Friday, March 28, 2014

Three Plays in Ashland: The Cocoanuts; The Tempest; The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window

Eastside Road, March 27, 2014—
FOR YEARS WE'VE SUBSCRIBED to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the impressive repertory company in Ashland, where ten or twelve plays are given over a season lasting nearly nine months. In addition to Shakespeare, the repertory these days runs through primarily American plays, including a number of new plays, a few revivals, and, recently, a musical or two.

We've been attending these plays so long we've seen the artistic direction change generations, and — getting on ourselves, and perhaps not as generous about change as we might be — I've been concerned about some of the change. I miss the international rep — Ibsen and Chekhov seem to have faded away.

I'm restless about some of the Shakespeare productions, which sacrifice the Bard's poetry too often to gimmicks apparently meant to make his substance more relevant, more accessible, to contemporary audiences. (The low point was a Troilus and Cressida set in the recent American-Iraqi war.)

Not all the new plays have seemed worth the effort to me, though some have offered interesting contemporary foils to Shakespeare — Tony Taccone's Ghost Light, for example, and Robert Schenkkan's plays on the Lyndon Johnson presidency. And some of the musicals have been sadly compromised by more of that gimmicky "updating": here the low points have been The Pirates of Penzance and My Fair Lady.

So this season we've bought tickets to only five of the eleven plays — only to find, this last week, that the first three of our choices were really very good, well worth the price of admission. If only I could find reviews I can trust of the remaining shows, I might be tempted to give them a chance!

The three plays we saw couldn't be more different. The Cocoanuts, with book by George S. Kaufman and music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, was written in 1925 for the Marx Brothers, who improvised or otherwise contributed a good deal of its shtick. Any revival faces the problem of those brothers, of course: they need to be recognizably Marx, but should go beyond simply presenting impressions. This is where the tight ensemble and even talent of the OSF company can really shine, and we were more than happy with Mark Bedard, Brent Hinkley, John Tufts, and Eduardo Placer in for Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and, yes, Zeppo (the romantic lead).

The Cocoanuts is vaudeville brought to the somewhat more legitimate theater, and the musical component is fairly important. Jennie Greenberry was a fine soubrette as Polly Potter, the female lead, with a really attractive voice and sharply defined comic acting; and K.T. Vogt did well with the heavy role of her mother. Kate Mulligan and Robert Vincent Frank were just as detailed and engaging as the villains, Penelope Martin and Harvey Yates; and the rest of the cast were up to the marks as well.

The play alternates between sweetness and zaniness, and David Ivers's direction managed that alternation with apparent ease, profiting from Richard Hay's design and Meg Neville's wonderful costumes. I'd love to go back for another look at the show later in the season, to see how they keep it so fresh and funny.

The Tempest saw a fine, thoughtful production in Ashland in 2002, when Penelope Mitropoulos took the lead role, changing Prospero's gender as Prospera, and bringing new, larger resonance to Shakespeare's theme of reconciliation through understanding, patience, and forgiveness.

Then in 2007 the play suffered, I thought, from a more equivocal, tentative production centering on a lead actor who — in spite of repeated successes in other roles here over the years — seemed uneasy with his assignment and uncertain as to the play.

This year the play again hesitates with its lead. Denis Arndt is a diffident, sometimes almost playful Prospero, relying on Daniel Ostling's design, Alexander Nichol's marvelous lighting, and Kate Hurster's often powerful Ariel, rather than on his own voice and stage presence, for the brittle, mercurial force and inventiveness of his magic.

But the production really works well. Shakespeare's familiar contrasting levels of society are acted and directed thoughtfully and effectively but also dramatically, even entertainingly. The Italian nobility, the mariners, above all Stephano and Trinculo (Richard Elmore and Barzin Akhavan), all address Shakespeare's lines, the plot's requirements, and the audience's engagement.

Wayne T. Carr was a fine Caliban, I thought, his resentment sympathetic and his role ultimately reclaimed. Kate Hurster's Ariel was perhaps a bit too big in its conception, but effective and often beautiful. Like her father, Miranda (Alejandra Escalante) flirted with diffidence. In the end, though, they seem like contemporary Americans looking on as their alter egos enact this great play, bringing yet another layer of meaning to the stage.

I wish I had time, patience, skill, and scope to write about Lorraine Hansbury's The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window with the insight and substance the play deserves. It's a big, important, powerful play, addressing serious issues both societal and individual. It is narrative theater at its best, I think, set on a plot with beginning, middle, and end, presented through characters who are sympathetic, understandable, now and then surprising. And while the mood is generally serious and occasionally flirts with tragedy there is humor and affection.

The play was badly received at its opening in 1964 — it was too big, too "difficult" for the commercial entertainment critics. Hansbury was already dying (pancreatic cancer); if there were any thoughts of revisions, there was no strength to achieve them. I think some judicious cutting would improve the play: a long drunk scene seems perilously like a bitter survey of postwar absurdist theater.

But Juliette Carrillo's direction makes it clear that this is a perfectly workable, stageworthy play, and the cast pretty well nailed their assignments: Ron Menzel in the title (lead) role; Sofia Jean Gomez as his wife Iris; Erica Sullivan as her brittle, aloof sister Mavis; Vivia Font in the small but pivotal role of the third sister, Gloria; Armando McClain, Danforth Comins, and Benjamin Pelteson in the significant roles of Alton the (mixed-race) friend, Wally the politician, and David the upstairs gay playwright. We saw Jack Willis as the abstract expressionist down the hall; he was just as solid, detailed, and engaged an actor as all the rest.

As you can perhaps tell by the capsule descriptions in the previous paragraph, Hansbury weaves plenty of strands into this dramatization of social issues of midcentury America. It was fascinating to come to know the play just after a reading of John Steinbeck's last novel, The Winter of our Discontent, written just a few years earlier. Both writers deal with corruption; both are aware that it is an inevitable and perhaps even a necessary component of the social human condition, as the human reach for ideals always stretches beyond the grasp of the compromises without which daily life seems unbearable and impossible.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A provisional commentary on Virgil, John, and Lou

Virgil Thomson (1896-1989)John Cage (1912-1992)Lou Harrison (1917-2003)
I MET LOU HARRISON in the early 1960s, probably at the Cabrillo Music Festival in 1963, when I attended one or two concerts there. Gerhard Samuel was conducting the Oakland Symphony in those days, and he, Lou, and Bob Hughes organized the festival, partly to give jobs to symphony personnel in the summer, partly to hear music off the standard repertory, partly as a spinoff from a series of concerts Bob and Lou had been giving in Aptos at a rustic watering hole whose name escapes me now.

In 1965, I think it was, Lou brought Virgil Thomson to our Berkeley apartment, on Francisco Street, for conversation, and from then on both men were occasional friends, I suppose you’d call them — Lou lived in Aptos, Virgil in New York; I was working double-time at KPFA and trying to compose on the side, not to mention keep the car running and the plumbing in line, all those things you do when you’re raising a family on $75 a week in a one-bedroom duplex, studio in the basement.

Chez Panisse opened in 1971, and it wasn’t long before Virgil came to dinner. I remember his liking Lindsey’s crème anglaise, complimenting her on how little cornstarch she’d used in it. Alice was shocked: Oh no, she said quickly; there’s no cornstarch in that crème anglaise. Lindsey smiled quietly: there was a tiny bit of cornstarch in it; subsequently she worked out a method that dispensed with it entirely.

We never went to New York, and still don’t, not having formed the habit. But Lindsey spent a few days there every few years on business, and when we were there we always visited Virgil in his rooms at the Chelsea Hotel. We talked about mutual acquaintances, about the old days, about Mozart, about criticism — I was by then working as an art and music critic, and was interested in that often-reviled and usually badly practiced profession.

By the early 1980s we knew John Cage well enough, Lindsey and I, to be on a first-name basis. In that decade I was working on a series of composer’s biographies for Fallen Leaf Press: I completed the first, on Robert Erickson, and got halfway through the next, on Lou. I was projecting one on John, too, and visited him a couple of times in his New York apartment, helping him make our lunch, talking about Duchamp, about Buddhism, about cuisine, about criticism.

I dropped the book about Lou after about 50,000 words, when I’d brought him up to his fiftieth year, when he was well settled with Bill Colvig, reasonably accepted in his corner of the music world, and had begun dedicating himself to gamelan, a music that didn’t interest me. By then it was clear Lou would not need my help in being presented to the wide world; that was well begun. Even less would John need a biography from me: a number were already in preparation as he approached his eightieth year.

Serious biography of this sort requires detective work, solid musical analysis, real focus, and discipline — all qualities I have little familiarity with and, in fact, little enthusiasm for. Besides, unlike Erickson, both Lou and John had lived within a social context I knew nothing about. Most of all, I very much liked both of them, and treasured them as friends and colleagues, a relationship I sensed would be endangered were I to continue further in a biographer’s role.

Lou and Bill visited us up here on Eastside Road a couple of times, and we continued to see them now and then in their Aptos house. (I remember one visit, when I was examining their house more attentively than usual, and Bill noticed. We were then planning our own house. I asked Bill whether he thought I should frame it in two-by-fours, the conventional approach, or two-by-sixes. “How long do you want to live in it?”, he responded; and we framed it in two-by-sixes.)

We saw Virgil and John, or Virgil or John, every couple of years, on those New York visits, or occasionally when one or another was in the Bay Area. If it was John, well, he was always busy, and we saw him in passing. He and Virgil were quite different in that respect: John was focussed, dedicated, disciplined, driven; Virgil was retired, sociable, at ease. I must say I preferred his style, though I respected and envied the other’s production.

The last time we visited Virgil at the Chelsea was a year or two before his death. He was quite old — he died in 1989 — but he was reasonably healthy as far as we could see. He mentioned that his sister had died at the age of 94, and he was certain he would not outlive her, and he turned out to be correct: he was two months shy of that age. I asked him if there were any way he could be reconciled with John. Not quite in those words, I suppose, but close. I was thinking about the idiotic rift that had set in between Satie and Debussy; how Debussy had died without seeing Satie again, and there was something in the Debussy-Satie relationship that had always rhymed, so to speak, in my mind, with the Thomson-Cage relationship. So many hours working in the trenches together, so many “values” in common, so much good conversation and shared experiences, all thrown away over some momentary thing. Virgil was not interested: John had gone his own way. I think perhaps in the end the hardest thing for Virgil was the progress, if you can call it that, of musical Modernism, away from his own day, into areas for which he had no interest, which were simply not to his taste, as gamelan is not to mine.

That same summer I saw John in his apartment. We had lunch together. We shelled peas, I think it was, or beans, and laughed at the cat on the catwalks, and talked about one thing and another. My problem with such interviews was always that there were so many things unsaid, because we both knew them, and agreed about them, why discuss them?

I did mention Virgil, though, and wondered why they wouldn’t speak. John was obstinate. The least you can ask of people, he said, is loyalty.

Certainly two events fed this feud. One was the early life-and-works book about Virgil, published as Virgil Thomson: His Life and Music (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, Publisher; 1959). The book is published as having been written by Kathleen Hoover (the Life) and John Cage (the Music). A number of rumors fly around the book: John wrote it all, Virgil didn’t like the Life section and assigned it instead to Hoover. Or: Virgil wrote it all, and assigned the credits away to mask self-promotion. Or Virgil extensively re-wrote passages. I hate waspishness, and you deal with a certain amount of that when you negotiate these waters. In any case, it’s impossible to get to the bottom of such things; there are many truths.

The other event was Virgil’s review of whichever piece it was of John’s, I forget now, either 4’33" or the Variations (if that’s what it was titled) that involves a number of radios, that pushed John’s musical ideas beyond the threshold of Virgil’s limits — beyond, I mean, what Virgil’s sensibility and training allowed him to consider musical.

As late as 1962, in the introduction to the Peters Edition catalog of his music (called, simply, John Cage), John gracefully thanked Virgil (along with Peter Yates) for his understanding criticism. Criticism is at the center of the Virgil-John situation, and indeed to the Virgil-John-Lou group, to which in all humility I would add, at times, myself. I have always cherished and often cited the late Joseph Kerman's memorable, terse definition of the practice: "the study of the meaning and the value of art works." (Contemplating Music: challenges to musicology, Harvard University Press, 1986).

Virgil, John, and Lou, with a few others — Peggy Glanville-Hicks among them — created a community of criticism in that very sense, under Virgil’s direction, at the old New York Herald Tribune, in the years following the end of World War II. I don’t have patience to go further here into the extraordinary ferment of intellectual and artistic energy and knowledge present then and there: it was a moment like Paris, 1911-1928, or Vienna, 1770-1820. Such moments cannot be forced; they can only be exploited, and Virgil Thomson had the perfect intelligence and sensibility to understand that, and contribute further to it.

But criticism has its negative aspect, particularly when considered as it affects individuals, whether they are practicing it or responding to it. The Herald Tribune Virgil group, to call it that, comprised composer-critics. Who better to respond to music than a musician? But pride and sensitivity are easily involved, and the biographical results can be sad to contemplate.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Apologia pro bloga sua

I HAVEN'T BEEN GIVING enough attention lately to blogs, either to my own or to those of others. I find online comments and blogs, carefully selected (and lord knows I overlook more than I should), frequently enlarge one's perspective. They have a way of bringing material to one's attention that might otherwise go unnoticed; they can also cast familiar material in new light.

I am drawn particularly to Daniel Wolf's always intriguing Renewable Music. The other day he put a long post up on Facebook. I repost it here — I hope he won't mind — adding paragraphing to make it a little friendlier to my aging eyes:
When I started my blog, it was just supposed to be a sampling from the kinds of notes and observations I write while composing. Then the public nature of the beast got me to twisting the writing style in a more conventional journalistic or even scholarly style.

(People started sending me all sorts of SWAG, asking me to mention their work or even review it, although I have no critical ambitions, let alone, talents whatsoever, which I would patiently explain. (Then people would get angry with me, sometimes virulently, for not mentioning or reviewing the materials they sent me.))

Some journalists and scholars can write wonderfully within the parameters of their genres, but my own attempts at writing in those styles were half-hearted, labored, and dull and, thankfully, didn't last long, as I realized that, as a composer, I had the license _not_ to write conventional prose, but rather could be, indeed ought to be, more inventive, and if not inventive, as least more of myself, even if that pushed some eccentricities into play.

In general, and though my thinking processes are certainly flawed in one way or another, I try to capture the way I actually think these things through, while working on my music. Sentences, breezily beginning with "And"s or "So"s can run long or fragment, often broken into phrases with comments and extensions and exceptions divided by ,s and ;s and between —s and ()s and []s (some of those within several layers of brackets, a habit for which reading Roussel and Roubaud has only encouraged me), footnotes appear ("Who footnotes a damn blog?", asks Rollo), though rarely as references, divisions into paragraphs often get tossed, and often an item beginning with topic alpha ends up on topic omega.

Sometimes, I set myself compositional tasks, or even games, sometimes of an oulipian nature, involving form or numbers or vocabulary or even punctuation. I've even written scatological limericks about centenarian composers. Now, I get more complaints about the writing style than about the content I don't mention, so I suppose I'm doing something right. The velocity and volume of posts to the blog has varied over time, slower in recent years due to all sorts of pressures on time (as well as a long period of not being able to use my right hand, which is tricky, being overly right-handed) but a less manic pace strikes me as just fine. It's still ancillary to composing, I have no idea how many people read it, I have no impression that it's helped my music get performed through the public-ness of it, but that's really beside the point: I continue to learn a lot, working through writing these texts, practicing composition in a textual medium that has yet to find its ideal forms, and still have plenty of fun with it.
I repost the comment to take heart about my own predicament, or position, or something — lack of focus, inconsistency of style, uncertainty as to audience. (Not his second paragraph, thank heaven; I've been spared that; also not "ancillary to my composing", as I've largely retired from that.) When I read my own writing from one or another of the books I've published in the last few years, I'm generally pleased enough: but the writing on these blog posts almost always troubles me for its inconclusiveness. I don't mind disjunction or allusiveness or even periphrasis, but irresoluteness is not a quality I admire, least of all in myself. Still I will soldier on, boat against the current…

Monday, March 03, 2014

Third Annual Festival of the Avant Garde

Shin-ichi Matsushita: Subject 17
THE RECENT CONCERTS by Other Minds brought an earlier festival to mind: the Third Annual Festival of the Avant Garde, which I wrote about in EAR, a monthly newsletter I published in the 1970s. Herewith that article, much edited:

The Third Annual Festival of the Avant Garde took place at 321 Divisadero St., San Francisco, in April 1965, sponsored by KPFA and run by myself, Peter Winkler and Robert Moran. Looking back on it I don't know how we had the guts: later endeavors have since convinced me of the enormity of such an undertaking. But we did, and it worked for the most part.

It was a sort of celebration of having the hall at all. KPFA and Ann Halprin’s Dancers’ Workshop joined the Tape Music Center in renting it. KPFA put on three concerts in the Festival, which was of course the first Third Annual. (There was a second one the following year, of which the less said the better.)

Opening Concert: April 2, 1965, 8 pm

Earle Brown: Four Systems     Robert Moran, piano; Georges Rey, violin; Gwendolyn Watson, cello
Robert Moran: Interiors     Third Annual Ensemble
Peter Winkler: But a Rose     John Thomas, countertenor; Peter and Judy Winkler, piano
Joshua Rifkin: Winter Piece     Robert Moran, Georges Rey, Gwendolyn Watson
John Cage: The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs     John Thomas; Peter Winkler
Ian Underwood: The God Box     Nelson Green, horn.
Douglas Leedy: Quaderno Rossiniano for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, bassoon, piano, horn, cymbals and bass drum.
     Third Annual Ensemble
Soft Concert: April 3, 1065, 11 pm

Roman Haubenstock-Ramati: Decisions I     Robert Moran; with prerecorded tape.
John Cage: three pieces for solo piano
Sylvano Bussotti: Piano Piece for David Tudor 3     Robert Moran
LaMonte Young: 42 for Henry Flynt     Peter Winkler, gong
Shin-ichi Matsushita: Hexahedra     Third Annual Ensemble
Morton Feldman: Durations 1 for piano, violin, and cello
                           Durations 3 for piano, violin, and tuba
Charles Shere: Two Pieces for two cellos
     Ed Nylund, Gwendolyn Watson, cellos
Closing Concert: April 4, 1965, 8 pm

Shinichi Matsushita: Hexahedra     Third Annual Ensemble
Shere: Accompanied Vocal Exercises     Linda Fulton, soprano; Peter Winkler, piano
Galen Schwab: Homage to Anestis Logothetis
Moran: Invention, Book I     Robert Moran, piano
Anestis Logothetis: Centres
John Cage: Variations II     Third Annual Ensemble

Third Annual Festival of the Avant Garde Ensemble:

John Thomas, voice; Nelson Green, horn; Arthur Schwab, Robert Moran, Ian Underwood and Peter Winkler, piano; Linda Fulton, soprano; Georges Rey and John Tenney, violin; Ed Nylund, Gwendolyn Watson, cello; Jim Basye, tuba; Charles Shere, bass drum and cymbals; William Maginnis, percussion; Judy Winkler, door and piano interior

I don't recall who played flute or bassoon in Quaderno, or who played piano and violin in the Feldman pieces. I do remember the hall was pretty well full for the opening concert, say 150 people. We scheduled the Soft Concert — so called because it was generally rather quiet — late, because a big Ernst Bloch memorial had been scheduled for that night in Marin county, and we knew a lot of our audience would be playing in it, so we scheduled the Soft Concert late, starting at 11 p.m. to give people a chance to get to 321 Divisadero. In the event, we had a full house.

Jim Basye had never played solo tuba before, it was his 16th birthday and the performance was gorgeous. The Japanese composer Shinichi Matsushita had never been heard in San Francisco before. 42 for Henry Flynt almost brought me and Bob Hughes to blows, in a disagreement which was finally healed later when he heard the piece again, a few years later, played just for him at a symposium at Esalen. Peter Winkler's performance at this Festival was much better, as can be heard online.

When I last wrote about the Festival, in 1975, I concluded with a Where Are They Now paragraph. Many are gone from this realm entirely, alas. All the composers were living when their music was programmed; of them Brown, Cage, Haubenstock-Ramati, Matsushita, Feldman, and Logothetis have left us, and I don't know about Galen Schwab, who seemed ephemeral even at the time.

Commonplace: the uses of history

WHAT HAS TRADITIONALLY set historians apart from all other commentators on the past is their conviction that the past has both the ability to elucidate itself and a right to do so. This has meant respecting the past and recognizing that it knows as much about human nature as we do. The trick has always been not to make the past more amenable to us in our terms, but to make ourselves more able to think in its terms. Historians who do their job well know how to vanish before their subjects. Their readers put down their books believing that they have gotten to know intimately not the mind of the historian but the people of another age, and that they have had their own values challenged in the process.

Because of the bias of much new history against literate people with means, there has been a tendency to lose sight of sources that best preserve the voice of the past. As historical subjects, voiceless people without means have admittedly proven more amenable to confirming the truths about human nature that modern historians hold to be self-evident. But having means and being literate do not necessarily preclude ordinary experience or make one incapable of exemplifying ordinary life. By the sixteenth century it is certainly common to find literate people from good families whose lives are ordinary to the point of impoverishment. And unlike the voiceless masses whose human experience and culture they share, these people are also able to speak for their age. They explain as well as act. They not only have experiences typical of their time but do so self-consciously. They enable the historian to interpret the past with evidence from contemporaries. As a result historical study becomes a genuine dialogue between past and present.

- Steven Ozment: Three Behaim Boys: Growing Up in Early Modern Germany
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), p. xii