Friday, December 30, 2011

Nothing to be frightened of

So many books read this last year, so few of them commented on here. End-of-year reflections will haunt me for the next seven weeks, I'm sure — I'll be too busily distracted for them after that — so I won't anguish over my failure to share notes on Frederic Tuten, or Patrick Leigh Fermor, or Carolyn Brown, or Patti Smith, to cite only the most impressive of the authors I've learned from recently.

Instead I'll concentrate, for the moment, on a book uniquely appropriate to the season: Julian Barnes's Nothing to be Frightened Of (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008). Barnes is better known as a novelist, I suppose, at the present moment at least, with his A Sense of Ending on the lists: I haven't read that yet, partly because I wanted to approach it through this earlier book, which is not fiction but memoir, meditation, and criticism — a conflation-medium I'm particularly attracted to these days. (One's late seventies launch an autumnal mood.)

Barnes was the second son of two teachers of French and French literature, and that language and literature are central, it seems, to his address to life, its observation and discussion. Nothing to be Frightened Of is a contemplation of a selected history of man's meditations on death — not many women's such meditations, be it noted, though a few do turn up — as a way, no doubt, of pinning down his own view of the matter. A consummate writer, Barnes writes, I believe, as the best writers do, in order to discover (or at least approach) resolutions of his own confusions, or misgivings, or as a friend said this morning apprehensions, about the subjects at hand: and what greater subject than death?

Death; dying; God; religion. Someone asked Thoreau, as he lay on his deathbed, if he had made his peace with God. "I hadn't realized we'd quarreled," he replied — at least that's how I recall the line. Googling it just now, I find it often quoted, but the source never cited.

(I do, though, find two other nice deathbed lines: When Voltaire was on his deathbed, a priest abjured him to accept Christ and renounce Satan. Voltaire replied, "Father, this is no time to be making enemies!"
As Talleyrand lay on his deathbed, he cried, "I suffer the torments of Hell!" A friend (I forget his name) sitting up with him replied, "Already?")

Barnes loops gracefully through confrontations with these four principal themes (death; dying; God; religion; remember?) and more; interweaving funny stories about his childhood and his philosopher brother (who, oddly, lives at the near geographical center of France in order to teach in Geneva); and considering similar confrontations by a number of minds of the highest ranks. The book is not indexed, which is a major flaw — especially in a book with the imprint of Alfred A. Knopf! — but my endpaper notes will provide an idea:

36 treacherous memory
38 childhood memory
40 Montaigne
47 Renard
54ff god out of art (art sans god)
61 fear of death (thanatophobia)
83 S. Maugham
86 Daudet: adieu, moi
95 Flaubert
97-8 d. of Daudet; of Sand, Braque
99 Title!
107 either you or I
108 Critics
117 The dead appear to the dying
121 Chabrier
124 Wharton, James, Turgenev, Falukner
132 Stravinsky
134 Edm. Wilson
138 memory is identity.
166 last words. Hegel. Dickinson.
185 meaning
189ff problem of eternal life
193 Rossini
195 Goethe
202 Shostakovich 14
209 flux
That last note, of course, sums it all up. There is nothing that is fixed, as Heraklitus famously noted. Acceptance of death, which is to say acceptance of life, is acknowledgement of flux. If it's true, as Emerson notes in his essay "Circles," that
…this incessant movement and progression, which all things partake, could never become sensible to us, but by contrast to some principle of fixture or stability in the soul. While the eternal generation of circles proceeds, the eternal generator abides.
quoted by Ross Posnock in his review of American Nietzsche by Jennifer Ramer-Rosenhagen, The Nation, Nov. 21, 2011
it is also true that these principles of fixture are site-specific to "the soul", are individual and unique and not fungible, are there for purposes of convenience only: and life (and its apparent extinction) are not there for convenience. Emerson goes on to note "Life is a series of surprises": those who yearn for stability, certainty, reassurance, are denying the essence of life.

Barnes gives a good deal of attention to Jules Renard, "one of my dead, French, non-blood relatives," known to students of elementary French in my day (the 1950s, in this context) simply as the author of Poil de carotte but much more significant (and influential
on literature) as a memoirist. Clearly Renard has been a muse for Barnes, providing him with both details for contemplation and a model for its practice and expression.

Such influence or inspiration is linked, I think, to the subject at hand, for what Harold Bloom calls "the anxiety of influence" (in a book by that title, which I haven't yet read, perhaps fearing to be influenced by it) — the fear or apprehension that influence will dull individuality — is related to the apprehension of death. Both are rooted in a mistaken notion of identity, which notion is one of the most seductive, therefor sinister, of the "principles of fixture" Emerson concedes to us.

I sometimes think we are, at best, like books. I bought this copy of Nothing to be Frightened Of at Title Wave, the deaccessioning outlet of the Portland (Oregon) Public Library, and I'm off this afternoon to lend it to an ailing friend. Human thought about existence and its consequences, from Epicurus to Shostakovich, go with the book, with Barnes. I'll print out a copy of this post and tuck it into the endpaper: perhaps it will be read, perhaps not. So it goes.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


Looking at what you've just done, the critics ask what's in it for them, for their immediate entertainment or information; and maybe -- maybe -- what's in it for their moment.

The historians will ask how it continues what you've done before, and how it fits into your era.

But you, why have you done it?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Twelfth Night

Pasadena, December 17—
MY FAVORITE OF ALL Shakespeare plays — I know, it's a ridiculous formulation — is Twelfth Night. It has some of the most affecting poetry; its large cast includes some of his most memorable, complex characters; the narrative is interesting enough on its most literal level (even after all these viewings), and Is particularly rich with extended meaning. 

Last night we saw a fine performance in A Noise Within's new theater here. Julia Rodriguez-Elliott set her production in a (probably) pre-Castro Cuba, which mostly worked just fine. (Short Cuban dance numbers replaced Shakespeare's songs.) Twelfth Night always suggests Sicily to me — Viola is from Messina, as I recall — and Cuba is our Sicily, in a way: exotic, free-wheeling, fantastic.

I peck these comments out on my iPad keyboard without time for extensive discussion, so won't go into detail. will provide the credits, and I'll simply note here each actor seemed well cast and approached the assignment with intelligence, interest, skill, and sympathy; "small" roles were as beautifully and tellingly fleshed out as big ones.

(This meant, for example, that Antonio was able to emerge, correctly, as the pivot on which so much extended meaning of this great play turns.)

The company is still tuning its approach to this spacious yet cozy, beautiful new venue, but there's no doubt of the outcome. We like the hall, the company, the seriousness of purpose and the vitality and humor of approach and achievement. What will tonight's Desire Under the Elms be like?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


Wow: Googling around while relaxing in that twenty minutes before bedtime I find this:
Se Reich e' l'Haydn del minimalismo, Adams ne e' il Mozart, gia' teso ad un geniale, e talvolta irriverente, superamento del classicismo.
The other night we went to the "Live TV broadcast" or whatever they call it from the Metropolitan Opera to the local charter-school auditorium, rather an ambitions building, of Philip Glass's opera Satyagraha. If Reich is the Haydn and Adams the Mozart, then Glass, at least in this opera, is the Verdi of minimalism. No: let me quickly amend that. In some scenes he's the Verdi; in others, notably the great closing scene, he's one of the Richard Strausses.

We saw the opera once before, and can't remember where and when. Probably the San Francisco Opera production, though my visual memory of the event suggests a different house. This season's Met production is very different, what you might call second-generation Robert Wilson, tricked out with immense puppets and aerialists and such. It's hard to tell from the absurd film-as-cosmos style of these movie-theater broadcasts just what the impact in the real theater might have been: the film production alternates between close-ups, long shots, and side-to-side pans, sometimes in a tempo so quick and a sequence so unpredictable and chaotic as to leave at least this onlooker physically confused.

I've railed so many times about these collisions of scale — the amplified string quartet as loud as three Wagner orchestras; the soprano's face as big as four billboards — that I hate to harp on it yet again. But this is a serious matter, folks: scalar confusions of this sort not only physically confound the audience's entrails, throwing them into a nauseated discomfort warning of impending doom; they also misrepresent the point of the message at hand — in this case, a very beautifully conceived and proportioned masque representing Ghandi's discovery of his purpose, the principle of nonviolent resistance, the forward-looking triumph of good sense and comprehension over stubborn authority and oppressiveness. Glass's opera is all sensitivity, grace, introspection, receptivity; this video production of his opera lurches, insists, moons, cajoles.

The singing was mostly first-rate. I don't know if anyone could have bettered Richard Croft's performance as Ghandi; that closing scene, though long, floated beautifully; it was hard to let it go.

But what must poor Phil have thought of the Met's including long excerpts of Wagner's Ring in the second intermission? I suppose you can argue there's historical precedent here; two centuries ago it wasn't uncommon to play comedies in the intervals of opera seria. But Wagner?

Friday, December 02, 2011

Recognizing the Midtone

Berkeley, December 2, 2011—
SITTING IN A CAFÉ over a cappuccino I have no time to write here properly, but I want to call attention to an important paper by my friend Douglas Leedy, who as well as being a composer of significant and often beautiful music is a scholar of the first rank.

His area of specialization is of course music, and his knowledge of the subject extends far and wide. He has at various times and places been a player of French horn (including stints with symphony orchestras in Oakland, California, and Caracas, Venezuela); a keyboard player (chiefly harpsichord); a conductor (chiefly of music of the Baroque era); and of course a composer.

He made extensive visits, often amounting to residencies, in Poland, India, and Venezuela. He has taught at Reed College and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where he founded the electronic music studio.

In recent years he has pursued an intensive study of ancient Greek, which has led him to conclude that among the early Greek poets, certainly through Pindar, poetry and music are essentially synonymous; and that our fuller understanding (or, better, awareness) of their work requires an attempt to reconstruct the sound of their sung poetry.

This has led him to a determined, highly disciplined, and to my limited understanding quite persuasive account, still evolving hence not yet publicly available, of exactly how to go about singing Homer today, accompanied by instruments readily available in our own time.

Alas, I can't share his Reconstructing Greek Music yet. I can however announce that an example of Leedy's thorough scholarship and gracefully persuasive writing on another subject is available.

Recognizing the Midtone addresses a musical interval important throughout history and across continents but lost to the familiar Western European "classical" tradition. Leedy presents an abstract of his essay:
Recognized as a melodic interval in the musical scales of the ancient Greeks, the three- quarter tone, or so-called “neutral” second, is a fundamental melodic interval, along with the tone and semitone of the Western diatonic scale, in present-day musical cultures that extend eastward in an arc from northwest Africa along the Mediterranean to Egypt and the Near East, the former Burma, much of southeast Asia, and Indonesia. For this interval, which is incommensurate with the tone and semitone (and which is, for example, considered to exert a powerfully expressive effect in classical Arab melody), the more autonomous name of midtone is here proposed, along with a parallel renaming of other “neutral” intervals. An overview of the use and significance of the midtone in a number of musical cultures is presented, with references to recordings, published studies, and musical notation, as well as to its occasional, exotic appearance in Western classical music.
I am pleased to have participated a bit in the presentation of this important essay, and I hope that its online publication will be followed by other papers of his.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Charles and Lindsey Engage in Dialectic

For no particular reason I recalled this little poem this morning:
Charles and Lindsey Engage in Dialectic
Grizzly bear and mountain lion at play —
Crushing, his logic: cutting, her touché. 
—Ray Oliver

Monday, November 07, 2011

For Daidie's Seventieth

Eastside Road, November 7, 2011—
A FEW DAYS AGO friends came to dinner and to discuss a little project we're working on together; I don't want to talk about it too much at the moment as it's in process.

At one point one of them asked, point-blank, What are your three basic values? Quick, answer, don't think!

And I said, quickly, Attentiveness, Reflection, Enjoyment.

And then the other said And what are the real Indispensables?

And I said Generosity and Gratitude.

These have always seemed to me to be the minimum and necessary qualities for good life, but I was a little surprised at how readily I was able to express them. I think it was because I was already thinking, had already been thinking, if subconsciously, about the attributes I associate with a friend and colleague who had invited us to a birthday party — a seventieth. At the back of my mind I was probably contemplating the likelihood of proposing a toast to her.
Poplars and canal.jpg

We'd already prepared a card for her, with this photograph of a line of trees in our beloved Low Countries. It stands between the villages of Leuth and Zwyllich, not far from Nijmegen, almost exactly halfway along the Pieterpad, the walking path that crosses Netherlands from north to south, about 400 kilometers. I've walked past those poplars three times (Lindsey only once, that's another story), and each time they, and the path, and the canal they border, which runs along the Rhine at that point, move me tremendously. I suppose they represent for me the wonderful collaboration of man and nature, and of course they're a midpoint; they also happen to mark the boundary at that point between two nations, Netherlands and Germany. But the trees I think know nothing of that.

The road offers the same length to everyone, though some choose to walk more or less of it than others do. It takes us where we want to go, and though we could very well turn round and take it back some distance few of us ever do, and then rarely for more than a little. The sky is open to all of us, to all of us equally; and the trees in their wisdom stand on the earth reaching into the sky, as far as they know to reach, that far and no farther, to nearly the same distance, all of them. They choose, I think, to know that much, finding it essential for some reason I don't know, and finding it inessential to know more.

It was a wonderful party, and we were pleased and a little honored to have been invited.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Nearly Ninety

Palo Alto, November 2, 2011–

Extraordinarily rewarding, finally moving performance here last night of Merce Cunningham's Nearly Ninety2, the final work of the American choreographer whose career, I think, puts him in the category of Picasso, Joyce, Einstein, and his own partner John Cage among the greatest minds of his century.

Cunningham died, at ninety, a few months after the premiere of this work, two years ago; and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company has been making a final memorial tour in the intervening time. (The curtain comes down permanently on the company on December 31, 2011.) The farewell tour has been unique among recent MCDC tours for its revival – "reconstruction" is their preferred and, in fact, more accurate word – of pieces from the repertory, going back to the 1950s. I think last night's performance gained from this retrospection. It's always hard to tell which of many factors is prominent in determining one's understanding, during the event, of as complex an observation of a work like Nearly Ninety2 , of course: scored for thirteen dancers, each of whom is a soloist at one time or another, its 24 sections unfold in eighty minutes, without an intermission, in a spellbinding sequence of solos, duets, quartets, and ensembles, fleetingly fast and glacially slow by unexpected turns, in a series of contemplations, I would guess, of the four elements; for this is an elemental ballet, going to the essence of what it is "about": the body in motion, which of course includes the body at rest.

This is, also of course, a matter of life and death. And, not to be recursive, that makes retrospection, especially in the contemplation of this great body of work, now closed in one very important sense, an inescapable component of responding, as an onlooker, to this performance – as it happened, the final performance by MCDC of Merce's final work, though a number of performances of other pieces remain to be given in the next two months.

I recently read Carolyn Brown's big, important, and rewarding memoir Chance and Circumstance (as felicitous a piece of writing as its intelligent title suggests), and that reading, so informative about Merce and John (and Rauschenberg and others) and about the early years of the Company, must be influential as well in responding to last night's performance. I thought I saw Merce himself, in flashes, in Raschaun Mitchell's strong, stately, athletic, intelligent performances, and Carolyn Brown in those of Andrea Weber, sober, graceful, lithe, and equally intelligent.

Brown writes often, both directly and allusively, about the possible role of "meaning" in Merce's work. (These contemplations, usually either foolish or forbidden in other commentators, are among the historically significant aspects of her book.) A choreographer cannot evade consideration of the place of sex – I refuse the word "gender" – in setting his work on his dancers, and a big part of the impact of Merce's choreography, not to mention the dancers' realization of it, has to be the expression of that consideration. Sex and Life and Death, motion and stillness: big matters, to be returned to, the fates willing, in forthcoming visits here.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Gordon Cook

Eastside Road, October 29, 2011—
IT'S TOO LATE to tell you about it; the show closed today; but the work of Gordon Cook has found its way to a new home in San Francisco's George Krevsky Gallery.

Born in Chicago in 1929, Cook came to San Francisco in his very early twenties, working at first exclusively as a realist printmaker specializing in botanical subjects, moving on to figure drawing, finally, after his marriage to the painter Joan Brown, developing his unique qualities as a painter.

It does him no disservice to mention that his paintings inescapably bring Chirico and Morandi to mind. His palette, lighting, edges, scale, and composition refer to their sense of dramatic realism, enigmatic statement, quasi-enchanted awareness; but the subjects — boats in the low Sacramento Delta light, gas tanks at the Richmond refinery, even the featureless Amish dolls — all convey a sense of specific place.

Guston is here too, in the curiously vulnerable, clearly humanistic content of his images, at first encounter utterly removed from subjective emotion, later growing in sympathetic resonance.

I once had a heated discussion with Cook: I was trying to persuade him of the possibility of painting from imagination, thinking up forms, even subject-matter, that didn't exist in fact. No, he said, That would be absolutely immoral; one can't legitimately paint objects that one hasn't actually seen.

So in order to paint his stick figures, men rowing boats, silhouetted kissing couples, he first actually made them, using thin wood, cardboard, glue, and paints of course. His sculpture is in fact maquettes made for posing for their portraits: he brings the concentrated gaze of the figure-painter (and, even more, draftsman) to the contemplation of the bulk, edge, directionality, even purpose of these three-dimensional inventions.

On another occasion, shortly before his early death in 1985, I sat in on a talk he gave to a number of graduate painting students at Mills College. One asked him about the repeated canvases depicting that gas tank in Richmond: why did he paint it over and over again?

My dealer asks me that too, Cook replied. Then, more seriously: I'm just trying to get it right.

What I love about the painting of the San Francisco Bay region, at its peak, among other things, perhaps most of all, is its morality, its ethics. Gordon Cook was among the most persuasively pure practitioners of any of them. His work, like his example, is haunting, and it's good to see it out there again. An artist of enormous presence and import, clear-thinking, poised, whose work has the compact kind of energy we usually call power. The exhibition has closed; images remain on view here.

Friday, October 21, 2011


Eastside Road, October 21, 2011—
The San Francisco Bay area has long been one of the most significant American locales for painting, certainly since the middle of the last century, in fact going back at least half a century before then. There are interesting cultural, geographical, and historical reasons for this; we needn't go into them here. Suffice it to point out that an unusual combination of pioneer spirit and genteel tradition was almost immediately at the center of the Northern California mentality (for a brilliant study on this theme, see William Everson's Archetype West: The Pacific Coast as a Literary Region); that relative isolation with occasional exposure to European Modernism allowed that mentality to respond to the local natural and societal stimuli; and that by the time of the post-world War II years, when the GI Bill allowed many gifted artists of other than rich backgrounds the time and setting for their own personal development, a génie de terroir, so to speak, had already been well developed.

My own years as an active observer of the scene, from the late 1960s on for twenty years, coincided with the tremendous expansion of the Bay Area art scene from a marginal, almost underground activity, treated seriously in the newspapers but hardly known to any but real devotees of the art, to its present amplitude, with galleries in shopping malls, art school campuses everywhere, and almost total neglect in the few remaining news outlets. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the painters who had attained their mastery in the late 1950s and early 1960s remain my heroes, artists who dedicated their lives to painting in a context of almost total neglect by all but their own colleagues.

Few of them are still living: Frank Lobdell is perhaps the last. Even among what I think of as the second generation, painters my own age, now in their late seventies, slip away with melancholy regularity. Nathan Oliveira, for example: a marvelous painter and teacher (Stanford for many years) and a very nice man. He died nearly a year ago — there's a fine obituary by John Seed on the Huffington Post website — but we saw the memorial exhibition at the John Berggruen Gallery a few days ago: it closes tomorrow, October 22, but the website will, I hope, continue to present its forty-two images of the paintings and sculpture on view for a few weeks to come.

The last works are striking: the familiar Oliveira figurative images isolated against glowing grounds in his characteristic warm but muted, sometimes even darkened oranges, reds, maroons, ochres. Many of these figures stand (or, occasionally, dance, or skate) next to a single line, an edge — shadow, or skin, or crack of light in a doorway? Others have auras, or long hair bending back from the head as if the essence of the figure is escaping toward an unknown (or, perhaps, being breathed into the figure from that unknown).

It's impossible to see these late works, I think, without musing on the painter's own death so soon after completing them. Yet earlier canvases here, going back to the 1980s, not to mention drawings and watercolors going back a further twenty years, reveal this haunting meditative quality to be Oliveira's fixation, his constant orientation to his work, as his work is apparently his constant orientation to life, to his own individualization of the human condition.

Even the work that seems to stray from this — the paintings and bronzes that seem to confront relics from neglected or abandoned civilizations, reminding me of pavements left over from ancient Mediterranean sites — even these merely extend the personal expression toward a more universalized one. Oliveira's work, like that of his friend the (still living, thank God) sculptor Manuel Neri, remind the viewer of the affinity of the Mediterranean sensibility with that of the Bay Area, as if the Californio years were not lost on our cultural inheritance, and continues to haunt if not energize this very moving work.
Last week we saw also another moving gallery exhibition, of drawings, drawings with collage, and a few paintings by Jay DeFeo, truly one of the great painter-heroes of our time. I knew her slightly; we taught together for a time at Mills College, where I sat in on her beginning painting class now and then. (Alas, I never learned to be a painter.) The current exhibition at the Hosfelt Gallery closes, unfortunately, tomorrow, like Oliveira's at the Berggruen; I'm sorry not to have been able to get to commenting on these shows earlier.

At the Hosfelt there's a particularly arresting painting, Bride, from 1986. The title has inescapable Duchampian overtones, of course; and thinking about that, and about Jay's unique intelligence which rests at the intersection of seeing and contemplation, goes a long way toward explaining the central position her life and work intuitively seem to occupy in the late-twentieth-century context of visual art, not only locally, but internationally.

Fortunately, the Jay DeFeo Trust maintains a fine website and works passionately to further awareness of this important artist whose early death — she was only sixty — otherwise threatened to leave her in obscurity in a cultural climate increasingly rewarding more trivial, flashier entertainers. The Whitney Museum will produce a major DeFeo retrospective next November; I hear it will travel to San Francisco; it will be a major, major event.

I don't like to snatch images from the Web and re-post them here; you never know what's copyright, what's freely offered for second-hand retailing. I urge any visitor here to follow up the links embedded here — even better, of course: get to the galleries tomorrow.
  • Nathan Oliveira Memorial Exhibition, John Berggruen Gallery, 228 Grant Avenue, San Francisco; (415) 781-4629; Mon-Fri 9:30am–5:30pm; Sat 10:30am–5pm; through October 22; catalogue available
  • Jay DeFeo, 430 Clementina Street, San Francisco;415-495-5454; Tue-Sat 11-5:30; through October 22
  • Sunday, October 09, 2011

    Steve Jobs

    Eastside Road, October 9, 2011—
    LOTS OF RESPONSE in the blogsphere, in the media, even in conversation, about the death last week of Steve Jobs. There's not much question but that in death as in life he was a touchstone, just as was his computer. It's odd how passionately people align themselves for or against certain forces, which is what I think he truly was. You were either a Mac person, or you were not. Apple or PC: like Fitzgerald or Hemingway, National League or American League, in my father's time General Motors or Ford.

    Since so many have had so much to say, I'll chime in, in three comments: personal, appreciative, more general.

    First: I'm a Mac man. My first computer was a Radio Shack Model 100, which let me see eight lines of type at a time, no matter how much copy I'd written, and then send it, marvel of marvels, over a telephone to the office. I taught myself a little Basic with that machine, too, to use it for various other things. I even began typing out Lindsey's book on it, saving sections to tape cassettes, but that quickly grew too clunky.

    So I graduated to a real desktop, a Morrow. Here I began dealing with arcane line-item entries, saving to drive A or drive B, always dealing with terminal commands. The rest of the book got typed out, and even printed, on one of those daisy-wheel jobs on paper with perforated tear-off margins. It was enough to drive you nuts.

    Then, in 1986 I think it was, I bought a Mac Plus. The primary reason for this was to take a class in computer composition. Instead of terminal commands, I was mousing, pointing, clicking. I could write music on five-line staffs; I could copy sections, transpose or augment or retrograde them, layer them. I could hear the music played back on an internal synthesizer. And of course I could print it out, too.

    Since I've always been intrigued by typefaces and page design, the Mac appealed to me. Soon I learned about Hypercard, and could give up Basic and design little applications of my own to handle other chores concerned with databases, calculation, design, and composition. It didn't hurt that I never had to think about computer viruses. I have remained loyal to Macintosh ever since, going through the AV series desktop, various laptops beginning with the first, and working now on an iMac, an iBook, and of course the iPhone and the iPad, which have served me well on travels abroad.

    So I am thankful to Steve Jobs for having had the vision to reify, in hardware and software, practical approaches to computer-based handling of music, graphics, text layout and so on, weathering the scorn of business- and science-oriented criticism that Apple was somehow "only" about games, or art, or hobbies.
    Second: Jobs himself was apparently inspired by two or three things that meant a lot to me, too (and I hasten to state that I'm not setting myself up as an unsung Jobs). He was brought up by parents who were skeptical of formal education, though in the end they helped him enter college. His own college career was similarly skeptical and cut short. (I finished, but took a number of years, and turns, before managing.) He was fond of tinkering and learned a lot about that from his dad. When he did go to college — Reed College, in Portland — he was particularly inspired by studying calligraphy.
    Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus, every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.
    quoted from Jobs' 2005 commencement address at Stanford, as posted here
    In this context, Lindsey brought to my attention a comment made by Malcolm Margolin in the 2009-10 Annual Report of Save the Bay:
    …I think that at Save The Bay's root there was something else besides a concern for the environment — it was a concern for beauty. There was something about the fact that people looked out the window and realized the spectacular, poignant, transformative beauty of the Bay. This is what they wanted to preserve — the sense of living in a beautiful place that restored you on a daily basis — the respect for beauty. Today, Save The Bay is rooted in science, environmentalism, social concerns, social justice. But there is still the beauty that inspires this whole enterprise.
    "50 Years of Making Waves," 2009-2010 Annual Report of Save the Bay, as posted here, page 6
    I believe that Jobs's fundamental sensibility was that of an artist, a maker, a poet, a player; and that it was this that made him misunderstood and, to an extent, scorned by the mainstream worlds of business and the media.

    Obviously the history of Apple Computing after its early successes went mainstream in its turn; it's now famously one of the richest corporations in the country. Obviously critics are justified who decry the extent to which such success exploits cheap labor, oppressive working conditions, corporate secrecy and all that. But I think it's a mistake to extrapolate from those observations the idea that Jobs was simply a hypocrite. (Nor do I, or anyone I know, have any idea the extent to which Apple's corporate decisions concerning retained earnings, global marketing and sourcing, and the like were driven exclusively by Jobs, rather than his board of directors.)

    What I like about Steve Jobs is that his brilliance was fully in service of a consistent vision: the extension of technological tools to people who simply want them to work in applications concerned with art, entertainment, design, communication, and the like; rather than (more narrowly) statistics, mathematics, physics, and computation. I'm aware a number of people I know manage to use the Windows operating system, on their PC personal computers, to pursue their work in the liberal arts; I hope they realize the extent to which Apple pushed Microsoft in that direction.
    Third: All that said, the tremendous, global, across-the-classes outpouring of comment on Jobs's death was extraordinary. I doubt that Jobs would have liked it much, though he might have been wryly amused. As usual, the media reacted far too heavily, too quickly: but that's in the nature of the media.

    More interesting was the huge amount of popular expression of love, grief, thanks, and then to an extent repudiation. I think there are two basic reasons for this outpouring, one nationalistic, the other psychological. The nationalistic one is simple: at a time when America seems to be losing its storied leadership in can-do, inventive, meteoric entrepreneurship, it's great to be reminded of a recent personification of all that, and distressing to lose him.

    Psychologically, at a time when there's so little to pin your faith on, when governments and banks, corporations, the military, even Mother Nature herself seem to be letting us down at every turn, people the world over seek heroes who manage to counter such obstacles, who rise from little more than their own ideas and hard work, who embody a kind of optimism and drive.

    After Mozart it was impossible to go on composing like Mozart. Jobs was no Mozart: he was more like a Cage, a Duchamp, a Stein. He, and his work, challenged the assumptions, picked up neglected ideas and reconfigured them to useful approaches. In the course of this he attracted partisans and detractors; neither camp has much to do with the historical necessity and the eventual impact of what he imagined and achieved. What comes next, remains to be seen.

    Friday, September 23, 2011

    The Pleasures of Travel

    San Jose, California, September 23, 2011—
    WE VIRTUALLY NEVER visit this city, the largest in the Bay Area, the third-largest in California (after Los Angeles and San Diego, and well ahead of San Francisco). And so I always forget how different it is from our usual haunts. The climate and demographic are different. The difference sets in as you travel down the Peninsula, whose smaller cities and towns — San Mateo, Palo Alto, Redwood City — seem more like Southern California than the Bay Area.

    We're here for two nights, for entirely cultural reasons, as a friend wryly pointed out. Last night we saw Mozart's Idomeneo, a great opera all too rarely produced; tonight we go to the opening of an art exhibition for which I wrote a modest (very) catalogue essay. In between, a runout to Berkeley for an appointment; tomorrow, on our way home, a cruise on the Bay.

    Before I get to Mozart, a few comments on the hotel. I keep a list of restaurants we eat in, updating it every month or so; I haven't until now thought of doing the same with hotels. We generally use Priceline to reserve hotels, because we like our hotels cheap: we sleep cheap, in order to eat dear. Sometimes we book conventionally, but we often use the blind "bidding" process, by which one chooses area, star level, and names a price, content to take what's dealt.
    That's what we did this time, and the result has been rather a delightful find, the San Jose Airport Garden Hotel. This is a cluster of five or six twostorey buildings, each on the order of an ordinary Motel Six I suppose, surrounding a complex of lawns, pool, exercise rooms and the like. The "gardens" are set about with fountains and statues, and the lobby and corridors are hung with dozens, scores, perhaps hundreds of framed prints and paintings, all collected by a single former owner, a Persian with a curious eye attracted to gods, goddesses, philosophers, birds, and botany.

    Statues, or at any rate reproductions of statues, reflect Greek, Egyptian, and Indian antiquity. One corridor boasts at least two dozen prints of good quality all of birds, and those on only one of the two long walls. Our own little bedroom boasts two original oil paintings, not particularly interesting: a Dutch or Belgian twostorey house by the side of a country lane and a vase of dahlias painted in high-relief impasto. But there is also quite a nice botanical print of anemones with leaves, flowers, and buds in various stages of maturity, nicely triple-matted and framed in plain oak.

    The hotel has a history: it was the first Hyatt hotel in Northern California, built in the early 1960s. (So I was told by the present manager here.) It's surprising to be reminded that Hyatt hotels have not always been everywhere, and have not always been the interchangeable manystoreyed metropolitan behemoths so familiar today; a lot has changed since the Eisenhower administration.
    We just came in from a decent Martini by the swimming pool. Although the cocktail hour, we were alone except for two jet-black squirrels and one grey one, tame enough to come when I called them by clack-clack-clacking tongue between teeth.
    On, this evening, to an opening at the Triton Museum of Art, where Kenjilo Nanao is being given a mini-retrospective, along with Jamie Brunson and Heather Wilcoxon. I'd met Brunson many years ago; she recalled tonight that I was one of the first to review her work in the press; I liked the work here a lot — meditative yet retinally jumpy painting with very strong colors, monochrome, setting up persistent after-images.

    I liked Wilcoxon's paintings too: in the Roy DeForest tradition, clearly post-Guston as well, intelligent and sassy and slyly organized behind their seemingly frenetic surfaces and subject-matter. (You can see this work at the Triton website.)

    But it was of course Kenji's painting that brought us here, and they are magnificent under the strong white light in the museum gallery. As Preston Metcalf points out in the catalogue, Nanao mediates, or rather transcends the differences between, Abstract Expressionism and color-field abstraction. As I point out, the work is essentially landscape, or at least can be so read. It is sumptuous, rich, allusive, and utterly egoless, serene yet full of energy.

    The main inspiration for this trip, though, was San Jose Opera's production of Idomeneo. Mozart composed it in 1780, just before his 25th birthday; it is his biggest opera, for a big orchestra, a huge cast; it is probably the last opera of its kind, to a libretto celebrating regal largesse — a piece that says goodbye to the Age of Kings.

    Idomeneo was himself the King of Crete: returning from the Trojan War, victorious, he runs into a terrible storm at sea; pleading with Neptune for clemency, he vows to sacrifice to the god the first person — or creature, accounts vary — he sees on landing safe on shore. The first creature turns out to be his own son, of course: this is a version of the Abraham-and-Isaac story.

    The opera was beautifully conducted, by George Cleve; very well sung, by a young, ardent cast; effectively staged; and set within a production owing a great deal to David Packard, whose archaeological enthusiasms and considerable resources combined to stage the action in quite persuasive reconstructions of the extroardinary beauties of the Minoan culture. Last year's tour of Sicily (speaking of the pleasures of travel) prepared us for enhanced enjoyment of this production, which should certainly travel to other opera houses.

    As to the opera itself, it is a magnificent musical monument and, in a production like this, performed as credibly as this, a work full of matter for contemplation. We're reminded that in all ages the gods are narratives constructed by the human mind to personify natural impacts & influences on the human experience. They are organized according to the prevailing social structural needs & assumptions: i.e. tribal-pagan, regal-monotheistic, etc.

    Idomeneo is a transitional and decadent narrative: why was it appealing to a late 18th c. nobleman (Karl Theodor, Elector of Bavaria), who commissioned it for performance at a court carnival? The opera is about a king who errs (though through piety), but is forgiven and allowed to abdicate in favor of the son he was bent on but released from sacrificing: aren't there interesting subliminal correspondences between this and the plot of, for example, The Marriage of Figaro? What an interesting period this was, the fourteen years between the American War for Independence and the fall of the Bastille!

    Saturday, August 20, 2011

    Four Saints in Three Acts

    Eastside Road, August 20, 2011—
    WE SAW the Stein-Thomson opera Four Saints in Three Acts last night in San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center, where it was performed by Ensemble Parallele, about which company I wrote enthusiastically here a while back in connection with the Philip Glass opera Orphée. I don't have time at the moment to write more than that I think you should see this if you possibly can; it's one of the great operas not only of the 20th century but of any, and productions are rare, and this one is worth seeing. I'll have more to say about the production, and the opera, in a few days.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011

    Virgil Thomson on Audience Sensitivity

    FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON except that I just ran across it, while looking for something else, here's a piece I wrote for the Oakland Tribune on September 2, 1979:

    APTOS--"Why can't musicians compose what audiences want to hear?"

    The anguished question was directed toward a six-composer panel at the Cabrillo Festival here last week, and it stated a problem composers have faced for decades.
    There's a continual distrust of new music. It's a joke, or it's too abstruse, or ugly. "My kid could make noises like that."

    All six composers at the panel agreed that they didn't set out to compose music that audiences wouldn't want to hear. But it took 83-year-old Virgil Thomson to dissect the question with his scalpel-like intellect.

    "The trouble is, 'audience' is a collective noun. You have to be very careful when you throw that word around. Audiences respond as a group. (That's why record reviewing is spiteful; because it's solitary.)"

    At this point Garret List, a young trombonist-composer straddling new music and jazz, interrupted Thomson: "Who do you write for?" Thomson continued to elaborate his point:

    "An 'audience' figures as sociology and economics, not esthetics."
    Garret List wasn't listening. "Who do you write for, Virgil? Virgil?" He snapped his fingers to get Thomson's attention.

    "No one knows what an audience is going to like," Thomson continued. "Or what a management can sell to an audience. And audiences are bullied. And we can only know what an 'audience' liked last year.

    "There are fashions, trends--in orchestral tricks, or whatever--that follow unconscious folklore patterns. They are very hard to predict.'

    He never let on that he'd heard List, but suddenly answered him.

    "Gertrude (Stein) used to say, 'I write for myself and strangers."' List nodded agreement. So did the others.

    "I am the listener I puzzle over when I'm composing," Eric Stokes said.

    "Exactly," said Thomson. "And any passage that bores you a tiny little bit will bore others more. You can bet on it."

    Which brought up another question: did these composers aim at complex or simple music?

    "Simplicity," Lou Harrison said. "I always remember something Schoenberg told me when I studied with him: 'Nothing but the essentials."'

    "Depends on the music," Thomson elaborated. "If I aim consciously it's toward simplicity where possible; but if complexity is necessary, not to fear it. I tend to think music isn't finished if you can subtract anything without injury. Music is a complex affair; the more we can simplify it, maybe, the better."

    Some one asked about foundation grants.

    "I think we had a more independent attitude before," Harrison answered. "Post-Depression young people can't conceive of grubbing."

    The young composers disagreed. Foundation grants are "a lottery," List said. "There's not enough money."

    "There are more composers now," Stokes pointed out.

    But they allowed that they made a living somehow. How do composers make a living, someone in the audience wanted to know.

    "The answer to that question is that it's none of your business how we make a living," Thomson replied. "How we compose is another matter."

    There was laughter, then silence. Then, in a rare burst of emotion, Thomson summed it all up. He pointed toward something overhead; the small silent gesture galvanized the audience and panel.

    "Calling," he announced. "We're playing a game of life or death. We must find ways of answering the calling--or choose death."

    Friday, August 05, 2011

    Mount Tamalpais

    Looking east from the Temelpa trail, Mt. Tamalpais
    THE FIRST STRENUOUS WALK of the year, far too long delayed: from Mountain Home, on Panoramic Highway in Mill Valley, up the old railroad grade past West Point Inn and on up to the East Peak; then down through the garrigue on the Temelpa trail to various fire roads and so back to the starting point.

    I think this took about four hours or so all told, plus a half hour nibbling and resting at the summit. Glorious views, but of course hardly any can really be photographed.

    The fire roads, and the old railroad grade, are comfortable but not terribly interesting walking: but they give fine views, especially over the luminous greys of fog out toward sea. There was too much haze to see much distance: in this photo you can barely make out Mt. Diablo to the east. The narrow Temelpa trail reminded me often of walking in Alpes de Provence, except that the smell is completely different. Is the oregano and thyme and lavender in the Provençal garrigue, I wonder, feral escapees from Greek gardens of 2500 years ago? Will the same happen here, a thousand years hence?

    Thursday, August 04, 2011

    Early August

    No moon. The crickets
    or whatever they are sing,
    mindful of Late Works.

    Monday, August 01, 2011

    Blue language

    Eastside Road, —
    I'VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT language lately. No surprise there; language is one of my constant preoccupations. But specifically I've been thinking about what we used to call blue language, bad language, and its greatly increased presence in our daily life. It may not surprise you to learn that it's the Internet, and in particular Facebook, that's brought the subject so to mind.

    Like many people my age, I suppose — I've long since entered my eighth decade — one of my main reasons for being on Facebook (and no, please don't look for me, the last thing I need is more Facebook “friends”) is to look in on the grandchildren. In the course of doing that, of course, I see comments posted by their friends. There are also the various nieces and nephews. And a number of them (not so much my direct descendants, I hasten to say) use language I find quite disturbing.

    Now there's no question I'm a prig. I use the occasional four-letter word myself, but not that often. It still startles me to hear a woman swear. My mother never did, and the only time I've heard my wife use a four-letter word was years ago when, pushed to the limit, she suggested I go to hell. (When she pronounced the word it sounded like a place name; you could hear the capital “H”.)

    I wonder as I read all these words what words these people use when they really need bad language. If they shut the car door on their thumb, for example: do they use the same word they use to describe a momentary annoyance?

    I know: what most people intend these days, certainly what younger people intend, by the use of such language, is not what people of my generation or my parents' generation meant. Language changes, shifts. Declines, in fact, I would say, at least in this case. (I meant no pun there: sorry, grammarians.) But it's as hard for me to hear these words as inoffensive as it was, in remote antiquity, to hear soprano saxophones substitute for high trumpets in recordings of Brandenburg Concertos.

    It's also true that people are more traveled these days, and different languages have different attitudes to this subject. The Dutch, for example, use what I think of as four-letter words to describe ordinary matters and events met in the course of daily life. They also use English four-letter words liberally, just as we Anglophones use a certain five-letter French word without really thinking about its literal meaning. I use le mot de Cambronne freely in English, but never in France, unless to say “break a leg” in French to a French performer about to go to work.

    The problem with blue language is what happens in cases of linguistic asymmetry, when one party to a verbal exchange has a more liberal or a more literal relationship to vocabulary than does the other. If you call me by a name, or word, that's been internalized as A Very Very Terrible Thing to Say — “liar,” for example, was grounds for a thrashing in my childhood — it's very difficult for me to consider that you may be simply exaggerating, or in fact mis-using the word. “You lie” is used so frequently these days to mean “You're mistaken,” or even “I don't agree with your view.”

    Saturday, July 30, 2011

    Shakespeare at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

    Meaning is never monogamous.
                                  — Susan Sontag
    Eastside Road, July 28, 2011—
    WE SAW FOUR SHAKESPEARE plays this year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland; all they had scheduled. OSF runs through the entire Shakespeare canon, presenting the History Plays in historical chronological order, the Comedies and Tragedies in a less orderly fashion; and the Bard represents about a third of the entire OSF rep in any given year. (The complete production history of Shakespeare is listed here.)

    My college major was English Literature, but my college career was disorderly, to say the least. The last two courses I took to complete my degree were intense summer-session classes in required subjects, oddly postponed far beyond logic: English 1B, the required freshman course in composition; and a survey course in Shakespeare. The latter was taught, I remember, by a fine old-school professor. We read, discussed, and wrote about thirteen of the plays, a third of the canon, taking Charles Jaspers Sisson's edition as our text.

    In that class I learned that discussion of the plays and the playwright are endless and too often pointless; we can't be sure of the texts; establishing a chronology of the plays is problematic; and the language occupies what's now a no-man's-land between late Middle English and the standard English of the 19th Century, which is what we generally read and even spoke in class. And I learned that the plays themselves, individually and taken as a canon, are fascinating: not so much for their narratives, though those are often gripping; or their ideas or values, though those have much to give us; but for their elusiveness, complexity, surprise. The plays transcend, by far, their texts.

    Susan Sontag, in the essay “Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes,”
    …literature is first of all, last of all, language. It is language that is everything. … Barthes's view is irrevocably complex, self-conscious, refined, irresolute… He defines the writer as “the watcher who stands at the crossroads of all other discourses” — the opposite of an activist or a purveyor of doctrine…

    Barthes called the life of the mind desire, and was concerned to defend “the plurality of desire.“ Meaning is never monogamous.

                                —Susan Sontag: Where the Stress Falls (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001)
    We saw an early play and an early late play last week, and they both concern themselves literally with desire: the two history plays we saw, from about the same (middle) period, are more straightforward, but raise problems of polyvalence that proved insoluble, I think, in the OSF staging.

    As I've written in the previous three reports from Ashland, I'm not in the business here of ”reviewing“ these productions. I'm not going to go through the laborious and generally pointless (and thankless) motions of assigning adjectives to individual actors, stage designers, costumers. At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival you can take for granted the skill, range, and effectiveness of all such components; besides, OSF has a well-designed website that gives an ”overview,“ cast and production credit details, short videos about the productions, and more about each play; index webpages for each can be found by clicking on the bulleted, boldfaced •titles below.

    Instead, I'm afraid I'm going to be expressing my misgivings about the general approach that OSF seems to have adopted in its productions of the work that has for seventy-five years been, after all, its raison d'être.

    As I noted the other day, OSF began in the spirit of Chautauqua, that uniquely American movement of the post-Civil War period whose purpose it was to bring education and culture to relatively isolated populations. Chautauqua included speechmaking, music, religion, politics under what was often literally a big tent, which often moved from site to site throughout the summer. The movement continued throughout the first half of the 20th century in spite of more technologically advanced competition, as Wikipedia's entry notes:
    …by the turn of the century, other entertainment and educational opportunities, such as radio and movies, began to arrive in American towns to compete with Chautauqua lectures. With the advent of television and the automobile, people could now watch or travel to cultural events previously available only in urban areas, and the Chautauqua Movement lost popularity.
    Chautauqua still lives, though; the original Institution in the New York town that gave the movement its name still presents lecture series, musical and dance performances, opera, and theater. (A few minutes on its website make it look pretty damn attractive.)

    A Chautauqua building was erected, ”mostly by townspeople“ as OSF notes, in Ashland in 1893; it was enlarged twelve years later. ”Families traveled from all over Southern Oregon and Northern California to see such performers as John Phillip Sousa and William Jennings Bryan during the Ashland Chautauqua's 10-day seasons,“ continues the OSF archive, and by 1917 another building took its place, lasting until it was torn down in 1933. Soon thereafter a young teacher from the local teacher's college thought the remaining circular walls looked like sketches he'd seen of Elizabethan theaters, and proposed a production of two Shakespeare plays in conjunction with the city's Fourth of July celebration.

    So OSF is grounded not only in Chautauqua but also in the Normal School movement, which developed in this country, in the 19th century, into colleges designed for the training of teachers. In California, for example, normal schools became teacher's colleges, later the campuses of the State College system (now the State Universities).

    It's probably largely forgotten today how strong the liberal-arts ideal was in the generations leading up to 1957, when the Russian space satellite Sputnik awoke the United States to its relative complacency as to the teaching of mathematics, engineering, and the sciences. Until then the primacy of the liberal arts had been pretty much unquestioned. After the Eisenhower administration, though, arts and letters took a back seat in general education, not only in advanced education, but also in the earlier years.

    Where math and the sciences provide the knowledge and methodology by which society achieves its purposes and goals, however, it's the liberal arts that provide the knowledge and methodology that define and determine them. Science is knowledge: how. The arts are wisdom: why. Shakespeare's plays provide a particularly rich store of wisdom and stand, of course, at the center of English literature, perhaps of world literature, and therefore at the center of our liberal arts.

    (This is probably the place for another clarifier: by “liberal arts” I mean, as Wikipedia puts it,
    a curriculum that imparts general knowledge and develops the student’s rational thought and intellectual capabilities, unlike the professional, vocational, and technical curricula emphasizing specialization.
    “Liberal” because derived from Latin liber, “free”: the kind of education every free person was expected to have. This brings us inevitably to a consideration of social class; and perhaps a lingering reason the word “liberal” and the values of the liberal arts are questioned is the lingering notion that they are the province of snobs, of the idle rich, of an “elite” who consider themselves above the common man.)

    But we are far off track. My point is, there are those in the arts industries who recognize and lament the lack of appreciation for the arts, for the values represented by, say, Shakespeare and Mozart and let me add Velasquez, among the general American public; and those people — artistic directors especially — do what they can to bring culture to the masses. OSF, for example, produced this year's Julius Caesar as “part of Shakespeare for a New Generation, a national theatre initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts in cooperation with Arts Midwest, heavily adapting the play to “decontextualize” it, as an acquaintance pointed out, from its specifically historical moment.

    Other productions were similarly adapted or interpreted, often with interpolations meant to appeal to contemporary audiences by referring to elements assumed to be within their common awareness. As Shakespeare could count on his audiences knowing about the Gunpowder Plot, say, or the defeat of the Spanish Armada, so OSF counts on audiences responding to allusions to Broadway tunes, rock songs, and standup comedy acts.

    The danger here from my perspective is that by demystifying Shakespeare for today's high school students — and there are many of them at OSF productions — my own attention to the plays is distracted as I puzzle over the relevance of an interpolation referring to an item of pop culture of which I am utterly ignorant. But then, this presumably is the cross the younger audience hangs on as it deals with Shakespeare's original text. I'm seventy-five years old; I've read the plays; I've seen nearly all of them (Pericles, Timon of Athens and Cymbeline have eluded me, along with The Two Noble Kinsmen).

    Best of all, as no bad interpretation ever truly spoils Mozart, neither can it destroy Shakespeare. We can always return in our memory to a great production seen in the past, or turn in our imagination to a great one yet to be seen, latent in the script. For the meantime, here's what I think about this year's productions:

    •Love's Labor's Lost (1594): This early play seemed to me quite effective, set on the outdoor Elizabethan Theater stage, costumed in a vague late-20th-century style. Shana Cooper made her directorial debut at OSF in this production; she was Assistant director for Macbeth and Equivocation in 2009. A complex play, Love's Labor's Lost centers on the intention of the young King of Navarre, and three of his friends, to devote three years to study and sobriety. They are immediately distracted, however, by the visiting Princess of France and her three maids-in-waiting, and the oath is soon broken.

    Shakespeare provides several layers in this play, as he did in A Midsummer Night's Dream, written soon after. The trick in casting and directing this play is to individuate these layers — clowns, simpletons, rustics, wits, scholars, and the nobility — and to keep them in balance while bringing out the potential within each. Some of Cooper's concepts threatened to run away with the show, notably the entrance of Navarre and his men disguised as Russians. (They dance in, parodying the Russian Dance from the second act of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker.) But the more outrageous such bits are, the more they succeed theatrically. Robin Goodrin Nordli, as Boyet, was memorable in a scene with a Martini. (Yes, Boyet is a woman in this production.)

    (Bay Area audiences can see Shana Cooper's work this fall: she directs the California Shakespeare Theater's production of The Taming of the Shrew, running September 21-October 16.)

    •Henry IV, Part Two (1598): None of us eight Ashlanders — four couples who spend a week together every year to see these plays — was happy with last year's production of Part One (my comments on that production here, and note particularly the comments), so we weren't looking forward to Part Two. In the event, though, it was more satisfying. Again, director Lisa Peterson stressed the comic scenes at the cost, I thought, of the serious ones. Too, casting and direction of the supporting nobility — Northumberland, Hastings, Prince John — seemed haphazard, un-integrated.

    As usual at OSF, the comic roles were often beautifully characterized, often through small details; but the Cheapside elements — Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet — were pushed nearly to burlesque, and the induction scene, with Silence, Shadow, Feeble, and Bullcalf, drowned the poignancy of mustering in further burlesque. (Again, however, the acting was superb.) I can see how this approach will attract audiences looking for laughs, but I'm not sure I see those audiences made aware of the darker side of the play. We'll see what happens next year in the conclusion, Henry V, a particularly dark play if you look between the lines.

    •Julius Caesar (1599): like Shana Cooper and Lisa Peterson, Amanda Dehnert is a newcomer to OSF, having previously directed only All's Well That Ends Well here (in 2009). This was definitely a concept production, compressed and tightened to emphasize the muscles of betrayal and conspiracy; it reminded me of the similarly compressed Macbeth that opened this intimate New Theater back in 2002. That's fine: nothing wrong with adapting Caesar to such a concept. But setting the title role on a female actor seemed to present more problems than insights; and making her dream in Japanese seemed downright silly — why do this, if not simply because you have a dramatic Japanese actress on hand (the one-named Ako, memorable in last year's OSF Throne of Blood)?

    The intent seemed to be to contrast Caesar's dreamy eloquence with Cassius's brutality and Brutus's political pragmatism, inherently an interesting idea except that Caesar's military successes are thereby cast into some doubt — though here too if the intention is to show up the unthinking support the citizens give him/her, the play gains both complexity and relevance to the present day. But in the end concept seemed to me to outweigh integrated presence; I felt that I'd seen interesting conversations about Shakespeare's play, more than a persuasive production of the play itself.

    •Measure for Measure (1603): Disclaimer: I think this one of the greatest of all Shakespeare's plays, bringing to the familiar ideas and gimmicks almost a uniquely successful and persuasive degree of balance, thoughtfulness, and dramatic expression. You know the story: Duke, for motives never clearly stated (probably because they are complex and conflicting), absents himself, leaving his friend Angelo (never a name so ironically chosen) in charge; Angelo metes harsh justice, though himself both a past offender and a present hypocrite — possibly against his will. The play is a bookend to Merchant of Venice, with Isabela taking on Portia's role; and the oddly tangential ending recalls those of Love's Labor's Lost and The Winter's Tale.

    We saw Measure for Measure in the temporary tent-pavilion erected for productions scheduled in the Bowmer Theater, closed for emergency repairs, and it's perhaps really not fair to fault the production in these circumstances. But I was dismayed by director Bill Rauch's decision to let his concept — setting the play's underclasses in a contemporary Latino context — so run away with the serious implications of the plot. Had Mistress Overdone not been made the maîtresse of a particularly obnoxious strip club, and the interpolations of an admittedly first-rate all-girl mariachi ensemble not so often been too loud, and the distracting subtitles at one side of the stage been allowed to translate the Spanish-language songs composed (very effectively) for the show, the concept might well have worked better; and perhaps they will once the show returns to its proper stage.

    LIKE ALL CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS, Oregon Shakespeare is in a difficult spot. The economy; audiences; commercial entertainment; the historical moment; technology; politics — all these things intrude, oppress, distract, sideline, even attempt to trivialize the work that is at its core. But that was true in Shakespeare's day too; in fact, much of the power of his work consists precisely in his awareness of these things, in his grasp of their being both problems and subject-matter. I worry sometimes that OSF — and specifically Bill Rauch, its Artistic Director — too often thrashes about in conscious attention to methodologies designed to approach these matters, instead of basking in the riches of the literature, the company, and the place. The approaches being found to solving problems of audience and expense are too visible; they distract from the theater. But the successes continue to outweigh the shortfalls. We'll be back next year, perhaps sooner.
    Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 15 S. Pioneer Street ,Ashland, Oregon 97520. 2012 season:

    •Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet (dir. Laird Williamson), Troilus and Cressida (Rob Melrose), Henry V (Joseph Haj), As You Like It (Jessica Thebus)
    •Repertory: Chekhov's Seagull (Libby Appel); Kaufman & Ryskind Animal Crackers (Allison Narver)
    •Premieres: The White Snake (adapted by Mary Zimmerman, from the Chinese fable); Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella (ad. Bill Rauch and Tracy Young); Robert Schenkkan's All The Way (Bill Rauch); Universes'sParty People (Liesi Tommy); Alison Carey's The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa (Christopher Liam Moore)

    Friday, July 29, 2011

    Kenjilo Nanao

    Eastside Road, July 29, 2011—
    ON NOVEMBER 8, 1986, I apparently visited the faculty exhibition of art at California State University, Hayward, as it was then known. My journal for that year contains the page reproduced at the left. I have difficulty deciphering the handwriting at this point, a quarter-century later:
                          8 NOV

        Formative look.

           stains (?) now gone suggest 2 books —
           children's .

     G A: “hybrid.”

                Merwah — shafen — palm; script

    And then the sketch of what is clearly a painting by Kenjilo Nanao, who we visited today, in his Oakland studio.

    Impossible to know at this remove what is meant by the enigmatic notations in that journal. The adjacent pages offer no help, at first, though now I think about it this was the time we were producing my opera, which helps elucidate the notes on the previous page:
              7 Nov

    •Finishing the production

    •Booking production : Franklin. V Jan ; photos.

    • Little version.
         Ch grinder (p 292 - 301 - sc. 5)
         [female section] ( from H-Martin )
         Military service - suffering

    10 45  M Fisher
    12  Geo Gelles
    2  J Butterfield
    3  R Friese
    4  A Rockefeller

    BUT THE POINT IS that today we visited Nanao's studio, where we saw really quite wonderful paintings, and soon I will be writing about him, and them… I have been thinking about his painting , seeing it in my mind, for twenty-five years…

    Wednesday, July 27, 2011

    The Function of Poetry

    The Function of Poetry
    For Kathryn

    A man I didn't know died yesterday
    His wife the childhood best friend of my daughter.
    Forty years, three lives, two thousand miles
    Displaced from me. We practiced different arts
    And worshipped different gods; we might as well
    Never have both read Donne or loved women
    And children who, like Epicurean atoms,
    Swerved from time to time improbably
    Within a single delicate orbit. 

    The question is whether the conscious mind
    Transcends personal narrative in death,
    Whether an unknown life now completed
    Enlarges ours, its end informing ours
    With its own fullness through the common points
    Of unsuspected anecdotes. 
    Is hardly more than random noted moments
    In an otherwise neglected life,
    Why are we here? Lou said, to tell stories,
    To keep each other entertained along
    The common road we travel through this life.
    —July 27 2012

    Sunday, July 24, 2011

    New American Theater at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

    Ashland, Oregon, July 24, 2011—
    IN SPITE OF THE IMPLICATIONS of its name, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has long been a significant proponent of new and recnt plays, as announced in the organization's "mission statement":
    Inspired by Shakespeare’s work and the cultural richness of the United States, we reveal our collective humanity through illuminating interpretations of new and classic plays, deepened by the kaleidoscope of rotating repertory.
    This year, in addition to Tony Taccone's important premiere Ghost Light (discussed here a few days ago), the repertory includes Tracy Letts's August: Osage County (premiered 2007), Carlyle Brown's The African Company Presents Richard III (1987), Julia Cho's The Language Archive (2009) (which closed last month after a four-month run), Christopher Sergel's adaptation of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1990), and the site-specific collaboratively developed WillFul, which opens August 7.

    Of these, we saw Mockingbird and Language Archive four months ago, when the former impressed us greatly and the latter rather less. This week we've seen two others, in addition to Ghost Light — which, I'm afraid, throws a long shadow over them.

    The African Company Presents Richard III seemed to me particularly weak in the theater. Of course the specific theater was the temporary tent-pavilion installed in Lithia Park while the August Bowmer Theater is closed for emergency repairs, and allowances have to be made. The tent works reasonably well, and probably serves as a reminder of the Festival's early days, back when that uniquely American institution the chautauqua was still vital. (Indeed the chautaqua idea is still alive at OSF, and quite influential in its productions of Shakespeare; I'll write about this season's examples in the near future.)

    The biggest problem associated with this tent (once past the question of the discomfort of audience seating) is the acoustics: it's a dead house; after one production without amplifiction the actors were quickly fitted out with body mikes. I may be over-sensitive to the consequent problems, since I'm more an ear person than an eye one: microphone noise and imbalance of consonants and vowels to begin with. Worse, as far as I'm concerned, is the changed aural perspective: not only does the sound come from another location than the actor's, but intimacy and distance are confused. The result is dislocating, disorienting; and if that's only on a subconscious level it's nevertheless disturbing and ultimately fatiguing. (I can only imagine the effect on the actors themselves.)

    Beyond this, though, The African Company Presents Richard III seemed to me lightweight, a History Channel show brought to the stage. In portraying the difficulties encountered by a black theater company producing Richard III in New York City in the 1820s it was funny, informative, and politically correct; but it didn't seem to me to flesh out its characters, to investigate narrative elements that might have proved even more interesting and rewarding. It joins an intriguing subset of OSF plays, plays about Shakespeare plays: last year we saw Throne of Blood, a samurai version of Macbeth; the previous year's Equivication also considers The Scottish Play. (In 2008 we saw The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, another metadrama.)

    Much more successful, to my way of thinking, was August: Osage County. A realistic narrative drama is not the kind of play I'm drawn to aesthetically; it seems to me Ibsen, O'Neill, Miller, and Albee have pretty well exhausted the vein: but then along comes another brilliant work in the genre and you're held, in my case against your prejudices, by a writing, direction, and acting that can only be called masterful. (And the defects of the temporary tent-pavilion theater disappear.)

    It probably didn't hurt that as a child I lived a hard year not ninety miles from the bleak setting of the play (Pawhuska, Oklahoma). The accents, dress, even the food depicted in this realistic production were perfectly authentic and, to me, evocative. The dysfunctional family had different problems from those I knew: it's profane where mine was religious, pill-popping where mine tended toward alcohol. But the resulting repression, evasion, domination, manipulation, and cruelty, whether intended or not (I think not), was familiar.

    I recalled Aristotle's definition of tragedy the other day: I do think August: Osage County, more than, for example, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, conforms to the classic definition. These characters fall for no flaw of their own making, though the means by which they fall may be self-inflicted; and the enactment of their tragedy leaves the audience exhausted but, I think, purged.

    I don't write these pieces as a theater critic. It's easy enough to find reviews of these productions online (though I haven't bothered this time), and cast lists and program notes are available on the well-designed OSF website. One of these days I may get around to writing about the impressive acting company OSF maintains: it's a real pleasure seeing such fine actors taking leads in one show, supporting roles in others, understudying elsewhere; and it's a pleasure seeing the results of productions with long and numerous rehearsals and runs long enough to develop fine-grained detail. This is not that day. Company information about these productions can be found on the links below:

    • Tracy Letts: August: Osage County , directed by Christopher Liam Moore, through November 5
    • Carlyle Brown: The African Company Presents Richard III, directed by Seret Scott, through November 5

    Saturday, July 23, 2011

    Molière at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

    Ashland, Oregon, July 20, 2011—
    MOLIERE'S COMEDIES ARE ALWAYS welcome, no matter the production. The jokes are always old, always funny. The politics are always old, always relevant. The productions, at least the ones I've seen over the years, are generally over the top, occasionally freighted with gimmickry, sometimes framed (in both senses of the word) with too much Concept, but Molière grits his teeth and plays right through, always triumphing in the end.

    We've seen our share of Imaginary Invalid lately: along with Tartuffe and The Miser, it seems to speak to the contemporary American sensibility, at least as viewed by theater producers. Of course many, probably most of these producers feel it necessary to help contemporary audiences make the leap to Seventeenth-century France, and so we get productions like the one we saw Tuesday night, with musical interpolations inspired by Motown, and jokes about death panels and public options.

    It won't surprise you to read that I have profound misgivings about these attempts at "updating." After all, Molière's relevant because he writes about eternal aspects of the human condition. I always have the nagging feeling that concentrating on the locally specific may detract from the universally constant, which is of course a greater value.

    (And there are the occasions when directorial concentration on one aspect, say the comic scenes in a Shakespeare history play, comes at the cost of attention to another, say the serious scenes; throwing the entire play out of balance. This happened last night in Henry IV, Part Two: but that's not the subject at hand; I'll touch on the Shakespeare plays here later on.)

    As it turns out, this Imaginary Invalid works beautifully. Molière provided his original play with intermèdes (entr'actes, interludes) and dance sequences, and the OSF production is probably right to think Aretha Franklin is closer to the contemporary sensibility than is Marc-Antoine Charpentier, who provided the original score. (And in any case, apparently only four songs have survived to our time.) Molière's comedies involve stock figures from the comic tradition stretching back centuries, and grow out of the commedia dell'arte tradition, which specialized in spicing material with topical jokes and allusions, blending the classical and vernacular — exactly as is the intention of such "updates" as this Imaginary Invalid.

    We saw the play in the temporary tent-pavilion that's been installed in Lithia Park, just down from OSF's outdoor Elizabethan Theater, to accommodate plays originally scheduled for the indoor Bowmer Theater, now closed for structural repairs. (The total cost to the festival of these emergency repairs is estimated at over $2 million, according to a story in the local newspaper.) The tent's acoustics require the cast to wear microphones: this has hurt other plays, in my opinion, but The Imaginary Invalid less than others. Every member of the cast seemed perfectly cast and evenly in command of the role, and given the need to relocate the production the technical and scenic aspects of the play were outstanding. (Full credits here)

    • Molière: The Imaginary Invalid, adapted by Oded Gross and Tracy Young, music by Paul James Prendergast, directed by Tracy Young: Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, through November 6, 2011.

    Wednesday, July 20, 2011

    Ghost Light at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

    Tony Taccone, the stage director, artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, has written a play, Ghost Light, which we saw yesterday in its premier production here at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where it is directed by Jonathan Moscone, who as a friend and associate worked with Taccone on the concept and development of the play.

    A psychological drama, Ghost Light centers on the unresolved relationship of a young man (Jon) and his memory of his father, the assassinated mayor of San Francisco, a champion of civil rights, including those we think of as "Gay Rights." That mayor was of course George Moscone, who was in fact Jonathan Moscone's father, making the "concept and development" of Ghost Light particularly complex and poignant — and, to a degree, inescapably irresolute and fluid.

    Add to these qualities the theater-referentiality Taccone brings to this, his first script — the plot centers on Jon's difficulties staging a production of Hamlet — and the time-space travel negotiated onstage, with its flashbacks and journeys beyond death — and you have a play that gives you a lot to think about. Within the context of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, for example, Ghost Light fits within a cycle of new plays on "the American Experience" OSF has been commissioning; but it also falls within another cycle, of plays about theater itself in one way or another.

    And within that, another sub-cycle, of plays about Shakespeare plays. Then there's the Play About Father(s), among which Hamlet stands out, of course: but so does Molière's The Imaginary Invalid, seen here last night. (I'll get to that later, perhaps.) Theater tends to be narrative; pre-Modernist theater tends to center on Search for Meaning. Aristotle famously defines tragedy:

    “A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” (Imgram Bywater: 35).

    “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action of high importance, complete and of some amplitude; in language enhanced by distinct and varying beauties; acted not narrated; by means of pity and fear effectuating its purgation of these emotions.” (L. J. Potts: 24).*

    and Taccone (and, implicitly, Jonathan Moscone) clearly set out to achieve a contemporary expression of Tragedy in these terms. Contemporary not only because the elements of the plot derive from our own immediate past, but also because they involve means and meanings from our own time, as well as from the universal and even mythic content of tragedy from the ancient Greeks through Shakespeare. Here's what happens in Ghost Light: a fourteen-year-old boy is in shock following the sudden murder of his father. The same boy, thirty years later, is to direct Hamlet. Personifications from the confused memory of the murder and of his childhood — notably the boy's prison-guard grandfather and a policeman who tries to console the boy at the funeral — materialize from nightmares; another semi-fantastic personification materializes from an erotic e-mail correspondence. A costume designer, apparently hopelessly in love with the director, represents both herself, the immediate problems of the Hamlet production, and an ultimately maternal, nursing combination of consolation and urge to get on with things. (This is particularly pointed, contrasting with the fatuous offstage psychologist who begins the play's action: Aristotle's famous "catharsis" is nothing other than move-on-and-get-on-with-things.)

    In a q-and-a session after the performance — such events are among OSF's many virtues — Peter Frechette, who plays a memorable (gay) film director in Ghost Light as well as the unseen psychologist, noted that the play changed a fair amount in the course of its development, and would likely continue to change as it moves through this first production. (It will travel to Berkeley Rep in January 2012, with much the same cast.) In much the same way, my take on the play has evolved greatly — and "evolution" is at the core of Aristotle's view of theater — since seeing the play, less than twenty-four hours ago.

    My first impressions were of the fine grain and extensive scope of the play: too many details, too much ambition. It was like a meltdown of Hamlet, Our Town, and Cocteau's Orphée, with a little Buster Keaton thrown in, and maybe Thorne Smith's Topper. I saw references to Ibsen. Christopher Liam Moore's fine portrayal of Jon, the central character, seemed a caricature of the director Peter Sellars. The play's two acts run two and a half hours, it's bright and colorful, gunshots are fired, actors take a number of roles in some cases.

    But my present impression is that this is an important play. Taccone has worked with a number of playwrights to help bring their ideas to the stage; here he seems to have worked through those experiences, and his close friendship with his collaborator Moscone, to achieve his own masterpiece, in the root meaning of the word; to effect a transition from director to playwright. I look forward to seeing the play again.

    I won't comment on the play's credits here; you can find them, along with program notes, here on OSF's excellent website. The actors were superb, the staging powerful, the design, costumes, and lighting both resourceful and effective.

    *These translations from Aristotle's Poetics are quoted from Ramón Paredes' essay "Aristotle's Definition of Tragedy".

    Thursday, July 07, 2011

    A Day with Picasso

    Eastside Road, July 7, 2011—
    IN THE SUMMER of 1916, ninety-five years ago, in Paris, Jean Cocteau took two dozen photographs of a number of friends. Sixty years later, in 1978, the Swedish-born artist Billy Klüver (1927–2004) (whose name is familiar to me from the Experiments in Art and Technology days), while he was researching documentation concerning the art community in Montparnasse in the early Twentieth Century, noticed that a number of photographs, found in various sources, fell into groups. Curious, he began investigating. Ultimately he was able to determine the sequence, location, date and time of the original exposures — and, of course, the identities of the people depicted.

    Reading the most recent publication of the result of Klüver's work reminded me of one of my childhood fascinations, the recurring feature Photoquiz in the old Look magazine, which for a time my grandparents apparently subscribed to — uncharacteristically, it seems to me. Or perhaps more buried recollections of photo-sequencing components in intelligence tests I was subjected to in those days: you look at a number of photos and try to figure out the chronological sequence in which they were taken.

    (Now that I think of it, these kinds of quizzes, along with the popular side-by-side “how do these differ” cartoons in the Sunday comics, all components of my childhood, are all examples, or instructions, in a preoccupation I've been developing lately concerning The Search for Meaning.)

    Klüver's research was published here and there: sections in the magazine Art in America in September 1986, then in book form in German (1993) and French (1994). The American English-language edition, A Day with Picasso, was published in a handsome edition by MIT Press in 1997, then in paper in 1999. I find it thoroughly fascinating.
    The book centers, of course, on the two dozen photographs, nicely reproduced — one can only wonder how much work went into restoring this ancient testimony to a summer day among friends. Eleven of the negatives survive in the Cocteau archives; another nine negatives are lost but original contact prints were also in that archive. Two photographs turned up in reproductions in old periodicals (Paris-Montparnasse, May 1929; Bravo, December 1930), and two others were found in other archives.

    Some of the people in the photographs are easily identified: Picasso, Max Jacob, Modigliani. Through a series of interviews with surviving friends and associates of theirs, Klüver was able to identify the others. With the help of old cadastres and maps, and the French Bureau des Longitudes, he was able not only to determine the places depicted, and the probable camera locations, but even the time of day. Interviews and other research had already isolated the only possible date on which all but two were taken: Saturday, August 12, 1916.

    (When recently did I read Ken Alder's The Measure of All Things, about that Bureau among other things, and why did I not write about it here?)

    The MIT Press edition of A Day with Picasso includes as well as the photographs themselves, with nice running commentary, chapters on the methodology of Klüver's research, the dating and timing, the means whereby the model of Cocteau's camerawas determined, biographical notes on the people photographed, the Paris of the time, and the Salon d'Antin, where Picasso's Les demoiselles d'Avignon (as it was then retitled) was first shown publicly — this particular group of friends and acquaintances were together to some extent because they were all involved with that exhibition.

    All this is extremely interesting. History, photography, research, methodology, and the essence of Community are the matter of Klüver's book, and he touched them all lightly yet thoroughly, and reveals how History is — not made, or written, but teased out.

    A Day with Picasso is still in print, as far as I can tell. Since its publication in English, editions have appeared in Japan, Korea, and Italy. Klüver's Montparnasse researches resulted also in Kiki's Paris, about the legendary artist's model Kiki (Alice Prin); it was published in the U.S. in 1989 and went on to editions in France, Germany, Sweden, Spain, and Japan. He also co-edited and annotated Kiki's own memoirs, which appeared in 1930 but was then refused entry into the U.S. If these books are as graceful, informative, and entertaining as A Day with Picasso, I want to read them.