner who had failed at his guard post. The entire 80-minute opera, set on only tenor, baritone, two mute actors, and string quintet; and it proceeds unerringly and devastatingly.

Portland Opera produced it in the round: audience surrounding the unit set on four sides, perhaps eight rows to the side, the strings tucked into one of the four diagonal aisles. Jerry Mouad’s set beautifully suggested the bleak setting, the infernal machine — which kills, over twelve hours, by carving the prisoner’s offense into his skin.

Tenor Martin Bakari was clear, calm, objective, and in beautiful voice as The Visitor; baritone Ryan Thorn grew steadily and deeply into the role of the Officer. Kafka’s story is ultimately, I think, a denunciation of Faith and Authority as controllers of human society; the machine symbolizes the inadequacy of their reliance on technology, indeed of instrumentality. Thorn expressed all this with pathos and beauty, and Bakari’s witnessing was equally poignant.

Nicholas Fox conducted with supple support. Glass’s music is still controversial after all these years; the orchestra energizes the score with repeated rhythmic action, often on sustained harmonies occasionally shifting subtly to guide the dramatic argument. The vocal cantilena floats over this, generally following Kafka’s text, very clearly set and expressed in this production, almost not needing the effectively displayed supertitles.

La Finta giardiniera

The bad taste, but not perhaps one of the sources, of the Glass-Kafka contemplation was overcome, next night, by the adolescent Mozart’s marvelous view of Rationalist (European) attitudes toward love, class, and the war between the sexes. The Baroque symmetries of French classicism collide with commedia dell’arte; the mannered control of fashion and etiquette tangle with animal human drives. As I’ve written elsewhere, the opera is preoccupied with madness. Insanity, both feigned and temporarily real, permeates many arias and ensembles; it's remarked on by the characters; it's even reflected in some of Mozart's orchestration. (Haydn had treated the subject similarly the year before, in incidental music to his play Il Distratto.)

Chas Rader-Shieber directed the action with clear outlines on Michael Olich’s handsome three-level unit stage, the stone terraces of an 18th-century Italian garden. A lawn mower, a topiary, and four mute gardeners often carrying ridiculous garden gnomes punctuated the action, which well defined the social levels — political, military, servant. Olich’s costumes were rooted in historical accuracy yet very funny and effective.

The complex plot essentially rests on Count Belfiore, who has nearly murdered his beloved Violante in a fit of rage, driving her into disguise as a “feigned gardener-girl.” Now, though, he is visiting the Podestà to meet his niece Arminda, whom he is arranged to marry. In a parallel plot, Violante’s manservant, disguised as a gardener Nardo (these names have extended resonance we can’t go into here), lusts for the Podestà’s servant Serpetta, who in turn has eyes on her boss. And behind all this, a seventh figure, Ramiro (originally set on castrato), comments on the follies and reversals of all this amatory business.

Mezzo Camille Sherman was affecting as this Ramiro, managing a balance of character and dramatic function with clear, accurate voice and fine presence. Soprano Helen Zhibing Huang was the pert, clear-voiced Serpetta. As Arminda, soprano Antonia Tamer, in a hilarious fat-lady get-up, alternated convincingly between pathos and fury — Pamina and Queen of Night in one.

Baritone Geoffrey Schellenberg was an unusually thoughtful Nardo transported with amour, perplexed at its difficulties. And tenor Thomas Ciluffo was wonderful as Belfiore, funny in his parade of national-type lovers, quick and pointed on his feet, flexible, strong, and accurate of voice.

Tenor Mark Thomsen, while in good voice and effective as the Don Alfonso-like Podestà (for Così fan tutte keeps coming to mind), seemed hampered by too often being set at the center of the large stage; even his oversized Panama brim did not amplify his pleasant voice.

As Sandrina-Violante, the giardiniera, Lindsay Ohse rightly dominates the show. Physically supple and graceful, vocally bright yet modulated, her acting convincing and affecting, she took place well in ensembles, responding well in duet, emoting persuasively in a wide range. Her mad scene closing Act II, with Ciluffo, — they become bestial Greek gods, bewildering the rest of the cast — was hilarious yet insane enough to be a little scary. Like many of the cast, she has coloratura, trill included, and beauty of tone.

In the Penal Colony was given in the black-box Hampton Opera Center, serviceable in a neutral style; La Finta giardiniera in the 870-seat Newmark Theatre, an intimate rather luxurious downtown venue. Like the choice of repertory, production, and cast — and the thoughtful yet sumptuous program booklet — this reflects care and intelligence on the part of Portland Opera. It’s an impressive undertaking.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Nagano: Classical Music

Eastside Road, June 1, 2019—

Kent Nagano, with Inge Kloepfer: Classical Music: Expect the Unexpected
Tr. from the German by Hans-Christian Oeser
McGill-Queen's University Press, 2019
ISBN 9780773556348 pp. 248     read 5/28/19

MORRO BAY, the early 1950s. A fishing village and farm town, relatively isolated on California's central coast, far from the nearest city. An aging Japanese immigrant is in poor health and his young son returns from Berkeley, where he has been studying architecture, to take over the family farm. With him, his wife, a promising pianist, and their infant son.

Another immigrant appears: a Russian, passionately musical, who has survived Stalinist terror in the 1930s and the German front in World War II. Determined to encourage music, he asks for a teaching position in an elementary school far from musical centers. He soon has young children playing in ensembles, even an orchestra, and singing in choruses.

This is the inspiring story of Kent Nagano's introduction to music: small town; rural surroundings; a quietly firm family; music as natural as speech, as social as play.

Classical Music: Expect the Unexpected reads like a conversation, or one side of a conversation — perhaps that's how it was written, in conversation with the German journalist Inge Kloepfer, listed as co-author. (The book appeared first, in 2014, in German, published by Piper Verlag. The subtitle is interesting: in German it was Erwarten Sie Wunder! In French — the book is translated by Isabelle Gabolde — Sonnez, merveilles!)

I am not writing a review of the book: a good one, written for the Montreal Gazette by Arthur Kaptainis, is available online. I want only to direct attention to the book, an unusual combination of authorial modesty and self-introduction, of cultural optimism in a critical moment.

I met Nagano in 1980 or so, when he became assistant conductor at the Oakland Symphony Orchestra. In that position he was also conductor of the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra, and he offered to program an orchestral piece I'd written a dozen years earlier, Nightmusic. He studied the difficult score carefully, rehearsing its six instrumental units separately through the fall of 1981, premiering it at the Paramount Theater in January 1982 and releasing a recording soon afterward. (1750 Arch S1792, with Daniel Kobialka's Echoes Of Secret Silence, perhaps the first of Nagano's commercially released recordings.)

I retired from daily music criticism (in the Oakland Tribune) at the beginning of 1988, and Kent asked me for a new piece for him to schedule with Beethoven's Ninth on a subscription concert of the Berkeley Symphony, which he had developed out of the former Berkeley Promenade Orchestra. This turned out to be my Symphony in Three Movements, a title he gave to the work. Here too he analyzed the score carefully, and though we disagreed about tempi — he led the second movement much slower than I'd intended it — our collaboration was pleasant and businesslike.

(I remember a conference we had on the piece in Monaco, in the lobby of his hotel; Lindsey and I were vacationing in Nice, he was working with the Ballet de Monte Carlo, I think. Please, he said, let's not discuss anything but the score. I think he knew we had many enthusiasms in common, and his schedule never permitted distractions.)

Perhaps the most unusual thing Nagano ever did with my music: he borrowed the full score of my opera The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, sat down with it at the piano — which instrument he plays very well — and played the orchestral material only, more or less at sight, recording it so that the singers would have a tape with which to learn their roles. I did not ask him to do this; I don't know whose idea it was. I was surprised when he gave me the cassette tape. He asked me never to listen to it, and I have always respected his request.

(He was not otherwise involved with the production, at Mills College in 1984; but he did get in touch with me years later to ask if I were interested in pursuing a production in France, I suppose at Lyon, where he was music director of the Opéra National de Lyon from 1988–1998. He did not want to retain my original choice of stage director, the dancer-choreographer (and, since, scholar) Margaret Fisher, suggesting a better-known name would be important to the venture, and what did I think of Salvador Dali? Unwisely, perhaps, I retained loyalty to Margaret, and the offer was dropped.)

All these experiences fall into place, in a newly understood context, after reading Nagano's book. He emerges from it as a unique mind, disciplined and focussed, sensitive to politics, literature, philosophy, and languages but overwhelmingly dedicated to — consumed by — music. Music fills the world, the universe he lives in. There are other important components of his life, of course; he is married to the pianist Mari Kodama and they have a daughter, also a pianist, Karin Kei Nagano; he loves fast cars (or did, when I knew him); he loves San Francisco and Paris. But all these, judging by his book and his career, are contained in a transcendent fixation on music.

He returns frequently, in his book, to a small number of Big Questions: Why is music so powerful? Is it not indispensable to the human experience? Is "classical music" in danger of losing all audience? Will the primacy of quantitativeness, and particularly of dollar value, displace it utterly?

Nagano's contemplations touch on politics, philosophy, marketing, education… he converses with a retired Chancellor of Germany, an astronaut, a basketball star, a psychologist, a neurologist (and is not shy about their disagreements with him). He discusses Bach, Messiaen, Schoenberg, Bernstein, Ives. He is realistic about the crisis "classical music" seems to confront — but optimistic that it will survive. The crisis is general, far bigger than the problems of the orchestras. What's needed, Nagano argues, is music for a world in crisis, and he believes strongly that it stands ready.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Symphony in Three Movements

I HAVE UPLOADED the orchestral score of my Symphony in Three Movements (1989) to http://www.shere.org/pdfs/Symphony3Movements.pdf . The score is 112 pages; the file, 1.8 MB.

The score was requested by Kent Nagano and premiered by him, with the Berkeley Symphony, thirty years ago come Sunday, April 28 1989, on a program that went on, after intermission, to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Kent had advised me of this, but assured me there'd be no lack of sufficient rehearsal, and on the whole the performance went well. The concert was given in Berkeley's First Congregational Church, the usual BSO venue in those days.

I remember two reviews: a little old lady came up to me during the intermission and asked "Did you write that music?" "Yes, I did," I answered. "You can do better," she said. "Perhaps I will," I replied.

But I don't think I did until 1996, when I broke a long dry spell with my Trio for Violin, Piano, and Percussion. Why the long dry spell? In part, reaction to another review the Symphony had received:

The San Francisco Chronicle review took issue with my program note (appended to the score online), in which I approved Kent's commitment to "the continued virility of contemporary music." JK took "virility" to mean "chest-thumping" and complained about a macho quality he heard in the performance. I suppose I could have used "fecundity" instead, but the image in my mind was of thee male contribution to generation; the vast repertory of "classical" music in general occupying the female, receptive half.

So it goes. Gender politics and political correctness have vitiated the expressive power of rhetoric — I hope not permanently.

I have been advised more than once never to criticize a performer's execution of my music: the performer in question will be hurt and possibly resentful, and any potential future performer will justifiably wonder if he or she will be similarly criticized for playing my music. At this point in my life I'm not thinking of future performances, so I'll mention a disagreement I had with the conductor, who did not follow my tempo instructions.

As I wrote in the program note,

the Symphony is “about” terror, calm and compulsion. Each of the three movements is in fact a motion within one of these states, and from one state to another. Their context — the area of action, if you like — is natural in the first movement, personal in the second, social in the third. The three movements participate in a formal structure. The tempo steadily increases. Key structural points are marked as special events. Each of the three large sections is composed of three smaller ones in turn. The score is not free from errors, but I'm through with tweaking it for the present.
The tempo indications were crucial to my design, but the conductor suggested I had no idea the effect of the hall's acoustics would have on the performance. In my design the three movements ran a little over six, seven, and six minutes long (6:15, 7:30; 6:15); in the performance they ran eight, ten and a half, and six:thirteen (8:05, 10:36, 6:13). The result was to make the first movement lag and the second ponderous, even hectoring. I think this contributed to the Chronicle opinion.

I gave the score to another conductor after the performance — although he lived in the area, and was a composer himself, I don't think he had heard the premiere. He kept it for a few weeks, but when I asked him what he thought, he asked, rather wistfully, why my music was always so difficult. (I could have asked, but didn't, why his, and that of other composers who wrote in similar styles, was always so simple.)

He may have been referring specifically to the passage beginning at m. 65 in the first movement, where high woodwinds are asked to play fast, rhythmically complex material. (See photo above.) The effect I have in mind is of demented birds. I think I encouraged the musicians involved to fake the passage if necessary; perfect accuracy is less important than the general effect.

Or, who knows, he may have been referring to something else. I suppose I should have asked.

You can hear the music, fairly correct in terms of tempo, here:

First movement [6:30] 7.8 MB
Second movement [7:45] 9.3 MB
Third movement [6:13] 7.5 MB

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Recently read: Lost communities

Eastside Road, November 11, 2018—
Doig, Ivan: This House of Sky
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979
ISBN 0-15-689982-5. pp 314     read 11/5/18
LeBaron, Gaye, and Bart Casey:
The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove
Historia II, 2018
ISBN 978-0-692-17702-0. pp 204     read 11/6/18
Wolf, Margery: Coyote‘s Land: a Novel Ethnography
Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 2018
ISBN 9787-145756-430-7. pp 312     read 11/11/18
MANY HAVE RECOMMENDED Doig to me, but I resisted until urged by an engaging woman who sells her produce at the local farmer’s market told me she’d spent a night in his bedroom. (“It was not what it sounds like, he’s a friend of the family and lent his house while he was away.”)

The house in question is in southwestern Montana, where the author was born and raised in surely one of the last survivors of hard frontier landscape: cowboy country, sheep ranching, desperate economy. This House of Sky is a memoir centered on the author’s father — his mother died young. Like the other two books read in the last week or so are, it is nostalgic, evoking a time and place recent enough to be imaginable but irretrievably lost.

I'm old enough — older than Ivan Doig — to remember a landscape similar though less harsh than his high, bare, frequently frozen Montana: the bleak wartime northeastern Oklahoma of 1944-5, where we lived without running water, and impoverished Sonoma county farm country in the next few years, where we lived without electricity. Unlike the Doigs on their sheep ranches, we at least had society.

Doig centers his memoir on his father and on isolated ranching, but populates it also with other memorable characters: a stepmother; his grandmother; assorted dubious ranch hands; the drifters morosely drinking in a series of bars negotiating the limited available social stratas of what passes for his home town.

The book is poetic and laconic, like the best cowboy songs, and deserves the praise it's received. Doig's style is sophisticated, artful, but (except for italicized summaries to each chapter) never jarring, always related to what one presumes is the language of his subjects. Clearly the Doig line harbors — and passes along — a gift for language: the stories are so rich and at times improbable, the quotes so colorful and apt, that a reader could be forgiven for suspecting occasional authorial invention.

We need books like this, not only for their evocation of the land and society much of this country was until postwar prosperity and technological advance erased it, but also for its suggestion that the stamina and inventiveness of those times may be needed in a time still to come. In the meantime generations have grown to maturity lacking, with rare exceptions, first-hand familiarity with even the possibility of such virtues.


THE NINETEENTH CENTURY in this country was a time of frontier expansion, hardscrabble farming, urban development, and robber-baron capitalism. It also saw a considerable reaction to the worst qualities of those developments in a wave of idealistic communitarianism. Some of the resulting societies are fairly well known: Brook Farm, Oneida, Amana. But one of the longest-living of them has been largely overlooked: The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove corrects that historical neglect.

The Fountaingrove community began, as so many such attempts did, in rural New York, where Thomas Lake Harris, only one of many exhortative preachers, after running his course in one parish after another, decided his only success must be in establishing a society of his own. He was apparently a magnetic, persuasive figure, and in lectures in New York, New England, and London he attracted followers who signed on with their fortunes as well as their lives as individuals.

With their labor and their money Harris built what can only be called a cult, at first amusing his neighbors, ultimately attracting sufficient cynicism and suspicion that he found it expedient to move along. Each cycle lasted seven years: a farm at Wassaic in eastern New York, bought in 1861, a more elaborate settlement near Brocton on the Erie shoreline, in 1868; finally, in 1875, the Fountaingrove community, outside a provincial city growing up north of San Francisco.

A number of strands weave through this history: the members of the community, including a disillusioned, wealthy Englishman and a Japanese samurai; the various approaches to financing, including investments and agriculture; the relations with outsiders including the press; and of course the cult psychology and culture Harris developed.

The principal characters are fairly well and efficiently presented: apart from the enigmatic Harris, they are the wealthy Englishman Laurence Oliphant and the quietly competent Kanaye Nagasawa. Harris began as a frontier preacher subject to fits and visions; eager to return humanity to its pre-Expulsion innocence, he dictated thousand-line poems describing that state of bliss while in trance induced by deep breathing — and, one suspects, slow sexual experiences. Oliphant, the only child of an important British colonial officer, was an adventurous traveler whose books brought Central Asia and the Crimean War home to England. And Nagasawa was sent in his early adolescence from isolated Japan to Scotland, then England, to learn the methods and values of the mysterious West so that his native country might enter the modern global world.

For every man in Harris's communities there seemed to have been at least three or four women — wives, mothers, sisters, friends. Except for Oliphant's mother they never fully emerge from this narrative. Even Harris's second wife, who was significant in the Fountaingrove years, is present more as referred to by other personages than as a fully limned figure in her own right.

The same might be said of Nagasawa, whose motives and values are occasionally hypothesized but not clearly stated. The temptation to fictionalize this history has been kept successfully and, I'd bet, carefully at bay.

Who, then, is this book for? It appears at a poignant time, the first anniversary of the destruction of the locally famous Fountaingrove Round Barn, until last year the only surviving physical evidence of the community that once prospered on the northern edge of Santa Rosa. I found the book satisfying — but I should reveal that one of the authors, Gaye LeBaron, is an old friend, whose dedication to history and whose insistence on fact I can attest to.

Much of the value of The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove lies between the lines, partly in matters only hinted at — the authors are decorous — partly in questions the reader will be led to pose. Foremost — and this question is raised, more than once, though without being settled — was Harris merely a confidence man? or was he truly visionary and idealistic in his attempt to found a new life based on communitarianism, free from the distractions of private ownership and individual expression?


TWO OTHER VERSIONS of the perfect life contend in Margery Wolf's Coyote's Land: the ancient and apparently perfected culture of the Coast Miwok, based not far from Fountaingrove in the present southern Sonoma and northern Marin counties, and the Franciscan version of Catholic Christianity as it evolved in the California missions early in the 19th century.

Wolf, who was also a personal friend, died early last year, soon after completing this book. She was an anthropologist whose career was somewhat outside the anthropological norm: her first book, The House of Lim, still used as a textbook in anthropology classes, was written without the virtue of a degree in the field. (She was married to an academic anthropologist at the time.)

Coyote's Land is an interesting and, I think, significant book for a number of reasons, one of them stated by the author at the outset. The first and longest and most evocative of its two parts is what she calls "informed fiction," fictional narrative informed by a comprehensive knowledge of both details and context. Her purpose, she writes, is to make ethnography interesting to the common reader. She is a little defensive about this, as she's been criticized by professionals in her field for straying from academic norms — but in truth it's the academic professional writers who should be criticized for forgetting, in their books, that readability and appeal are greater authorial responsibilities than convention and boredom.

If Coyote's Land is significant as "informed fiction," it is also important — especially at this moment! — for dwelling on the tragedy of one culture's destruction at the hands of another. And this particularly when the destruction is wrought in the name of religion. Wolf begins her novel with a series of chapters thoughtfully, pleasantly, sometimes entertainingly evoking the daily life of the pre-conquest Miwok; then turns to the inevitable end of that idyllic culture, in the early years of the 19th century, when the chain of missions reaches San Francisco Bay.

Wolf centers her narration on an improbable device, dividing the central character between two women: Charlotte, a 20th-century anthropologist eager to learn the (pre-conquest) Miwok culture, and Sekiak, a Miwok woman condemned to immortality for a transgression against the natural order. Driven by a fierce desire to make the Miwok way known to European-Americans, she renders herself and Charlotte invisible and gifted with fluency in all languages, and the two travel back and forth between the present and the pre-conquest past, enabling Charlotte to observe daily life and eavesdrop on native conversations, thereby comprehending the contexts of both Miwok and mission life.

Not usually attracted to Magic Realism or time-travel fiction, I tried to catch little failures in this narrative device, moments when anachronism of either detail or plot might break Wolf's success. I found none. I don't know if she planned it, but to me one of Wolf's greatest achievements here is her treatment of the plasticity of Time as we humans live it and in it. And this brings me to a final irony of Coyote's Land: a valedictory book, it often pauses to contemplate — even if only for a sentence or two — the nature of Death. Charlotte's invisibility is not dependably effective to those on the point of death.

One old woman was tending a slow, smoky fire under a couple of racks of drying fish. She stared in Sekiak and Charlotte's direction; then blinked her eyes several times before turning her attention back to the fire.

"Can she see us?" Charlotte asked uncertainly.

"A little maybe. She is very old… you know old people are less attached to their time than young people… They tend to wander. We need to keep our distance. She knows she will die soon, and she is watching for the spirits of old friends who will show her the way."

Toward the end of the book it becomes clear, in a few lines charmingly describing the presence of a fox in the bushes near a campfire, that Charlotte's invisibility is attached to the fact of her being in an alternate time. The fox immediately brought Leoš Janáček's opera Vixen Sharp-ears to mind, and I saw that intrinsic to both the style and the substance of Coyote's Land is a haunting, affectionate, even visionary awareness of the beyond-time nature of death and dying and of truly aware living. Janáček was 70 when he completed Vixen; Margery Wolf was dying in her last year, while completing Coyote's Land.

The irony, then, is that the death of the cultures — the Coast Miwok way, which had stood for millennia; the California missions, imperfect improvements no doubt on Spanish feudalism but unable to survive Mexican independence let alone the coming of the Yankees — those deaths are as natural and inevitable as the deaths of our grandparents and our parents. Immortality — Sekiak's sentence — is what is unnatural and wrong. The manner in which one culture destroys another may be condemned, but the destruction is inevitable.

Whether intentionally or for lack of time, Coyote's Land seems not quite finished. The novel ends inconclusively, Charlotte apparently returned to the present but certain plot elements still tantalizingly vague. The second part of the book, the "backstory," offers a quick historical survey of the Miwok and their land; the missions, their Spanish background and their ambivalent intentions; and a foretaste of the transition the young California will soon make into the United States. This part of the book is matter-of-fact and carefully documented in the conventional bibliography.

The backmatter does not detract from the real value of the book, the "informed fiction." It is a real gift: to those of us who live in what is still Coyote's Land; to those who want to see farther than the authorities who have (temporarily) survived the Miwok and the mission ways; to all the living.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Looking back: "Notes to a contextual ars musicae"

IN 1964, not yet (quite) thirty, I tried to work out an approach to discussing music. Writing about music, maybe talking about music, thinking about music.

That year I was studying music privately — composition with Robert Erickson, conducting with Gerhard Samuel. A modest gift from a wonderful woman who'd been taking lessons on the recorder from me made it possible to devote that entire year to music.

I had studied English literature at UC Berkeley, graduating in 1960, and had thought of various ways of turning that degree into a career. I tried graduate work in library science, then in secondary education, but neither graduate school nor high-school teaching appealed to me — I think without my knowing it music was shouldering everything else aside.

That year, 1964, my younger brother somehow was given editorship of the UC Graduate Student Journal, and he asked me if I had anything to contribute. I decided, I suppose, that it was time to put my thoughts down on paper. I had been reading the criticism of local concerts in the newspapers — in those days the San Francisco Examiner had two music critics, the Chronicle three, the Oakland Tribune one — and was not satisfied with their coverage, particularly of contemporary music.

Published music criticism, as far as I could see, knew only one kind of music: that based on the conventional tonal system reflected by composers from Bach through Mahler. The rare review dealing with 12-tone music might or might not have reflected knowledge of that "system." No critic, with the possible exception of Alfred Frankenstein in the Chronicle, was attentive to the avant garde.

Critical thinking had been latent in my college studies of literature, but rarely discussed directly in any of these undergraduate courses. It may be that it was only in my final weeks at Cal, in the summer session of 1960, when I was finally required to take the freshman course English 1B of all things, that the subject was discussed — I don't recall much of that class now, other than occasional conversations with the instructor, Frederic Crews, a fairly recent hire only two years older than me.

I'm not exactly sure when I wrote this essay. I do remember that it was partly written as parody of academic writing — the sort of thing I found unattractive in graduate school. Looking it over now, though, for the first time since it was written, I'm not too embarrassed. It's a bit dense and should probably have been expanded. I never went further with it — except that its process and definitions no doubt underlay my approach from then on as a music critic. I regret only that something kept me from sending it to my colleagues at the time, among whom only Robert Commanday seemed to bring a background of professional study to the work.

You can read this "Notes to a Contextual Ars Musicae" here. I've cleaned it up just a little, left the marginal headings so thoughtfully allowed by the original typesetters, and added a short afterword. I make it available with thanks to my brother Jim, who may have fuller recollection of those distant days.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The Pines of Rome

IMG 1108

Viale Trastevere, October 3, 2018—

PINUS PINEA.
The graceful stems, stripped of unnecessary lower limbs, sustain broad canopies,
intermediaries between our soil and the skies above.

In Rome's Pamphili park, catching evening autumnal light, their company dwarfs idlers strolling below.
The trees are rooted but they seem to dance; people beneath them appear in a trance.

Rome tends her pines with care: light streams beneath them, dancing around the trunks, among the bare limbs above, supporting those cloud-canopies, intense dark greens pinning the stucco'd buildings to the streets. IMG 1273

Some years ago I made a little book of photos casually taken of these pines — I don't have them with me, of course, and will have to post them to this blog on our return to Healdsburg. No promises.

On our return I will also have to arrange a rendez-vous with a tree man to work on our own pines. They were given to us thirty years ago and more and have grown to such maturity as to need attention. I hope to find some information about the pruning of Pinus pinea while we're here in Rome — sources on line and at home suggest they need no more than the removal of damaged limbs (see a video here) but I definitely want these limbed up and thinned out.

IMG 9258

Two more points: the seeds of P. pinea are the pignoli, "pine nuts," obligatory in making pesto, and so tasty as to justify the work of extracting them.

And those you don't harvest are harvested by blue jays and squirrels, and germinate readily: I've got to start clearing out a lot of saplings!

Mallarmé

IMG 1103
Viale Trastevere, October 3, 2018—

A RECENT EXCHANGE on Facebook began with this question:

What is it about this moment that makes so many people post poetry — and most of it translations — today on Facebook? Is this present need for poetry something good on its own terms — good people making eloquent assemblies of words — or a marker of catastrophe, present or impending, vox clamantis and all that? And is translation a hopeful sign of an impulse to reach across boundaries or a symptom of the ultimate hopelessness of that project?

Followers of this blog will have noticed an elegiac mood lately: it has been deepened by a week in Rome, eternal Rome, where the timeless grace of the pines look down on the mindlessly futile activities of humanity.

What had prompted that query was my posting a translation of Stéphane Mallarmé:

  Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui
Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d’aile ivre
Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre
Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui !

Un cygne d’autrefois se souvient que c’est lui
Magnifique mais qui sans espoir se délivre
Pour n’avoir pas chanté la région où vivre
Quand du stérile hiver a resplendi l’ennui.

Tout son col secouera cette blanche agonie
Par l’espace infligée à l’oiseau qui le nie,
Mais non l’horreur du sol où le plumage est pris.

Fantôme qu’à ce lieu son pur éclat assigne,
Il s’immobilise au songe froid de mépris
Que vêt parmi l’exil inutile le Cygne.

   Virginal, vivacious, beautiful new day !
Will it rip us apart with its drunk wing beating
This hard forgotten lake, haunted beneath its ice
By a transparent glacier, frozen flights not flown !

A swan of former times recalls that it was he,
Magnificent but hopeless, who had given up
Because he had not sung of the place where he’d lived
When sterile winter shone around with lassitude.

His feathered graceful neck shakes with white agony
Inflicted on the bird by the space he denies —
But not the soil’s horror, taking his plumage.

His pure display assigns an empty phantom here,
Immobilized within a cold dream of disdain,
Clothing, in his useless exile, the Swan.

It is, of course, the famous sonnet Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui, famous for its resistance to both interpretation and translation. There's a good account of this resistance in a fairly recent post by Elisabeth Cook, who mentions the confusing imagery and meaning, wordplay, rhyme scheme, sound clusters, and grammatical precision of the original, all presenting major challenges to a translator.

And to any reader. My French is barely there; certainly not up to reading Mallarmé. But for sixty years I have wanted to understand this poem — not comprehend it, just begin to come to grips with it. It was only yesterday that I got down to work. Spending a couple of weeks with a foreign language put me in the mood, no doubt, though Mallarmés cygne, that swan that sounds like signe, sign or symbol, resists Italian almost as much as English.

And today, reflecting on all this, and on what brought the assignment to mind in the first place, I begin to comprehend a fair amount of meaning behind it all. (It's another example of what Jean Coqt discusses in the line quoted in my previous post here: Mon esprit est partout. Au fur et à mesure que je vieillis, il va encore plus loin, jusqu'à ce qu'il me quitte complètement. (My mind is everywhere. As I grow older, it goes even farther, until it will leave me entirely.)

I made this translation — I make it, I should say, as it seems to get touched up every time I look at it — in order to explore the poem, not in order to write another; I am no poet. In doing it, of course, I ran up against Elisabeth Cook's challenges. I think I've respected the grammar, allowing for the different attitude French has to past and present tenses. I haven't consciously placed phonemes for musical effect, but certain clusters have emerged on their own, as they will.

I rejected rhyme from the start. Very rarely does the attempt at rhyme fail to distort translation, and literal rhyme, respecting the original scheme, is even worse.

Critics agree on seeing this poem as "about," among other things, the writer's confrontation with the blank page, which itself a metaphor for one's confrontation with non-existence. The new day — today in the original — is Life; the frozen lake is non-existence. The swan's white plumage is the blank page; buried (the soil's horror!) and denied it is revealed as futile.

Many years ago someone asked me what I'd like to accomplish before dying. I was quite young and answered with rash (though wistful) self-confidence: I'd like to have figured things out. Perhaps this modest reading of Mallarmé is another — futile — step in that process.

In any case, Daniel, as to the final question in your post, yes, of course, translation, or at least this attempt at translation, is both an impulse to reach across boundaries and a symptom of the ultimate hopelessness.

As to your opening question: this moment — speaking as an American — is perhaps fatally depressing. Our country is lapsing into dictatorship and it seems to me nothing short of literal revolution will stop the descent. The original concept of enlightened federal democracy cannot work in so big, populous, and varied a society; certainly not without an enlightened, educated, and motivated electorate. The present page of American history is scribbled over to the point of illegibility, and we need a drunk wing's brushing — or a grove of pines — to wipe it clean.


Postscript: I have just read — or re-read; I forget (alas!) whether I read it when it appeared, two years ago — Alex Ross's marvelous New Yorker piece on Mallarmé. It's well worth reading.