Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Aimez-vous Brahms?

Eastside Road, Healdsburg, January 27, 2009

MOZART'S BIRTHDAY! And here I sit thinking about Brahms, because a friend asks me what it is about Brahms I don't like.

Well, not that it matters: it's, I think, his need to be Mozart after Beethoven, or his desire, which may be the same thing, somehow to mediate the two. Impossible, of course, since Mozart and Beethoven are antithetical.

There are Brahms pieces I genuinely like: meaning, pieces that give me great pleasure to hear. The two Serenades, certainly. The Variations on a Theme by Haydn, if not heard too often. The Liebeslieder Waltzes. The clarinet sonatas.

The Second Symphony, though here I am never sure whether it's truly Brahms that pleases me so much, or the fond memories of hearing Bruno Walter's recording of the Second so many times while courting.

Brahms seems to me an oddly uneasy commutation among Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann. I smell the cigar in his heavier work, and the cigar is rarely lit. Don't even talk about his German Requiem.

It doesn't help that he's so often so badly played. String quartets tear into his music as if he'd written it for wire strings: cf. the Cleveland Quartet. Pianists smash away at his keyboard music, which is so often gentle and innig.

Conductors know that He. Is. Very. Important. and beat that into everyone nearby, beginning with the concertmaster. Only once have I really heard a satisfying orchestral interpretation live: when Niklaus Wyss accompanied I don't recall what violinist in the Violin Concerto, and led the [San Francisco Symphony] orchestra throughout in a gentle, conversational performance that let you see poor Brahms never really wanted to be Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I don't think the Mozart-after-Beethoven problem can ever be resolved, though perhaps it was most successfully evaded in the two Brahms pieces he didn't live to compose: Richard Strauss's Oboe Concerto and Duett-Concertino for clarinet and bassoon with string orchestra. Perhaps it's only in the final years that one learns to finesse such things.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Mall Mozart

Eastside Road, Healdsburg, January 15, 2009
Originally written as a pre--blog sometime in 2003, re-posted in response to Whiting's comment to the previous entry…

HEALDSBURG, California del norte, 15 avril 2016 —

You remember what it was like driving down toward Susa from the Moncenisio pass — I always recall that when driving down from Mt. Shasta through Redding and onto the Central Valley, leaving the snow and mist behind, as if there were a choice in the matter, and coming out to a warmer day, further advanced in the season.

The mood was enhanced yesterday, when the radio finally found a noncommercial station amongst all the inter-station hiss it had coped with up in the mountains. What a lucky break the Chico campus wasn’t damaged during the attacks! Mozart was on. Not only Mozart; the Coronation Concerto, played with spirit and wit by Alfred Brendel. The sunlight-and-shadow effect of the minor-key passages in the finale exactly matched the skies below Redding, reminding me to stop at what’s left of the old outlet shops near Corning, to visit the Mozart Mall.

I’d been closing in on my complete collection while up in Portland, where there’s any number of used CD stores. At one of them I heard about the Mozart Mall. Who could believe it? A shop devoted to the greatest musical genius of all time, except perhaps for Cage...

The shop had begun in the town of Mt. Shasta ten years ago, before the Intensification, during the Mozart Semiquincentennial, or maybe the following year, I’m not sure. Someone ran it out of her living room for a few months, just as a hobby and to entertain a group of friends. It was one of them, I think, who had the idea of setting it up in the mall, when so many outlets and franchises went bust after the crash of 2010, leaving the malls with empty shops for years.

Anyway it seems to be thriving now, partly because of the economic recovery following the Reorganization, partly because of the discovery a couple of years ago of the missing pages of the Requiem, just in time for the funeral obsequies of President Bush III. It’s a curious place, with its old-fashioned espresso machines and its sofas. It even has a set of loudspeakers, which make it necessary to share your listening with other people, even total strangers. It isn’t obligatory, though, thank the muses, and we hooked ourselves up to headcaps.

It’s very comfortable. The woman who runs the shop was lucky to have both time and a decent computer back in 2006, when she cruised the Internet — how I miss it — and downloaded all the Mozart she could find, sound files, images, and text. She’s found old-style motherboards and memory and managed to re-create a hard-wired version of the Internet, or at least a lot of the Mozart part of it, right in her shop.

Her partner is a theater director, and she’s contributed a wonderful dimension to the shop — a virtual theater allowing you to sample old videodiscs of Mozart operas, as well as that one promising experiment in historical reconstruction, the one the Salzburg Festival produced in 2009, just before the Final Intensification. I’d forgotten how persuasive it was; I don’t see how musical performance can get more real, short of using real musicians and real instruments — unthinkable, of course, today.

Unfortunately the accelerated time mode is no longer available — technology like that is gone, along with all the weapons, and it’s probably a good thing — so we were content with just part of one of the quartets, but it was a pleasure to see Mozart on the viola and Haydn playing violin. I never did learn much German, let alone the 18th-century Vienna vernacular, so the joking went past me, but the winks and nudges between them during the “Dissonant” finale were pure pleasure.

MallMozart is part museum, too. They have almost the complete Collected Mozart Edition on shelves, real original paper copies. And they even sell DVDs of the scores, including the autographs, and searchable DVD versions of the Internet sites that used to be available through the airwaves. I don’t know how they got permission for all this.
I met Khalila, the woman who runs the place — the daughter, I think, of one of the founders. She said the idea came from the old coffeehouse concept; that’s why they still have that espresso machine. There’s even an idea to franchise a series of MallMozarts throughout the entire country, from Medford down to Carmel. It’s a great idea, of course: it’s time to begin developing a national cultural sense.

We’re back on the road; I’ll send this the next time I can make a connection, probably at the next hydrocell stop. Hope you’re well and having fun!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Oral history

Eastside Road, Healdsburg, January 12, 2009

JOHN WHITING'S COMMENT to the previous post here sent me an an egosurf to his My KPFA - an Historical Footnote , a repository of “Conversations, Coast to Coast" with a number of the workers in that vineyard we know as KPFA, the non-commercial radio station located in Berkeley, California.I was there as Music Director from 1964 to 1967 and stayed on a couple of years to work part-time. Since many of us tended to cover extra assignments, I was also the Folio Editor for a stretch, editing the program guide.

John has placed on his Historical Footnote interviews with Chris Koch, Phil Elwood, Robin Blaser, Henry Jacobs, Al Silbowitz, Richard Moore, Scott Keech, David Salniker, Marci Lockwood, Dick Bunce, Pat Scott, Larry Bensky, William Mandel, Erik Bauersfeld, Ernest Lowe, Peter Frank, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Maria Gallardin, Charles Amirkhanian, Loren Rush, Alan Rich, Steve Bell, Ned Paynter, Wil Ogdon, Jack Nessel, Frank Sherman and me. Next time your’e laid up and want to listen to a few yours of intelligent conversation about an amazing institution, give this a try!

Two points here: First, on KPFA: SInce I was in the middle of it when I was there, I couldn't really see it from the outside; but I have the idea it was an extremely influential and instrumental agent in the formation of the uniquely energetic cultural atmosphere of the San Francisco Bay Area of those days, and what days they were.

Second, Whiting's work strikes me as an approach to a problem I've been noticing lately: lots of us oldtimers are dying off, and not much about our various work is on the record. We need a series of good, professional oral histories, but the big boys are out of cash and pick and choose very carefully their subjects. We should all begin to carry pocket recorders around with us at all times — I suspect many of us do — and make our own damn oral histories. I think I'll start doing this.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Time Machine

Eastside Road, Healdsburg, January 10, 2009

I JUST SPENT TWO HOURS at the Exploratorium in San Francisco nearly twenty years ago — November 29, 1984, to be precise — listening to myself in an interview conducted by Charles Amirkhanian. I was discussing my opera, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, half of which was then in production at Mills College in Oakland.
The audiotape of the interview has just been put up on the Other Minds Radiom, an internet archive of concerts and interviews: you can hear it streaming here — but be warned: it is two hours long, and it's a raw tape with a few of those awkward "Could you focus, please" and "Oh, do we have a tape of…" moments.
On the whole though I must say I'm terribly pleased the evening is now available to a wider audience. This is the kind of thing the Internet was made for: to make accessible those special moments that seem to explicate and represent, re-present, moments that are otherwise extremely fugitive, by their very nature.
The opera had been given its dress (public) rehearsal two days before and was to receive two more performances in the coming days; this interview was nicely timed for publicity purposes. Radiom's description:
Recorded on November 29, 1984 as part of the San Francico Exploratorium’s Speaking of Music series, Charles Amirkhanian interviews American composer, critic, and former musical director at KPFA, Charles Shere, about his opera “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even “. The opera, which is inspired by the Marcel Duchamp painting of the same name uses Duchamp’s notes for much of the libretto. Shere, who was heavily influenced by the new music of John Cage and others, describes in detail Duchamp’s iconic work and talks about how he has tried to capture its spirit in his avant-garde opera. Shere highlights his remarks with slides and excerpts from the opera.
I will only add that the broadcast begins with Ces Desirs du Quatuor and includes two arias ("Perhaps use…" as sung by Linda Fulton and accompanied by Peter Winkler, in 1965; "B and C" as sung by Anna Carol Dudley and accompanied by the strings of the orchestra in the 1984 production, as well as the first movement of Tongues, a 1978 composition for poet speaking in tongues (Andrew Hoyem) and chamber orchestra — a piece quite unrelated to the Bride, but why not?
Thank you Charles Amirkhanian and Other Minds for the trip back so many years!

Monday, January 05, 2009

Reading Mathews

Eastside Road, Healdsburg, January 5, 2009
NOTED WHILE READING The Way Home, by Harry Mathews (London: Atlas, 1999). Perhaps because a temporary indisposition has put me off my feed, I identify with the elegiac note running through the collection; even the entertaining lead piece, "Country Cooking," a pseudo-anthropologist's detailed and superbly annotated recipe for double-stuffed lamb shoulder, manages to pass a few clouds over the face of its Auvergnat sun.

There's a lovely cycle of short reminiscences of Georges Perec, in "The Orchard": 123 paragraphs of memories, some significant, some fleeting, all of them tender, none inconsequential — an elegy for modernist fiction, perhaps, as much as for the late maître of restricted writing (it's Perec who wrote La disparition, a very substantial novel lacking any presence of the letter "e").

"Translation and the Oulipo: the Case of the Persevering Maltese" is a talk given in London in 1996, at the French Institute, as one of the St. Jerome series of lectures on translation. It's remarkable, funny, accurate, far-ranging, and provocative. Mathews manages in his famously indirect way to present a solution to the problem of life and death by investigating the relationship of a work and its translation. One need never again complain of a book impossible to classify as fact or fiction. He writes
Facts are the score, not the game. Facts are lies. Not because they are false, but because facts belong to the past — to what was, never to what is. We love them, bacause once reality is safely lodged in the past, it becomes reassuring, reasonable, and easy to manage… There is no escaping this. It is not a Bad Thing. However, a reality we can call the truth must be looked for elsewhere.
This resonates with a line I noted in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth says
We all look to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing
and, later
Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure
and while the lack of a comma after "past" is telling it is by inserting one that we mediate Austen and Mathews and, who knows, Jane Austen may have begun the ambiguation of fact and fiction, as if she were deliberately looking at an other, subtler, more fecund version of fictional reality than Daniel Defoe's.

Anyhow. What I sat down to give you are two quote from the long autobiographical piece ending The Way Home. First, on books,
Through [his wife Marie] I have been able to see that my parents, my children, my cousins and my cousins' cousins, and friends long unseen and those freshly made, are the substance of my life: that my life is what I have and what I can make of that, not some wishful hope of what may (and doesn't) happen. She has demonstrated what happiness is without ever telling me what it should be.
And then on books:
Just as a glutton desires more food than he needs, and eats more food than he desires, I heaped my life with books. Not only books to read but to own. Each new volume on my shelves added a brick to my defence works, the culture castle in which some day I hoped to live safely and alone…Eventually I came to realise that the prospect I was creating for my future (a lifetime of reading or of not reading, since one lifetime would hardly suffice) was more depressing than reassuring, and I gave up buying books systematically.
That last word is significant: he continues, of course, to buy books, as do we all.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

For Piano

Eastside Road, Healdsburg, January 4, 2009
IT WAS MY SECOND piece for solo piano. (The first, Three Pieces for Piano, was composed about two years earlier, and later turned into a Small Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.) In those days one wrote one's music on semi-transparent paper; from these originals subsequent copies could be made using a blueprint process. Every composer over sixty must remember the ammonia scent that lingered among the music.

I taped a sheet of 14-by-24-inch paper down on the drafting table and drew eight systems in varying lengths, using a very fine Rapidograph and India ink. Oh, the pains we took in those days.

The piece is in "open form" but otherwise mainly fixed: the ptches definitely fixed, the durations and dynamics relatively so. I wanted a degree of improvisation, however, so I added six overlays of screen-dotted paper, determining their shapes with a French curve and intuition. Within those areas I would ask the pianist to add any material that might come to mind. Other overlays, of rows of dots, connected certain systems to indicate the pianist's route through the score.

Influences: Karlheinz Stockhausen's Refrain and various pieces by Earle Brown. Model railroads, now that I think of it, and gardens, on the concept of a pianist (and thereby his listeners) wandering a route through a piece of music, often returning to a central area, before finally ending the couse at a predetermined destination.

The premiere was played by the late Julian White, a very sensitive and wise pianist who went to the intrinsic humanity of whatever he played, refusing to worry about absolute fidelity to the score. I still have a recording from a subsequent performance, also Julian's; you can listen to it here.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Names of Cats

Eastside Road, Healdsburg, January 3, 2009
THE FRENCH NOVELIST Georges Perec always named his current cat Duchat, I read in Harry Mathews's touching "The Orchard," a garland of short paragraphs each recounting a recollection of Perec, written one a day for a number of weeks following Perec's untimely death. (It is available in the collection The Way Home: Selected Longer Prose [London: Atlas Press, 1999].)

David Bellos describes the inception of this custom:
Once they had settled into their new flat in the summer of 1966 and acquired their first cat, called Duchat (or Duchat-Labelle, or Madame Duchat née Trump'hai or Troomp-faye or Troump-faille)…
Georges Perec: A Life in Words (Boston: David R. Godine, 1993), p. 340
Five years later, in August 1971,
At Saint-Félix Perec renewed his acquaintance with Duchat, out of Duduche, by Ducat I, the first of Perec's feline friends…

I like cats; it's only because we travel so much, and would have to leave her to her own devices, that we don't have a current cat. We've been without a cat for ten years at least, since Blanche went to sleep for the last time underneath one of Lindsey's rosebushes. We'd had her almost twenty years; she and her brother Joe descended from sweet Sally, who I found among an abandoned litter in the Berkeley Hills. They were mostly outdoor cats: but if we ever stop traveling I will want an indoor cat. I agree with Guillaume Apollinaire:
Je souhaite dans ma maison:
Une femme ayant sa raison,
Un chat passant parmi les livres,
Des amis en toute saison
Sans lesquels je ne peux pas vivre.

[These things I want within my walls:
A woman who knows why she's there,
A cat who strolls among the books,
Friends on rainy days and fair,
Without them I can't live at all.]
—Bestiaire, ou, la parade d'Orphée (1911)

Giovanna's family has a new cat, and there was the question of naming him. I hadn't realized the full import of this, and when I saw the other day that Francesca was now grinning elk my first thought, having bought elk liver to cook while visiting them in Portland, that grinning was some new kitchen technique. I wrote her that I myself had never gran elk, and she replied
I don't think I have ever gran an elk before either... grinning elk is just the name my family has given me instead of naming the cat Roaring Thunder. Grace is talkative moss, mom is baking reindeer, dad is roasting oyster, and simon is cartwheeling rabbit.
So you see where cat-naming can get you (we won't even consider cat baptizing). Anyhow I'm glad the cat evaded Roaring Thunder: somehow the name seems more appropriate to a Kern County family. I'm not sure about any of these names, really, though Grace's and Simon's are apt.
There are other things to say about cats, but I'll leave you with just three words: Carl Van Vechten.

Oh. And an ultimate Duchat clawed poor Perec a few days before he died (though not of the scratches); just as the composer Robert Erickson succumbed, after years with a debilitating disease, apparently to consequences of treatment for a serious scratch from his cat, whose name I can't recall at the moment…