Thursday, October 06, 2005

Dogs and Cats

NOT A DOG PERSON, no no no no, not in this country. We had a dog, of course, when I was a kid, sixty years ago and more; just about everyone did. A toy shepherd named Butch. But none since. I tend to agree with Emma, who doesn’t like dogs because, she says, they pee and they slobber.

Cats, yes; we like cats just fine, and for twenty years or so we had at least one and usually two. The last two, Joe and Blanche, lived to be nearly twenty, and I miss them still.

And so when I walk into a hotel to check in and see a cat in the lobby I immediately feel things are breaking my way. The old Hotel Figueroa in Los Angeles; the Sylvia in Vancouver.

And when you duck into a bar or a café and find a cat sleeping in the window, or under a chair: you feel immediately there’s tranquility here, and after all that’s what you’re looking for.

Dogs are another matter, but not in Europe. Every time we go to Europe we begin again the list of disadvantageous differences, disadvantageous to our own country I mean — the never-to-be-written-or-published book Why Can’t We... — and one of the chapters will surely center on Man’s Best Friend.

Kees and Irma, for example, have a wonderful border collie called "Yella," spelled Jelle I think, a Frisian name having nothing to do with his colors which are the regimental black and white of his breed. Perhaps that’s "her" breed: sex never seemed to be an issue with this fine animal.

One night sleeping I developed a Charley horse, that excruciating sudden pain in the calf of your leg. I couldn’t cry out, as I generally do, because I’d have awakened everyone in the house. Instead I whimpered, and immediately there came Jelle full of sympathy and concern, nosing me to be sure I’d recover. There was something immensely reassuring about this and I’ve had to revisit my attitude toward Albert Payson Terhune.

We had breakfast a couple or three weeks ago in Groningen, that fine regional capital in the north of The Netherlands. Curiously every chain café in the town center was out of milk at seven in the morning — they only serve fresh milk, it seems, in their cappuccinos — and we ended up at an upscale Cafe´-Conditerei serving pastries and coffees to comfortable-looking people at small tables, nearly each with a newspaper, most of them conservative.

There were no fewer than three dogs in our part of the room, a smaller raised central room with perhaps eight tables. They were small fat shaggy dogs with short legs and tiny feet, and they moved rather sluggishly I thought if they moved at all. One did, ultimately, giving up its post under another table to come stand patiently at the feet of my own chair, foolishly thinking I was about to give up a piece of croissant.

(Or perhaps, given its shape, hoping for a sugar cube. I think this was one of the few places that hasn’t given up sugar cubes in favor of those ridiculous little paper tubes of sugar, no doubt forced on the restaurant industry by the Dutch Society of Friends of the Horse in an almost completely successful effort to interfere with my passing out sugar cubes to horses on our perambulations through the Dutch countryside.)

These dogs were no harm to anyone, not even the waiters who brought things here and there through a space whose navigation was made difficult by its forest of tables and chairs and seated readers of newspapers. (I wonder how the room looks to those dogs, who see it from a vantage much closer the floor.)

They were really small slow sculptures, clean as a whistle (this is the Netherlands, after all), quiet, friendly and patient, never demanding. They were, in short, almost cats.

We had lunch last week in a café in Amsterdam — a bar-restaurant, really — at about four in the afternoon, an hour when I never really expect to find anything. Only one other table was occupied, by two English girls looking over a fashion magazine and not really eating much of anything.

We ordered off the lunch menu: a salad of some kind for L., a merguez sandwich for me. That turned out to be a sort of hamburger bun, toasted, with four grilled lamb sausages (very good, by the way), sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and some onion. Delicious; and afterward I asked the waitress, now tending bar, the name of the fine sleeping cat perched on the ledge-overlook near the English girls.

Caspar, she said, and that’s Gaston in the window, pointing to Caspar’s match.

I know, I know, the health authorities in this country would shudder at the thought. I don’t know why they don’t in the Netherlands, whose health laws are sometimes even more insane than our own. But I retort that important studies have revealed that children who grow up with household pets are sixtyseven percent less likely to develop asthma. Don’t ask for the source of this information: I can’t provide it. But I know it’s true. It stands to reason.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Mark Morris at Zellerbach

HOW WAS THE MARK MORRIS, a friend e-mails, and another writes

I wasn't as convinced about the performance as you were, but am very glad to have seen it and it's fun to watch you swoon over the art you enjoy!

Well, "swoon" is perhaps an extravagant word, but I must say I was tremendously impressed with Cargo, the new piece Morris set to Darius Milhaud's La creation du monde. It began with a white pole lying diagonally on the otherwise bare floor of an empty set. The dancers crept in from the wings, tentatively approaching it and one another, and as Milhaud's magical score evolved so did they, balancing curiosity and timidity, discovering emotions and pleasures, playing with their stick and one another, inventing social hierarchies and disagreement. You felt you were watching the evolution of humanity from its animal source, and since that evolution stopped short of the discovery of conscious thought the spectacle was a delight.

All Fours, to the Bartok Fourth Quartet was the most abstract I've seen from him, still detailed and quite close to the musical argument, but intellectual, I thought, especially after the more primitive exploration of the Milhaud.

What had attracted us to the evening was the music, particularly the Stein-Thomson opera Four Saints in Three Acts -- I never miss a production of it if I can help it. Morris treated the opera as a pageant, with lyrical naive-art backdrops and costumes, and avoided overly detailed mime interpretation of the content of the opera (distinguishing this from, for example, his setting of L'Allegro ed il penseroso, which I delight in in spite of its fussiness).

The commere and compere were the soloists here, as they tend to be in the opera, with the two Saints Theresa collapsed into a third solo dancer, and it was a pleasure to find that the chorus represented not all those miscellaneous Saints brought into Stein's libretto, but Spanish villagers on a sunny plaza, perhaps in Avila, miming and worshipping and more than occasionally spoofing them.

What I like about Mark Morris is his combination of sentiment, energy, and intellect, all in the service of commentary (or, as Stein would say, "meditation") on his subject. And this program was so artful, beginning with the primal source of humanity, continuing through the human application of intelligence, ending with faith and humor.

The other thing I like about these Morris productions is: Live Music!

The Berkeley Symphony did a fine job of the Milhaud and the Thomson, and the Bartok Fourth was played as if it were the easiest thing in the world -- though one of the most beautiful and enlightening -- by four young musicians, I'm sorry I haven't the program at hand, seated audience right at the edge of the stage. Fabulous.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

How to Write Music

FOR A SUPPERCLUB CONCERT last night I'd been asked to provide about fifteen minutes of music. I put the assignment off too long, but a few hours before the concert I began to sketch the piece out.

Three or four sheets of paper, landscape mode, roughly pencilled horizontal lines dividing the instruments -- flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trombone, percussion, three or four strings.

Horizontal pencil lines dividing the time, five seconds or so at a time. I wrote in a few figures -- scale patterns here, the outline of a melody there, a few quickly repeated notes, a few sustained tones. No specific pitches.

Then I ran out of time, and had to go to the club with no music. The musicians were there, of course, and I watched them get out their tools and warm up. I knew several of them. The audience was sitting behind me, also facing the musicians.

I explained I hadn't finished anything, and began to describe the sketch I'd begun. I conduct it like this, I said, sweeping my right arm like a second-hand, punching out individual notes or curving lyrical phrases with my left hand.

It begins with kind of an oriental-sounding plaintive melody in the bassoon's second and third octaves, I said, singing it and looking at Greg Barber, who began playing along with me. I glanced over toward Larry London, who began counterpointing a similar tune on the clarinet.

I showed the brass players how they come in and drop out with sustained tones, higher if I point upward, lower if downward, quieter when my left hand drops.

The strings waited for me to curve some tunes toward them, and the winds tapped out repeated notes as I signalled them. This went on for a while, and then I said

But of course I never got around to writing the piece, or making you parts, so we won't be able to play anything tonight.

And that was the end of the piece, and the end of the dream. But I realize now that it's exactly how I notated the first movement of Tongues.

NOTHING ELSE to report, except that while making guacamole last night I sneaked slug of tequila and one of the almonds Lindsey had out on a pan on top of the stove. What a combination that is! Gotta capitalize on it somehow!

Monday, October 03, 2005

Go Solar!

There seem to be various proposals afloat to help homeowners add solar panels to their roofs. Good idea, no doubt about it.

But I have another proposal for our dear Governor Schwarzenegger. How about requiring panels on all new big-box stores, shopping malls, franchise-food joints, gas stations, and auto dealerships?

This would have the immediate effect of slowing the construction of such impositions on the landscape, I suppose, and that wouldn't be an entirely bad thing.

But it might have two positive effects as well. First, such immense consumers of electricity might begin to produce a sizable percentage of their own energy. Second, the great quantity of solar panels and other hardware suddenly needed should help bring down the cost of the technology -- a more direct help to the eventual residential user than short-term government subsidy.

While we're at it, why not require government buildings to go solar?

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Trash Talk

We're back from a September in the Netherlands and the Var -- a week visiting extended family in The Hague and Friesland, two weeks walking the country dikes, forest paths, and magnificent heather of Friesland and the northeast Netherlands, and a week car-touring the best and least-toured corner of Provence.

Last night we drove with friends to Berkeley, there to see the Mark Morris Dance Group in a bill I'd even come home early from Europe to see: intelligent and entertaining dances to Milhaud's La creation du monde, the fourth Bartok quartet, and my candidate for the signal work of musical theater of the 20th Century, the Stein-Thomson Four Saints in Three Acts.

But it's not the sheep pastures and mixed forest of the Netherlands, the pines and vines of the Var, or the stunning humanity of Morris's choreography that I contemplate this morning. It's the amazingly trashy thing my native city has become.

Driving the length of University Avenue, from freeway to campus, is a revelation of the triumph of litter, neglect, exploitation, and utter unconcern for human comfort and civility that has become the accepted background -- foreground, actually -- of contemporary urban American life.

This results, of course, from the prevailing American view that private gain trumps public responsibility, that one can do what one wants with one's own property regardless of the resulting deterioration of the setting in which it participates -- whether the ecology of the physical environment or the temper of the public mood.

I heard earlier yesterday of the pending legislation to "compensate" property-owners for potential profits hypothetically lost because of ecological priorities such as the preservation of endangered species. The arguments referred to the property-owners "rights," but never once contemplated the civic and social responsibility that comes with the ownership of property -, the extent to which such ownership entails stewardship.

Cities are pre-eminently for people, for the people who live in them, work or study in them, visit them. Context affects content, and to condemn the citizenry to live in physical squalor and confusion inevitably condemns them to anxiety and stress, to their own confusion and disorder.

I don't think it's too far-fetched to suggest the unconcern for order and tranquillity is related to the prevalent American unconcern for maintenance and prevention. The urban American eye is on details and the dollar, not the long term and stability.

It's time to find a way to persuade planning and zoning commissions of this, but also to demand greater collective responsibility from developers, architects, landlords, and shopkeepers.