Thursday, July 26, 2012

Shakespeare in Ashland

Ashland, Oregon, July 26, 2012—
ROMANCE; TRAGEDY; HISTORY; three of the four major categories of the Shakespeare canon, seen within thirty hours, on two of the three stages maintained here by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And seen in productions of varying degrees of success, in my opinion. The problem, as always in this country — I know nothing of Shakespeare productions elsewhere — is the degree of comfort the producing team has with the presentation of these plays to these audiences. How is Shakespeare relevant, or approachable, or (let's face it) marketable in 21st-century United States of America?

Harold Bloom has his own comment on the problem of Making Shakespeare Approachable:
Most commercial stagings of As You Like It vulgarize the play, as though directors fear that audiences cannot be trusted to absorb the agon between the wholesome wit of Rosalind and the rancidity of Touchstone, the bitterness of Jaques. I fear that this is not exactly the cultural moment for Shakespeare's Rosalind, yet I expect that moment to come again and yet again, when our various feminisms have become even maturer and yet more successful. Rosalind, least ideological of all dramatic characters, surpasses every other woman in literature in what we could call "intelligibility."
Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 209-10
The summer of 2012 is not yet the cultural moment Bloom has in mind, not to judge by this year's production of this great Romance; and it was again partly the fault of a single character, Touchstone — here directed to sitcom comedy (like the Romeo Nurse, overwhelming the "rancid" subtleties. All of Shakespeare's romances depend partly on comparisons, contrasts, and collisions of class; but it is what each class representative has to say about the others that is informative and interesting and ultimately useful. In broad attempts to use these contrasts primarily for their entertainment value this informative value is lost.

Too, the language suffers. Too often the actors seem to take little pleasure in the marvelous poetry they are given (even, in Rosalind's case, in prose), as if they're self-conscious about it. Lines are thrown away, or mumbled, or mouthed, or made difficult to register because of absurdities of aural scale caused by the shrill yet bland music in this production, or the alternation of shouts and murmurs. Like Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It contains scores of lines whose beauty brings tears to the eye, even though they're familiar as clichés: today's actors need to trust the poetry, whose familiarity is due after all to its power, not merely the repetition across the centuries which is testament to that power.

The whole first half of this production labors to overcome its unfortunate opening, with a banishment scene made to look absurd rather than cruel. I almost left at intermission. Afterward, though, as would be the case the next afternoon, the production settled in, and Shakespeare shouldered directorial Concept aside. Bloom is right, I think; Rosalind is a magnificent creation. She could converse wittily with Hamlet and Prospero, and the conversation would be rewarding for its substance. Jacques, too — the role set on a woman actor in this production, and why not? — has a mind far subtler and more meaningful than is often thought to be the case (even Bloom seems to neglect her), and is beautifully portrayed here, almost as if to apologize for the overblown Touchstone.
It doesn't help my present mood, on the subject of these productions, that I've just read David Crystal's engaging book Pronouncing Shakespeare (Cambridge University Press, 2005), an account of his work preparing the cast of the London Globe Theatre for a series of performances of Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare's own language, Early Modern English, at it was most likely pronounced in London at the turn of the Seventeenth Century. The book strikes me as most interesting and useful to anyone concerned about the plays, the author, the productions, and the performances; I'm sure most professionals in the area are familiar with it, and I wouldn't be surprised if it had been read fairly closely by Laird Williamson, who directed the performance we saw yesterday afternoon.

One of Crystal's points, in his short and entertaining book, is that the "authentic" reproduction of the sound of Shakespeare's English does not render the play more remote to today's audience. (I set "authentic" in quotes, but Crystal writes persuasively to explain just how we can know how the language may have sounded.) In today's London, four hundred years later, the linguistic climate turns out to be remarkably similar to that of Shakespeare's day: lots of accents, lots of languages, all present simultaneously, influencing one another at times, revealing differences in ethnic, class, economic, and geographical background.

Williamson's production of Romeo and Juliet transposes the action from early Renaissance Italy to California in the 1840s, when it was in its sad devolution from a Mexican state to annexation by the United States. The Capulets and Montagus are feuding landholding families, the Prince is a U.S. Army general in command of the area. You hear the familiar lines in mostly modern English, with Mexican, Spanish, Afro-American, and east-coast educated accents; often Juliet's father lapses into Spanish when talking to his wife, daughter, or various servants.

The play survives the transposition well; I think it likely does make its relevance to our own time and place more immediately clear to contemporary audiences unfamiliar with Shakespeare. (Not with the story, of course: what tragic love story is better known?) Where West Side Story brings the play to our own context — successfully, I think — this production mediates Shakespeare's setting and our own context through this clever Californification, paralleling the playwright's secondary purpose — his examination of societal mores as they defeat their own intentions — by training the same examination on both our own time and one in the recent past centered on many issues again in the public moment (class, ethnic background, pride, gangs…).

But the playwright's primary purpose is not to instruct, but to entertain, and here this production, like too many productions of Shakespeare, is too often exaggerated, out of scale. No question that the Nurse is often a comic role; but she has serious things to say: in this production the audience is early trained to think of her as little more than a stereotype, and she's rarely taken seriously. Mercutio should be talkative, deft, mercurial; here he's mainly loud.

Fortunately, Mercutio doesn't survive into the second act (there is only one intermission in this production), and after its irresolute opening the production settles into its directorial concept and Alejandra Escalante's portrayal of Juliet becomes more complex and more attentive to the book. In general, it's as if the cast begins to take the text more seriously, as offering real and thoughtful material for them to convey to the audience. And the close, as always, is poignant and affecting.
We come now to Henry V. I do not like this play, as Bloom does not like The Merchant of Venice, so I'll admit to an inability to see or discuss or think about it rationally. I know there's a case to be made for an ironic intent behind it. Henry V is like Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony: its tone must be destroyed in its performance if its real meaning is to be conveyed. You would think, then, that a company used to damaging the tone of Shakespeare's plays would find a brilliant approach to this history: but this summer that doesn't really happen.

The play centers on the young king's successful invasion and seizure of much of France, the result of the pivotal Battle of Agincourt, and in its conclusion on Henry's arranged marriage to the trophy princess Catherine of Valois. There are, God knows, memorable events and moments in the early scenes, but in this production, presented out of doors in the Elizabethan Theater, they were uniformly grey and unappealing, as if the intention were to rob war of any glamor. The frivolity of the French court, a running joke among the British, brought the only moments of light and deftness, and the graceful humor attending Hal's courtship of his dubious "Kate" seemed to offer a civilizing note to what had until then been relentless and glum.

These three plays were undoubtedly chosen with ensemble in mind. England seizing France; the U.S. seizing California. Generational conflicts and commentaries. Spanish, French, Scottish and Welsh accents. Finally, the civilizing effect of romantic love, which resolves conflict by giving in to biological urgency. There is always so much to contemplate here; it hardly matters that irresoluteness and economic realities momentarily blur the perception of Shakespeare's immense and complex landscape.

As always, I deny any attempt here to "review" these productions; there are plenty of reviews on the Internet. Casts and credits are also on line, along with performance schedules:

As You Like It: Elizabethan Stage, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Oregon; closes October 14.
Romeo and Juliet: Angus Bowmer Theatre; closes November 4,
Henry V: Elizabethan Stage; closes October 12.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bachelor Machine

BachelorMachineThumbnail.jpgIF YOU'VE VISITED this blog before you're no doubt aware of my long-running infatuation with La Mariée mise à nu par ces célibataires, même, the chef-d'oeuvre Marcel Duchamp abandoned in 1923, which has since attained the status of legend within the annals of Modernism. He had worked on it for ten or twelve years; I worked on it longer, ultimately to an even greater degree of futility.

One of the by-products of this infatuation, in the category of musical composition, was my first piano sonata, composed mostly in 1983 and 1984 while working on the opera I was slowly finishing up. A long ballet dominates the middle of the second act, the center of the opera: it was conceived as representing the mechanical workings of the Bride and her Bachelors, with solo material given, respectively, to violin and piano.

This sonata is the piano material, lacking all other music (solo and choral singing and orchestral accompaniment) but fleshed out slightly with additional notes. (The violin material went into a concerto, about which I recently posted here.)

There are two intentions in this sonata: to make an extended, somewhat virtuosic piece of music for solo piano, and to retain the arbitrary, quirky, stiff characteristic of Duchamp's conception. The part of the bachelor apparatus that is most present is the "chariot" or "glider," a contraption that comes and goes in a reciprocating movement, sounding its "litanies" ("slow life: everyday junk: onanism: buffer of life") and actuating an elaborate train of machinery which ultimately fails to strip bare the bride.

The three movements are called Cadre, Desires and Frustrations, and Action and Inaction. I wouldn't mind finding an English word for the title of the first movement, but nothing quite does what the French cadre does: framework, context, grouping...

The music of the Sonata can also make a fairly substantial Piano Concerto, a Big Concerto to complement the Small Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, but it hasn't yet been notated, except as part of the Duchamp opera. Perhaps one day.

Sonata: Bachelor Machine was first played by Eliane Lust, July 25, 1990, in San Francisco, on a wonderful program also including Debussy's Hommage à Rameau, Bartók's Sonata, 1926, and Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze. What a night! You can watch the incomparable Eliane play one movement of the sonata online.

I've finally prepared what I think is a fairly decent edition of the score of Sonata: Bachelor Machine, available at click here to order a copy.

Also online: you can hear and purchase an mp3 of the sonata, as synthesized from the score. (At that same site, you can now buy tracks of various pieces of chamber music; more about them in the future, perhaps…)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tony Judt: The Memory Chalet

Last month I read the massive, discursive, utterly fascinating Thinking the Twentieth Century, an extended conversation in which Timothy Silverman assists the tragically mute and paralyzed (Lou Gehrig's disease) historian-intellectual Tony Judt to reflect on the world which he is about to leave as it has been left in its turn by the dismal failings of the century in whose middle he'd been born.

I can't write about that book here: it's too big, too complex, too important — and not at had: I made the mistake of reading it in a library copy.

After recording those conversations, though, later transcribed and edited into the final version, Judt produced one more book, a memoir in a series of self-described feuilletons called The Memory Chalet (London: Penguin Books, 2010). The title refers to his method of composing these essays, which accumulate steadily in depth and importance: in his long wakeful nights he composed them, organizing their paragraphs and mentally stowing them at this site or that in a country hotel fondly remembered from his youth; then the following days retrieving them, one by one, and dictating them to an amanuensis.

The writing itself is always graceful, rather conversational, informal, yet elegantly contoured and distributed. (It reminds me of other work similarly made: for example, the paragraphs of Alberto Moravia's first novel Gli indifferenti, or — very different — the visions recalled and re-stated in Sam Francis's lyrical, light-filled paintings.)

But skillful, artistic as his expression is, it is Judt's substance, concepts, insights that make his work in these books so significant — imperative, I would say. His observation is detailed and retentive; his intellectual organization of the results is careful and logical; his conclusions, it seems to me, both inescapable and utterly persuasive.

His training was the result of a fortunate confluence of opportunity and ambition, tempered by a healthy amount of typical adolescent male curiosity and adventure; and much of The Memory Chalet is a dying man's retrospection on the luck that made his career. Central: the conviction that meritocracy and social democracy, which underlay his own development, represent the best possible organizing principles of contemporary society.

Literally central to his book: Meritocrats, a chapter describing his education at King's College, Cambridge, in the 1960s, where John Dunn
broke through my well-armored adolescent Marxism and first introduced me to the challenges of intellectual history, He managed this by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect.
   That is teaching. It is also a certain sort of liberalism: the kind that engages in good faith with dissenting (or simply mistaken) opinions across a broad political spectrum.
It is in discussions like this — listening and responding — across positions, even mutually exclusive ones formed by individual awarenesses based on conflicting allegiances, that enlightenment can occur. Such conversation is at the heart of social democracy, which can only obtain in a context subordinating partisan doctrine to greater collective good.

Before King’s College, Judt was a youth influenced by Marxism and Zionism; King’s cured him of those enthusiasms by introducing him to greater responsiveness to observed historical fact and keener analysis of the means by which specific political objectives might be achieved. He concentrated first on issues of French political history as it responded to Marxism, studying at the Ecole Normale. One thing and another led him to lectureships in the United States, at Davis and Berkeley among others. A “mid-life crisis” was met not with the purchase of a sports car or the acquisition of a trophy wife but with the determination to learn Czech, and he investigated the fascinating, sobering political and philosophical history of Eastern Europe later in his career, which ended in the pages of The New York Review of Books, among other publications, where he was by the early years of this century a public intellectual, avoiding partisan allegiances in order to take reasoned, pragmatic positions on the great issues of our time.

There are many ticks in the margins of my copy of The Memory Chalet. Let me simply quote out a few of the passages:

• On education:
Universities are elitist: they are about selecting the most able cohort of a generation and educating them to their ability—breaking open the elite and making it consistently anew. Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing. A society divided by wealth and inheritance cannot redress this injustice by camouflaging it in educational institutions—by denying distinctions of ability or by restricting selective opportunity—while favoring a steadily widening income gap in the name of the free market. This is mere cant and hypocrisy. (page 145)
• On words:
The “professionalization” of academic writing—and the self-conscious grasping of humanists for the security of “theory” and “methodology”—favors obscurantism. This has encouraged the rise of a counterfeit currency of glib “popular” articulacy: in the discipline of history this is exemplified by the ascent of the “television don,” whose appeal lies precisely in his claim to attract a mass audience in an age when fellow scholars have lost interest in communication.” (p. 152)
• On America:
For Milosz, “the man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are.” This is doubtless so and explains the continuing skepticism of the East European in the face of Western innocence. (p. 180)
• On “Captive Minds”:
Milosz studies four of his contemporaries and the self-delusions to which they fell prey on their journey from autonomy to obedience, emphasizing what he calls the intellectuals’ need for “a feeling of belonging.” (p. 175) “Fear of the indifference with which the economic system of the West treats its artists and scholars is widespread among Eastern intellectuals. They say it is better to deal with an intelligent devil than with a good-natured idiot.” (p. 176)
• On failure of western intellectuals to dissent from, e.g., Bush’s “hysterical drive to war just a few years ago”:
Few of them would have admitted to admiring the President, much less sharing his worldview. So they typically aligned themselves behind him while doubtless maintaining private reservations. Later, when it was clear they had made a mistake, they blamed it upon the administration’s incompetence …they proudly assert, in effect, “we were right to be wrong”… (p. 178) … “Just as the hapless British Labour chancellor in 1930-1931, Philip Snowden, threw up his hands in the face of the Depression and declared that there was no point opposing the ineluctable laws of capitalism, so Europe’s leaders today scuttle into budgetary austerity to appease “the markets.” But “the market”—like “dialectical materialism”—is just an abstraction: at once ultra-rational (its argument trumps all) and the acme of unreason (it is not open to question). (p. 179)
• On identity politics:
Substituting gender (or “race” or “ethnicity” or “me”) for social class or income category could only have occurred to people for whom politics was a recreational avocation, a projection of self onto the world at large. (p. 189)
Judt sadly shakes his head at the increased attraction of abstraction, the diminished concern for pragmatics, among journalists, academics, politicians, and the public at large. Unthinkable things happened throughout the Twentieth Century because of that confusion of social values. For a few years after the end of World War II, chiefly in western Europe, it looked as if a meritocracy of social technocrats might prevail, but the end of Communism, in 1989, gave way not to Social Democracy but the return of “free-market Capitalism.” Judt died, of ALS, very soon after completing The Memory Chalet; it stands as a fond, generous, often funny appreciations of the good events of his life and mind, but also an elegy on the premature relinquishment of the power to further such events. Ut tempora, ita homo.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Hoffmann; Frankenstein

TO THE THEATER three times last week, with results pondered ever since.

First of all, were we really at the theater. In fact we were at the Rialto, in nearby Sebastopol, one of those big bland shoppingmall movie-theater complexes (though this one is not really in a shopping mall). Is the room in which you watch moving pictures projected onto a two-dimensional screen, accompanied by unnaturally close, loud, and equally two-dimensional sound, really a theater? Theater implies space and spaciousness. Literally, of course, since it descends from θέατρον, "viewing place," the word's correctly used for movies. But still.

Especially when the thing viewed is, as was the case last week, a video recording of a live performance on a stage. I generally dislike these filmed-for-your-remote-delectation efforts, as I've noted here in the past:
In the end, I don't think I saw legitimate theater. The performance may have been real-time, but on the screen, whether in close-up or depicted on the full stage, the look of the characters is flat. Further, there's a confused sense of audience: you're aware of the live theater audience, but much more aware of the real people around you in the cinema. Worse yet, you're aware the actors are completely unaware of you: you're eavesdropping on a theatrical dialogue between actors and their own, real audience, more privileged because actually present before the stage.
But last week the repertory trumped media-determined objections, and we went to the Rialto. (And why are movie theaters so often named "Rialto"? Another distraction.) A play based on a favorite novel was one of the items; a favorite opera was the other.

We saw both versions of thew National Theatre production of Nick Dear's play based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the great 19th-century novel on the ethical implications of human intervention in natural creation — implications eternally central to the problem of human nature. The play is necessarily smaller than the novel: it omits Shelley's masterful framing device (though of course the theater itself, surrounding the performers, makes a substitute), and the geographical nature of the distance between Geneva and Ingolstadt, where young Victor Frankenstein produced his Creature, is utterly lost. (So, too, the distance between the classes is lessened, though Dear makes up for this by enlarging the role of Elizabeth's maid.)

And we saw this filmed play twice, because the leads, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, alternate in the roles of Frankenstein and his Creature. This was a brilliant concept of Danny Boyle, who directed the production with a good deal of his own genius, integrating Dear, Shelley, his principle actors, and Mark Tildesley's fine sets (and Bruno Poet's marvelous lighting) into a thoughtful, deep, yet gripping work which managed to be as arresting on the second viewing as it had been only two nights earlier.

Interestingly, Cumberbatch made the Creature overpowering and magnificent in revenge; Miller made Frankenstein sympathetic and likable in his quandary: and when the roles were reversed, so were the effect, and the Creature became the victim of the tragedy, the Doctor the evil perpetrator. I'm sure Shelley intended this dual reading, which emerges readily enough from her novel; and I'm equally sure both versions of the play must be seen for that point to emerge from the theater — pointing out the greater richness of ambiguity (or, better, complexity) on the page than on the stage.
Between those two filmed presentations we saw the Metropolitan Opera production of Jacques Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann, an opera I've dearly loved since first encountering it in the early 1950s via Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's movie version, which impressed an adolescent greatly and irreversibly. It's quite unfair how the memory of many details of this film production, perhaps inaccurate since I've not seen it in sixty years, has often heightened inadequacies of staged productions seen over the years.

This Met version has so many triumphant notes that its few inadequacies are the more unfortunate. Most of them are attributable to the director, Bartlett Sher, who seems too influenced by (and devoted to) production values more characteristic of the contemporary Broadway musical than to those of the opera stage. Both the Olympia and, especially, the Giulietta acts were drowned in fussiness and detail, almost swamping Hoffmann, Offenbach, the profundity of their creation, and worst of all perhaps the triumphs of the central actors.

Those were, first, Joseph Calleja, whose tenor voice was accurate and expressive and whose physical acting was very persuasive in the title role. Secondly, to my taste, Kate Lindsey, a remarkably effective Nicklausse/Muse: in this production the role is elevated to a central, motivating position, fully projecting the opera's deep insight into the profundity of Hoffmann's tales as they probe recesses of human psychology.

If you want a review of the production, I suggest Anthony Tommasini's from the New York Times of a few years back, when this production was filmed. In that review, Tommasini mentions the sorry uncertainty any production must present of a score Offenbach died before ever hearing. In a later column he discusses the approach the Met's music director James Levine (who conducts this production magnificently) took to the problem.

I'm not persuaded by the result, but I left the, um, theater thinking we'd seen/heard as good a version as we're likely to ever in this life — greatly, I think, because of the intelligent prominence of Kate Lindsey's portrayal. Les contes d'Hoffmann is a deep, rich, complex, meaningful work of art, one of the greatest operas in the repertory, the product of a rare moment when observation, expression, and artistic means converge in examination of what it means to be human. It may be that the sixty-three years between Mary Shelley's 1818 novel and Offenbach's 1881 opera (odd that they should be numerical anagrams!) represent the lifetime during which such examination was so intriguingly possible.

It may also be meaningful that the beginning of that "lifetime" should have been the product of a nineteen-year-old young woman, and that its end should have been that of a crippled, dying man. Shelley's novel, it seems to me, represents a perfect mediation between the Rationalist observations of Jane Austen and the psychological probings of Henry James. E.T.A. Hoffmann's writing of course defines a central expanse (and a fascinating one!) of Romanticism. Offenbach — well, what to make of this curious man, perhaps the Erik Satie of his time.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Violin concerto

Vlnconcerto.jpgI HAVE ALWAYS LOVED eccentric violin concertos, by which I mean those somehow standing aside from the standard repertory. Mozart's, of course; and the Sinfonia Concertante. Harold in Italy. The neglected ones by Schumann, Dvorák, Goldmark, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Lou Harrison; the familiar but still fascinating ones by Sibelius and Berg. In many of these concerti, it seems to me, the soloist stands somewhat apart from the orchestra, the composer's (and the performer's!) strategy for dealing with the differences between the collaborators in terms of dynamic and tonal range and, especially, potential weight. One doesn't like to attribute too much "meaning" to music, but it's hard to escape the thought that the soloist-orchestra dynamic recalls that between Self and Society, or — better, in my opinion, and certainly more representative of my own attitude — Self and Nature.

From the middle 1960s forward for about twenty years I was absorbed in an operatic "version" of Marcel Duchamp's great painting La Mariée mise à nu par ces célibataires, même. The painting, on two sheets of glass, measures about nine feet high by nearly six feet wide, was begun in 1913, and was abandoned ten years later. (It's currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where, the last time I saw it, many years ago, it seemed to need a fair amount of restoration. Several replicas have been made, and are in collections of museums in Tokyo, London, and Stockholm.)

Marcel Duchamp: La Mariée mise à nu par ces célibataires, même

Duchamp preceded the actual laying-out of the painting, on its sheets of glass, with fairly elaborate verbal notes and drawings. The most elusive of these was a full-size drawing done in pencil, as I recall, on the plaster wall of an apartment he was living in in Paris in 1912 or so; it has disappeared. Others, though, on various scraps of paper, were carefully retained, and have been published in several editions. Of these perhaps the most important was the Green Box,translated in 1957 by George Hamilton and published three years later in an elegant small-format edition which I bought at the time and began making my own notes in, setting various pages to music. (I've written about all this in a lecture, How I Saw Duchamp, available as a booklet from Frog Peak.)

I was fascinated by La Mariée mise à nu par ces célibataires, même for the same reason that years before I had been fascinated by James Joyce's marvelous last novel Finnegans Wake, currently in the news thanks to a fine first-person reader's account by Michael Chabon, published in The New York Review of Books. Both of these masterpieces of Twentieth-century Modernism took their authors years to produce, and were even before their undertaking themselves products of further decades of what you might call internal preparation, in terms of contemplation of the position of man (and Artist) in the context of that epochal time.

And both La Mariée mise à nu par ces célibataires, même and Finnegans Wake have grown, since their creation, considerably beyond even that, incorporating huge amounts of critical commentary and subsequent work (in many media) by artists they have influenced. It's as if they — and other similar masterworks — were originally the product of some kind of fertile, prolific mycorrhizal organism. Or, to consider a less alarming, inorganic analogy, as if they were regional testimony to very extensive geological formations, only occasionally becoming visible through such surface evidence as hills and valleys, watercourses, presence of characteristic vegetation.

Man Ray: Dust Breeding

The Nazca plain

(Indeed, Man Ray's photograph of a section of Duchamp's painting, Dust Breeding, treats La Mariée mise à nu par ces célibataires, même as precisely that sort of phenomenon: the glass, onto which Duchamp had been gluing lead wires outlining the Chariot region of the work, had been stored flat under his bed, gathering dust; the resulting photo suggests an aerial photograph of the Nazca Lines in the Peruvian desert.)
MUCH OF MY CONCERTO was composed in Europe: we used to spend a month or two there in alternate summers, taking leaves of absence from our jobs, sometimes touring by car or rail, on other vacations renting a house for a few weeks, or house-sitting when we got the chance. In the late 1970s we spent a couple of weeks on the Ile d'Arz, in the Gulf of Morbihan, near the alignments of Carnac, and there I spent a lot of time thinking about the center section of the opera I was writing to Duchamp's painting. At the center of the opera would be a long ballet, with some singing, which would in some way "depict," or at least somehow comment on, the actual workings of La Mariée mise à nu par ces célibataires, même, as Duchamp described (or at least considered) those workings in the notes published in the Green Box.

At the back of my mind, too, was Alban Berg's wonderfully eccentric Chamber Concerto for piano, violin, and thirteen wind instruments. I knew I wanted the dancers in this ballet to move among musical instruments. Two wind quartets and two string quartets would be on stage; also the piano. The lower half of Duchamp's painting — the "Bachelor Region," with its prominent central "Chocolate Grinder" — was probably the inspiration for my imaginary mise-en-scène; the Grinder suggested the piano.

Above, the painting represents the "Bride Region," with the Bride's "Halo" along the top, surrounding its three empty squares, and the "Hanging female thing" at the left. The lowest part of this Pendu femelle irresistably suggested a violin bow: very well: a violinist would be somehow levitating downstage center above the piano and its surrounding accompanying quartets, the rest of the orchestra in its pit between stage and audience.

Bride: violin; Bachelors: wind instruments; Grinder: piano.

The two concertos would be interleaved, movement by movement, only occasionally superimposed. A fair amount of the music was sketched that summer on the Ile d'Arz and elsewhere, and in 1985 I extracted the violin concerto component from the opera score so that it could be performed separately. Unfortunately, the first movement of the violin concerto, which depended heavily on two wind quartets whose music was notated graphically, resisted all my attempts at a conventionally notated realization, so it is omitted from the stand-alone version, and the second movement has been broken into two sections to provide the conventional three movements of the concerto form. (Perhaps one day I'll solve that notational problem.)

(As for the Piano Concerto, it has yet to be extracted from the opera score. The solo music for the piano has been, however: it's available as the Sonata: Bachelor Machine, completed in 1989; one movement of the piece can be seen, performed by the estimable Eliane Lust, here.)

In 1987, I think it was, the Cabrillo Music Festival approached me asking about any not-quite-finished orchestral pieces I might have, and I mentioned the Violin Concerto. Fine, they said, they'd like to see it. I handed it in, as it then stood, not quite filled out, and the original first movement still missing. After a few weeks I heard that they were intrigued by its "spareness," and that they wanted to give it a concert reading on a program devoted to new pieces perhaps not yet quite finished.

I had heard the San Francisco violinist Beni Shinohara, who had been playing chamber music with Eliane, and had been greatly impressed with her musicianship, tone, and intellectual curiosity. She agreed to take the project on, and somehow persuaded a friend, the pianist-conductor Joan Nagano, to help, by improvising a condensation of the orchestral accompaniment for solo piano, thereby extending the concerto's mycorrhizal network into a sonata for violin and piano — which I have neither seen nor heard.

The Cabrillo connection suggested a little joke to me, and I incorporated the snare drum part from Lou Harrison's Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra into my own score. Lou was a fixture at the Cabrillo Festival; I admired him and his Koncerto, as he preferred to call it; and it had itself been inspired by Alban Berg's violin concerto. So I lifted the snare drum part, exactly as it sounds in his concerto, at the original tempo and loudness and pacing. (This of course required my completely re-notating and thus considerably complicating Lou's original "spelling" of the music.)

Beni played beautifully, and it didn't hurt that she looked splendid, too. Much of the actual concert was a mess, with inept conducting and inadequately prepared orchestral parts, not to mention uninteresting composition. Daniel Carriaga referred to all this in his review in the Los Angeles Times:
…Saturday afternoon, five works from the California Composers Project were unveiled by the Festival Orchestra.

The players' patience was sorely tried with this event. Only Charles Shere's spare but gloomy Concerto for Violin and Harp, Percussion and Small Orchestra (1985) deserved such a showcase.

Shere's brooding and intense concerto, an essay in small, telling musical gestures, occupies its 15 minutes engagingly. It was performed sensitively by violinist Beni Shinohara, solidly accompanied by the orchestra led by Ken Harrison.

Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1990 (retrieved July 7, 2012)
For my concerto, though, the violist and assistant conductor Ken Harrison had accepted full responsibility, had learned the score perfectly, and conducted gracefully and effectively. The orchestra, too, seemed intrigued and appreciative. I remember the first trombonist, for example, thanking me for writing for alto trombone, an instrument far too neglected. (Its solo injections, i.e. at m. 35 in the second movement, owe something to Ravel's Bolero, to continue the thread of musical cross-pollination.)

After the performance Beni asked me what the piece was about. I'd refrained from any such discussion while she was preparing it, but was willing enough to hint at things now. The violin is Duchamp's "sex-wasp," I told her. I was a little embarrassed: well, it’s about the Bride being ready, and the Bachelors never quite engaging. I thought it was something like that, she said. (Beni's husband Katsuto is a respected urologist, who some years later, coincidentally, I was to meet in a professional capacity.)

I ran into Lou, too, who seemed intrigued by the piece, and I confessed I'd stolen the snare drum from his Koncerto. "Better you'd have lifted the violin part," he replied.

I wish I could share with you the recording made from the radio broadcast of the concert. The piece has not been performed since its premiere — all too often such premieres are in fact dernieres as well. I've finally got around to publishing the score, though, and you can now buy it online, and perhaps, if you're very clever, synthesize another performance — or even convince another orchestra to schedule it. I'll supply the orchestral parts!

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The post office


The sentence seems absurd, ungrammatical. How could a post office building, ordained and constructed and maintained for a century by The People, as valid a res publica as any item in the Constitution, be "for sale"? It's as if you were to say the Washington Monument is for sale, or the Mississippi River, or the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Constitution provides for the post office. Article I, Section 8, paragraph 7: "The Congress shall have power to establish post offices and post roads." (The establishing of an army and a navy comes a little further down.) I don't see anything in the Constitution granting power to disestablish post offices.

The Post Office I'm concerned about at the moment is the one in Berkeley, a fine Beaux-arts monument to civic pride. I have a particular fondness for it, I suppose, because I worked there for a couple or three years, in the late 1950s. I remember thinking at the time that the Postal Service was in a way the federal government's way of subsidizing creative artists and intellectuals; many of us clerks — I can't speak for the carriers; I never associated with them — were perpetual students, or closet novelists or poets, or musicians, painters, philosophers, content to work at a humdrum job, sorting mail and cancelling stamps like automatons, the hands and eyes busy but the mind free to roam.

I worked the face-up table, where several men stood around the perimeter of a huge polished-steel table whose long edges were bordered by troughs with fast-moving belts at their bottoms. Mail fell onto the table, dumped from an invisible source above, and as quickly as possible we grabbed up envelopes, two at a time using both hands, and dropped them into the troughs, stamp down and to the left, sending them at great speed to the cancelling machine.

Envelopes to thick to pass through that machine were quickly thrust into overhead pigeonholes, along with "flats" — large envelopes or the occasional magazine or newspaper — and any small package that might have found its way into the mix. The job was dusty and noisy, the cancelling machine clattering away. I never was able to let my mind wander at the face-up table; rarely even able to lift my eyes from the constant supply of envelopes to enjoy the sight of the physical dance of all those hands and arms grabbing, turning, flipping or dropping, suddenly shooting upward to the pigeonholes.

When the mail had all been faced and cancelled, though, and we returned to our cases, then the mind could wander. We sat-stood on high tilted stools, one foot on a footrest, the other steadying our stool, grabbed a cancelled envelope from the right end of the tray in front of us at waist level or a little lower, quickly glanced at the city named in the address, and shot the letter into the correct pigeonhole. The several "zones" of Berkeley were centered on our cases: Thousand Oaks, Downtown, Station A, North, Temescal, and of course the University. Just surrounding them were the nearby big towns like San Francisco or Oakland or Richmond; more distant or smaller cities were distributed around them; in the far corners were remote destinations, or catchalls: Arizona, or San Diego, or Portland, or Chicago. "Speedies" — Special Delivery letters — we put in on edge, so we could tie them to the top of a bundle.

When a pigeonhole was full, too full to slap another letter into it quickly, you pulled out all the mail with your left hand, grabbed the end of the twine that fell from a spool above you, and wrapped the mail once lengthwise, again crosswise, tied a quick square knot, and cut the twine with the little knife-ring on your little finger; then you tossed the resulting bundle into a small bin.

Those bins went to the Postal Transport Worker, who had a similar job except that he sorted bundles of letters, or flats, not individual pieces. He faced a rack of canvas sacks bound for different destinations: by truck to Richmond, or San Francisco, or Oakland, or beyond; or by rail to various points on the Coast or Valley trains; or — if it were a bundle of Air Mail — into an orange nylon pouch which would soon be sent to the Airport Mail Facility, where I'd also served a stint, from 1958 into the following year when we moved to Berkeley.

I remember a few of my colleagues fondly. Kenji, small and Nisei, who ran the cancelling machine. Austin, ponderous and sober, a specialist on Russian liturgical music. Charles, black and scholarly, who introduced me to Negro bars. Charlie Dorr, ancient, bent, and good-humored, a constantly optimistic leftist. We didn't associate with the carriers, who sorted mail to Berkeley addresses over on the Cityside cases.

As a Postal Transport Worker I had never learned the assignment of mail by carrier routes, so I never had to go Cityside. My expertise was in the Stateside "scheme": I'd laboriously memorized the locations — and, more important, the means of supply — of all of California's post offices. (Lindsey's help was inestimable, quizzing me from flash cards, as she'd quizzed me in Latin when I was cramming for finals — at about the same time, come to think of it.) When there was no other mail to sort, I'd be sent to the basement to sort parcels.
The Berkeley Post Office looms big in my memory for other reasons than work, though. It, the YMCA, the Library, and J.F. Hink and Son formed the public center of my awakening civic and social consciousness when I was a boy. Shattuck Avenue, with its sleek F Train and its rattling traffic, was Business and Excitement; Hink's was the ultimate expression of this attractive though somewhat forbidden aspect of mysterious adult social life. The Library was still social, but allowed for introspection and daydreams. The YMCA was for handiwork and weight-lifting and swimming classes.

The Post Office was quite a different slice of public adult reality. Here people were engaged in transactions, consigning personal matters to an unseen but very perceptible collective and public network. Even as a small boy I was aware that transportation and communication stood behind this network, enabled it; and that if this was possible it was only because men — I didn't think of women being involved in this sort of thing — had agreed to work together, all across the land, for a common good. Not simply for individual livelihood, like the Jewel Tea man who brought tea and coffee and spices to the front door every now and then; not for a Store like Hink's, as the elegant, slim, remote Mrs. Shirley did in the knitwear department downstairs: this was something more like the Fire Department, but on an unimaginably grand scale. Maybe even like the Army and the Navy.

I don't know when I began to think of the Building. I mean the Main Post Office, of course; but I also mean the Library, my grandparent's Church, ultimately the buildings on campus. Whenever that was, that was when I began to think of such buildings as standing for something beyond mere physical shells housing public or civic or social institutions: they were also both symbols and rally-points.

Societies ordain and construct public buildings as metaphors of public agendas. This has been going on since the Pyramids, the Greek temples and theaters, the great Mounds in the American midwest. Such buildings are a testament to the indispensable civic qualities of stability, permanence, capaciousness, propriety, foresight, care.

I am certain this was clear to me when I was a little boy, though of course never stated or formed in any articulate verbalization. You didn't read about such things; grownups didn't talk to you about them. They were truths you absorbed through observation and example, through repeated rites, as regular and unremarkable as the newspaper delivery — or the twice-daily mail. They were neither internal, part of your own secret or at least inexpressible growing consciousness, nor purely external, known but of no concern: instead they were the cement, or part of it, that bound your own internal life to the society beyond family that you knew instinctively you were a part of.

Well, hell: these days, it's all for sale. These days the only language seems to be Economics. Our society has become like that fellow who Oscar Wilde said knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Letters are sorted by machine; it's more efficient; never mind that scholars of Russian liturgical music, or students of English literature, or unreconstructed leftists will have to fall back on waiting tables, or making espressos.

Not that there's anything undignified with that. But I wonder what will happen to bonhomie, and civic awareness, and the cement of personal-societal interface.

And I wonder if the politicians who decide to sell the post office buildings, which they do not own because it is we the people who own them, can't be reminded that they have sworn to uphold a Constitution which empowers them to establish, but not to destroy.

Read about the sale of the post office here.