Monday, December 31, 2007

May it be small!

INTO HEALDSBURG THIS MORNING for a little last-minute shopping. A book at Levin & Co., a fine local bookshop. Rolls at the Downtown Bakery & Creamery and a conversation with Kathleen. A wedge of good Parmaggiano at The Cheese Shop, as good a cheese shop as anyone needs.

These are all fairly small locally-owned businesses. You can trust them. They give back to the community. And they make me think that perhaps the Next Big Thing that everyone seems to be wondering about on the radio today, perhaps the Next Big Thing will be Small.

Take Café St. Rose, for example, a perfectly wonderful 24-seat restaurant I wrote about the other day. Mark Malicki runs close to a one-man kitchen, far as I can see; and one serving-person takes care of the dining room. Mark can shop, think, prepare, and cook as he likes, and that means locally, among other things.

Joe Stewart runs a similar operation at the Downtown Bakery, fixing breakfast and lunch, cooking the menu he likes. The clientele is mostly locals. Fine.

I've written before, too, about Marius, Kees Elfring's restaurant in Amsterdam. No more than thirty diners. Kees in the kitchen, with a part-time assistant-cum-plongeur.

Levin & Co. is a mother-and-son operation for the most part, and they know what I might want to read next. If they don't have it, they can order it, of course.

Big box stores have their place, I'm beginning to think; it makes sense to buy a case of typing paper (as we used to call it) or a refrigerator or a dozen sacks of cement at one of them; why would you want stuff like that downtown? It should be out by the highway, where the trucks can unload all that stuff.

But Small is Beautiful. Small specialty shops and restaurants can respond to their communities while keeping their owner-workers interested. So I predict we'll see more of this in 2008, and I hope I'm right.

And a Happy New Year to all of us!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Nearing the end of the year

WITH ONE DAY LEFT in a dying year, I re-read notes in the margin of Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Penguin Books, 2005).

She writes about landscape, the road, deserts, country music, Cabeza de Vaca, solitude, Alfred Hitchcock, Yves Klein, language, transience.

Among her pages I note the following passages. (Passages: an appropriate word to apply to this book of hallucinated footsteps. An appropriate word at a moment of passage.)
Meno: "How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?"

It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it's where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own.

Cities are built by men (and to a lesser extent, women), but they decay by nature, from earthquakes and hurricanes to the incremental processes of rot, erosion, rust, the microbial breakdown of concrete, stone, wood, and brick, the return of plants and animals making their own complex order that further dismantles the simple order of men.

What is the message that wild animals bring, the message that seems to say everything and nothing? What is this message that is wordless, that is nothing more or less than the animals themselves — that the world is wild, that life is unpredictable in its goodness and its danger, that the world is larger than your imagination?

It is in the nature of things to be lost and not otherwise.

More is known; there is less to know; we lose both what we know and what we don't. … At any given moment the sun is setting someplace on earth, and another day is slipping away largely undocumented as people slide into dreams that will seldom be remembered when they awaken. Only the continuation of abundance makes loss sustainable, makes it natural.

Friday, December 28, 2007

W.G. Sebald: Austerlitz

AT THE END OF THE YEAR I look back over the books read, the theater seen, the meals eaten, the travels made in the last twelve months. There the books are, still waiting in many cases to be written about: for it is in writing about things that I come to understand what they mean; what they mean to me; what things mean to me.

I have written here about some of them, notably (at tedious length) Alex Ross's survey of the music of the Twentieth Century, The Rest is Noise; and Geert Mak's fine history of the Twentieth Century minus its music, In Europe. Many other titles should have been mentioned but were not: among them:
Ken Alder: The Measure of All Things
Diamond, Jared: Guns, Germs, and Steel
Freeling, Nicolas: The Village Book
Lermontov, Mihail: A Hero of our time
Lewis, Norman: Naples '44
Solnit, Rebecca: A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Swafford: Charles Ives
But none more, I think, than W.G. Sebald's magnificent Austerlitz. I read it last August, and subsequent travels and travails shouldered it aside. Austerlitz, perhaps more than any other book I've read recently, is a book I wish I had written, is the book I try to write. It so often so exactly relates experiences I have had, and draws the conclusions I have fumbled after. Unlike The Rings of Saturn, a somewhat easier book to read, Austerlitz lacks such help to the reader as chapter breaks and running heads; like other books by this writer, and like André Breton's memorable Surrealist novel Nadja, its pages contain enigmatic monochrome photographs whose presence somehow fills out the narrative.

I will not review Austerlitz: I simply transcribe the running heads and marginally checked passages my pencil left in the book. Perhaps some coherent view will Sebald-like divulge. Sebald's words are italicized.

P. 51: The drowned village p. 53 Ghosts p. 55 Moses p. 59 School (at twelve) p. 61 reading p.. 62 Tale p. 64 Gwendolyn's death p. 67 Adoption revealed p. 69 Napoleon p. 70 Austerlitz P. 71: Hilary could talk for hours about the second of December 1805, but nonetheless it was his opinion that he had to cut his accounts far too short, because, as he several times told us, it would take an endless length of time to describe the events of such a day properly… All of us, even when we think we have noted every tiny detail, resort to set peices which have already been stated often enough by others. [Longer to describe than to experience.]

P. 72: Our concern with history, so Hilary's thesis ran, is a concern with preformed images already imprinted on our brains, images at which we keep staring while the truth lies elsewhere, away from it all, somewhere as yet undiscovered. Pp.76-77: From the outset my main concern was with the shape and the self-contained nature of discrete things, the curve of banisters on a staircase, the molding of a stone arch over a gateway, the tangled precision of the blades in a tussock of dried grass.

P. 91 Moths p. 97 Guillotine p. 100 Time p. 103 Greenwich p. 114 Flying P. 119 Photographs p. 120 (~ Arcades Project) p. 121 (Laboring past the work) P. 123 Disintegration: I already felt in my head the dreadful torpor that heralds disintegration of the personality, I sensed that in truth I had neither memory nor the power of thought, nor even any existence, that all my life had been a constant process of obliteration, a turning away from myself and the world. … the panic I felt on facing the start of any sentence that must be written, not knowing how I could begin it or indeed any other sentence, soon extended to what is in itself the simpler business of reading, until if I attempted to read a whole page I inevitably fell into a state of the greatest confusion. If language may be regarded as an old city full fo streets and squares, nooks and crannies… then I was like a man who has been abroad a long time and cannot find his way through this urban sprawl anymore…

P. 125 Relinquishment p. 126 Noctambulation p. 128 Liverpool Street Station p. 136 Time …as if the black and white diamond pattern of the stone slabs beneath my feet were the board on which the endgame would be played, and it covered the entire plane of time. p. 138 Liverpool Street Station → recognition p. 139 Dream p. 1141 Radio p. 143 Prague p. 151 Recognition of things seen in childhood p. 165 Disembodied (radio) voices P 175 Acceleration: When I look back at the two years following the outbreak of the war, said Vera, it is as if at that time everything was caught in a vortex whirling downwards at ever-increasing speed. Bulletins came thick and fast… read … in a curiously high-pitched tone of voice, as if forced out of the larynx…

P. 185 Time: I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead… P. 201 → South: As so often when one is traveling south, I had the impression of going steadily downhill… p. 202 Casanova p. 206 Marienbad p. 214 Schumann p. 217 Prague station p. 219 Leaving Prague p. 222 Nürnberg p.225 The Rhine p. 230 Hospitalization p. 233 Adler p. 252 Return to Prague p. 254 Paris p. 260 Bibliothèque Nationale p. 268 Memory p. 269 la Salpêtrière. Stations de Métro p.272 Le cirque p. 273 Sa musique

P. 281 Complexity & Entropy …I came to the conclusion that in any project we design and develop, the size and degree of complexity of the information and control systems inscribed in it are the crucial factors, so that the all-embracing and absolute perfection of the concept can in practice coincide, indeed ultimately must coincide, with its chronic dysfunction and constitutional inability. p. 282 Balzac P. 283: …the border between life and death is less impermeable than we commonly think…

The Rest is Silence

TO FINISH THIS LONG LOOK at Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise:

Part Three: 1945-2000

The Rest is Noise is formally symmetrical: the third and final section, like the first, is cast in six chapters; they span something like two hundred pages; Richard Strauss presides over the first pages as he had at the outset; once again, one of the six chapters is devoted to a single rather surprising figure: Benjamin Britten this time.

But where Part One covered the first third of the century, Part Three must deal with more than half of it: the years following World War II. And while Ross is more than dutiful about “covering” the many “styles” of postwar concert music (always concentrating on the music of Western Europe and the United States), he does not leave the impression that he has really understood the extent to which that Twentieth Century ended having seen a profound change in the nature, the intention of that music.

But before complaining that The Rest is Noise is not some book other than the one its author had in mind, let’s look at what it actually is in this third part. The story resumes in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where a Jewish lieutenant meets Richard Strauss in his villa, intending to occupy it as a command post. It is the morning of April 30, the day of Hitler’s death. In three poignant paragraphs Ross describes the wartime experiences of Stockhausen, Henze, Zimmermann, Berio, Xenakis, and Britten. Strauss had not had a bad time of it in his Alpine villa.

Germany was ruined; “a primitive society such as Europe had not known since the Middle Ages,” Ross notes; and he devotes a fair number of pages to documenting the American effort at reconstruction. It’s not widely known the part music played in this, specifically in the de-Nazification of the country. The American occupation was headed by General Lucius Clay, whose
background combined strict West Point training with a whiff of New Deal idealism… The military governor wanted to reshape and lift up Germany as Roosevelt had reshaped and lifted up America. At a conference in Berchtesgaden, near Hitler’s old redoubt, Clay said, “We are trying to free the German mind and to make his heart value that feedom so greatly that it will beat and die for that freedom and for no other purpose.”

The project of freeing the German mind went by the name ‘reorientation.’ The term originated in the Psychological Warfare Division of the Supreme Headquarters… Psychological warfare meant the pursuit of military ends by nonmilitary means, and in the case of music it meant the promotion of jazz, American composition, interational contemporary music, and other sounds that could be used to degrade the concept of Aryan cultural supremacy.
Strauss and Pfitzner, whose careers during the Third Reich had made them problematic under the Occupation, were downplayed; Sibelius too: “likely to reawaken feelings of Nordic supremacy.” Mendelssohn was returned to the German concert platform, and there was “great emphasis on American music… major works of Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, and Virgil Thomson…”

One of the most significant undertakings of the Occupation’s “psychological warfare” through musical re-orientation was its support of the International Summer Courses for New Music at Darmstadt. The idea was to allow young composers to become familiar with the music that had been banned by the Third Reich. There, in 1949, Schoenberg’s 75th birthday was observed with performances of three major orchestral pieces and two late chamber works. More significant for what was to come, Olivier Messaien presented his Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, whose scales of durations and loudnesses may have been inspired by the complex structures of pitches in Indian ragas, but went on to inspire the young Stockhausen and Boulez to experiment with the total “precomposition” of all aspects of instrumental music: pitch, duration, loudness, instrumentation.

Ross does not confront those implications here, though: instead he closes this chapter, “Zero Hour: The U.S. Army and German Music, 1945-1949”, with the opposition of two composers who had stood for diametrically opposed “schools” of musical thought, Anton Webern and Richard Strauss.

Ross recounts the accidental killing of Anton Webern, shot by mistake in the dark by a nervous G.I. cook. To my taste Ross’s description of Webern sounds scornful:
Webern had long languished as the most obscure and arcane of the Second Viennese School composers, the one who made Berg sound like an over-the-top Romantic. After death, Webern acquired a saintly, visionary aura, the super-refined surfaces and intricate design of his works foreshadowing avant-garde constructions to come… When Webern’s Piano Variations were performed at Darmstadt in 1948, young composers listened in a quasi-religious trance. That Webern had been possibly the most avid Hitlerite among major Austro-German composers was not widely known, or went unmentioned.
Scornful, and provocative: this charge of “avid Hitlerism” is not supported by any evidence elsewhere in Ross’s book, and his otherwise copious annotations do not account for it. Berg was perfectly capable of making his own music sound as it does, of course; and one wonders also about the source of the knowledge of the mood of the audience of the Piano Variations.

The Strauss ending is gentler. He had opened The Rest is Noise with his discordant Salome; he closes this chapter with his valedictory Four Last Songs and nostalgic Oboe Concerto, which unaccountably remind Ross of “the fleet-figured, Mendelssohnian scores that the composer had written in his youth before he fell under Wagner’s spell.” To my ear it is tender and regretful, closer to the Marschallin’s soliloquy in Rosenkavalier.

ROSS TURNS NEXT to “Brave New World: The Cold War and the avant-Garde of the Fifties,” and this is where I came in, so this is where I sat up and paid attention. He begins with two paragraphs of challenge, quoting Morton Feldman (that most intelligent of avant-gardists) quoting Charles Péguy, of all people — “everything begins in mystique and ends in politics” — and leading next to a brilliant if cursory précis of the entire first half of the century, which
began with the mystique of revolution, with the mind-bending harmonies and earthshaking rhythms of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. The process of politicization was already under way in the twenties, as composers competed to stay ahead of changing trends and accused one another of complicity in regressive tendencies. In the thirties and forties, the entire Romantic tradition was effectively annexed by the totalitarian state. But nothing could compare to what happened when the Second World War ended and the Cold War began.
In rapid succession (and a single sentence) Ross touches on twelve-tone composition, total serialism, chance music, “a music of free-floating timbres”, “neo-Dada happenings.” But what chiefly fuels Ross’s survey in this chapter is “The dominant aesthetic, in European and American music alike,… one of dissonance, density, difficulty, complexity.” Schoenberg, of course, is the figurehead here, elevated by the “[politican] of style” Theodor Adorno.

A couple of pages follow, describing the exceptional premiere, in 1941, of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le fin de temps in the prisoner-of-war camp in which the composer was then incarcerated; and this leads naturally enough to the introduction of Pierre Boulez, “a kind of intellectual dreamboat”at first glance but one who was “angry with the whole world,” in Messaien’s words, one whose First Sonata is marked by “jabbing, crashing, keyboard-spanning gestures, who takes violence as the leitmotif in Le Visage nuptial and Le Soleil des eaux, and for whom above all nuance is to be avoided, abruptness to be paraded, in his polemical essays as well as his music.

(Oddly, the quality that struck me most on first hearing Messaien’s music — Le Marteau sans maître, in a performance in 1963 or thereabouts — was its nuance, poise, and lyricism.) [Jan. 11, 2008: of course this is a slip: for "Messaien's" read "Boulez's," and thank you, John Whiting.]

It is in this context that Ross elaborates on Messaien’s pathbreaking Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, describing its working well enough for a lay reader to understand. Ross is very good at this kind of program-note writing; he has a gift for narrating abstract musical lines in English sentences.

Oddly, though, he seems to find it necessary to turn to subliminal metaphor with Boulez, whose
early works, notably the two sonatas, Structures, and Le Visage nuptial, are perhaps best understood not as intellectual experiences but as athletic, even cerebrally sexual ones. Michel Foucault, the great theorist of power and sexuality, seemed almost turned on by Boulez’s music, and for a time he was the lover of Boulez’s fellow serialist [Jean] Barraqué. “They represented for me the first ‘tear’ in the dialectical universe in which I had lived,” Foucault said of the serialists. What drove Boulez’s own rage for order remains unknown.
Ross turns almost relievedly to John Cage, “capable both of great violence and of great tenderness,” whom he writes about in three generally sound and sympathetic pages only occasionally marred by lapses into journalese and shorthand. (“For Cage, the classical tradition was worn-out kitsch ripe for deconstruction, in the manner of his intellectual hero, the conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp.”

The chapter then takes up the New York School: Feldman, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown; Happenings; the silent 4’33”, and the beginnings of tape music. Here Ross is capable of penetrating (if familiar) but frustratingly undeveloped insights — Earle Brown’s “open-form pieces imported some of the energy of bebop”; “certain of Cage’s chance pieces ended up sounding oddly similar to Boulez’s total-serialist pieces.”

Ross follows Copland and Stravinsky into their twelve-tone essays, noting that in Stravinsky’s late sacred works “the rows are stacked in favor of consonant chords: triads flicker like shafts of light in a darkened church.” But a more impressive passage returns to Darmstadt, with good basic coverage of the emergence of Stockhausen and Xenakis. I think he misses a point in his interpretation of Stockhausen’s Gruppen:
What separates Gruppen from its monumental Romantic predecessors [Ross had cited Mahler, Strauss, and Wagner] is its relative emotional neutrality; it lacks the grandeur and sorrow that Thomas Mann identified with Wagner. German music was renouncing its ‘“special path,” its Faustian urge, and joining the cosmopolitan frenzy of the postwar world.

THAT’S NOT BAD: but the renunciation of “Faustian urge” can also be read as transcendence of ego. The question of Stockhausen and Ego is a vexing one; no one could call him egoless, but his music certainly tends to egolessness. Alex Ross, in The Rest is Noise, does not: his book is personal.

This is no fault; indeed it contributes to the book’s appeal and persuasiveness. There are drawbacks, of course: Ross lapses, now and then, into the pathetic fallacy, attributing emotions to musical events, as in a discussion of Xenakis’s Metastaseis: “The string clusters are soon inflitrated by sneering trombone glissandos and other razzing brass sounds.”

Perhaps this reveals a writer who reads human motivations and interpretations into historical processes; perhaps it is his humanistic bent, his human-centered reading of the history of music, as apart from the humans and human forces that produce it, that veils his view of music as it evolved in the course of the Twentieth Century.

As if fatigued by the confrontation with the profound changes wrought (or, better, witnessed) by Cage and Stockhausen, Boulez and Feldman, Ross retreats next to studies of the careers of Benjamin Britten and Olivier Messaien, finding their operas easy subjects for his descriptive gifts.

Another chapter breezes past the American avant-garde, with proper (if insufficient) attention to the West Coast. Ross is unpersuaded by the music, falling back on journalistic put-downs: “Ingrained in [Lou] Harrison’s personality was a love of musical merriment, of hummable song and rollicking dance.” (His strong, sweet, elegiac component is not mentioned.)
“[Morton Feldman] insisted that composition could not actually be taught, and in his classes he meandered all over hee map — one eccentric assignment being to analyze Sibelius’s Fifth.” (But Feldman understood the significance of Sibelius’s musical landscapes to the long lines of “Minimalist” structures.)
The West Coast gives place to New York Minimalism; Terry Riley leads to Steve Reich; Ross works to find coherence in the increasingly pluralistic scene, but quite rightly expresses reservations about the process:
As with most A-B comparisons between music and other arts, the linkage [between the music and the painting scenes in New York] is partly a matter of intellectual convenience. Minimalist painting and sculpture remained arts of abstraction. Minimalis music, with its restoration of tonality, rejected abstraction…
Ross closes with a chapter centered on John Adams, whose music, after an early mastery of repetitive-structure process (Phrygian Gates, for example) settled into a serious, methodical construction of a healing return of concert music to the long tradition that ran from Monteverdi through Schoenberg.
This has been a book about the fate of composition in the twentieth century. The temptation is strong to see the overall trajectory as one of steep decline. From 1900 to 2000, the art experienced what can only be described as a fall from a great height.…

Perhaps… classical composition is being sustained past its date of expiration by the stubborn determination of those who perform it, those who support it, and, above all, those who write it. More likely, though, a thousand-year-old tradition won’t expire with the flipping of a calendar or the aging of a baby-boom cohort. Confusion is often a prelude to consolidation; we may even be on the verge of a new golden age.
This is revealing: Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, institutions like The New Yorker are the guardians of these thousand-year traditions. (The phrase is uncomfortably reminiscent of Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich.)

But why not entertain the notion that this tradition, despite the truly heroic work of such composers as John Adams, may have run its course? That happens repeatedly throughout history. If art forms have clear beginnings, as opera and the novel and easel painting certainly do (however specialists may argue as to specifics), why may they not have endings?

There is a kind of sentimentalism in views of history that insist on immunity to reversals. One of the most significant aspects of the work of composers like Satie, Webern, Cage, and Feldman is their cheerful acceptance of the relative inconsequence of the ego-expressive component of music, their methodical and disciplined search for the “abstraction” that frees music — sounds and silences observed and appreciated for their own sake — from the tyranny of convention, that restores it to its original purpose, according to John Cage’s well-known description:
"The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences." (Elsewhere, the second clause is replaced with “so that it is in accord with what happens.")
Understanding things as they are begins with accepting them on their own terms. I appreciate Alex Ross’s writing and his book: but we still need a history of the process of the Twentieth Century as it led, not to a continuation of history since the Renaissance, but to the succession to that history of a new moment in human awareness, a moment whose arrival the great Twentieth-Century composers did much to achieve.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Stockhausen again

A PARTICULARLY MOVING ACCOUNT of the funeral of Karlheinz Stockhausen by the Chicago-born, francophone, Lithuanian-allied painter, poet, and composer Paul Dirmeikis on the web — I learned of it on Alex Ross's blog.

That Interruption, World War II

CONTINUING A LOOK at Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise:

Part Two: 1933-1945

Ross centers his survey of the music of the 20th century on three chapters taking up the music of the Soviet Union, the United States, and the Third Reich. “The Art of Fear: Music in Stalin’s Russia” opens with the celebrated denunciation of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the opera attended by Josef Stalin at the beginning of 1936. The affair stands for a general, and unprecedented, incursion of government into aesthetic concerns, and Ross introduces the subject eloquently:
The period from the mid-thirties onward marked the onset of the most warped and tragic phase in twentieth-century music: the total politicizing of the art by totalitarian means. On the eve of the Second World War, dictators had manipulated popular resentment and media spectacle to take control of half of Europe.
Ross cites Hitler, Mussolini, Miklós Horthy in Hungary, Franco, and Stalin; but notes also that
In America, Franklin D. Roosevelt was granted extraordinary executive powers to counter the ravages of the Depression, leading conservatives to fear an erosion of constitutional process, particularly when federal arts programs were harnessed to political purposes.
Ross reminds us that Stalin and Hitler
…aped the art-loving monarchs of yore, pledging the patronage of the centralized state. But these men were a different species. Coming from the social margins, they believed themselves to be perfect embodiments of popular will and popular taste. At the same time, they saw themselves as artist-intellectuals, members of history’s vanguard.
Ross’s writing on the political and social history of this period is continuously interesting and fully informed. His reading has run from academic political history to primary sources among revolutionaries, writers, and composers; his authority here is very persuasive.

And he allows some of his argument to emerge from between his lines. For example: A central theme of early twentieth-century art was irony, the concealment of intended meaning or effect behind an apparently dissociation of apparently more innocent surface expression. Irony cannot appeal to authoritarians or the the masses: each for different reasons wants expression in black and white, resists nuance as effete and intellectual.

Irony is of course central to Shostakovich’s music of the Stalinist period: or at least that is the only way that music can be understood by today’s audiences. Ross cautions
To talk about musical irony, we first have to agree on what the music appears to be saying, and then we have to agree on what the music is really saying. This is invariably difficult to do. We can, however, learn to be wary of any interpretation that displays too much certitude about what the music is “really saying,” and stay alert to multiple levels of meaning.
but goes on to encourage our hearing Shostakovich’s Fifth and Seventh symphonies “in this way” — while insisting on the composer’s very real everyday heroism during the German assault on Leningrad — a heroism forced on virtually every inhabitant of that city.

The next chapter, “Music for All: Music in FDR’s America” is necessarily less coherent: even under Roosevelt’s “extraordinary executive powers,” the United States was hardly a monolithic organization. For one thing, waves of refugee artists and intellectuals, displaced by the Third Reich, brought all flavors of European Modernism to a country whose mood had swung, through the effects of the Great Depression, toward a simpler, more populist expression:

That such disparate personalities as the White Russian Stravinsky and the hard-core Communist [Hanns]Eisler could feel temporarily at home in America was a tribute to the inclusive sprit of Franklin Delano Roosevelt… [who] embodied what came to be known as the “middlebrow” vision of American culture — the idea that democratic capitalism operating at full tilt could still accommodate high culture of the European variety.

Some of the tendency toward a populist esthetic was the result of populist technology: the phonograph and radio did much to tilt a national musical taste — not monolithic, bien entendu — toward the approachable and the assimilable. Even the many attempts by well-meaning middlebrow critics and conductors to improve the public taste
failed to stimulate the radio executives and the corporate heads who bought advertising. Stokowski’s advocacy of new music reportedly alarmed the higher-ups at General Motors… A few months after the premiere of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, it was announced that Stokowski’s contract would not be renewed…
(Schoenberg’s own draft notes toward a possible program underlying that Concerto are keenly apropos:
Life was so easy
suddenly hatred broke out
a grave situation was created
But life goes on

cited in H.H. Stuckenschmidt: Arnold Schoenberg: his life, world, and work (New York: Schirmer Books, 1977)
If dictatorial tyranny was missing from the American scene in the 1930s, other forces prevailed against Modernist experimentalism. Ross discusses the political innuendo-campaigns against any possible Communist connection as it affected Aaron Copland and Marc Blitzstein, but he doesn’t give equal consideration to the concurrent social pressure on them for their homosexuality.

Ross investigates figures who while they may be less familiar to today’s readers and listeners are nevertheless significant both for their own merits as composers and for their representative quandaries in this difficult period: Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger are given particularly sympathetic treatment. He touches on Broadway and Hollywood. He gives a fair amount of attention to Virgil Thomson’s division of American musical audiences into three types:
1) the Luxury-trade, capitalist Toscanini public riding with sedate satisfaction in streamlined trains from Beethoven to Sibelius and back. 2) The professor-and-critic conspiraccy for internationalist or “contemporary”” music which prizes hermetism and obscurantism… 3)The theatre-public of the leftist-front, a pubic of educated, urban working people who want eucated, urban spokesmen for their ideals.
(Thomson wrote that paragraph in 1938, when it was published in Modern Music — a magazine whose very existence reveals the complexity and, to a great extent, the wonderful sophistication prevailing at that time in American culture.)

And Ross is quick to offer examples of each category: Samuel Barber; Roger Sessions; Kurt Weill and George Gershwin.

Copland, however, gets most of Ross’s attention in this chapter, and why not? Like Shostakovich, he was caught between his Modernist and internationalist instincts and the populist requirements of the society in which he composed. Both, for very different reasons, end as tragic figures, ultimately unable, for reasons beyond their control, to pursue those instincts to fully satisfying career conclusions. Curiously, Copland’s best music seems to me to be that which makes the least compromise while addressing each of the conflicting pressures on his own personal composing style: the Modernist Piano Variations and the populist El Salon México.

FINALLY, THE THIRD CHAPTER in this central “book” of Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise, “Death Fugue: Music in Hitler’s Germany,” investigates the equally tragic conclusion of the long career of Richard Strauss.

First Ross sets out the close connection between Hitler and the Wagner family (the composer of Das Ring der Nibelungen had left a son, Siegfried, whose closet homosexuality was masked by his marriage, at 45, to the 17-year-old English girl Winifred Williams; they ran the family business at Bayreuth, and Siegfried was an active supporter of Hitler.)

Anti-Semitism has been a continuing minor theme of Ross’s study, beginning with the opening of The Rest is Noise with a disquisition on Strauss’s Salome; in this chapter the theme is no longer minor. But the problem of musical politics in the Third Reich is not that simple:
Was there such a thing as a “Nazi sound”? Did a conservative style steeped in Wagner, Bruckner, and/or Strauss guarantee success in Hitler’s World? Did more adventurous styles [which] had prospered in the free atmosphere of the Weimar Republic guarantee failure? The answers…are not as clear as is often assumed. The automatic equation of radical style with liberal politics and of conservative style with reactionary politics is a historical myth that does little justice to an agonizingly ambiguous historical reality.
Ross takes up the cases of Hans Pfitzner, Paul Hindemith, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, and Carl Orff (and, in an intriguing aside, that of the great Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola); and he sets them forth with admirable clarity and sympathy.

But nothing is simple, and one of the most significant paragraphs here investigates the authoritarian and elitist positions held even on the aesthetic left, inspired though they may have been by the authoritarian suppression of the political right:
In 1931, as Germany was swinging politically rightward, Schoenberg described his music as “a living example of an art able most effectively to oppose Latin and Slav hopes of hegemony [,] and derived through and through from the traditions of German music.” …and in his 1938 essay “Four-Point Program for Jewry” he declared that democracy would be unsuitable for a mass Jewish movement.
Ross further quotes Schoenberg’s description of his methods in running his Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna, noting that they are “precisely how Hitler took power in 1933.”

Alex Ross’s “Death Fugue” ends, sadly, in April 1945, with Richard Strauss completing his late masterpiece Metamorphosen on the very day Roosevelt dies; with Brucker’s Romantic Symphony playing from the loudspeakers in the ruins of Berlin, and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings on the radios of the United States.

WORLD WAR II was the great interruption in the course of the Twentieth Century, derailing Modernism, confusing Democracy, cementing the rise of Industrialism and through that the institution of the global consumer economy. Schoenberg was right, though: a grave situation was created / But life goes on. Ross’s book concludes with what is perhaps its most troubled and necessarily unsatisfying sections, covering the rest of the century, fifty-five years. I’ll try to get to a consideration of it in a few days, partly inspired by its epigraph:
We live in a time I think not of mainstream, but of many streams, or even, if you insist upon a river of time, that we have come to delta, maybe even beyond delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies.
— John Cage, KPFA radio, 1992

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Rest is More than Noise

DANIEL WOLF, over at his blog Renewable Music, had a recent post on the lack of consensus as to what is essential to know about musical studies. Compared, for example, to the general consensus as to the essential-to-know corpus of calculus, say, or quantum mechanics.

It’s a discussion along the lines of Harold Bloom’s disquisition on the basic canon of western civilization, as he set it forth in The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994). The musical “canon” is important; let’s get that out of the way first: music is important to individuals and to their cultures, because it enhances perception, memory, social organization, and for lord knows how many other reasons. And knowledge of the canon, that is the body of musical works (events, performances, concepts) that have been produced over the centuries, knowledge of the canon is important, because it increases one’s awareness of the quantity and meaning (to beg a term) of those works and events.

(Case in point: another recent blog of Wolf’s, and my response to it, here.)

WOLF LIKES the lack of consensus as to the essential canon of musical studies, and in elaborating his reasons he cites two histories of twentieth-century music: William Austin's Music in the Twentieth Century, which “told a fantastic story beginning with Debussy”, and Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007), which “ tells another compelling story beginning with Strauss's Salome and neither story cancels the other out.”

(Here’s an example of the value of studying music — or any of the liberal arts: understanding the corpus, the canon, requires comprehending the diversity of its discussion; comprehending its sources, necessity, and expression.)

I taught the history of twentieth-century music for a number of years (Mills College, Oakland), studying the first half of the century every other semester, the second half (or what there then was of it) every fourth semester. Austin’s book was one of my texts; another was Peter Yates’s Twentieth Century Music: Its Evolution from the End of the Harmonic Era Into the Present Era of Sound (Pantheon Books, 1967; reissued by Greenwood Press, 1981).

The two books did not “cancel one another out”: in fact, I used both because each needed the other. Over the years it occurred to me from time to time to write my own understanding of the subject, and I’m glad now that laziness (or the press of other matters) prevented what would have been an amazingly overweening effort. (The closest I came was in the short survey written for Mondadori’s Storia della musica, which I’ve put here on the Internet.)

All this by way of getting around to some comments on Alex Ross’s book, The Rest is Noise, read over a month ago, hence not exactly at the front of the mind.

Before reading it I’d heard Ross participate in a public conversation in San Francisco (part of the City Arts series), where he joined Linda Ronstadt and John Rockwell in a discussion moderated by Steven Winn. Ross introduced himself by playing two musical examples: first, a badly distorted recording of an excerpt from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen; then, a quiet and hypnotic excerpt from Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le fin de temps.

These, Ross stated, defined the two poles of Twentieth-century music: complex, dissonant, loud, disturbing (Stockhausen); simple, consonant, calm, in a word transcendent (Messiaen). It was a bogus presentation, of course: three instruments (violin, cello, piano; the clarinet was not present in this excerpt) record better than three orchestras. Gruppen requires acoustical space and real sound; here it had virtual sound via what sounded like a monaural recording. Bogus, but effective: Ross seemed to persuade his audience.

John Rockwell, who is an old friend, had warned me in advance that I would “not like” Ross’s point of view, because it is “antimodern.” Well, as I’ve said elsewhere, I am committed to Modernism; I can’t help it; I was born in 1935; my whole way of seeing the experience of life on earth is colored by Modernism. Ross, I think, judging by his book and judging by his heros and judging even more by the way he writes about his heros, is not committed to Modernism. He is one of those many who are fatigued in the wake of Modernism, for whom it is now necessary to simply relax, to succumb to Beauty.

LET ME BE CLEAR: I like Ross’s writing quite a bit. Much of The Rest is Noise appeared originally in The New Yorker, to which Ross contributes regularly. I enjoyed tremendously, for example, the article on Sibelius that appeared last summer (“Apparition in the Woods,” July 9, 2007). Sibelius is a misunderstood and neglected composer ; Ross largely gets him right, I think, though he writes about the man more than the music.

When Ross does write about the music, he writes in program-note style:
The harmony, meanwhile, drifts away from major- and minor-key tonality. The runic melodies, with their overlapping modes, twine around the chords tha lie beneath them; at moments, the accompaniment amounts to a rumbling cluster, a massing together of the available melodic tones.
(The Rest is Noise, p. 162; describing a passage in Sibelius’s Kullervo.)

The Rest is Noise is literate, thoughtful, fairly enterprising given its subject (music outside the European concert-hall tradition is virtually excluded). Like all Gaul it falls into three parts: 1900-1933, with Sibelius having a whole chapter (of six) to himself; 1933-1945, centered on Russia, the United States, and Germany; an 1945-2000, whose six chapters give outsized attention to Benjamin Britten and Olivier Messiaen.

Part One: 1900-1933
Ross begins with a 30-page chapter on “The Golden Age,” by which he means the decadent late-Romantic early-Modern Germanic era centered on Strauss and Mahler, followed by another 40 pages (“Doktor Faust”) centering on Schoenberg and the development of the 12-tone school. “Dance of the Earth” covers, in 45 or 50 pages, Stravinsky and various other non-Germans: Janacek, Bartok, Ravel, Satie and les Six, and Stravinsky again.

“Invisible Men” looked promising for its subtitle: American Composers from Ives to Ellington. But this is covered in 36 pages, Ross begins with a nod toward Carl Van Vechten, the music critic-novelist-photographer and great friend of Gertrude Stein and the Harlem scene:
In the twenties, for the first time in history, classical composers lacked assurance that they were the sole guardians of the grail of progress. Other innovators and progenitors were emerging. They were America. They often lacked the polish of a conservatory education. And, increasingly, they were black.
But this promise is hardly carried through, apart from an interesting passage on the composer Will Marion Cook. Charles Ives, who I think of as with John Cage one of the two great American composers, is brushed off with six pages; Varèse gets three; Virgil Thomson, two; jazz, another two; Gershwin, seven and a half; Duke Ellington, six.

In this section one of Ross’s subthemes emerges clearly: race and social class. He quotes a particularly interesting remark made by Varèse in 1928: “Jazz is not America. It’s a negro product, exploited by the Jews.” To give him credit, Ross takes the remark seriously, and investigates its meaning. He discusses similar “inherited memories of… suffering” as they might explain “Jewish Americans’s identification with black music” (sic). Race runs away with Ross at times: “…the reality of the New York scene in the twenties and thirties — that Jewish, African-American, and even Caucasian composers were working shoulder to shoulder…,” as if those three categories were parallel and mutually exclusive.

Will Cook, Gershwin, and Ellington get extended treatment partly because they wrote for the stage. It’s easier to write about music for the stage than it is to write about “abstract” orchestral or chamber music. But it is in these passages that Ross begins to grow beyond purely musical history; he writes intellectual criticism. Historical insights grow, for example, out of his treatment of Porgy and Bess and his later discussion of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. The parallels are not forced, but it’s clear that the two operas reveal essential differences in the cultures they represent: Gershwin’s opera is direct; Berg’s is subtle; both are verismo.

Ross misses a bet, though, when he deals with Thomson and Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts. He comes close to real insights: “The harmonies are straight out of a basic textbook… but they are treated with an intellectual detachment that recalls Cubist sculpture and surrealist collage.” But instead of investigating such substance, Ross’s study of Four Saints lapses into a number of lines repeating popular-press jokes about the opera, and ends dismissively: “Once the Four Saints fad was over, [Thomson] found to his dismay that he couldn’t even get the score published. As a last resort he started writing music criticism to keep his name in front of the public.

(In fact he wrote criticism to support himself in the United States, forced to leave his preferred Paris by the inconvient World War II.)

You can almost feel Ross’s relief when the three dozen pages on American modernism, arguably one of the most fertile foci of 20th-century music history (and John Cage and Lou Harrison are not even introduced among them!), gives way to the twenty pages on Sibelius.

Ross closes the first part of his book with thirty pages on Berlin in the 1920s, a “City of Nets” (the reference of course to Brecht and Weill’s Mahagonny), with lucid remarks on the Stravinsky-Schoenberg dialectic (one of those easy categorical armatures for choosing sides, recalling the earlier “wars” involving Gluck and Piccini, Wagner and Brahms), on Alban Berg, and haunted by the Berlin fermentation of the coming world crisis: “[A summer 1929] festival of music, dance, and theater… turned out to be Berlin’s last hour of cultural glory before the decline and fall.”

Ross has devoted over two hundred pages to this fascinating period of music — cultural, in fact — history. Had stopped with this, for the moment (as I will, here), this would have been a useful, solid book, explaining much of the source of issues that would explode in the 1950s and ‘60s, to be suppressed in the closing decades of the 20th century.

I think these issues, these sources, are significant, because I see history again re-spiralling, partly at least precisely because it is either unknown or neglected by those who make it — whether world “leaders” or mere musicians.

The rest of Ross’s book takes up these issues. I’ll try to get to it in later blogs. The Rest is, in fact, more than merely Noise.

Mary Isaak 1919-2007

Mary Isaak transplanting fraises des bois

FOR YEARS WE USED TO VISIT Mary Isaak every week during strawberry season. She was a colorful woman with a huge reservoir of experience, knowledge, enthusiasm, and sympathy. She'd studied music and English lit at university, so she and I had that in common; she'd lived for years on a chicken ranch outside Petaluma, so we shared something of that as well. (Though, thank the god of poultry — Hera, I suppose — our family "farm" was not devoted exclusively to chickens.)

In 1982 she decided to fill some spare hours by growing things for Chez Panisse. Through her daughter Anne, a restaurateur in New York, Mary knew Alice Waters; Alice asked her to plant fraises des bois, and Jean-Pierre Moullé, then as now the chef downstairs, brought a thousand plants from France, just how I have no idea.

She set them out in a backyard garden in Petaluma, on D street. D for Dirt, was how I always remembered which of Petaluma's all-alike streets, every Tuesday when we drove back down from Healdsburg, where I was building our house, to Berkeley, where Lindsey and I still worked, stopping off for the week's harvest. On other occasions, though, she'd tell us ahead that they'd be all picked and waiting at her house off F street, F for Fraises; and there we'd find them on the front porch, and Mary herself sitting on a couch in her living room (crowded with piano, cello, books, magazines, correspondence...)

Mary would be knitting little caps for newborn infants in third-world countries, or manufacturing bovine contraceptives for the feral cows of India.

A good-sized Irish-looking woman with crinkles at the corners of her eyes, a quick smile and a hearty laugh, Mary was a fine woman. After a few years she lost the rights to garden the plot, I'm not sure why, and we saw less of her, especially after we moved up here full-time, after the house was finished and we were both retired.

She in the meantime had, in a sense, built a house herself. Aghast at the growing homelessness she saw during the 1980s, she and another Petaluma woman, Laura Reichek, founded COTS, the Committee for the Shelterless. Over the years the organization grew, and three years ago it opened a 95-bed facility named, appropriately, the Mary Isaak Center.

We got together for lunch every now and then, less often than we should have. We last saw Mary in September or October; we called her and arranged a lunch date, picked her up at her house and went to Della Fattoria for a very pleasant time. We had to remind her how we knew her, but then the fraise garden came back and we enjoyed recalling those days, now a quarter-century ago. What a woman she was!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Renewed Acquaintance: Karlheinz Stockhausen

SOME TIME AGO, in 1992, I reviewed a number of books that had then recently appeared on the always vexing subject of the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose death earlier this month caused a new flurry of discussion. Having just received permission, I've posted the review here. I think it holds up okay; it still reflects my thoughts on the man and the composer. It probably needs editing, as I reconstructed it from an old typescript (as we used to call them) without consulting the published version, not readily to hand.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Raymond Queneau: Le Chiendent

FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS I've been reading the books of Raymond Queneau, the French writer -- "novelist" and "poet" are too restrictive descriptions -- who is better known in his own language than among readers in English, who will nonetheless know of him as the author of Zazie dans le métro, made into a very funny movie by Louis Malle (1960).

I like to read books in the order in which they were written (for which reason I've yet to have reached Moby-Dick); and I'm an irregular researcher, to say the least. So for years I was frustrated at not having found an English translation of Queneau's first book, published in French in 1933 as Le Chiendent. A couple of weeks ago, looking over the list of Books Wanted in my pocket computer while trolling the shelves at Powell's in Portland, it jumped off the shelf: Witch Grass, translated by Barbara Wright (who has translated many of the French avant-gardists, including Jarry, Tzara, Sarraute, Pinget, and Beckett).

Chapter One began to sound familiar, and I realized soon that I'd read the book before -- an eariler publication of the same translation came out in 1971, published by New Directions, under the title The Bark Tree. I took it down from my shelf, and there were the dates: began reading it August 9, 1998; finished two days later. That slowed me down a bit: this is a book to savor and consider, however fast its narration moves the reader along. This time I took two weeks.

Queneau was a polymath, well read in philosophy, mathematics, languages, and world literature; for years he worked for the important French publisher Gallimard; eventually he became director of l'Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, the mammoth project that publishes definitive texts of French literature. (The Library of America is our own country's version of la Pléiade.)

Witch Grass, to use the translation's (current) title, is a novel in seven chapters of 13 sections each: Queneau was always interested in form as a driving constraint on his work. (He was a founder of the French literary movement OuLiPo, " OUvoir de LIttérature POtentielle (Potential Literature Workshop), a group of writers interested in exploring artificial constraints; another member was Georges Perec, whose novel La Disparition (the English translation is called A Void) omits the letter "E" throughout.)

The structure of the novel, however, hardly intrudes on the cursory reader's impression of the book, except for one overall device: the characters gradually take on more realistic aspects, emerging from unnamed two-dimensional contours to really quite memorable men and women (and two, no, three children), then lapsing into less believable entities in the sudden, allegorical close of the book.

D. Brian Mann writes, in The International Fiction Review:
The Bark Tree’s central dilemma amounts to deciphering the “real” from the many deceptive appearances that surface as the plot unfolds. And as we read, we realize that the characters are simply trying to do the same. The various “real” and deceptive threads in the narrative ultimately lead to a farcical war between the French and the Etruscans. More characters die, others disappear, and still others revolt against the novel itself, thus bringing it to an uncertain and unsatisfying end. Within this simple, yet vastly complex, narrative framework, conventional notions about the perception of identity, chronology, and spatiality are questioned in what has been called “an attempt to renew narrative forms" [Allen Thiher, Raymond Queneau , Twayne’s World Authors Series 763 (Boston: Twayne, 1985) 71. ]
MORE TO THE POINT, where the casual reader is involved, is the plot: a mystery story in which the nature of the plot itself is part of the mystery. Also more to the point: the characters and their livelihoods — concierge, waitress, restaurateur, bank clerk, student, private detective, unemployed saxophonist, midwife, all thrown in together in and around the grimy Paris suburbs, circa 1930.

One of Queneau's recurring interests is the ordinary, even the bathetic. He does this invariably to humorous effect, but his portrayal of the inhuman aspects of contemporary life — which hasn't improved particularly in the last eighty years — is both sardonic and critical. If Ulysses and even Finnegans Wake are not far from Queneau at the beginning of his career, neither are the Orwell and the Beckett who are waiting in the wings.

I like the book, and for a number of reasons. It's funny as hell; the plot is interesting and suspensful; the characters are both exotic and oddly familiar. The ending is cruel, a wake-up call, reminiscent of Russell Hoban's very different Riddley Walker. It was worth re-reading after nine years, and has got me started, I suppose, on a re-read through all Queneau. These books grow as their readers age, profiting from the accumulated readings of their companions-in-literature along the way.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Pork Chops notre façon

L. THINKS THE RECIPE came originally from Elizabeth David, perhaps The Mediterranean Cookbook. I don't know: we've made this for so many years it's second nature.

What you do is, you dry the chops; you drizzle them with a little olive oil, you sprinkle them with lemon juice, you scatter a good dusting of ground-up whole fennel seeds and good sea-salt; you lay on a few slices of garlic.

Then what I do is I put each in turn atop the other, then back on the broiler pan: this distributes the seasoning to the bottom of the chop. Then adjust the visible side if necessary.

Broil one side until done; turn; readjust exposed surfaces with etcetera, finish broiling.

You can also do this on the stove in a hot black iron frying pan; in fact, I prefer that method.
I wish you could see these porkchops: alas, Blogger is temporarily not receiving photos... in the meantime, I've set up a provisional blog on my site, with photos.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

New Music in the United States (1950-1980)

HAVING RECENTLY MOVED TO A FASTER computer — iMac, 2 gHz — I've decided to start retooling my website. And having re-read, a couple of days ago, a longish article I wrote on Stockhausen fifteen years ago, I've been reconsidering some of the stuff I wrote back in the days I was doing that for a living.

One by one, as I get to them, and as I get permissions where needed, I'll be putting these things up on the website. I begin with an article written nearly thirty years ago for publication (in Italian translation) in a single-volume music encyclopedia, Storia della musica, published in 1982 by Arnoldo Mondadori. Here's the lede, to use the journalistic jargon
WHEN JOHN CAGE composed his Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra in 1952 he completed the process, begun in 1946, by which his music was to form an apparently irreconcileable break between two concurrent streams of contemporary music.
You can find the article in two versions:

Happy reading.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

RIP Karlheinz Stockhausen 1928-2007

KARLHEINZ STOCKHAUSEN DIED a few days ago, December 5; a memorial booklet on his website includes the composer's own summary of his life:
“Mein Leben ist extrem einseitig: die Werke als Partituren, Schallplatten, Filme, Bücher zählen. Das ist mein in Musik geformter Geist und ein Universum von Momenten meiner Seele in Klang.”

“My life is extremely one-sided: what counts are the works as scores, recordings, films, and books. That is my spirit formed into music and a sonic universe of moments of my soul.”
(K. Stockhausen 25. Sept. 2007)

I MET STOCKHAUSEN in 1964, when I caught a ride with my younger brother Jim out to Buffalo, New York, to hear the American premiere of his Momente. As I wrote in my memoir, Getting There:
we got somehow to Buffalo, New York, arriving at six o’clock or so in the morning of a bitterly cold day. We killed a couple of hours in an earlymorning coffee joint, where I first heard The Beatles on the juke box; and then we somehow got over to the university campus, where accommodations had been arranged for us, for I had asked the music director of KPFA if I might prepare a report on this event, and he had arranged some kind of housing, as well as other press courtesies. We visited the university art museum, with its imposing collection of Paul Klees; and we met Stockhausen, and attended the rehearsals and, finally, the premiere of his Momente, a piece whose fascinating sounds and carefully constructed architecture spoke volumes to me.
The event was immensely important to me, for on my return to Berkeley
I worked on my report of the Stockhausen premiere. This turned out to be my first attempt to communicate with a public: I wasn’t writing a paper for an English teacher, but a journalistic report — not a “review” — of a seri-ous event, new and complex enough to require a certain amount of explanation beyond the simple where-and-when. I’d taken careful notes on the Momente premiere and on returning to Berkeley I lost little time making my radio report.

I’m not sure how I knew how to do this: probably simply by having heard so much radio reportage of such events before, on KPFA broadcasts. In any case I typed up a script, reporting on the workshops and rehearsals I’d witnessed; and then reporting on the piece as I’d actually heard it: how it evolved in its setting, on the stage facing its audience, the percussion and keyboards at the front of the stage along with the brilliant and dramatic soprano soloist (Martina Arroyo), the chorus standing in a semicircle behind the instruments.

The audience politely applauded when the composer walked out from the wings to begin conducting the piece, and he acknowledged the applause, and turned to his musicians, and suddenly they in turn began to applaud the audience, and the piece had begun. I described the sounds that followed, and how they were made and how they related to one another. I had the tape recording of the Cologne performance of the same piece, and no doubt quite illegally I spliced appropriate excerpts of it into the recording I narrated of my review; and at the end of the “documentary” report of the Buffalo performance we broadcast the Cologne performance in its entirety.

The result was, I see clearly now, a combination of didactics and criticism , music appreciation and journalistic report; and it set a pattern I would follow in a number of radio programs at KPFA and television programs at KQED. I suppose it reflected the two aptitudes I’d shown so many years earlier, when the test results suggested any career for me would lie in teaching or, perhaps, preaching. It was the first serious such work I had done, and left me both a little exhilarated and a little ashamed of my own audacity.
I met Stockhausen next in 1966 or thereabouts, when he was a visiting professor at the University of California at Davis. He was living with his companion the artist Mary Bauermeister on a houseboat in Sausalito at the time, and Jonathan Cott and I visited him there to record an interview for the radio station KPFA at which I was then working as Music Director.

An immediate sympathy and reciprocal interest sprang up among us, and we had a long visit full of interaction and mutual understanding. On returning to the radio station, though, Jon and I found our tape was virtually blank: none of us had said much of anything. Almost all our communication had been unspoken.

I was busy then; he was certainly busy then. Mary was painting large circular calligraphic paintings, black signs on white gesso background; Stockhausen was working, as it turned out later, on his revolutionary vocal-ensemble piece Stimmung (“Tuning”) and the “conceptual” album of notations Aus den sieben Tagen (“From the seven days”: one of which had a curious resonance with my own first long orchestral piece, Nightmusic). But we had time to visit two or three times. Once Lindsey and I went out with Stockhausen and Mary, bar-hopping in San Francisco, and ultimately visiting Bill Graham at the Fillmore Auditorium, where I introduced them and watched an improbable attempt by Stockhausen to convince Graham that they should collaborate. Another time Lindsey, Jon and I drove over to Sausalito to attend a costume party Stockhausen was giving: we were all to dress as people would in the 25th century: he and Mary were clad, simply, in white toga-like gowns, while the guests were mostly in the psychedelic style.

I don’t know what kind of reception Stockhausen had in Davis; I never traveled up there to find out. In San Francisco, though, to say nothing of Berkeley, he had little presence. Gerhard Samuel bravely conducted the early orchestral piece Gruppen on an Oakland Symphony program — those were the days! — and the performance seemed persuasive to me, complex but clear and balanced; but the subscription audience did not like it. The San Francisco Symphony nodded toward Stockhausen by including a German documentary film about the Cologne premiere of Momente on a “festival” of contemporary music; the chief critic of the leading San Francisco newspaper denounced the composer as a fraud.

Stockhausen and I hit it off for some reason, and in his last weeks in the Bay Area he asked me if I’d like to accompany him back to Germany to work as his assistant. I pointed out that I didn’t know German. No problem, he said; I’d learn, and anyway I wouldn’t be there to do a lot of talking. But I was timid; we had small children; it seemed a risky business; and I declined.

I didn’t see Stockhausen again for a number of years, until some time in the late 1970s or possibly the ’80s. We were in Amsterdam for the summer festival, and he was conducting Thursday, one of the operas in the seven-day cycle Licht, at the Concertgebouw. We dropped in at the final rehearsal, to find him sweating over a complicated mixer-console in the middle of the hall; and then we attended the performance, which seemed to go well enough (and, again, annoyed its audience). Afterward we went backstage where we met for the first time in a number of years. He smiled at us and greeted us by name, an amazing feat, I thought, and a touching one. We talked about San Francisco and Jon Cott, and then it was someone else’s turn.

That was the last time I saw Stockhausen. In 1991 I reviewed a few books that had come out on him and his music: I will put it on my website if and when permission is granted, and announce it here. (In the meantime, limited access to the review can be had here .)

I liked Stockhausen. I admired and respected his early music, above all Kontra-punkte, Refrain, Zeitmasse, Momente, and Stimmung; I’m ashamed that I don’t know Gruppen and Carré well enough to know how I like them, and the later pieces seemed to me to go too far into a spacey realm for me to be able to follow. It’s probably as well I didn’t go to Germany with him. But he was a lovely man, kind and good-humored and hard-working, at least in my experience of him, and I’m sorry that he’s gone — like John Cage, gone just a little before his eightieth birthday, as if to elude those celebrations that always seem a little obliging, a little reluctant.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Are we lost yet?

JON CARROLL gets it wrong, I think, when he writes (here) about the use of GPS devices on the road. I suppose he's funny; but he's wrong. He cites an experience in Nevada with a friend who uses a GPS to find a ghost town: they turn off into the desert:
It turned out that, in a sense, the GPS device was correct. There was a ghost town straight ahead, and one could make out faint tracks of road that once had been. Probably the GPS company had programmed an old map into the device.
Later, Carroll cites the widely distributed news item about the English town of Wedmore, which finds itself in a storm of truck traffic. I suppose the town's on a short-cut, relatively unknown until the advent of GPS.

Carroll complains that the makers of these devices haven't built in "warnings" and "safeguards" so that Wedmores won't be overcome by inappropriate traffic, and drivers won't find themselves on desert roads. He complains that old maps are likely programmed into the devices.

I bought a Tomtom GPS a couple of weeks ago, and put it to use on a four-day visit to Los Angeles. I love it. It finds post offices, gas stations, libraries; it navigates you through unfamiliar city streets; it lets you know how far down the highway your next turn-off is going to be. It even calculates estimated times of arrival.

If I were planning a trip to a ghost town in the middle of the desert, I'd expect it to find a ghost road. If I were driving a truck and trailer, I'd be leery of secondary roads. It's a question of proper use, not the design of "safeguards."

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Das ist die ewige Kunst


Driving down to Glendale that was the question: What bad music do you like to listen to?

It's a provocative question, coming from the woman who published some of my music and two of my books — a woman who'd married a fine composer, who'd made a living as a music librarian, who'd played piano as a child actress, most memorably in Intermezzo, in which Ingrid Bergman made her American film debut.

Well of course I like to think there isn't really any bad music, but one knows what she means. The most likely candidate that came to mind was German operetta, composers like Kalmán and Benatzky. I do enjoy listening to such things; I identify with Jakob, in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, who listens blissfully to an out-of-tune piano playing sentimental music and exclaims: Das ist die ewige Kunst!

What I listen to these days is mostly Mozart and jazz, and while driving I find myself singing, especially when hearing jazz — growing up playing inner-voice instruments (bassoon, French horn, clarinet, alto saxophone) I naturally heard a lot of alto and tenor lines, and to that harmonic impulse I find the cross-rhythms of Latin music and the off-kilter countermelodies of jazz making almost intuitive companions.

Then today, driving to Santa Rosa, I caught the last few variations of Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Haydn, in an interesting, personable interpretation recorded at a live concert. What a glorious piece! Immediately I slip into sententiousness, a familiar mode to the patient woman in the passenger seat:
Brahms is like Tchaikovsky; he composes best in his lesser pieces. Their symphonies are dutiful and pretentious; their serenades are completely engaging.
Brahms responded by launching into that wonderful rising scalar passage in the strings in the seventh variation, grazioso, at the end of the bridge, a passage that reminds me of the similar phrase divided (much quicker) by the two clarinets somewhere in the Second Symphony (the symphony that is the exception to my statement in the preceding paragraph).

And then the finale, with its easy slip into and quickly out of a fugue, and the return of the woody original theme, the St. Anthony Chorale, not Haydn of course as the announcer couldn't help pointing out, but as good as Haydn, and that's saying a lot. (And then the surprising revelation of the performance: the Buffalo Philharmonic, JoAnn Falletta conducting.)

I think what does in Brahms and Tchaikovsky, in their symphonies, is the curse of Importance. Any reasonably hard-working high-school band musician could hold his own in the St. Anthony Chorale, and once he did, could go on to Haydn symphonies and Mozart divertimentos. Beethoven was the guy who began taking all this [too] seriously, and began writing music that makes real demands on its performers. Too fast, too intricate, too unruly. The odd-numbered symphonies especially: revolutionary (the First, starting on its seventh chord); heroic; fateful; compulsive; unworldly: each setting the bar a bit higher, demanding more attention from its audiences and more work from its performers. How explain such stuff? It must be... Important.

From then on symphonies (and concertos and string quartets) have Numbers, not Names, to emphasize their pure, abstract, you might almost say noble intentions. They tell no stories, let alone jokes: they are rigorous and mathematical. The exceptions, like Ilya Mourometz and Night in the Tropics and Song of the Earth, are defiantly exceptional. Brahms in his Serenades and his overtures (well, perhaps not the "Tragic") and above all the Haydn Variations is cajoling, engaging, cuddly; playful even. Only the relaxed Second Symphony, of his four symphonies and four concerti, is as user-friendly throughout.

Once, years ago, I heard a performance of the Violin Concerto that made the music sound almost human, rather than stern and defiant. When I congratulated the conductor afterward he said that he'd merely followed the markings; the piece is supposed to open quietly, lyrically. Brahms of course wrote for violins with gut strings and relatively slack bows; "modern" performances sharpen the pitch, tighten the strings, turn things metallic and, ultimately, nerve-wracking.

But the symphonies are not only good, they're Great. Great Music by a great master; we've been assured of this for years. It's a big responsibility, writing symphonies; it scared Brahms off for years. Fortunately, while warming up to the task, he gave us those Haydn Variations.

Last Sunday Daniel Wolf posted an interesting comment on Passagework on his blog, Renewable Music. "Most of the matter in the universe is dark, and most of the matter in music is passagework," he writes; and later
Passagework has the capacity to extend material indefinitely and while in much traditional music this always risks inflating the values of those materials, an achievement of minimal music was the erasure of a distinction between the passagework and the music the passages were meant to connect, [an] economy of musical materials that was at once new and very ancient.
In much traditional music this always risks inflating the values of those materials. I know Wolf means something different here than what I have been going on about; he means the value of the fiddle-de-de and filligree — Alberti bass and such.

But the idea of "values," of inflated values, is something that set in, in "classical" music, sometime after poor Mozart died. It's what Satie was thinking of when he complained of Wagner's operas ("Look: the trees on stage don't have to shudder when a character appears!" [no attrib.])

I'm writing this partly in the wake of having read Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, which covers the (western European-derived concert) music of the entire Twentieth Century with hardly a mention of Satie. Who are the Great Composers of the Twentieth Century, Ann asked at another mile on the drive down to Glendale last week, and I recalled the lists I'd given my students at Mills: for each half of the century, three Heros:
Ives             Varèse
Satie           Cage
Webern      Stockhausen

and three conventional "Greats":
Debussy                  Carter
Stravinsky              Boulez
Schoenberg             ...
Well, you see how difficult is is; I'd have to go out in the cold damp night to the workshop and dig around in the files to find the syllabus; I'm sure I found a third.

Ross — I'll blog about his book later, but just let me end this with a preview now — Ross singles out four Twentieth-Century composers for extended attention: Sibelius, Copland, Britten, and Messiaen. Moi, j'adore Sibelius; in his seven symphonies (especially the last five) I do find true abstract purity; he is perhaps the purest symphonic composer since Mozart. He is surely a Hero. But he's in odd company, don't you think?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Magic transcendence (or not)

BACK HOME AGAIN from a quick trip to Portland, there to eat turkey, and another to Glendale, there to see plays.

A Noise Within, the Glendale repertory theater company spun off in the early 1990's from San Francisco's ACT (as I understand it), came to our attention in April 2001, when we saw Noel Coward's Hay Fever in a delicious production. We liked it so much we subscribed to the next season, having found we could make two four-day trips to Los Angeles, one in early December, one in April, and see the entire six-play repertory. So far we've seen
  • 2002-03: Macbeth; The Triumph of Love (Marivaux); The Cherry Orchard; Bus Stop; Measure for Measure; The King Stag (Gozzi)
  • 2003-04: Coriolanus; The Miser; The Price; Electra; Twelfth Night; The Matchmaker
  • 2004-05: A Midsummer Night's Dream; The Homecoming; A Flea in Her Ear; Julius Caesar; The School for Wives; Mourning Becomes Electra
  • 2005-06: Othello; Picnic; The Master Builder; Ubu Roi; Arms and the Man; The Tempest
  • 2006-07: Phaedra; A Touch of the Poet; As You Like It; Romeo and Juliet; Loot (Orton)

  • You'll have seen that A Noise Within produces valuable repertory and sets it in the context of interestingly themed seasons. What you'll have to take my word for is that the productions are generally well and professionally conceived and executed and the performances generally first-rate; we enjoy these trips south quite as much as our annual swings north to Portland, as far as the theater is concerned. Of the thirty-three productions we've seen at A Noise Within, perhaps three were truly "bad" — that's in quotes, because after all it's a matter of taste: others in the audience seemed to respond favorably even to those.

    What a list! To see Marivaux, Molière, Gozzi, Rameau in repertory with William Inge, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder; to see Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, and Beckett— all on a deep thrust stage in a former Masonic hall whose limited facilities bring out the enterprise and imagination of production crews and audiences, matching the often impassioned responses of both seasoned and tyro actors.

    In the past I've written about some of these productions in detail, here on The Eastside View and, earlier, on my website (one day perhaps I'll get around to setting these various things in order). I've stopped doing that lately, partly out of laziness, partly out of inadequacy in the face of the overwhelming number of things we do and read and visit, partly because, after all, there are so many theater reviews easily found here on the internet — just Google "Noise Within" and the title of any of these plays; you'll see.

    But I do want to sketch a response to the three plays we just saw, two exercises in magic transcendence flanking a study in the lack of same:

  • Dear Brutus (James M. Barrie): a romantic comedy in the Forest-Of-Arden tradition, where boys and girls pursue one another among the woods, coming thus to terms with (and fuller understanding of) themselves. The title refers to Julius Caesar: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

    But the play is anything but a comment on Caesar, or Cassius either for that matter, and certainly not on the conflicting concepts of imperial divinity and classless democracy: it's a drawing-room comedy opening out into a romp in the woods, literally; a depiction of the unbuttoned individuality that underlies a polite society.

    As I said, I'm not going to review it, other than to say that we were involved and entertained throughout; among the online reviews, this one isn't bad.

  • Waiting for Godot (Samuel Beckett): Don't need to say anything about the play — a modern classic. Andrew J. Traister makes his Noise Within debut here as a director, and I found the result gripping, hilarious, poignant by turns, and — what particularly impressed me — attentive to detail, to the fine grain, but equally to the long line. And here I will do an odd thing, refer you to a negative review, because its observations, while I disagree with their conclusion, seem much to the point.

    Waiting for Godot is a tricky play to get right: it's about waiting, about nothing happening, and that can of course be a bore. But an attempt to distract from its existentialism not only denies Beckett's point; it can also throw the theater out of kilter. Bob Verini's right in his Variety review: "One messes with Beckett at one's peril, and this production takes multiple liberties with dialogue and stage directions." But the liberties, with one exception, seem to me to be the lie that tells the truth, interpretations at the service of the text.

    (The exception is the substitution of "Napa country" for "Macon country," an attempt to bring the same sense of locality to a California production that Beckett presumably intended in his French-language original.)

    We thought the entire cast was well balanced, eloquent, totally engaging, and the physical production magical. Hooray for the production crew: Sets, Michael C. Smith; costumes, Angela Balogh Cain; lighting, James P. Taylor; stage manager, Yolanda A. Banos; and the cast, Joel Swetow (Estragon); Robertson Dean (Vladimir); Mitchell Edmonds (Pozzo); Mark Bramhall (Lucky); Frankie Foti (Boy).

  • The Winter's Tale (Shakespeare): "Not my favorite play," one friend noted, when I told her we were going to see it; "I don't like it," said another. Me, I like this play, a lot. I think we've seen three productions in the last five years, for some reason; it seems to be in fashion. But Noise Within, by setting it opposite Dear Brutus and the two of them flanking Godot, brought a new dimension to The Winter's Tale in my mind; never had I noticed before its curious relationship to The Tempest, which we've also seen three times in recent years.

    Shakespeare gives us two plays here: a hard-edged, driving tragedy about a king suddenly gone quite mad with jealousy; then a romantic comedy — another Forest-of-Arden — affair, with a fool, rustics, young lovers and the like. The play is about resolution, and ends with the two plays coming together with the help of a little magic transcendence (and a coup de theâtre which, when it works, as it did here, puts tears in my eyes — true, you have to suspend your disbelief).

    The production had its flaws. The famous stage direction "exit, pursued by a bear" didn't work any the better for there having been in fact a bear onstage, or an improbable piped-in roar offstage. Geoff Elliott was a powerful and (to me) credible Leontes, but the almost chanting text-projection he used to suggest menace became over-familiar by the end of the play — when, however, his about-face seemed quite as believable as his original lapse into madness. Worst of all, to my mind, the village-rustic antics were made far too big.

    On the other hand the costumes and lighting worked beautifully, and a solo violinist, Endre Balogh, played unaccompanied music of his own composition to provide understated and quite useful punctuation to the scenes.

    To me, Tale suffered by comparison with Godot, though it grew considerably by its reference back to the Brutus of two evenings earlier. To another of our group, though, The Winter's Tale was the highlight of the visit. Another great thing about theater and specifically A Noise Within: there's something here for anybody. So we return next May to see another three: The Night of the Iguana; Henry IV, part one; and Molière's Don Juan. How's that for interesting repertory?
  • Tuesday, November 20, 2007

    Lindsey fixes dinner


    A can of sardines; a nice red onion quartered and sliced thin, a little olive oil on the bread, then the fish and onion.

    A few slices of green tomato—will the summer never end? (Though it threatens to freeze tonight...)

    Afterward, a few leaves of lettuce from a nearby garden, sprinkled with scallions sliced thin, oil, salt from the Ile de Ré, and some vinegar

    a bottle of rosé

    Thanksgiving can wait.

    Geert Mak: In Europe

    I'VE WRITTEN HERE about the books of Geert Mak, a Dutch journalist-historian who's produced an important sequence of studies of social history—books I think provide a great deal of objective, sympathetic, wise insight into the human condition as we find it today.

    I've read a number of his books, all of course in English. There are a number remaining; if they're not translated soon I'm going to have to learn Dutch. (I append a list of his titles in Dutch, from the Dutch Wikipedia entry.)

    I began reading Mak with Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000), translated by Philipp Blom; a fascinating account of that city from its origins a thousand years ago to the complex, promising, troubled city it was toward the end of the 20th century. A "brief" but close inspection of a city the author loves, it also reveals much about the unique Dutch temperament, Calvinist but tolerant (particularly, a cynic might add, when there's a profit to be made). I'd love to spend a month or two in Amsterdam; I can't imagine doing it without that book at hand.

    Next came a very different title, Jorwerd: The Death of the Village in the Late Twentieth Century (London: The Harvill Press, 2000), as translated by Ann Kelland. Mak's contemplation has moved here from the Dutch capital to a Fries backwater, a tiny town he knows well (he lives here) and appreciates for its opposite values to internationalism. The Dutch title, Hoe God verdween uit Jorwerd (How God went out of Jorwerd), suggests a lament on the secularization of contemporary society: but by "God" Mak means really "natural appropriateness."

    Lament Jorwerd is, but the villain in the action is not some kind of Kierkegaardian atheism but contemporary bureaucratic/industrial order, combined with urbanization and the denaturalization of rural life today. Here too is a book with profound relevance to the American scene at the beginning of the 21st century, particularly in areas like my own, Sonoma county California, where agriculture, terroir, and modern life-style collide.

    In October I read In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007), translated by Sam Garrett, truly an important book, crucial for an understanding of the century just past, and through that understanding a heightened awareness of the dangers yet to come in this century.

    There are many reviews of the book on the internet: here; here ; and especially here , to begin with. The internet releases me from guilt at not reviewing the book myself, and I'm grateful: this is a book that deserves a studied presentation, and I have other things on my mind right now.

    In case you don't feel moved to click on any of those links, though, and do feel moved to read a few paragraphs further, let me introduce you to the book. Mak spent 1999 crisscrossing Europe many times, researching, investigating, touring, and interviewing; and his interviews were with "important" people and ordinary folk, from the grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm (a particularly memorable interview) to panhandlers in the street.

    He then applied the results of these geographical divagations to a chronological retrospect of the century, beginning with the seeds of change in the waning days of colonial empire, proceeding to World War I and Versailles, to what we Americans call the Jazz Age and the Crash, Weimar and the Depression, World War II and the Cold War, and the ambivalences of the nascent European Union in the aftermath of the failure of the Soviet Empire.

    Much of this survey is pretty depressing, as Mak visits bunkers and madhouses and extermination camps. Much seems hopeless, as the failures of nerve during Hitler's ascendancy, the futility of resistance to Stalin and Ceaucescu, the weaknesses behind national pride in Mussolini's Italy seem to resonate with much we experience today in the United States.

    But the entire panorama often settles into curiously hopeful moments, as in a dinner conversation with a Polish historian:
    As the evening goes by, Krawczyk and I sink into a pleasant kind of melancholy. 'You people with your money. We're expected to accept whatever you people in the West say about us, but don't you ever wonder what we might have to offer? The assertiveness of the Poles, the curcumspection of the Czechs, the perseverance of the Hungarian dissidents, the dilemmas the East Germans have been faced with? Isn't that exactly what the West needs? Things like that? Courage, principles, experience?
    You learn from this book the overwhelming extent to which the 20th century was devoted to organized murderous cruelty, assisted by amoral science and technology, financed by slavery, all perpetrated by perfectly civilized and cultured nations. But you also realize the transience of all that, the possibility of an enlightened society pausing, sorrowing, learning, adapting, and moving on.

    In Europe was preceded by a book yet to be translated, De eeuw van mijn vader (My Father's Century)—perhaps a similar book; I'm eager to find out; but about the Nineteenth Century, whose own shortcomings prepared those of the subject of In Europe.

    But I'm even more eager to read Mak's most recent book, De goede stad (The good city/state). That promises optimism, for one quality entirely absent from Geert Mak is irony.

    1992 - De engel van Amsterdam
    1995 - Een kleine geschiedenis van Amsterdam
    1996 - Hoe God verdween uit Jorwerd
    1997 - Het stadspaleis
    1998 - Het ontsnapte land (boekenweek-essay)
    1999 - De eeuw van mijn vader
    1999 - Ooggetuigen van de wereldgeschiedenis in meer dan honderd reportages (ingeleid en samengesteld door Geert Mak en René van Stipriaan)
    2000 - De zomer van 1823 / Lopen met Van Lennep (met Marita Mathijsen)
    2001 - De goede stad (oratie) (ISBN 9056291564)
    2002 - De nachtmerrie van Steiner (samen met Felix Rottenberg) (ISBN 9072374061)
    2004 - In Europa
    2005 - Gedoemd tot kwetsbaarheid (ISBN 9045013827)
    2005 - Nagekomen flessenpost (ISBN 9045015536)
    2006 - Het eiland (ISBN 9085160693)
    2007 - De brug (Boekenweekgeschenk) (ISBN 9789059650466)
    2007 - De goede stad (ISBN 9789045000251)

    Sunday, November 18, 2007

    History of the 20th century (in 17 words)

    BOOKS RECENTLY READ, and awaiting notes here:

    Geert Mak: In Europe: travels through the twentieth century
    Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise: listening to the twentieth century
    Norman Lewis: Naples '44
    Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies

    Hmmm: it was an eventful century, and studying it leads to insights into the present predicament, and possible ways of adjusting to it.

    In the meantime, Lindsey says she heard today about a competition for novels to contain only twelve words. Schoenberg has already done it, I replied, in the form of a historical novel: but when I looked it up (H.H. Stuckenschmidt: Arnold Schoenberg: his life, world, and work (New York: Schirmer Books, 1977) I discovered it was five words over:
    Life was so easy
    suddenly hatred broke out
    a grave situation was created
    But life goes on.
    Well, if fact, a little longer than that actually, for there are tempo indications after the last three lines: Presto quarter=72; Adagio; Rondo—for the notes were a sort of outline program to the Piano Concerto he was contemplating at the time (the end of 1942).

    Friday, November 09, 2007

    Camino Real

    TO SAN FRANCISCO THE OTHER NIGHT, there to see, for the first time in just short of fifty years, Tennessee Williams's play Camino Real. This is not the Williams you know, the Williams of The Glass Menagerie, or The Rose Tattoo, or A Streetcar Named Desire. Those plays, however heightened their expression may be, are more or less realistic.

    Camino Real is purely fantastic. In two acts divided into sixteen scenes, referred to by the play's on-stage commentator Gutman as "blocks," it depicts a time-travel collision of familiar characters—Don Quixote, Casanova, the lady of the Camellias, and the average-Joe Kilroy—stranded in a broken-down Spanish-language third-world provincial town, on a bleak plaza between the sleazy Siete Mares hotel-restaurant on one side and the flophouse Ritz Men Only upstage on the other, hoping for a seat on a flight that may or may not get them out of this Godforsaken place before Death, in the offstage menace of the Streetcleaners, hauls them off into Forgetfulness.

    We were interested in seeing it because just short of fifty years ago I wrote incidental music for a production of the play at the Uinversity of California, Berkeley. I think this was done by the theater arts department of the school, though I can't be sure. A friend, Arlyn Christopherson, had seen an announcement in the student newspaper, the Daily Californian, to the effect that music was wanted for a student production of the play. I applied, was interviewed by the director—Robert Goldsby, who went on to greater things—and somehow persuaded him, or more likely was persuaded by him, to read the script, attend the blocking rehearsals, and come up with some music.

    It's a long time ago, and the music is not at hand. There were several cues: a languorous 15/8 blues in g minor for saxophone and accompaniment and the Streetcleaners' strident take-offs on the Dies irae (scored for sopranino recorder, because the flutist didn't have a piccolo) are the only ones I recall.

    Nor did I recall the play, apart from a couple of the characters. But Wednesday night at Actors' Theatre, in San Francisco, perhaps half the lines drifted through my mind just a fraction of a second before I heard them delivered on stage. It was an eerie experience, made eerier by my proximity to a dear old friend who I met through the experience, for he played flute (and sopranino recorder) in the band.

    I wrote about all this in my memoir:
    In any case I soon found myself cobbling together a series of musical vignettes for this production of Tennessee Williams’s early, experimental play Camino Real, an odd, vaguely Symbolist thing whose meaning eluded me entirely but whose magical mood lent itself to my imagination. I was to provide the orchestra as well as the music, so I kept the forces small: trumpet, violin, flute, bassoon, piano and drums. In Santa Rosa I had already improvised a moody, jazz-like blues in five-four time, heavily influenced by Carma’s beloved Music for Barefoot Ballerinas, and it was easy to adapt that to this new purpose. I wrote out a short instrumental introduction to the play, and peppered the action with a number of shrill parodies of the Dies irae, for Death was a prominent member of the cast.

    It was fascinating to attend the early rehearsals, the readings and the blocking. I’d met, somehow, a pianist, Duncan Pierce, who was willing to play reductions of my score at the rehearsals; and through him I found a trumpeter, Phil Lesh, already a member of the musician’s union and therefore required to participate in this unpaid work under a pseudonym (he would later trade trumpet for bass guitar and help found The Grateful Dead). I don’t remember where the bassoonist came from. Duncan took on the percussion part as well, and even provided his own bongos.

    Someone had told me that the flutist in the Oakland Symphony, Jean Zeiger, was willing to play new music for nothing, and I called on her, encouraged by the fact that she lived on North Street, across the street from the one childhood home I remembered fondly. But her schedule didn’t permit her to help, and she recommended a student, Kendall Allphin, who lived in a shabby apartment in a Victorian cottage down on University Avenue, next to the big lot, now empty, that had been a coal-and-feed store before the War, where Dad had sewn up burlap sacks for a living when I was born.

    This recommendation was the most lasting and wonderful event associated with my first appearance as a composer, for Kendall became our closest friend. I spent hours at his apartment, with Lindsey and without her, and he spent hours at ours, almost always with a jug of cheap red wine that we bought in those days for seventy-five cents a gallon, supply your own jug. He was funny and smart, musical and well-read. He was a New Englander with a broad New England accent, and had flunked out of MIT and gone to the arty Reed College in Oregon, and had as many anecdotes to tell about his early college days as I did not have about mine.

    He played passable flute, but could not play the piccolo, so he resorted to a sopranino recorder for those Dies irae cues. He was supporting himself, after a fashion, by giving recorder lessons, mostly to elderly wives of University faculty — a tiny but regular income that would later be passed on to me.
    Kendall remains, of all this ragtag pit-band: a true friend, drinking buddy, arguist. We were witnesses at his wedding, a few years later; we dine together every New Year's Eve, we four, aging together against the odds.

    And we all went last Wednesday to see Camino Real; perhaps we will every fifty years. The play makes more sense now than it did a half-century ago—more sense and less. Like so many other things—La Dolce Vita; surrealist poetry; women; symbolic logic—it is less mysterious, more stupid. Well, not stupid in every case, but deflated of its exoticism. And the streetcleaners are both more shrill and less, more physically present, in a sense, yet less menacing.

    * * *

    AN ARTICLE IN THE CURRENT issue of Preservation magazine, Anne Matthews's "How did this old place sound?", considers the sounds and silences of places from the past, and introduces to me the Japanese concept mono no aware, which I should have known but didn't. I looked it up at Language Hat, which I depend on for such things, and was directed to a post by Jonathon Delacour, whose blog is clearly one to be read.

    I'm not sure Camino Real, or, more precisely, seeing it once again after nearly half a century, represented mono no aware for me, or more precisely awakened that emotion in me. It certainly isn't the emotional content Tennessee Williams meant the play to arouse, I'm sure of that; there's too much fight in it for that—it's more like Williams's dramatization of the mood of Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," whose other recurring line, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light", has always seemed undignified to me; undignified and ungrateful. And, come to think of it, perhaps this was also part of Williams's take on Thomas; and perhaps part of the mysterious power of Camino Real comes from the tension of that ambivalence.

    Whatever the source of the mystery, a great deal of its expression, I realize now, especially having just read Anne Matthews's article, is in the silences between the sounds of Williams's poetic dialogue. The poetry is often intentionally bathetic: "Do you call that a kiss?" "I call it the ghost of a kiss: it will have to do." But the lines themselves, however plain and commonplace they are, rise beyond their everyday prose because of the silences and the rhythms of the dialogue in which they're set. Camino Real is a very musical play, even without the music I wrote for it so long ago—music no one asked me to supply to this production, bien entendu.

    Actor's Theatre did a good job of the piece, barring a bit of overplaying here and there among the minor characters. The production, like the play, gains as one's memory reconsiders it. It's worth seeing: details here.