Thursday, August 30, 2007

De los álamos vengo, madre,
de ver cómo los menea el aire

THERE'S A PROBLEMATIC DIALECTIC in poetry (I associate it with Ron Silliman) between language poetry and the "School of Quietude." I think it's analogous to that set up in the first quarter of the previous century between the followers of Schoenberg and those of Stravinsky. It's a trap, this dialectic, and I fall into it all the time.

Now here's my friend (I wish we were closer; we're too far apart, spatially) Alvaro Cardona-Hine who sends me among other things his delicious little Spring Has Come (Albuquerque: La Alameda Press, 2000), a collection, as its subtitle puts it, of Spanish Lyrical Poetry from the Songbooks of the Renaissance.

It's deceptive and disarming, this collection, chastely set out, often simply a couplet on a page, his translation below, lots of white space:
En aquella peña, en aquella,
que no caben en ella.

In that hillock, that one,
there's no room for so many.

His introduction investigates the interesting controversy among scholars, beginning a century ago, as to the origin of these lyrics, and proceeds to allude to that marvelous moment in cultural history when christians, moors, and jews (my downcase is meant merely to propose egalitarianism, making common what is proper) lived together peaceably in what I just read somewhere else is truly a convivium, a much nicer word than similar greek terms too bound to the kind of partying restricted to the wealthy (symposium comes to mind).

These lyrics, Alvaro proposes, have deep roots; and I respond they probably always existed. He suggests the couplet quoted above was sung spontaneously by a farm woman. Perhaps: man or woman, the singer was probably out in the fields, and probably had that hillock, or those hillocks, the real one and the metaphorical, in view.

Daniel Wolf implied the other day a divide in music between that which
Borrowing a bit from linguistics, there are basically two ways of creating novelty: the first is to create new, never-before-uttered expressions that are, nevertheless, entirely competent expressions within the received language, its lexicon, and its rules; the second is to create expressions which are, under the terms of of the received language, non-competent, if not impossible. The choice is between saying something which simply has not been said and heard before and saying something which was heretofore impossible to say or hear. The histories of repertoire in music, art, poetry, etc. are marked by a certain oscillation between the two.
and I've been thinking about that, too; it's one of the traps that I fall into all the time, not that it matters except that when you're in a trap you (by which I mean I) don't get any work done.

(And that's just one of the divides; let's not even think about the one between both the musics Daniel mentions and the greater body of music which doesn't concern itself at all with "creating novelty," but is perfectly willing to go on endlessly repeating the past.)

Some time ago I opened a lecture, ostensibly a reading of Wallace Stevens,
I am committed to two notions often thought to be mutually exclusive: regionalism and modernism.
which is of course another idiotic dialectical trap (the lecture was an escape from it: it's in my book , even recent cultural history, commas included in the title, book available at Frog Peak Press, please order a copy).

Clearly the singer of that lyric about the hillock was a regionalist, not a modernist; modernists don't work in the fields. We'd all hoped postmodernism would get us past these distinctions, or to be a little more precise get us past the fences around such distinctions; would at least build little stiles permitting field-hands to hop across into libraries, and scholars to find their way back to the fields.

Well, as Alvaro promises in that title, floating over his oddly attractive Spanish Woman (for, yes, he's a painter, too, a gifted one), Spring has come, postmodernism arrived not without its own problematic wars but we've most of us weathered them, and can now find "novelty" in musics and poems and paintings and even examples of scholarship which might once have seemed, well, Quiescent.

I spent a couple of hours yesterday digitizing old tapes, and made a CD for myself of the result. It includes:
Four Mahler songs: Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen; Ich atmet' einen linden Duft; Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder; and Revelge
Dallapiccola: Concerto per la notte di natale dell'anno 1956
Shin-ichi Matsushita: Canzone da sonare
and an unknown piece for orchestra,
twenty-two minutes long, spare and unpredictable, full of the kind of ambiguity Wolf discussed in a paragraph noted below (Aug. 28), the once-seeming-important distinctions of surface and depth so fully resolved as to be rendered not only meaningless but incomprehensible. I listen to it now, wondering what that last piece is, and who discovered the sounds and wrote something out to allow others to hear them.

The four pieces make a completely satisfying CD. Its sounds emerge from a collection begun over forty years ago, and last visited nearly twenty: but the sounds clearly engraved themselves into some part of my person, setting synapses so strong as to snap back at the least encouragement. Are these too traps from which to emerge? Or fences whose divisions must be overcome?

Do these sounds sing quietly and insidiously like the remembered (consciously or not) songs that have floated around in Spain since the days of the Iberians, songs that wind up in, among other places, music like Joaquín Rodrigo's Cuatro madrigales amatorios? That piece delighted me long ago when I discovered it among the commissioning series put out by the Louisville Orchestra; it proved that those ancient lyrics could find fresh expression and material even then, fifty years ago, in the heart of Modernism.

De los alamos vengo, madre...

I hear those lines so often, looking across my own fields toward my own young poplar.

And to close once again with Alvaro's translation:
Gavilán de noche,
¿qué viento corre?

Hawk, you that fly with the night,
is it windy?
¿cómo los menea el aire; how's the wind blowing?

Dr. Williams was right

so i'm sitting in the car in the parkinglot
lindsey having gone into tj's to get some selenium
the radio's listening to a callin talkshow about photography
someone wants to know What about camera phones
what are they doing to photography
outside i notice the chance encounter of a dumpster and a shoppingcart
there's your answer

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


RENEWABLE MUSIC, Daniel Wolf's admirable blog, continues to stimulate me every time I tune in. Most recently:
One of the qualities I most value in the radical music tradition is its loss of certainty (even ambiguity) about a surface and depth distinction. ... what, precisely, is the surface in The Well-Tuned Piano or Drumming or Navigations for Strings? Is it the notes on the page or those physically struck on the instruments, or is it the the sounds produced directly by those actions, or is it the cloud of combination and resultant tones and interference patterns and acoustical beating? In many cases, this uncertainty or ambiguity goes even further, with distinctions between musical, psychoacoustical, and physical parameters constantly in play...
In response, here are my Variations for brass, percussion, or piano (or organ), composed I don't remember when, based on a star atlas, and premiered by solo harp. (It found its way into the second movement of Tongues, where it established a mood of rural nocturne.)

This is, I see, a pretty bad photograph. The score's in ink on translucent paper, twenty inches square or so, and wrinkled. In the photo it's more an aerial view of a curious desert than an earthbound view of the stars, but maybe that's what happens in time.

Last night's lunar eclipse brings all this to mind; perhaps that's what Wolf was thinking of, too, though one doesn't know if he saw it, a third the world away. It was a night of interrupted sleep and half-waking thoughts:
Lunar Eclipse

Bad luck, they say, to count remaining teeth—
you're sure to lose another—let alone
the years you've lived. But there it was, last week,
another birthday: now six dozen years.
It's Sunday morning, if dozens are days,
or Saturday, depends on where you start,
in either case an easy-starting day,
nothing to do but what I will. It may
turn out gentle, productive, lazy, fast,
painful or comfortable. Won't know 'til it's done.

I think of George, big George, a man as big
a his American refrigerator.
Maddeningly slow but stately as he steps
into the bar to buy his cigarettes
or walks the aisles of his supermarket
filling his cart with oysters by the kilo,
butter, a little milk, to make the stew
he liked at breakfast. Or when he arrived
exhausted by the flights from Jakarta,
Nice, Paris, to spend Thanksgiving
with us here in Healdsburg, and already
though we didn't know it on his way
to an accelerating death from too much life
his prostate cancer adding its slow work.

I listen to the gentle steady breath
of the strange woman lying next to me,
strange because, after these fifty years
unknowable though comfortably known.
she asks if I was carrying flowers
or if she dreamed it, and I remember
thinking to take some roses to the office
when we went to see the doctor. As
somebody did twelve years ago in Oakland.
Now I think of it I think that it
was I, roses from our Berkeley garden
flowers for the receptionist, the nurses,
especially Stephanie, slender, light-skinned,
regal chiseled beauty, grave, serious,
the bones i think of as Somalian,
Stephanie who said to trust my wife,
and yes it's good to read Epicurus,
especialy the letter to Menoeceus.

She stirs. I dreamed you took some flowers, and said
something was happening at five o'clock.

I was thinking of George, I told her,
and I set the clock for five o'clock
our brains are going crazy; all our thoughts
are getting ready to leave our bodies
and bump among the stars.

     Four-thirty now.
The moon is coming back. Perhaps I'll sleep.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Baseball and Boulette's

A DAY AT THE BALL PARK, even if your team loses, is better than a day away from the park; only a day of tramping in the countryside can beat it; books are for rainy days. (So's blogging.) And so it was that we went, this week, to AT&T Park, as it's called this month, to see our beloved Cubs pick up two out of three from the cellar-lodging Giants.

Baseball and eating. I can think of no better way of spending a day than by strolling down to the Ferry Building to have a leisurely breakfast at Boulette's Larder, then stroll on further to the ball park to catch batting practice and the game, lunching on whatever you find—the food's really not at all bad. And then, after the game, which preferably your team has won (though that was alas not the case), to have a Martini, a hamburger, and a Caesar salad at Zuni.

What should we find at Boulette's yesterday but a reprint of a cartoon that appeared nearly twenty years ago, in 1989, after someone broke into our house (we lived then in Berkeley) and stole Lindsey's purse, which contained among other things her working recipe book.

But let me tell you about Boulette's. It's in the southwest corner of the Ferry Building, open to the east where it looks out on the Bay toward Yerba Buena Island. There are a few tables for two and four outside, and also in the hall of the Ferry Building outside the shop's own door; but the best place to sit, I think, is at the big table, perhaps five people at each side with plenty of room so that you don't at all mind eating with strangers.

I like this kind of communal table: it's more civilized than eating at a bar; gives a solitary diner company; and lets a couple entertain themselves with sly observations of the others, or by striking up a conversation that will likely never be continued.

And Boulette's kitchen, which is where you're eating, is light and airy, clean and visually interesting, full of detail and, of course, the busy staff at stoves and counters, fixing tea and coffee, baking, cooking eggs—all those things that are so fascinating to contemplate. Not to mention the scents, of course: a wonderful potpourri.

We just bought a copy of Patty Unterman's San Francisco Food Lover's Pocket Guide (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2007), a very convenient 200-page compilation of notices and reviews of bakeries, bars, butchers, delis, markets, cafés, cheese shops, confectoners, food stands, cookware and cookbook shops, wine shops, and of course restaurants in San Francisco and environs. A quick look confirms its usefulness: it's small enough to fit in purse or pocket (just over 5x7 and a half inch thick); and cross-indexed by location, expense, cuisine, features, and so on. Stick with its general index, though: Boulette's does not show up among restaurants, though that's what I think it is; instead it's listed as a delicatessen/takeout—which is what it also is.

I'll let you look at Boulette's website rather than try to reproduce the menu here. It's daunting to try to describe it in a few words: the menu—"list" is a better word, because so much is available to take home with you—is varied and thoughtful, ranging from confit to canalé—salads, main courses, desserts, jams and whatnot. Hell: let Patty describe it: I'm sure she won't mind my quoting
Using only organic ingredients, Amaryll Schwertner, one of the Bay Area's most original and principled cooks, and her crew prepare building blocks for fine, home-cooked meals. If you don't want to cook yourself, each day brings a new menu of take-home dinners, such as a crab pudding soufflé—or, you can eat there at one fantastic wooden communal table. The breakfast is divine.
What I had, in fact, was a French-press pot of Blue Bottle coffee and a bowl of barley with a poached egg and shiitake mushrooms; Lindsey had a plate of delicious toast with three jams (apricot, blackberry, fig); and we had an amazing soy-and-melon-and-melonseed beverage, a sort of smoothie.

And then we took home a box of cookies—beautifully boxed and wrapped; the cookies themselves covered with a sheet of fine paper; and the cookies absolutely perfect: variously crunchy, creamy, evanescently powdery, leading up to a couple of splendid salt-chocolate brownieish cookies as good as any I've tasted.

Oh. And the canalé? Lindsey knows these pastries, of course; Jean-Pierre always talked about them, two scant inches across and three high, crisp and dark on the outside, soft and creamy inside, a little like a popover, but really nothing but themselves. I suppose they're channelled—canalisé—or extruded, almost, from their baking molds. They're labor-intensive. I only know two places to get them, Ken's in Portland (Oregon) and Boulette's. But Portland doesn't have big-league baseball.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Music in the night

ANOTHER ONE OF THOSE nice dreams: sitting at a piano with a couple of teenaged students who were picking out tunes. I suggested the pickupnote, and the tail of the opening three-bar phrase; then the tune just kept going on.

I think the lyrics would begin “I don't know why...”(or maybe “how”), but it was useful this morning to remember a short shopping list: four limes and toasted almonds...

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A History of European Art Music, 1

The decor and tensility of Couperin
The pomp and glory of Rameau.
The bourgeois masterly Bach.
The worldly resourceful Handel.
The wit and cleverness of Haydn.
The humanity of Mozart.
The innigkeit and belligerence of Beethoven.
The scope and sorrow of Schubert.
The ardor and sincerity of Mendelssohn.
The fierce delicacy of Chopin.
The ardor and urgency of Schumann.
The austere depravity of Berlioz.
The languor and impetuousness of Berlioz.
The manipulation and deceit of Wagner.
The birdsong and cathedrals of Bruckner.
The marches and anxieties of Mahler.
The transcendent plainness of Ives.
The sensuous intelligence of Debussy.
The voluptuous cruelty of Ravel.
The sweet skeptical seriousness of Satie.
The precise lyricism of Webern.
The invention and humor of Cage.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Lindsey among the Matisses

THOUGHTS OF MORTALITY crowd the aging mind; I'm sorry; I can't help it. Not even an unusually distracting week seems to keep them away—not Molière thumbing his nose in Ashland, not the Boston Red Sox losing pathetically in Seattle, not the serenity of an hour's walk in Castle Crags, not the sweet pleasures of stone fruit at Andy Mariani's orchard, not the steely edge of a Martini with a newly discovered gin (made in Portland, I forget the name), not the pleasures of the table and good company at Incanto out on Church Street.

Especially not Matisse, whose bronzes anchor an oddly troubling exhibition at SFMOMA. You can't argue with these pieces; they're great articulations in the history of Modernist sculpture, only slightly damaged by comparison with a couple of greater Degas pieces in the same rooms. And I don't even cavil at the curatorship, eager though it is to explain things, to draw inferences, to assume certainties, to insist on linearities.

Years ago a tiny bright woman who was then a public relations officer at the University Art Museum gave me one of the great lessons in the laughably casual education I was piecing together in the visual arts when she mentioned even more casually that she always fastened on the edges in paintings. Edges; profiles; contours: they exist in only two dimensions, meaning they have no substantial existence at all; yet they define, link, and clarify.

Matisse was a fine draughtsman, like Picasso; his contour drawings are both masterly and affecting. It is a defiance to trace a line; the audacity of drawing is breathtaking. I think Matisse kneaded his clay in penance, denying himself the cruel pleasure of the pencil's inspired aggression, its cheeky assertion of his gifts.

Several times the wall narratives suggest these sculptures are best seen in the round, while traveling round them. A point hardly worth stating, you'd think: yet surprisingly few visitors seemed to be doing this while we were there. They seemed to spend about as much time reading labels as looking at sculpture—and those with headphones seemed often to be focussing on nothing, gazing into near space while listening to whatever secret sounds were thankfully theirs alone.

Walking around a sculpture is how I like to see it; often walking slowly around with one eye closed, concentrating on the constantly changing edge between the sculpture and its space. Walking around the sculpture I myself am drawing, or at least assisting in an act of drawing, dragging, pulling the constantly changing edge into a contour drawing in four dimensions, height, horizontal distance from the sculpture's center, constantly changing acceleration in the direction of my own footsteps; and time, of course. Drawing, contour drawing, in time.

If architecture is frozen music, as Goethe said, then sculpture is pregnant with music. It's a long time since I've kneaded any clay, but I think Matisse, and Degas, and the private Rodin, when they were shaping their dimensional drawings in clay, were occupying time in an essentially musical—better, composerly—way. By that I mean a non-teleological way: time occupied not in order to arrive at the conclusion of some premeditated process, but as reflection on experiences and productions that have gone before, as contemplation of the possibility of some unforeseen eventuality which will nonetheless turn out to take its place within an organically logical system, you might say, identifiable in some way with both the material and the person.

Music and the production of sculpture: constant reconfigurations of material: life and the passage of time. That's what I meant by "mortality." On the whole, as I told Lindsey the other day, I think mortality is a good idea. And in any case I have very little to say about it; it is a constant, a given.

Some of this thinking is probably triggered by the recent deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangeo Antonioni; more by the recent deaths of two people I knew, not as well as I'd like to have: Ned Paynter, who was on the news staff at KPFA when I was there more than forty years ago, and Marvin Tartak, gentle and witty pianist and accompanist par excellence.

When death comes to mind—and death is never far from contemplations of mortality—I always think of three things. Mozart, of course:
As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind, that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling!
and Duchamp:
Besides, when someone dies, it's always someone else...
and, to put beside these essentially Epicurean views of the subject, this poem by Lincoln Fitzell, which has quietly whispered to me for nearly fifty years:

Earth the mother, earth the death,
We owe to you this tragic breath,
And dark and wide if we should fall,
We pray that you may keep us all
More gently sleepers of your night,
Than we were children of your light.

Mozart: letter to his father, 4 April 1787, translation by Emily Anderson
Duchamp: aphorism, found also on his tombstone, as I recall and translate (probably faultily)
Fitzell: "Prayer," in Selected Poems (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1955)
gin: Cascade Mountain from Bendistillery (thanks, Giovanna)

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Tartuffe in Ashland

This year? Moliere's Tartuffe, they say.
Second most frequently produced,
That is, and now its wit is loosed
On Ashland's public, and they see
That lust and greed, hypocrisy,
And false religion can be fun.
Depends on where and when they're done.
Heroic couplets, stylish sets,
Elegant costumes—no regrets
At seeing Moliere's play once more.
Trenchant satire's never a bore.