Saturday, May 09, 2020


From The Old Ways, by Robert Macfarlane (Penguin Books, 2012) (many thanks to Deborah Madison):
‘As I watch [the world],’ wrote Nan Shepherd in 1945, ‘it arches its back, and each layer of landscape bristles.’ It is a brilliant observation about observation. Shepherd knew that ‘landscape’ is not something to be viewed and appraised from a distance, as if it were a panel in a frieze or a canvas in a frame. It is not the passive object of our gaze, but rather a volatile participant — a fellow subject which arches and bristles at us, bristles into us. Landscape is still often understood as a noun connoting fixity, scenery, an immobile painterly decorum. I prefer to think of the word as a noun containing a hidden verb: landscape scapes, it is dynamic and commotion causing, it sculpts and shapes us not only over the courses of our lives but also instant by instant, incident by incident. I prefer to take ‘landscape’ as a collective term forthe temperature and pressure of the air, the fall of light and its rebounds, the textures and surfaces of rock, soil and building, the sounds (cricket screech, bird cry, wind through trees), the scents (pine resin, hot stone, crushed thyme) and the uncountable other transitory phenomena and atmospheres that together comprise the bristling presence of a particular place at a particular moment.

Later that night, from the deeper shadows of the-pine forest, two pairs of animal eyes glowed orange and green.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Helene Aylon

Eastside Road, April 13, 2020
I DIDN’T KNOW Helene Aylon well, but I considered her a friend. I first met her in 1975 or ’76, I think. I was working for the Oakland Tribune as the art critic, and saw an exhibition of her recent works on paper, a series called “Paintings That Change,” in which she applied oil along the top (usually, as I recall) of the paper — in time the oil moved slowly across the paper, constantly but slowly changing the painting’s appearance.

I was impressed by the chance beauty of the results, and by the egoless attitude of the artist, who was content to let the medium make the image.

Late in the 1970s she began a new series, “The Breakings,” similarly chance-determined but clearly feminist: she poured linseed oil onto plexiglas panels, let it form a thick skin, then tilted the panels to form a sac containing the oil. At a certain point the sac would break, allowing oil to move across the panel. The results were strong, formal, yet emotional.

In the 1980s Helene turned toward a more conceptual approach, to an area even larger than feminism: pacifism. This began with an ambitious project: she gathered dirt from nuclear bases, mines, and reactors, stuffing it into pillowcases and deploying them in demonstrations at, for example, the United Nations headquarters. This project grew into an international activity, gathering dirt and other material from many sites, often incorporating material from interviews with women living in troubled areas.

I never though of Helene, in those days, as having a settled residence — she would appear one day, seemingly en route from Palestine to Japan, with documentation of projects involving sacks, dirt, narratives. She was always earnest, caring, patient; she seemed resigned to the continual human tragedy.

* * *

At one point, probably in the 1980s, Helene asked me to appear in her defense in a court trial. Sacks of dirt she had taken from various sites had been damaged in storage: the facility’s roof had leaked, the sacks had rotted; the various earth samples, meticulously gathered, documented, and stored, had run together. The storage company was pressing her for unpaid fees; she was refusing to pay and asking damages, I think, for the ruined work.

The trial hinged on one question: was her work art, or was her material simply ordinary dirt. I was asked to testify that she was an artist and that her work was significant. On the day of my appearance I was alarmed. The jury looked utterly uninterested in the proceedings. I listened to Peter Selz’s testimony for the storage unit: Helene was a minor, marginal figure, he said, in a complex galaxy of conceptual and process-oriented artists. The dirt was simply dirt. Much of his testimony was on videotape for some reason and during its presentation I saw that the judge was actually sleeping, members of the jury bored and restless.

My testimony was limited to answers to direct questions from the attorneys for the two sides, and it was apparently insufficient. I finished and was dismissed. Soon enough the jury returned its verdict — against Helene.

She seemed resigned, but in a way I thought her defeat confirmed the justice of her attempt. There is a quiet, Sisyphean heroism to such work. Helene persisted, turning in later decades to work even more ambitious, even more futile to my view: removing paternalism and male supremacy from orthodox Judaism.

In 1996 I spent a week or so in New York City, and she offered me her studio apartment in Westbeth. I spent almost no time with her then; she was away on one of her frequent trips. But another trip a few years later brought her to San Francisco for an exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, as I recall, and we met briefly on that occasion. She was warm, curious about my own doings, expressive. She always had a soft power, the sympathy of human concern attached to the strength of enduring persistence.

Helene was not a distancer. She died of complications of Covid-19 on April 6th, in New York City. She was eighty-nine years old.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Listening to the Haydn symphonies

IVE BEEN LISTENING to Haydn these last few weeks, chronologically as is my absurd compulsion: at first the string quartets, up through Opus 9; more recently the symphonies. I tend to read authors and consider painters and sculptors the same way, reading where possible (and where I am interested) the complete works, beginning with the first and continuing to, ultimately, the last.

I do this because I am interested in the development of the author/composer’s work, both as it evolves intrinsically, you might say, within his/her output, and as it reflects awareness of outside events, whether the work of other, contemporary creative artists or the impact of social or environmental events.

This is particularly interesting when applied to Haydn’s symphonies. Though his are not the earliest in history, he is commonly thought to have defined the form, trying a number of approaches as to the number and disposition of its various movements, until he had pretty well fixed them in his last, “London” symphonies. (Where, to be honest, it seems to me he has sacrificed inventiveness to consistency.)

But how determine the chronological order of Haydn’s symphonies? This is a vexing problem, and one I have settled, I’m afraid, in an absurdly uncritical and arbitrary way: by following comments found by chance, as so much is these days, on the internet — at a website called, cutely, Haydn Seek, hosted by one Gurn Blanston, a fellow about whom I know nothing other than his fondness for Haydn. Blanston writes that his presentation is in turn taken from a German-language website, This website reflects research by Sonja Gerlach; alas, I do not read German and so have pursued the matter no farther.

Blanston offers a table comparing the various number systems, beginning in 1757 with the first symphony. The commonly used numbers are taken from the Hoboken catalog, in which the symphonies are grouped in section I (that’s Roman-numeral-one). Though individual dates are generally unknowable, there’s agreement that Number One — Hob I:1, in D — is in fact the first, scored for pairs of oboes and horns and the usual string quintet.

It’s thought that the first 15 or so of these symphonies were composed for the house orchestra of Karl Joseph, Count Morzin, who hired the composer, then in his late twenties, in 1758, give or take a year. (Too much is uncertain in Haydn’s early history.) Morzin must have had a good band: there are challenging parts for oboe, horns, cello, and contrabass in these pieces.

My method in “studying” these symphonies — the word is too flattering — is to listen to them on YouTube, generally in a performance by Christoper Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, while reading the score, found at What fun to be reading scores again, after years of neglect; to be singing second horn or contrabass lines, even if I do find my bass range is gone and I’m lucky to fake a low F.

This all began with a chance remark by my grandson Simon, who’d gone to a Salt Lake City Symphony concert to hear something of Messiaen’s, I think it was, and The Rite of Spring, and was less than interested in the Haydn 10th (actually the 5th in the new chronology). I immediately listened to the 10th, and was surprised at the part-writing in the violins, especially in the Andante.

Morzin had to let Haydn go in 1760, but recommended him to Prince Anton Esterházy, where he found an even better position. But the Morzin year, or years, saw the composition of probably fifteen symphonies, almost all for the same instrumental forces — oboes, horns, and strings, with a bassoon likely playing with contrabass — but three, all in C major, adding trumpets and drums. The thematic material ranges from country-style dance music to heartfelt slow movements, occasionally for solo violin — Haydn would likely have played those himself, as he “conducted” these pieces violin in hand.

This morning I got to Number 34 (old style: in the Gerlach numbering, 29 — composed (along with five others) in 1763. D Minor is of course a very serious business, and this symphony opens with a stately, formal Adagio that lasts twelve minutes. (Hogwood’s recordings thankfully take all the repeats. Then a suddenly energetic Allegro, with slashing violin themes above a jog-trot propulsion in the lower strings. The Menuetto returns to symmetrical formality, but prominent oboe and horn parts retain the ironic energy of the Allegro; and the final Presto assai, very fast indeed, feels like an invitation to the listeners to move along out of the concert hall.

Who first heard these pieces? Who did Haydn write them for? The musicians first, I think — they must have worried a bit about some of the fast passages, and maybe even — the wind players — about counting their rests. But what about an audience? Presumably the Prince and his family and guests. Austrian nobility and upper-class were musical (the Prince played baryton) and took keen interest in new music. A piece like the opening Adagio of this d minor symphony requires patience: it is as severe and symmetrical as the facade of Esterházy Castle. Attending to this music reminds us of life as it was before electricity and the gasoline engine: as difficult to imagine, for many today, as life without internet and computer.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Back to the blog — via books…

Perhaps stay-in-place will revive the blog, which declined, in some cases died, in the last couple of years — perhaps the victim of increased Facebook activity largely attributable to the distractions of these Trump years.

Let's give it a try with a few paragraphs on reading. These strange epidemic times interfere even with that. The volume of correspondence is much increased — no complaint there; I love reading and writing letters, but it takes time. (Correspondence so far this year, sent and received, runs to nearly 70,000 words, just among friends and family!)

I just read Donald Hall’s A Carnival of Losses, sent me by a friend. Hall was poetry editor of The Paris Review; he died two years ago, nearly ninety years old; this book was his last, a collection of light first-person anecdotes and memories of interactions with poets he had known. I found Hall a little too self-congratulatory, though perhaps at his age and after his accomplishments that can be excused.

Until now I would have logged the successful reading of the book at the website Goodreads, and perhaps left a short “review” there. I recently learned, though, that Goodreads is yet another Amazon property, and I’ve decided to spurn it. This is unfortunate as a number of my children and grandchildren use it, and it’s pleasant to read their comments there — and to keep track of their literary interests. But I will return to LibraryThing, where I note two anodyne reader reviews of A Carnival of Losses: I should add one of my own, I suppose.

I am nearly done with the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s collection of essays, most of them reviews, in The Common Reader, first series. I bought the book over sixty years ago, as I can tell by the style of my signature on the flyleaf. It’s a Harcourt Brace Harvest edition, paperback, published in 1953; it has held up remarkably well. I don’t remember if I read it previously; I think not. Here Librarything offers six reader reviews, and several of them are quite worth looking at. I liked, for example,

The common reader is decidedly not a book to read without the mind and without the heart — both of those organs will be stimulated more than adequately as you read it — but the considerable enjoyment is still there all the same!
What’s next? I’m stalled in Richard Jeffries’s The Story of My Heart and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, in both cases partly because I’ve been reading them as e-books, on my iPhone. A friend has just sent Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Landscapes) with a glowing recommendation, and another is apparently sending me Roy Morris’s Gertrude Stein Has Arrived for which I will no doubt drop everything else temporarily. (And no doubt that will drive me back to Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography.) When the weather's warmer I plan to resume and finish Proust, and I've been hearing a call from Beckett lately, his great trilogy.

In pre-internet days reading a book like The Common Reader was slowed by trips to the encyclopedia. One wants to know more about the Mitfords, the Elizabethans, the Greeks. Wikipedia is quicker to consult, of course, but ends taking up more time, because its distractions are equally quicker. I find it more difficult to write, these days; the future is so vague it seems futile to leave yet more words scattered about. But how I appreciate those left by earlier writers; how gratifying their conversations are now we can't conduct our own with old friends and youngsters!

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Generosity of Children

Berkeley, August 28, 2019—
LANGUAGEHAT TELLS ME that Alexander Gavrilov, in an interview, told a Russian blogger
It was at that moment that I grasped the difference between the reading of children and adults. Children are generally much more generous readers. I have the fixed idea that a book is created by its reader almost to a greater extent than by its writer. I have often heard adult readers say something like “There are no really good books left, it’s all crap, it was a lot better before.” At that point the reader is admitting that he no longer has the substance that makes all books magical in childhood.

As usual, a lengthy stream of interesting comments follows LanguageHat's post, many of them suggesting that what happens is that as they grow older children learn critical discrimination. Perhaps that "substance" (a word LanguageHat considers carefully in his translation [from Russian] of Gavrilov's comment) is in fact innocence.

This brought me back to last night's after-dinner conversation, when I was asked why I no longer care to write criticism. Criticism, well practiced, enlarges its subject — but at the expense of framing it within a construct built of the critic's accumulated experiences. And, let's face it, taste. When I write about a Mozart opera the opera Mozart composed begins to disappear behind the opera I have just seen performed, as my mind rambles from it within a landscape of other Mozart, other opera, other even further experiences that come to my mind, all of them wanting attention and needing shepherding if they're not to clutter the view entirely.

And, of course, the older I get, the more experiences and memories, even if the memories come less readily to mind when wanted.

I have tried always to be two people: a critic and a child. The critic thinks, reads, listens, discusses, expresses. The child looks, listens, asks questions. Too soon he becomes himself critical.

So a critic's farewell to criticism is a step in the process of restoring childlike generosity, or innocence. As we prepare to go elsewhere let us efface our presence here. I don't mean entirely: I'm taking care to leave a record behind. But I'm eager to give up the active pursuit of framing reality, thus lessening it, by insisting on my own view of it. It's time, instead, to empty my mind.

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.