Thursday, March 12, 2009

gatharuda lapidis in memoriam

SYCHRONICITY is a fine thing; over at The Compass Rose Curtis Faville introduces a striking photograph of his with an equally striking opening paragraph about Gertrude Stein's lecture Composition as Explanation: perhaps he won't mind if I quote it here:
Gertrude Stein famously declared that composition is what every human being is doing all the time, just by being alive, in the present, perceiving, absorbing data, placing our apprehensions and movement (flow) within a context of the world we know and understand. We do not merely reproduce the world, we, all of us, constantly perform creative augmentations and arrangements of objects and feelings and senses, all the time. Composition, in this sense, isn't what only trained and gifted and inspired artists and writers do, but what everyone is capable of, what goes on continuously even on an unconscious level. The human mind is never still; it continuously shapes and orders and prioritizes data.

All this was at the back of my mind, I think, when I worked on my Second Piano Sonata, to give it its grand alternative name.

That's not the name by which I think of it: to me it's sonata ii: compositio ut explicatio, and it is dedicated gatharuda lapidis in memoriam. I began writing the piece in June 1996, in a house we rented for a couple of weeks just outside Dabo, a small town in the French Vosges not too far from Strasbourg. In my usual way in those days I worked at the desk in the morning and left the afternoons and evenings free for sightseeing and socializing.
Dabo: watercolor, from my journal

I was working, I thought, on three compositions at once: the piano sonata, a trio for violin, piano, and percussion, and a musical setting of Carl Rakosi's The Old Poet's Tale. That last project continues to elude me, though I promised Carl many years ago I would complete it; and perhaps one day I will.

The sonata went easily at first, and after leaving Dabo it was far enough along for me to turn full attention to the trio — more pressing because promised for performance the following spring. The sonata, after all, was pure speculation; I had no reason at all to believe it would ever be played. It was conceived, in fact, as might be called piano accompaniment to a recitation of Gertrude Stein's magnificent lecture Composition as Explanation.

(It's only as I type this that I notice two contemporary projects both concerned musical depictions of the spoken word. Carl had requested no music be heard while the text of his poem was to be spoken; he wanted only interludes. Sonata 2, on the other hand, as I conceive it, would resound throughout the recitation of Stein's lecture. There are other items of contrast between Stein and Rakosi, the lecture and the poem, and my approaches to the two assignments, but this isn't the place to go into that.)

The Trio went well enough, too; it was composed, nearly all of it, in a couple of weeks at the other side of France, on the Ile de Ré; and one of these days I'll write about it here.

Back to sonata ii: I completed the composition itself in Portland in April 2006, ten years after its beginning, but waited until last year to put in dynamic indications and all that. I've almost always lost interest by the time such details have to be dealt with; there are more interesting things to do. It always seems to me that the notes themselve, as they're notated on the page, should convey to any eventual performer such things as how loud or soft, fast or slow, crisp or blurry a phrase should be. As John Cage said: composition's one thing, performing's another; what do they have to do with one another? (I paraphrase.)

So in January of this year I decided to go ahead, since it cost hardly anything, and publish sonata ii, with all the flaws any piece must retain before the editing that can follow the first public performance, incorporating lessons learned during the often laborious process of getting to that point.

What can I tell you about this piano sonata? It's been described as "a major work whose three movements, running nearly an hour long, gradually reveal an inner logic and a brittle clarity that can only be called phenomenological." I think of the music, I mean the sound of its music, as objective, abstract, prosaic, rhythmic, rather sculptural.

One composer said of the score that it looked startling -- quite unlike any other music. Another, whose judgment I particularly respect, is very fond of it. A pianist who listened to my synthesizer's performance thought of it as jazzy and humorous: neither of those qualities was particularly intended, but I'd be nuts to reject either of them.

You can look at the score by buying a copy; it's published at You can hear it here.(The second movement, which is only five minutes long, can be heard here.)

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Ubu Roi

Eastside Road, Healdsburg, March 8, 2009

I DON'T RECALL when I first met Ubu Roi: probably sometime in the late 1950s, most likely through the Evergreen Review issue dedicated to 'Pataphysics. I've seen Alfred Jarry's play staged four or five times since, most recently and, I think, most successfully last night, in a raw, energetic, resourceful production by The Imaginists. Three performances remain in the schedule, and if you're within range you shouldn't miss it.
Ubu Roi is probably the oldest Absurdist play to hold the stage—though now that I type that I realize there's nothing Absurdist about it; it's simply a totally realistic, moralistic, objective updating of just about any Shakespeare historical play. Ubu, fat, stupid, and utterly without morals, overthrows the Polish king, converts the national phynancial system into pure personal gain, taxes the peasants to death, and ultimately takes on the Whole Russian Army. At one point he announces his agenda in the tersest of terms:
Avec ce système j'aurai vite fait fortune, alors je tuerai tout le monde et je m'en irai. (Thank you, Project Gutenberg.)

(With my system, I'll soon be rich, then I'm gonna kill everybody, then I'm going away).
You can see that, like Shakespeare, Ubu Roi has the misfortune always to be relevant.
The Imaginists have cross-cast the play: King Ubu is played by a woman, Amy Pinto; Mère Ubu by a man, Eliot Fintushel; and Captain Bordure by Brent Lindsay in an androgynous costume. (The small cast plays a great number of roles, ranging from a bear to The Whole Polish Army.)
The costumes are wonderfully inventive; props ditto; and the scenic flats are so beautifully conceived and executed I'd buy them to hang on my walls if I had a mansion or a winery.
Ubu Roi is scatological — the riot at its 1896 premiere was prompted by the very first word in its text, Merdre, translated in this production quite literally and without the extra "R". Still, I think any kid from ten up will love it, and any adult with a sense for politics, history, or the absurd (or is that redundant?) will too. I'm glad I went; I wouldn't mind going back.