Thursday, May 31, 2012

The pleasure of walking

Oak tree.jpg

Lichen on a live oak on the Joe Rodota trail east of Sebastopol
ON SATURDAY NEXT — in only two days now! — I'm joining more than a hundred other walkers on a twenty-odd mile walk at the northern Sonoma coast, part of the bicentennial observations of the Russian colony at Fort Ross. It will be a curious departure from my normal walking style, which has never in the past involved more than three or four companions, has virtually always been in Europe, and, with one exception, has been more genteel than strenuous, more stroll than hike, usually only a few miles from one B&B or hotel to the next.

(The exception was the great walk across the French Alps, from Evian to Nice, the subject of my book Walking the French Alps (now available also as an e-Book) and the blog Alpwalk: this was a strenuous month-long hike of several hundred miles; I hope to repeat it next summer.)

Since we've hardly walked since early March, when we did eighty miles or so in Belgium and Luxembourg, I started getting in shape last Saturday, when I walked home from the farm market in Healdsburg. Wouldn't you know: I pulled up lame, and had to call the sag wagon hardly half a mile from home — the trick knee was killing me.

Monday, though, I walked five miles to the neighboring town of Forestville; and then after a leisurely lunch with friends walked the five miles back. I wore the old reliable Ace elastic bandage on the offending knee, and had no problems. And yesterday my daughter T. joined me on a longer outing, fourteen and a half miles, from Forestville along a county trail, paved in asphalt, south through Graton to Sebastopol, then east to Santa Rosa.

I've been using MotionX-GPS to track these walks — a free application that runs on the iPhone, constantly checking its location against whatever GPS satellites it can "see," recording the results, then returning the statistics: length, elevation change, speed. I'm not obsessive about this; I haven't taken advantage of a number of bells and whistles — adding photos, for example, or naming waypoints, or looking into the Facebook integration. I do e-mail the MotionX results to myself, so that I can look up these "tracks" on the MotionX website, whence you can even download the saved GPS waypoints to Google Earth and thereby revisit the walks in their geographical context.

(You can look at these websites too, but only for six months, after which they're taken down. Yesterday's Forestville-Santa Rosa walk is here.)

Walking is one of my greatest enthusiasms. For years I bicycled, and of course for years we've taken various kinds of car trips. In March we drove across France in three or four days; in April we drove to Pasadena and back, visiting wildflower areas and a few of the California Missions; just a week or two ago we drove up to Portland and back, a thousand miles, in only a few days. Cycling and driving have their virtues. (So do trains, for that matter.)

But walking — now there's the way to experience terrain; and cultural geography too. Because of the recent, uncharacteristically late rains, and because our trail took us along Atascadero Creek and a number of bogs and then into the great Laguna de Santa Rosa for a mile or so, the air was a little humid; under trees for the first four or five miles we heard birdsong; wildflowers peeped out at us from the trail margins, and the smells and the heavy air made me think of riverside walks we've taken in Netherlands.

wildflower.jpgThere's so much to see on a walk like this; so much to wonder about. What's that wildflower, for example, that sports both yellow and orange blossoms on a single plant? The leaves suggest some kind of pea, but what is it?

We often walked past fences guarding private yards and gardens; it's always surprising, the number of houses tucked away out of sight in these rural bedroom communities. In older sections — in north Sebastopol, for example, but in the run-down but charming Roseland area of Santa Rosa — old roses escape the gardens they've been planted in, sprawling among blackberries, climbing oaks.

We took a few nuts and some dried fruit; I had a slice of bread and some cheddar cheese in my lightweight daypack. We stopped in Sebastopol for a refreshing lemon sherbet —
gelato al limon; gelato al limon; gelato al limon…

and, a little further on, a macchiato; and then we turned our backs to the sun to walk easterly toward our destination in Santa Rosa, first across the bogs of the Laguna, then on a boring, straight stretch — nearly all this trail is on abandoned railroad right-of-way — in full sun, and within easy earshot of a busy road.

Even here, though, there were visual surprises. That glorious live oak photographed at the top of this post, its lichen-covered branches energized by sunlight now lower in the late afternoon. Later, as we enter the city of Santa Rosa, industrial outskirts: an abandoned gravel depot, its fascinating, forbidden machinery beckoning to the little boy still alert in a man nearing eighty. A cherry tree hung over a high board fence off to the right, the fruit still a week from perfection but for that reason unmolested by the birds: surely a handful won't give me a stomach-ache!

At the end of the walk the knees complain a bit when we sit at a sidewalk café to wait for our pickups; and at the end of the day I'm hungry and thirsty. This morning I feel great; no knee problems at all, though in truth I'm just a little stiff — and I lost two or three pounds yesterday, in spite of the quarts of water and glasses of wine I downed in the evening. We'll see how things to on the History Walk, day after tomorrow…

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Three Pieces for Piano

ThreePiecesCoverThumbnail.jpgENDLESS, THE TYPOGRAPHICAL errors that creep into a job of musical typesetting. I wrote these three little pieces nearly fifty years ago, using a Rapidograph pen, an Ames lettering angle, and India ink — FW was the brand, as I recall — at the drafting table my father-in-law had kindly donated to my studio, which in those days was the basement of a small apartment on Berkeley's Francisco Street. (That studio soon turned into a combined bedroom-playroom for our three kids, and I moved shop into what was originally meant to be a breakfast nook.)

As you see, the piece is fairly screaming for typographical errors. The two barlines inside the top system, for example, should probably be invisible. OMG, there's another typo: "low" has lost its vowel in the italicized pedalling instruction in the first measure. But you know what? Good enough is the enemy of perfect, and this is good enough for me, at least for the present. I'll fix these in the master file, but our Internet connection is too slow and unreliable today for me to re-upload the file and then deal with to replace the one now in press.

Here's the thing: these Three Pieces are the earliest things of mine that I still like to hear, not that I ever do — they waited until 1993 for their premiere, by the late Rae Imamura (who played them, interestingly, in Kirnberger Three rather than in equal temperament); and they haven't been heard since. I don't go out of my way to court performances.

You can read more about the pieces on my website, and you can hear a somewhat tweaked synthesization of the first minute of the Three Pieces here. If you decide you'd like to play them, why you can order the sheet music, just by clicking on that green cover up there at the upper left. Please do: you will make me very happy.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sam Shepard in Sebastopol; Lou Harrison in Berkeley; The Eastside View everywhere

Lou Concert.jpg
setting up the concert in the Berkeley Museum

JUST THREE SHORT NOTES tonight — it's late; my eyes are glazing. But I have to mention:

Fool for Love, the play by Sam Shepard, opened last night in Sebastopol's Main Stage West. Elizabeth Craven directs;Brent Lindsay and Amy Pinto star as Eddie and May with very able assists from John Craven and Keith Baker as Old Man and Martin. Lindsey and I thought it a really fine performance — tense and laconic, scary and funny, ultimately resonant with all the incestuous power of Greek tragedy, packaged in a seedy desert motel. The show runs another couple of weeks in Sebastopol, then moves to Santa Rosa. See it if you possibly can.

Lou Harrison's music was featured in a marvelous concert Friday night in the Berkeley Art Museum, where Willie Winant played the beautiful Solo (to Anthony Cirone), for tenor bells tuned to just-intonation D major (but on a mode resting on A), Sarah Cahill gave us the piano solo Dance for Lisa Karon from 1938 but only rediscovered recently, the Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio played the Varied Trio written for them in 1986, and a large combined chorus under Marika Kuzma's energetic direction, with the joyful William Winant Percussion Group at Lou's American Gamelan, honored the audience and Lou's memory with the cantata La Koro Sutro of 1971.

Lou's music is strong, sweet, honest, humane, and passionate; it exactly expresses the magnificent gift and pleasure that was Lou himself. We saw Eva Soltes's film about Lou a week or so ago — Lou Harrison: A World of Music and were reminded, as if we could ever forget, what a fine and fabulous man and mind and musician he was, and how incredibly lucky we were to have known him — and, never forget, his partner Bill Colvig too. I miss them both: but it is some solace to have their sound still resounding in our ears.

On a much lesser note, I've just published The Idea of Permanence, a book version of most of last year's posts to this blog, with reviews of Orphée and Satyagraha and Nixon in China and Le marteau sans maître, and comments on painters and their work, and many reports from a month in Venice, and things too fugitive to mention. It costs $15.95, and you can find out more about it here.

Friday, May 11, 2012

State of mind

IF YOU REMEMBER the 1960s, the saying goes, you weren't there: I remember them, and I was. What I don't remember is a lot of the 1970s, and I think I know why: I was busy. This blinding revelation occurred to me today on the top floor of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. We'd reached it the slow methodical way, walking up the ramps, working our way through a show called State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970, part of Pacific Standard Time, a multi-museum exhibition investigating (mostly) conceptual and documentary art made in California in the neighborhood of 1970.

I was more or less active as an art critic at the time, first for KQED television, later for the Oakland Tribune, and in the course of work I rubbed up against these conceptualists quite often. They were of course only one part of what I had to deal with; it wasn't always easy to convince the boss conceptual art was important. Or legitimate, even, for that matter; the lingering suspicion that it was rife with fraud and foolishness was pervasive in editorial offices. A clipping of a column by the old San Francisco Examiner art critic Alexander Fried, documenting the important Berkeley group Sam's Cafe, shows that even the critics had their doubts.

And truth to tell I think it wasn't only because of Conceptualism's marginality within the establishment press that I spent relatively little time on it. The tendency of Conceptualism, of all the versions of "process art" that were contending in those years — earth art, body art, documentation art, and various sorts of politically motivated exercise — their tendency to drown in the photographs and videos and paragraphs and pamphlets they themselves spawned and spun out — that tendency was offputting. I used to complain about critics who complained when artists did things that seemed to them, the critics, more like criticism than art, as if the critics' own territory was being impinged upon; but I see now that I felt exactly the same way, and the irritation I directed at my colleagues (and competitors) was in fact irritation with myself.

I still believe that the value in this movement, and it was a considerable value indeed, lay in its message that art lay in the doing, including in the idea of the doing; not in the discussion. Even such clearly visual art as Edward Ruscha's books of photographs — All the Buildings on the Sunset Strip, for example, which is triumphantly displayed in this exhibition — I can't help being more impressed, seized, with the thought of the photographer moving his equipment, taking up these positions, waiting for the right moment, than I am with the photographic results. Looking at Vermeer's Milkmaid, or for that matter witnessing a production of Einstein on the Beach, I'm aware of course of the monumental effort that went into the production: but I am seized with the magnificence of the result, with its depth and complexity and resolution, with its presence; and all this is involved in, and itself involves, a corporeality which (as I understand it) was precisely the aspect of art the Conceptualists were thought to be denying.

It was of course enjoyable to reminisce, wandering through these galleries. We'd prepared for it by starting downstairs in a small exhibition of hundreds, perhaps thousands of everyday things sent to the collector Robert Warner by the Correspondance Artist Ray Johnson; a great testimony to Johnson's compulsive submersion of any self-realized significance of his own genius in the jetsam of his urban and social environment, a sort of democratization and Americanization of the urges that had motivated Joseph Cornell and Kurt Schwitters. And a vicious illustration of Thoreau's observation:
Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind
State of Mind, the installation, is to the museum visitor as Ray Johnson's collectings were to Robert Warner, I think: overwhelming accumulations of texts and images produced and gathered by an insistent artistic methodology, at once intent on expression and suspicious of, cynical about the very existence of anything like "expression." And as the visual record of this movement gathers to make its curatorial point — leaving aside the artists' intentions, which are inevitably confused by the circles of recursiveness the curators and critics weave around them — as that record gathers, it inevitably produces a sort of meta-Conceptualism. To spend much time contemplating this in any serious way, to bring intellectual contemplation and analysis to it, leads to madness.

No wonder I spent the 1970s largely ignoring all this. I saw it, knew about it, enjoyed much of it, even fiddled with it myself, noting down ideas for impossible or dangerous sculptures, for projects linking Bay Area summits, for quartets in which the musicians imitate members of the audience, who will inevitably catch on and begin imitating the musicians, and so on.

defoliation.jpgAnd then Lindsey, who'd been inspecting all this somewhat more attentively than I had, called out: Charles! Did you see this?

She was looking at six black-and-white photographs documenting Terry Fox's Defoliation, a work he did in 1970 for the opening of a conceptualist group show at the University Art Gallery in its lovely old Steam Room days before the present Museum was built; a piece involving his burning a design in a planting outside the gallery.

There in the photo at the lower left was a familiar figure holding a microphone to Terry's face. I was at KQED at the time, producing a show called Culture Gulch, a roundup of the arts as they were going on in the Bay Area in those days — a half-hour weekly show involving reviews, interviews, conversations and performances in the television studio or visits to artist's studios and pubic venues. Amazing, what we could do in those days; sad, that there is no physical record…

fox.jpgOops. I just fell into my own trap, didn't I? Anyhow, there's the late Terry Fox, I think perhaps as principled and pointed a Conceptualist as any of them, who intuitively understood the degrees of irony attendant on his work, his kind of art; he's gleefully concentrating on the destructive beauty and the physical enjoyment of directing his torch against that foliage; there's the Charles Shere of forty-two years ago, equally rapt at the flames and their work and meaning.

Thinking back on all this, I realize that the very marginality of my own journalistic work of those years has some resonance with Conceptualism, and with my own conflicted responses to it (and the antecedent of the word "it," here, is deliberately left ambiguous). My work for the Tribune was little read or noticed, fugitive as fishwrap. And in those days television work was similarly fugitive: no DVDs, not even videotape yet, and of what may have happened to the old film stock I have no idea at all. (Somewhere I still have a number of 35mm transparencies, and a film interview with Georgia O'Keeffe. I think.)

As Chebutykin says: What difference does it make. A question capable of being taken in more ways than one. This way madness lies. Madness, and perhaps enlightenment.

•State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970, to June 17. Tables of Content: Ray Johnson and Robert Warner Bob Box Archive, to May 20; both at UC Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley; 510.642.0808

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Einstein on the Beach

I WROTE ABOUT the magnificent opera Einstein on the Beach here a few weeks ago, after seeing the premiere of the present production in Montpellier, on March 16. One doesn’t see Einstein on the Beach very often; it was too monumental an event to let pass without comment — however difficult it is to describe. The opera was, together with a fiftieth birthday party in Luxembourg, the compelling reason for spending that month in Europe; it was certainly the reason for the mad dash we’d taken across France in the previous four days. When the production’s tour was first announced, in the fall of 2011, we made it a point to plan to see one of the performances in Berkeley, scheduled for October 2012. But the opera is so legendary, was so significant, will be so fascinating and evocative, why not see it more than once? A preview performance of this new production — revival is perhaps the better term — was scheduled in Ann Arbor, and we could probably have gone to it; but wouldn’t it be more fun to see the recréation en première mondiale in France, not so far from Avignon, the site of its original premiere in July 1976? And so we’d bought our airplane tickets, and made our plans.

Since seeing Einstein in the mid-1980s we’ve seen a number of other Philip Glass operas: Satyagraha live and live-broadcast from the Metropolitan; Akhneton in an effective reduced production by an experimental company in Oakland (California), Orphée effectively staged by Ensemble Parallèle in San Francisco. I even remembered a hallucinatory The Photographer from a production in Amsterdam, many years ago. They hold the stage beautifully, these pieces, and they’ve grown logically out of Einstein, but they’ve moved on.

I have an odd fix on Glass’s music: in principle it’s not my cup of tea; I find its repetitive structures formulaic, a postmodern successor to the harmonic sequences of the tonal period of “classical music.” When actually hearing his music, though, I’m frequently persuaded by the melodic contours; the repetitive structures move subtly into larger periods; and I’m reminded of the smooth evolution of music from late Schubert through Bruckner and Sibelius to Glass.

Interestingly, neither Bruckner nor Sibelius composed an opera; and Schubert composed his only early in his short career, with no success. Glass has found a way to bring what had been a nontheatrical kind of music, building its momentum in long abstract periods, into the opera house. It can be argued that Wagner is his predecessor, but I think that’s a mistake: Wagner’s operas are essentially Romantic narrative music-dramas, like those of Beethoven and von Weber, swollen in size: they are not extensive, but bloated. Glass’s achievement has been to separate the narrative and emotional theatrical content of his operas from the musical processes that drive them. His predecessor is not Wagner, whose leitmotives are sonic illustrations accompanying the narrative, but perhaps Bruckner, whose long structural blocks of musical processes construct a sonic architecture within which the listener — and, in Glass’s case, the cast — are able to move, or stop, or listen, or sound, or contemplate.

All that was apparent enough from simply having sat in our box for four and a half hours and watched and listened. Then, though, after the fact, I read the program book, a fine 128-page production with photographs, an introductory essay by the dramaturg Jérémie Szpirglas, the complete text in the original English and French translation, and a characteristically frank, well-spoken, and useful commentary by the composer, as well as a few comments by Wilson:

If I act as an artist, it’s because I wonder why something is.
If one knows exactly what one does, there is no reason to do it.
If I work, it’s to ask myself: What is it?

(The second line is a paraphrase of a mot of Gertrude Stein’s: If it can be done, why do it? )
And, a page later, referring to Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1977 portrait of Lucinda Childs, who was the choreographer (and partial librettist) of Einstein on the Beach,

Lucinda est à la fois d’une froideur glaciale et très chaleureuese. On voit dans son regard qu’elle comprend la force de l’immobilité et du mouvement intérieur.

The program booklet was in French, of course; I set the original down from now on in my quotes, and supply my own translation:

Lucinda is at once glacially cold and quite warm. You see in her expression that she has the power of both immobility and interior motion.
Einstein on the Beach is, of course, “about” Albert Einstein, whose pure reason was one of the engines of the modern enlightenment, conceiving ideas so revolutionary — more than any perhaps since those of Galileo — that they are known by the masses. (Or were, in my time: it’s possible that the recent decline in public education in the United States has changed that. I’d rather not think so.)

When Glass and Wilson met, it was inevitable that they would collaborate on an opera. But on what subject? What mythic Twentieth-century subject would provide the subject for the most revolutionary opera since Monteverdi’s Orfeo, which took the mythic inventor of music itself — and let’s not forget that to the ancient Greeks there was no distinction between poetry and music — for its subject? Glass tells us:
Wilson wanted Charlie Chaplin or Adolph Hitler as our inspiration; I preferred Gandhi. Einstein was the choice.
The choice was appropriate for two reasons: narratively, Einstein was of course one of the primary revolutionaries ushering in the modern age. Not only for his insights into mathematics and physics: for his philosophical and moral positions as well. And not only for their fixed and final positions, but for the excruciating positional dilemmas they would precipitate: he was the one who mooted the atomic bomb to President Roosevelt, in order to finesse a victory in the war against the unspeakably evil (and, be it noted, historically retrograde) empires-in-the-making of Hitler and Tojo; but he was also a pacifist:

La pire des institutions grégaire se prénomme l’armée. Je la hais. Si un homme peut éprouver quelque plaisir à defiler en rang aux sons d’une musique, je méprise cet homme… Il ne mérite pas un cerveau humain puisqu’une moelle épinière le satisfait.

[The worst of the herding institutions is called the army. I hate it. If a man can show some pleasure marching to the sounds of music, I don’t trust him… He doesn’t deserve a human brain, since a spinal cord satisfies him.]

Robert Wilson was already predisposed to celebrate Einstein, since his own esthetic had been greatly informed by the mathematician’s discoveries:

Pour moi, une ligne horizontale est l’espace, une ligne verticale, le temps.
C’est cette intersection du temps et de l’espace qui est l’architecture élémentaire de tout.

[For me, a horizontal line represents space, a vertical line, time.
It’s this intersection of time and space which is the elemental architecture of everything.]

And Philip Glass — still quoting from the program booklet — says

Le temps, dans la musique, c’est la durée. C’est l’un des points communs de notre travail : Bob et moi devons travailler en temps réel. Nous partageions une conscience du temps, de la durée. Bob étend le théâtre dans lespace et le temps, je projette la musique dans l’espace et le temps.

[Time, in music, is duration. It’s one of the things in common in our work: Bob and I have to work in real time. We share an awareness of time, of duration. Bob runs theater in space and time; I plan music in space and time.]
EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH unfolds through four acts, each in two scenes, the scenes falling into three groups. Appropriately, it is an opera “about” structure, relationships, and panorama: Einstein is not treated as a character, a biographical subject; he is present throughout as a representative or a symbol of his way of thinking, and of the revolutionary result his thought brought to his century. In fact, the opera is about Einstein’s century, depicted from a very American point of view. The panorama of that century — surveyed from a perspective focussed on the interrelationships of ideas, technology, and humanity — is, I think, what is meant by the “beach.”

The structure, very important in the concept of the opera, is simple: and here I can do no better than translate from the program of the original Avignon 1976 production, as reproduced in the Montpellier booklet:
The opera is constructed not on a literary plot but upon an architectural structure which subdivides the duration of the performance into sections of equal length and organizes them into a succession of three themes each of which is met three times.

On this rigorous scheme Robert Wilson has conceive with great precision a chain of images which are perceived as oneiric visions: visions of landscapes, of a train under way, of public benches… which are grouped around three main visual themes: a Train; a Trial; a Space ship above a field.

On this structure, and simultaneously, Philip Glass has composed music which by its intensity and its repetitive method leads to a hypnotic state. Through its modulatory form, this music attains a profound interiority, finding a place outside of time. And it is precisely the work of Wilson and Glass, each supplementing and reinforcing the other, that both are profoundly concerned with the search for a new manner of perceiving time.

Andy De Groat has conceived choreography on the same principle: sequences based on a very simple vocabulary repeat and trace rigorously drawn forms within the scenic space. [Subsequent to the 1976 production this element has been provided, with equal fidelity to the Wilson-Glass concept, by Lucinda Childs.]

The unity of the opera proceeds from Wilson’s visual constructions, Glass’s music, and [Childs’s] choreography which are organized around a common structure taken as a given:
Knee Play 1
Act I
Scene 1
a Train
Scene 2
a Trial (a Bed)
Knee Play 2
Act II
Scene 3
a Space ship above a field
Scene 1
a Train
Knee Play 3
Scene 2
a Trial (a Bed) / a Prison
Scene 3
a Space ship above a field
Knee Play 4
Act IV
Scene 1
a Building (a Train)
Scene 2
a Bed
Scene 3
Interior of a Space ship
Knee Play 5

In lieu of intermissions there are five “knee plays,” so named by Wilson because they function as articulations: the audience is free to move about during them. Here is how this schema went in the Montpellier production; italicized words extracted from the libretto, followed by the author’s name in square brackets:

Knee Play 1: two characters, side by side, dressed as Einstein in the famous photograph (short-sleeved white shirt, grey trousers, braces), one reciting numbers, the other singing. It could get the railroad for these workers. It could get for it is were… All these are the days my friends and these are the days my friends… You cash the bank of world traveler from 10 months ago… [Christopher Knowles]

Act I scene 1A Train: an old-fashioned locomotive (19th century) arrives slowly. It could be some one that has been somewhere like them… It could say where by numbers this one has… What is it… These circles… nd that is the answer to your problem… This always be… [Christopher Knowles]

Act I scene 2A Trial 1: a courtroom trial. So this is about the things on the table so this one could be counting up… This one has been being very American… This about the gun gun gun gun gun [Christopher Knowles] … “In this court, all men are equal.” You have heard those words many times before… But what about all women?… “My sisters, we are in bondage, and we need to be liberated. Liberation is our cry… The woman’s day is drawing near, it’s written in the stars…” [Mr. Samuel M. Johnson]
(These “Trials” were alternatively titled “Beds” in the original production)

Knee Play 2
Act II scene 3A Field Dance 1: an abstract, geometrically patterned dance.

Act II scene 1B Night Train: a couple vignetted on the platform of an observation car, crescent moon above

Knee Play 3
Act III scene 2B Trial/Prison: The song I just heard is turning… This thing This will be the time that you come… This will be counting that you always wanted has been very very tempting… [Knowles]
I was in the prematurely air-conditioned supermarket
and there were all these aisles
and there were all these bathing caps that you could buy…
I wasn’t tempted to buy one…
[Lucinda Childs]
I feel the earth move… I feel the tumbling down tumbling down…This will be doing the facts of David Cassidy of were in this case of feelings… [Knowles]

Act III scene 3B Field Dance 2

Knee Play 4
Act IV, like Act II, lacks text in the program as distributed; the small chorus and occasionally vocal soloists simply count: one two three four five six seven eight…

Act IV scene 1C Building: here, an extended improvised tenor saxophone solo by Andrew Sterman

Act IV scene 2C Bed: extended vocal solo (Hai-Ting Chinn)

Act IV scene 3C Spaceship interior: a complex simultaneity of actors, dancers, and scenic elements

Knee Play 5 The day with its cares and perplexities is ended and the night is now upon us… Two lovers sat on a park bench… “My love for you …has no limits, no bounds. Everything must have an ending except my love for you…" [Johnson]

In the concluding Knee Play the locomotive so prominent in the first scene has been replaced by a bus, as Einstein’s discovery of the principle of relativity, conventionally explained by the analogy of the different perceptions of a single event by a person standing on the ground and another on a moving train, has been replaced by everyday experiences felt by ordinary people everywhere.

So the curve of the opera, if you will, is from the interior mental process of Einstein, contemplating the cosmos as it is and formulating a relational theory that explains it, to the interior emotional response to a similar contemplation as it is announced and expressed, in mundane language, by an ordinary person.
And (to continue this compromised, reductive view of the opera) the peak of that curve is the depiction of the intricacies involved in such contemplation, and the consequences the awareness and expression of such intricacies entail, in public and societal settings.
Einstein on the Beach is postmodern opera at its inception. It’s nothing if not recursive, self-referential, intertextual, rhetorical. But through the striking clarity of Wilson’s vison, the hypnotic effect of Glass’s score, the mesmerizing clarity of Childs’s choreography, and the easily apprehended and disarmingly simple texts, its performance is overwhelming and unforgettable. One looks back on attending it with awe and pleasure, finding detail after detail further enriching the artless grandeur of its concept, further clarifying its relevance to ordinary life in this twenty-first century.

In my own experience, facing works of art throughout my life, it ranks with visiting the Greek temples at Paestum, seeing Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, reading Finnegans Wake, hearing Goldberg Variations. I thank Wilson, Glass, and Childs for the privilege of sharing their insight. In this opera they have achieved — through considerable work and private sacrifice! — a timeless work of art. The least anyone can do, given the opportunity, is to see it, and celebrate it.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Eastside Works and Days

Eastside Road, May 4, 2012—
A NUMBER OF YEARS AGO, on waking up in a friend's little guest cottage in a quiet back garden in Berkeley, a heroic couplet came to me in a flash:
Already in my shorts, I rise
To verify the morning skies…
and before long I'd added another ten lines, just for the hell of it. Then I mostly forgot about it until Christmas that year — 1998 — when, feeling sentimental and perhaps a little old, I thought I'd add verses to it, to make a little garland of doggerel for the grandchildren.

There were seven of them in those days, and we had just moved from Berkeley to Eastside Road the previous year, and were settling into a quiet life of gardening and reading and writing, the life I'd always thought would set in in our seventh decade. I suppose in writing them I was rubbing my eyes in wonder at our good fortune. I still do: it's a pleasant life. Not unmarked by little disappointments and losses, of course, but nothing, so far, we aren't able to deal with. I hope I'm not tempting the fates here. Fates, I praise you; please don't think me complacent!

If you're curious to find out what happens after the verification of the morning skies, you can read the entire garland of Eastside Works and Days here. You can even print it out, double-sided, and make a little booklet.