Friday, January 29, 2010


THERE ARE PLACES we have visited on various travels that have seemed very special, from a "medicine wheel" at 10,000 feet in Wyoming to the Fontaine de Vaucluse in Provence; from the stone-age city at Filitosa in Corsica to the Canyon de Chelley in Arizona. What all these places have in common is the not-verbally-articulable meaning they seem to offer to our visit: they speak to us, silently, about something we recognize without understanding, without even in any ordinary sense knowing.

I think about these places a lot, under any circumstances; but I've been thinking about them especially recently since I began transcribing my journal of a trip we took through Corsica and Sardinia over twenty years ago, in 1988. Here you have a photo of the spring at Su Gologone, in Sardinia. As these places go, the places I'm discussing I mean, it's pretty well manicured, turned almost into a park, with carefully planted willows and — hmm; what are those white-barked trees in a row? — and stone retaining walls and carefully graded walks contained by concrete curbs.

Turn away from this view, though, and look out across the pool toward a grassy clearing among the trees, and we feel we're looking at a site that's been here relatively uninflected by recent human attention. It might have looked much like this a thousand years ago, two thousand, ten. This may be merely sentimental: even so, the feeling's worth thinking about.

Why does the place seem familiar, though I've never been here before? There are sensations here common to other such places: the calm air within these trees; the sounds of the water; the soft feel of the calm air on my skin. The place conspires to distract me from more specific and immediate issues: the car I've left in the parking lot, the few…

to be continued

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Small Concerto

THE EARLIEST PIECES of mine that I still like to think of, Three Pieces for Piano, were written in October and November, 1963, and February 1964. At the time we were living on a small grant from Edith Fitzell, a gentle, enthusiastic widow who took recorder lessons from me, and who volunteered at KPFA, the listener-supported radio station in Berkeley. She sensed my need to devote an unbroken year to musical study, and enabled me to quite my day job. (I was then a laborer for the City of Berkeley, working mostly on the sidewalk crew, breaking up old sidewalks and laying new ones.)

I spent that year studying composition with Robert Erickson and conducting with Gerhard Samuel, and listening to as much music as possible — much of it on the radio, for KPFA broadcast a great deal of new music in those days.

The first and last of the three pieces were written slowly and intuitively, at the piano. They are centered on soft dynamic levels and smoothly phrase lines, and meant to be played very softly. The middle piece was added later, for contrast, pitched on a much louder level, and alternates violent and rapid gestures with ringing sonorities. It uses only pitches omitted in the outer movements; otherwise the composition follows only intuitive principles of structure, not conventional tonal or serial concepts.

Much of the music is essentially unmeasured and meant to be played quite freely, and the third movement ends with a performer's choice between two possible approaches to the close.

In 1964 I orchestrated the music as a Small Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. No new material was added; I simply assigned some of the notes to rather large orchestra, including a harmonium in the wings, a pair of Wagner tubas, and alto flute among the more usual instrumentation. In this form the music was premiered in August 1965 at the Cabrillo Music Festival, with Nathan Schwartz as soloist and Gerhard Samuel conducting. It was the first time I heard my music played by an orchestra: a very delightful experience.

(The solo pieces waited for their premiere until March 1993, when the late Rae Imamura played them at Annie’s Hall, Berkeley, on an instrument tuned not in equal temperament but to Kirnberger 3.)

The orchestral score of the Small Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is available now, either in print (8.5x11, 8 pages, saddle-stapled) for $12 or as a free download, at The Three Pieces for Piano are available at Frog Peak Music.

Listen to the second movement of the Small Concerto for piano and orchestra

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Form is how memory works

FROM THE CODGER in Corvallis comes today an envelope with a number of clippings. He pretends it's his way of cleaning off his desk; I know it's his way of keeping me au courant. In a recent phone call I mentioned my appreciation of Peter Schjeldahl's art criticism in The New Yorker, one of a great number of magazines to which we do not subscribe; this envelope contains a number of recent ones.

Schjeldahl's such a fine, fine writer. A fine critic, of course; a man who really knows how to look at art with his eyes, and then attentively follow the information that travels along his optic nerves back into a brain clearly jammed with experience, trained to consider, and allowed to reflect. You feel, reading his reviews in a magazine my west-coast taste finds often a little frenetic, a little peremptory — a curious pairing perhaps available only to an insecure culture-capital, that he's somehow above and beyond that fray. There's a mandarin ease to his writing, drawing as much from his wide and not entirely uncritical reading as from his first-hand art-looking: in both cases, his own sensibility is speaking, but with authority he's earned by closely studying that of so many others.

His sentences are beautifully formed, tending to stop just a little sooner than you'd expected. Where it is descriptive it is breathlessly, ingratiatingly evocative, and amply detailed:
Sensational colors, in particular, strain the scene of a husky young servant pouring milk, in a careful dribble, from an earthenware pitcher into an earthenware bowl on an odd-shaped table laden with a wicker basket, a loaf and fragments of crusty bread, and a stoneware beer jug.

When it adduces hypothesis it is forthright:
Echt biennial art is critic-proof, because it eschews formal engagement with past art, providing no basis for comparative evaluation.
These sentences develope cogent paragraphs whose purpose is to consider the event of the moment — a Vermeer in New York, a biennial exhibition in Istanbul — within a complex context triangulated by the conflicting, urgent, mindless demands of our own time, the long slow cultural history unfolding since ancient time, and the ample contents and motives of the critical sensibility.

I tend to read these reviews twice: once for their content; once for the sheer enjoyment of the writing. And I'm rewarded by any number of insights, usually at least one per review. The one at the head of today's blog is one of them:
Form is how memory works.
What clearer statement can there be, and what more beautifully self-illustrative? Will I ever forget how to explain the utility of form, the next time a grandchild asks?

One of the powerful engines of Schjeldahl's machinery is his insatiable curiosity as to what art is, how art works.
[Luc Tuymans] told Artnet that in his initial hours of work, "until I get to the middle of the process—it's horrific. It's like I don't know what I'm doing but I know how to do it, and it's very strange."
A lesser critic would have heard this as a comment in passing, perhaps registered it, and moved on. Schjeldahl registers it, considers it, and sets it in parallel with a thought of his own, leading the reader to an insight:
Now, that — uncertain ends, confident means—is about as good a general definition of creativity as I know. It illuminates and justifies Tuymans's eccentric work rule, with its distant redolence of Jackson Pollock's odd decision to paint in the air above a canvas.
In the air above a canvas. Schjeldahl deftly moves his paragraph away from the foreground, while keeping the foreground in view; he lifts the discussion above the present, while keeping it pertinent. His criticism fully achieves Joseph Kerman's memorable, terse definition of the practice: "the study of the meaning and the value of art works." (Contemplating Music: challenges to musicology , Harvard University Press, 1986). And it is elegant.
Oh: I want to add one thing to the comments on D.H. Lawrence, a delicious comment he makes in Etruscan Places, summing up all his attitude about the evils of Rationalist and Industrialist displacement of the vital, intuitive values of unrestrained humanity:
We have lost the art of living: and in the most important science of all, the science of daily life, the science of behaviour, we are complete ignoramuses. We have psychology instead.
The science of daily life. What a great blog title that would make!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Lawrence on Italy

DAMN IT ALL, Richard, you’ve finally got me to read through D.H. Lawrence’s Twilight in Italy, and finally I see what you see in him — though I must say I see it only through the haze of my own close-held prejudices. Let’s begin with the easiest to overcome, the inadequacy of the book qua book. It’s a gathering of three travel books:

Twilight in Italy, 1916, recording a trip made a few years earlier, mostly on foot, from somewhere south of Munich to Lake Garda, and impressions of the villages on that lake;

Sea and Sardinia, 1921, recalling a trip that January from Taormina to Palermo, thence by boat to Cagliari, by train to Sorgono, bus to Terranova, boat to Civitavecchia, train to Naples, and boat back to Sicily; and

Etruscan Places, 1932, a collection of musings on visits, in 1927, to the remains of Etruscan life found in Tarquinia, Volci, and Volterra.

In the course of those sixteen years Lawrence matured a bit, from the brash, often contemptuous, always opinionated young man curling his lip at the lack of intelligence he finds everywhere, to the informed, still opinionated, occasionally generous fellow who contemplates Etruscan antiquity. It is his judgmentalism, constant in the first book, frequent in the second, that gets under my skin: he’s so quick to insist on his own comfort — good English bacon and tea, for example, even in the mountains of Sardinia — that he only slowly, over the course of those sixteen years, comes to acknowledge the possible appropriateness of the beefsteak and red wine he’s offered in its place.

You’re a Joyce man or a Lawrence man, I decided fifty years ago (and then some), as you choose either Picasso or Matisse, Fitzgerald or Hemingway, Mozart or Beethoven: and I fall on the side of the first in each of those pairings. I can’t disagree with Lawrence’s fundamental points, that freedom and energy and instinct are superb qualities and that they’re in danger of utter destruction at the hand of the 20th century. But I can’t overlook the anger this arouses in the poor Englishman, caught in the misery of being a son of the society responsible for much of that destruction. Don’t take it personally, David Herbert!

I picked the book up to begin a four-month project of reading on Italy, wanting to read English for relaxation; but also in the spirit of New Year’s do-it-it’s-good-for-you resolution; and I’m glad I did. Even the first book, irritating as it mostly is, has its surprising flashes:
It is better to go forward in error than to stay fixed inextricably in the past. (p. 53)

…the cypress trees poise like flames of forgotten darkness, that should have been blown out at the end of the summer. For as we have candles to light the darkness of night, so the cypresses are candles to keep the darkness aflame in the full sunshine. (p. 81)

…the whole organism of life, the social organism, is slowly crumbling and caving in … is seems as though we should be left at last with a great system of roads and railways and industries, and a world of utter chaos seething upon these fabrications: as if we had created a steel framework, and the whole body of society were crumbling and rotting in between. (p. 165)
References to the paperback edition of 1972: New York: The Viking Press

Sea and Sardinia was the only book of the three I’d read earlier, a little after our own travels through Sardinia, in November 1988. I’m thinking of this trip again, transcribing my own journal, partly to get into the mood of journal-keeping, partly to satisfy an acquaintance who’s contemplating her own tour of the island in May.
Some of you may know of my own travel musings, “dispatches” I call them; I used to e-mail them out from the road to a number of friends, and have published three collections of them — you can look them up here.

Alas in the last few years I’ve got out of the habit of journal-keeping, as various pocket computers have replaced the notebook and pen. I can re-read journals from the 1970s and ’80s with great pleasure, once again vividly seeing the places and people they describe: but more recent long walks — on the Pieterpad, the Lingepad, across the Alps — are much more sketchily recorded. We’re thinking of a walk in Sicily in a few months, and I’m dreaming of a long walk in Tuscany and Umbria: it’s time to get back to journaling!

Yet Anthony Burgess writes, in his Introduction to this Viking paperback, that
A single week’s visit was enough for him to extract the very essence of the island and its people, and six weeks were enough to set it all down in words—without a single note as an aide-mémoire.
This may explain the feeling I get that Lawrence saw, on his miserable ride across Sardinia, only what his prejudices put in front of him: that is, he continually looks to the people he meets — for he rarely mentions the landscape, only the people, the hotels, the dining-tables — for confirmation of opinions he’s already formed, attitudes he’s already struck.
Sardinian seems open and manly and downright. Sicilian is gluey and evasive, as if the Sicilian didn’t want to speak straight to you. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t. He is an over-cultured, sensitive ancient soul, and he has so many sides to his mind that he hasn’t got any definite one mind at all. He’s got a dozen minds, and uneasily he’s aware of it… The Sardinian, on the other hand, still seems to have one downright mind. (pp. 80-81)

In this book Lawrence is at his best when he does describe the landscape:
The hillsides tilt sharper and sharper… The oxen lift their noses to heaven, with a strange and beseeching snake-like movement, and taking tiny little step with their frail feet, move slantingly across the slope-face, between the rocks and tree-roots…
There is a stream: actually a long tress of a waterfall pouring into a little gorge, and a stream-bed hat opens a little, and shows a marvelous cluster of naked poplars away below. They are like ghosts. They have a ghostly, almost phosphorescent luminousness in the shadow of the valley… a grey, goldish-pale incandescence of naked limbs and myriad cold-glowing twigs, gleaming strangely.
(p. 88)

Such is our antipathy, Lawrence and I, that he on his travels saw only that part of Sardinia that I on ours did not, and vice versa; and yet between us we saw nearly every corner of the island. Perhaps that explains Lawrence’s otherwise astonishing total lack of reference to the nuraghi, those timeless, enigmatic, powerful stone towers, some sixty feet high and more, that are scattered almost throughout the island. Many of them were perhaps not yet known at the time of Lawrence’s tour: a magnificent example, Su Nuraxi di Barumini, was only discovered in the 1940s, even though its three-storey nuraghe is attended by an entire village of circular foundations, whether of residences or merely storerooms is apparently not yet fully understood.

What would Lawrence have written about Barumini? He gives us an idea:
This is what is so attractive about the remote places, the Abruzzi, for example. Life is so primitive, so pagan, so strangely heathen and half-savage. And yet it is human life. And the wildest country is half humanised, half brought under. It is all conscious… Wherever one is, the place has its conscious genus. Man has lived there and brought forth his consciousness there and in some way brought that place to consciousness, given it its expression, and, really, finished it. The expression may be Proserpine, or Pan, or even the strange “shrouded gods” of the Etruscans or the Sikels, none the less it is an expression… Strange and wonderful chords awake in us, and vibrate again after many hundreds of years of complete forgetfulness. (p. 123)

Etruscan Places is much the shortest of these three books, much the best. Lawrence’s anger, in the face of the destruction of humanity by the industrious society humanity has created, has given way to something more like bitter resignation. Contemplation of the evidence of the utterly vanished Etruscan culture, not to mention the stupidity of the greedy expropriation of the Etruscan remains by those Lawrence considers the chief villains — the British Museum, the Vatican — such contemplation can hardly avoid replacing anger with resignation. It’s there; there’s nothing to be done.
If only we would realise it, and not tear things from their settings. Museums anyhow are wrong. But if one must have museums, let them be small, and above all, let the be local. (p.27)

But there’s something engagingly lyrical about his bitterness, something graceful about the philosophy he's developed to replace, or at least succeed, the incessantly masculine body-worship that (to my mind) disfigures much of his earlier writing. The dialectic between the Etruscans and the Romans who defeated them — and the imperialist 20th-century powers that so readily bring Roman imperialism down to our own period — is the dialectic between a graceful living-in-the-moment, in a society evolved toward an essentially Epicurean adjustment of human life to natural needs and events, and a constant straining-for-the-ideal, in a society geared toward constant growth, development, control, and profit.

In a remarkable passage, Lawrence concedes that we moderns are no longer, like the Etruscans, capable of Etruscan innocence — rather, uniquely Etruscan expression of innocent awareness:
But one radical thing the Etruscan people never forgot, because it was in their blood as well as in the blood of their masters: and that was the mystery of the journey out of life… Man moves naked and glowing through the universe. Then comes death: he dives into the sea, he departs into the underworld. (pp.52-53)
In a striking figure Lawrence considers the dolphin, “a creature that suddenly exists, out of nowhere. He was not: and lo! there he is!” We, however, are merely ducks, warm-blooded, but with no “subaqueous nature”; we dive in, but return to preen. The Etruscans, the reader feels, lived at the moment of awareness of the difference.

Etruscan Places is elegiac, because Lawrence contemplates the lost, and thinks it superior to the present. Throughout these three books he vacillates between admiring intelligence (or at least condemning stupidity) and lamenting consciousness. He attempts a resolution of this difficulty in his admiration for divination.
An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer. And you choose that object to concentrate upon which will best focus your consciousness. Every real discovery made, every serious and significant decision ever reached, was reached and mae by divination. The soul stirs, and makes an act of pure attention, and that is a discovery.

The science of the augur and the haruspex was not so foolish as our modern science of political economy.

Lawrence has made me more curious than ever about the Etruscans: too bad, as I’ll never know much more than I do now. Further acquaintance with their towns and tombs will only increase this curiosity, not satisfy it. The day will perhaps come when my hunches are proved (or disproved): a fortunate race, they remembered in their cultural subconscious the journey out of Africa, through Asia Minor, to their home in one of the most fortunate climes ever settled, early enough to have escaped the disadvantages of conscious thought, late enough to have music and language and comfort and beauty. One could think of this as a true Golden Age, and a sustainable one too until the invaders came.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Mercè Rodoreda

Christmas surprised me with a copy of Death in Spring, a poetic novel by the Catalan writer Mercè Rodoreda, a writer I'd not heard of until a couple of months ago, when I read a review by Natasha Wimmer in The Nation. It's not the kind of novel I'd normally be drawn to: a little too close to Magic Realism, perhaps. Yet now that I've read it I find much of it oddly staying with me. Wimmer's review will tell you much more than I will, here, about the content of the novel — plot, characters, setting and all that. I think she's a little unfair in calling the book "a clumsy expressionist painting" (in contrast to the Vermeer represented by Rodoreda's earlier novel The Time of the Doves).

Nor am I sure Wimmer's on point referring to Death in Spring as Symbolist. The pages are full of color, literally: birds, butterflies, aprons, leaves; the very dust with which the mouths of the dead are cemented closed; all these colors vibrate with an intensity that brings Rimbaud's vowels to mind. But the book is solidly grounded in elements: wind and water, wood and dirt. And throughout the book the reader's immersed in narrative, as the characters in the book are haunted by and compelled to their own narrative.

Rodoreda was born in Barcelona in 1908, married rather badly, wrote fairly early but retired from publication in her thirties, when she participated in the short-lived autonomous government of Catalonia until the Spanish Civil War ended with the Franco regime, which led to a self-exile in France and, later, Switzerland. She returned to Catalonia in the 1970s; just when, I'm not quite sure.

You won't find much about her in this Wikipedia article, but on a hunch I typed her full name — Mercè Rodoreda i Gurguí — into Google's search box and hit the much fuller article in the Catalan Viquipèdia. Here we read of the influence on her writing of such European psychological writers as Woolf, Proust, and Mann "except for the mytho-symbolic works of the last period of her life": but I think there's much of Woolf's most experimental kind of writing in Death in Spring — particularly such short prose pieces as "The Mark on the Wall."

In fact, Death in Spring seems to form a bridge springing from Woolf to Calvino, a span I'd never thought of before — how to characterize the stream below? Perhaps it's like the fatal, violent, necessary river running below the town in Rodoreda's novel, at once a Lethe and an Oceanus; a powerful yet essentially aloof stream Heraklitus would recognize. Perhaps she's a Symbolist after all.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Michener: Caravans (The end of the world as we know it)

BHISHMA'S RECLUSIVE ACQUAINTANCE up in Oregon recently recommended to me James Michener’s novel Caravans, published in 1962 but set in the Afghanistan of the years immediately following World War II.

I read it in the days following New Year’s Eve, when another old friend announced his view — I’d heard it before — that the world as we know it was about to end, if not in our lifetimes, then in those of our children. “Our” children, I type: but this old friend has no children, and it was at first to that that I attributed his pessimism.

Soon, though, another idea occurred to me: “the world as we know it” has ended many times, and will end many times again. It’s always doing that, ending, then evolving into the world as another society knows it, only to end again. The world as the Roman Republic knew it ended, and the world as the Roman Empire. The world as Chief Joseph knew it. The world as two protagonists of this book, Nazrullah and Zulffiqar know it: Nazrullah, a civil engineer who believes in a future Westernized Afghanistan, enlightened and developed and comfortable; Zulffiqar, a nomadic chieftain who knows such an Afghanistan will be attempted, will destroy his way life, and must be prepared for.

I was impressed with another of Michener’s books, Iberia, and am equally so with this. Michener seems at ease alternating between fiction and philosophy, between active participation and objective contemplation. I suspect his books are very different to varied readers. I find reassurance, in the face of my friend’s pessimism, in the constancy Michener finds in human behavior, always alternating between instinct and education, reality and idealism, love (and jealousy) and reason, things as they always are and as they always, we are apparently doomed to feel (though differently, according to the values in fashion at the moment), should be.

Caravans makes me wish I were fifty (and the world eighty) years younger and a good horseman. It made me think, too, of my mother, who in her young and middle years wondered about Tashkent and Samarkand, and in her later years managed to visit them, which I shall almost surely not. And it makes me worry that perhaps my next read will be Frederick Prokosch's The Asiatics or Seven Who Fled — though either would be a real self-indulgence, for I read them over twenty years ago, and there are unread books to visit…