Monday, July 27, 2009

Yet another obituary

Michael Steinberg, music critic and musicologist, died yesterday, peacefully a mutual friend tells me, in hospice, in Edina, Minnesota, of cancer; he was eighty years old. He was a thoughtful, intelligent, rather good-humored man, was my impression. I didn't know him well.

I have seen only two obituaries so far, one by Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times, available online here; the other by Keith Powers, in the Boston Herald, here.

Born in Breslau, Steinberg came to the United States by way of England, one of the fortunate Jewish children saved from the Third Reich by the Kindertransport. To me he was a New Englander with a core that was consummately European, even German. He was careful, even impeccable in thought and speech, quick to observe, eager to consider, a little slower to conclude, almost reluctant to announce the inevitably resulting opinion.

Mark Swed mentions me in his obituary, and I want to set his mention in context. I met Steinberg in August 1975 at Tanglewood, where I was participating in a workshop got up by the Music Critics Association for the improvement of young critics. Just a couple weeks shy of my fortieth birthday, I shouldn't have been there, though I had in fact been writing daily music criticism only a couple of years at the time. The workshop was run by Bernard Rosenberg, who writes about it a little bit here; it was only when I find his citation online while writing this that I recall other "teachers" in the conference included Robert Morgan, David Hamilton, and Ray Blount.

After the sessions we generally repaired to a local bar to continue talk in a less formal setting, and there I felt free to converse on equal footings over brandy-and-sodas. (It was very warm; but I've never liked gin-and-tonics after sundown.) And it was at one of those sessions that … but let Steinberg tell the story himself:
That's an awfully damn East Coast thing to say!" That scornful remark was addressed to me by the composer and writer Charles Shere. I no longer remember what terrible thing I had said that elicited Shere's words. I do remember that he spoke them at Tanglewood in the summer of 1974 [sic] at a workshop on music criticism and that it came as a shock to me that there could be an "East Coast thing to say" or, by obvious inference, a "West Coast thing." I was the Boston Globe's music critic then, and we on the East Coast though of our "thing" as central and normative, and of everything else as eccentric and peripheral.
Steinberg printed that as the lead paragraph in a program note to performances of music by Lou Harrison by the San Francisco Symphony; it is reprinted in the compilation For the Love of Music, available here. Presumably this is where Mark Swed found the reference he alludes to in his obituary. The error of date — "1974" for "1975" — is Steinberg's error, uncharacteristic but significant, for by 1975 he was no longer a music critic for the Boston Globe.

I liked Michael Steinberg as a person and respected him as a scholar and a writer. The paragraph I quote above is characteristic. His intelligence, thoughtfulness, and intuitive fair-mindedness were always present in his work, and he was always able to grow beyond his formative "normatives," and that is rare and admirable.

Merce Cunningham 1919-2009

IT IS VERY SAD to hear about the death of Merce Cunningham, surely one of the most remarkable men I ever had the pleasure to meet. What I associate with him, what characterized him most of all to my eye, was the best qualities of humanity: Intelligence, Strength, Grace, Humor, and Invention. He was observant, quick, disciplined, and dedicated. He made great demands, seemed unfailingly courteous, and had that strange ego that is fundamentally egoless, because while aware of his own agenda and skills in meeting that agenda he could simultaneously stand outside it looking on.

I only met him a few times over the last twenty years or so, but he always seemed to recognize me and to be ready, even willing I hope, to continue a conversation. I was drawn to him of course via his companion John Cage, who I knew somewhat better because we were both interested in sounds and silences, a musician's parallel to the movements and stillnesses of a dancer. My memories of their apartment in New York fasten on a number of details: Merce's drawings are among the most persistent.

We were lucky to see a number of pieces of Merce's, mostly thanks to his many appearances in Berkeley, sponsored by Cal Performances. Biped, premiered ten years ago (how can it have been so long ago?), was a superb late piece, both nostalgic and forward-looking. Even more lasting is the impression of Ocean, which we saw in its Berkeley premiere in 1994, and which I then had the privilege of seeing three times running in New York the following year: a two-hour piece full of surprise, familiarity, certainty and unpredictability.

His choreography always seemed to me to duplicate the ultimately unknowable motion of Life. Unknowable, I mean, in that while the physical qualities that facilitate that motion can be seen, studied, understood, and discussed, the inherent questions of purpose and origin and meaning always remain both ineffable and enigmatic.

To that extent Cunningham was, like so many of the great Modernists of the 20th century, a moral philosopher. I see in both the man and his work a Modernist, but also a Romantic and a Classicist. The cliché is always that there are not many left like him: but then, there never were.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Farm in town

Portland, July 10—

I DON'T KNOW WHEN I've enjoyed meeting a new writer so much. Novella Carpenter's book Farm City is a complete success on so many levels. Carpenter's a born writer: fast and accurate eyes, ears, fingers; well-read; a great sense of prose rhythm and structural rhythm; smart and sassy. Her book is very funny, talks straight, and gathers as it goes.

She started gardening on a vacant lot in Oakland, California, thankful for the benign climate after moving down from Seattle, and one thing led to another. The progression's outlined in the titles of the three sections of this book: Turkeys. Rabbits. Pigs.

With livestock, and one other thing, a garden moves into a farm. Not effortlessly: the effort's a big part of the story. But, apparently, inevitably. The one other thing is transactions: it's not really a farm until the produce leaves the property. One gardens for one's own self and famiily; one farms for others, for barter or possibly profit.

Or, perhaps, out of a kind of mania, a benign mania, an obsession with the ethic of Right Living. Her story unfolds artfully and easily in this oddly graceful book, graceful in spite of plain language my grandmother would have found quite offensive. One of the themes of the book is the author's relationship with her mother, a hippie who'd dropped out with her boyfriend and lived the country life a few years. Novella Carpenter hadn't planned on following those footsteps at all, but early influences are deep.

Another theme is the unlikely setting of this city farm: the Oakland "ghetto." The reader meets dopers, Buddhist monks, the homeless, and poor folks of various ethnic backgrounds just getting by. There are times this book makes you think of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row or Robert Nathan's One More Spring: there's the same curious optimism, even light-heartedness, that can emerge from urban poverty, which develops its own community, even courtesy and mutual assistance.

I read this morning in Robert Reich's blog that there will be no recovery from the present recession will never come:
All we know is the current economy can't "recover" because it can't go back to where it was before the crash. So instead of asking when the recovery will start, we should be asking when and how the new economy will begin.
Part of the new economy will undoubtedly look like what Carpenter develops on her urban farm. I see this already in my own family: a son with a feed store, raising cattle, helping his community with lumbering and such; a daughter whose neighbors are trading vegetables and raising chickens.

The best thing about Farm City is precisely this optimism growing out of despair, the strength of human competence when the cultural assumptions that have made so much go wrong are simply ignored or circumvented. It's all so damn reasonable, raising chickens and rabbits and carrots and beans, getting on with basic matters and ignoring commercial snares and temptations.

The next best things about the book are its boundless humor and teeming texture. There's so much happening in this life, so many details, so much to interest us, to intrigue the eye that suddenly observes an unexpected or incongruous detail. Carpenter celebrates urban life while reclaiming it for daily pleasures.

The reader gets the feeling that she has grown, matured, and achieved a kind of grace not only from her farming but also from her writing. The final chapters are quite moving: she observes the workings of a Berkeley restaurant which, earlier in the book, she might have written off as simply precious.
Maybe I've read too much Anthony Bourdain, but I had imagined that the back of a restaurant would be a crude, uncivilized place. I expected to get groped, not high-fived. Everyone who passed through this kitchen seemed intelligent and kind.
Vegetarians will likely be unhappy with Farm City. The education of Novella Carpenter, as an urban farmer but beyond that too, involved her coming to terms with the necessary killing of the meat she eats. She's not unrespectful of vegetarians; she describes a number of encounters with them in perfectly sympathetic terms. But it is not her way, and it has not been the normal way of human activity. A critical part of her book, a running theme, concerns the conscious, conscientious address to the ethical problem of killing and eating animals.

I think it's the focus, respect, and dedication she finds in Christopher Lee's kitchen that finally nails down these ethical questions.
In his book About Looking, John Berger wrote, "A peasant becomes fond of his pig and is glad to salt away its pork. What is significant, and is so difficult for the urban stranger to understand, is that the two statements in that sentence are connected by an 'and' and not by a 'but'." I felt well on my way to peasantdom. But I needed Chris to teach me more…
Chris did indeed teach her more. I myself know Chris Lee well enough to know how remarkably well Novella Carpenter observes, grasps, understands, and describes him: it isn't easy to capture the looks, sound, and character of a living person this accurately and sympathetically.

But the thing is, Novella Carpenter is patient, well read, and thoughtful. She gardens her mind and history the way she farms, with the kind of passion that springs as much from dedication as desire. She writes, toward the end of her book,
While rooting around the history of prosciutto making, I had stumbled upon this quote from Pliny the Elder… about Epicurus, the famous Greek hedonist: "That connoisseur in the enjoyment of life of ease was the first to lay out a garden at Athens; up to his time it had never been though of to dwell in the country in the middle of town." … That an urban farmer existed before Christ made me feel like I was—that we all were—merely repeating the same motions that all humans had gone through, that nothing was truly new. This insight gave me a sense of peace.
Epicurus of course was no mere hedonist; he was a philosopher, profound because realistically involved with the pleasures and problems of daily life. Novella Carpenter is much the same.

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer
By Novella Carpenter.
276 pages. The Penguin Press. $25.95.