Friday, August 29, 2014

Top Ten

A friend posts, on Facebook — yes, I spend some time there every day —
[A friend] tagged me, asking for a list of ten books that have stayed with me in some way, so here goes, off the top of my head, right this minute:

Paul Klee, Pedagogical Sketchbook
Lou Harrison, Lou Harrison's Music Primer
Vergil, Georgics
N.O. Brown, Closing Time
Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day
James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State
Benedict Anderson, Language and Power
Marshall G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam
Lawrence Weschler, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin
Edward Gorey, The Raging Tide, or the Black Doll's Imbroglio

"Rules: Don't take more than a few minutes and do not think too hard. They don't have to be the "right" books or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way. Then tag 5 friends including me so I can see your list. Don't make fun of me. No particular order." So, on to:
and then, of course, he leads a list of five Facebook friends with me.

After nodding at three of his choices and agreeing with their worth I gave the matter a little thought, more than a few minutes, because it's in my nature to disregard direct instructions. So many books came to mind: Montaigne first, curiously; then Robert Nathan's One More Spring, of all things; Crime and Punishment, Shakespeare… would it be fair to consider the Encyclopedia Brittanica one of ten books? Even Brittanica Jr., which meant so much to me in my childhood?

Finnegans Wake. Tender Buttons. How restrict myself to only one Henry James novel, or one Austen? What about Tristram Shandy? Gulliver's Travels? The Great Gatsby?
How could I exclude Mallarmé, or the Tintin books, or Chekhov, or Turgenev? Pirandello?

Look at the relatively recent reading: Manzoni, Herman Bang, Harry Mulisch, Sebald, Walter Benjamin, Geert Mak, Woolf, Lady Murasaki, Vittorini, Levi, Patrick Leigh Fermor…

No, I'm sorry, Daniel; this is not a matter for the top of my head. Or, rather, this is the way the top of my head seems always to work — perhaps simply because, at my age, I have the leisure to take my time getting to the top.

In the end I think I've been honest: these are the — well, yes, eleven — books that have stayed with me in some way, over rather a long span. There's not a title here that hasn't been staying with me for at least twenty-five years, maybe thirty; and two or three of them made their first impression close to seventy years ago.

Are they in no particular order? No: they're in the order in which they occurred to me, in the course of the great sifting; and perhaps the last retrieved, of the eleven, were the first to make their impress…

Don't make fun of me.
R. H. Blyth: Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics
John Cage: Silence
Christopher Alexander et al.: A Pattern Language
Wallace Stevens: Collected Poems
Francis Ponge: Le savon
W. A. Mozart: Letters
Georges Perec: W or the memory of childhood
Marcel Duchamp: Notes to the large glass
Homer: Iliad
Deems Taylor (ed.): A Treasury of Gilbert and Sullivan
Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farmer Boy
I've sent this on to five friends, of course, staying with Daniel's game. It'll be interesting to see if they join in…

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Requiem with oboe

•Charles Shere: Requiem with Oboe.
Healdsburg: Ear Press, 2014
Full study score, 6x9, 48 pages
Available at, $9.99
FINALLY PUBLISHED: the full score to my short Requiem Mass, with the interpolation of two poems by Wallace Stevens, set for eight solo voices (or double chorus) with obbligato solo oboe.

I composed the music in 1985, shortly after the death of my mother, just short of her seventy-fifth birthday. You see her there at the left, probably about eight years old, one sock up, the other down, in an old snapshot taken I suppose in Shanghai where she spent her first twelve years, the third of nine children born to a high-school teacher from Sonoma county, in China to avoid a mother-in-law who was apparently giving him trouble. (The family returned to Berkeley as soon as she died.)

My mother admitted freely that she had a tin ear, and I never heard her play the violin, or any other instrument. Or sing, now that I think about it. She recited poetry, sometimes in German, but she was not what you'd call musical. My father was: though he never finished grammar school, he was an intelligent man and a constant reader, and fond of singing, and could play any instrument put in his hands (though I never put a bowed instrument there). But my mother, no.

In her middle years, when she'd returned to college to get a teaching credential, she most improbably signed up for a music-appreciation course. She had her own way of memorizing themes she was supposed to recognize at exam time: I remember her chanting
see the hor-ses run-ning up and down and up… and… down
to a frisky tune in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, for example. But she never really cottoned to the standard repertory. I can't recall her ever going to a concert. Dad did, once, when I was sick in bed, and couldn't get to a performance of the Santa Rosa Symphony; for some reason he went in my stead, and found it lengthy but occasionally rousing, and even brought me the program, autographed by the night's soloist; who, I don't recall. But my mother, no: she wasn't interested.

The only music I ever heard her approve was, for some reason, Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. I had an ancient recording, conducted by the composer himself, with Erica Stiedry-Wagner sprechtstimming the solo part, and she used to listen to it every now and then, with a determined look in her eye. She said she liked it because it didn't fight with itself, by which I think she meant the lines were clear. I wonder how many of the lay public would have agreed with her. I never thought to ask precisely what it was in the piece that interested her: now that I think about it, it may have been the poetry, written originally in French, translated for Schoenberg's purpose into German — both languages she'd studied, how thoroughly I never really knew, in school, in China.

At any rate, my Requiem. It was commissioned (though no money ever changed hands — a common procedure in those days, at least in my experience) by Christopher Fulkerson, a composer of determinedly modernist bent himself, for his chamber chorus Ariel. This was a vocal octet, the conventional SSAATTBB configuration, but comprising eight very good singers with experience with modernist music, good ears, quite clear diction, and supple phrasing. Chris was a good conductor, too, shaping the lines well, maintaining the pitch, balancing the dynamics, bringing out the poetic heart of the texts.

(A few months earlier, Chris had been instrumental — vocal, I mean — well, no, he didn't talk all that much, he was in fact instrumental — in the production of about a third of my Duchamp opera, at Mills College: he found and rehearsed the chorus, some of whom came from Ariel, and took a solo line himself, very nicely.)

Chris had asked for a piece for a cappella voices, but for some reason I wanted to add the oboe. I wanted an aural emblem of a creature from another dimension, to bring the listener out of the contemplation of dying that any Requiem necessarily involves, and take the listener instead to a dimension we do not yet know, and an oboe in its highest register seemed appropriate.

Nor did I set all the usual text of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. The scary Dies Irae has become a cliché, and anyway death doesn't seem scary to me, in any case shouldn't be dwelled on, I think, as a thing to fear, since after all it is inevitable. And of course the parts about a personal savior don't comply with my own view of things, so I couldn't represent myself as agreeing with certain other components of the Ordinary.

For those parts I substituted two poems by a favorite of mine, Wallace Stevens, who I had reason to believe my mother had also liked, though like so much else his poetry was something we'd never talked about. Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself, with its window on "a new knowledge of reality," gave me a chance to introduce the high keening oboe, and "Of Mere Being," whose "palm at the end of the mind" seemed to promise a symbolic destination of sorts, provide me, at any rate, with a more spiritual, less sentimental, unearthly alternative to conventional ideas of afterlife.

I wasn't around for the rehearsals of the Requiem: as I recall, I first heard it at its premiere, oddly given in the old Vorpal Gallery in San Francisco's North Beach. I thought it went pretty well. I wish I had a better recording of it: the voices in the live recording made, I don't know whether at rehearsal or performance, seem a little off-mike.

I don't have a program of that performance, and I don't know who the eight singers were — a pity. The high soprano, whose coloratura takes her up to a high E, was really spectacular; the two basses were properly sepulchral; everyone in between negotiated the lines splendidly. And Marilyn Coyne — the one name I do know, apart from Chris Fulkerson's — handled a difficult oboe part with grace, drama, and total musicality.

And, while I agree with the painter Jack Jefferson, who told me once, about reviews, that if you agree with the good ones you've got to buy the bad ones too, I can't help liking the review that showed up a couple of days later in the newspaper:
A Program of Modern Works By the Ariel Choral Group

... The night's outstanding item was the premiere of Charles Shere’s moving “Requiem With Oboe” (1985). ...

Shere’s Requiem both uses and shuns the traditional Latin text. Two of its four sections use the Roman Catholic liturgy — “Requiem aeterna” and “Hostias et preces.” But the larger part of the work employs two Wallace Stevens poems: “Not Ideas About the Thing, but the Thing Itself” and “Of Mere Being.”

Shere’s Requiem begins with a trope, “Requiem (mater) aeternam” — “mater” being an insert. Bits of the Latin text turn up briefly within the Stevens poems as well. To all this, Shere added snippets of oboe solos (played by Marilyn Coyne — mostly in the high register) as a kind of genteel wailing (the piece is dedicated to his late mother).

Shere set all this in a devoutly simple style. The idiom strongly leans on 14th and 15th century principles of counterpoint. What is heard is something of the motet manner, only updated into a freely atonal idiom.

What emerged was a softly lamenting cantata, liberated from violence or threats. There is, for instance, no hint of the Last Judgment. Shere has produced a work of tenderness roughly comparable to the Faure Requiem in mood.
Heuwell Tircuit, San Francisco Chronicle
You can get a copy of the score from for a measly ten dollars plus postage. (Of course the postage is a little exorbitant: be careful the sale site doesn't default to a next-day delivery!) I think you might even be able to download the score as an e-book, though I'm not sure about that. If you don't read music, buy a copy for your local library. If you sing in a chorus, or know someone who does, give it a look. It's not my favorite of my pieces, but I like it. I wouldn't mind hearing it again, maybe even sung by a full chorus. Besides, I've been thinking a lot about my mother lately…

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Friday, August 08, 2014

Terry St. John: paintings

•Terry St. John: New and Recent Paintings and Drawings.
Dolby Chadwick Gallery, 210 Post Street, San Francisco
Exhibition continues through August 30
Terry St. John: Thai Woman with Cup (2012), oil/canvas, 48x42 inches
WHAT A FINE PLEASURE to see these new and recent paintings by Terry St. John! For decades he has been a significant part of the Bay Area painting scene — a scene of international significance, profound, impressive, and vital. But he has been a quiet participant, working steadily in a community of neglected artists: I think of those three great underrated J's of the Bay Area abstract expressionism: Julius Hatofsky, Julius Wasserstein, and Jack Jefferson. I thought, too, looking at these new St. John paintings, of another J, certainly not underrated or neglected, the phenomenal Jay DeFeo.

St. John was born in Sacramento in 1934 but grew up in Berkeley — he was a schoolmate of mine at Garfield Junior High School in the late 1940s, though we weren't friends at the time. He came to painting only in his last year of college, when on seeing work a friend was doing, studying at the time with Richard Diebenkorn, he was struck by the clarity and presence of purpose the discipline offered. Frances Malcolm quotes him in her introductory essay in the catalogue to the current exhibition:
…above all else, I just wanted to paint paintings. Painting somehow gave me an opening to the future and a sense of hope… it was salutary.

St. John worked among other painters in his early days. He was a great friend of Lou Siegreist, the youngest and last surviving of the legendary Society of Six early modern Bay Area painters, and of his son Lundy; the three often painted en plein air in the local landscape, particularly the slopes of Mount Diablo. St. John worked for years at a day job, curating modern painting at the Oakland Museum. He taught, too, at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont.

In spite of his sociability, though, he has always impressed me as a kind of solitary — a man who knows and keeps his own place and counsel. You have the impression it is the solitary discipline of painting that holds and informs him, that defines his address to life and to context. Whether working in the landscape or in the studio, it's the sense of the passage of time, as Malcolm suggests, that energizes his work, leaves traces of light and shadow, develops the evolving colors, finds the balance of recessive depth, spatial organization, visual meaning.

I have loved his work for years, and am pleased to have a small landscape. But I was unprepared for the new and recent work now on view. I had lost touch with both him and his work in the last ten years. His painting has developed great strength, depth, complexity, and certainty. As can happen this late in life, he has found a great sense of assurance — these paintings are vibrant and full of energy, God knows; but they are serene, objective, composed, competent.

I like the way so much painting history, internationally and locally, is contained, even referred to, with knowledge and intelligence, on completely equal terms, without his work ever seeming the slightest bit derivative. Thai Woman with Cup, for example, is fully aware of Cubism; it makes me think of the CoBrA school too; its window recalls the Matisse behind Diebenkorn; the seated nude brings Elmer Bischoff to mind: but the complexity of the left third of the painting oddly balancing the cool window on the right is something new to me — and the red shoe!

The newest canvases here, from 2013. are exclusively paintings of the nude, mostly in interiors though occasionally ambiguously so, perhaps in tropical landscapes — for a number of years St. John was spending part of each year in Thailand. There are a few smaller landscapes, though, from not that long ago, showing the artist is loyal to the Bay Area, and that its views continue to ground the solidity and geometry of his vision, as well as the texture, color, and light.

Wine Haven (Pt. Molate) (2008)
Diablo (2010)
Woman with Green Bottle (2014)

I was asked, in the gallery, which painting I'd take home with me, if I could. (I couldn't afford any of them, of course; and in any case every one of them seems already to have been sold.) Woman with Green Bottle, I said. The strength and solidity of the others is here, but I like the comparative simplicity, the domesticity, the classical subtlety of its geometrical relationships, the relationship of bottle, drapery, and the painting on the wall. I like the sense of history. And most of all, I think, I like the humor pervading the entire vision. St. John seems to have arrived at a sense of unusually sure and engaged and bemused awareness of existence, and I'm glad for the opportunity he gives of sharing it.
Bay Area Expressionism
I leave him, and you, dear reader, with a quick survey of some of the painters I've mentioned above, to provide some context for this sumptuous show of a painter arrived at mastery:
Lou Siegriest
Jack Jefferson
Julius Hatofsky
Julius Wasserstein

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Reading (and not reading) Fermor

Christmas 2010: My dear daughter-in-law, the granddaughter of a Nobelist on the Berkeley faculty, brought up unconventionally in Berkeley (as was conventional in Berkeley), the owner of a feedstore in Mendocino county, gives me a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts.

I read it the following spring, and by May 15 had also read its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water.

Then last month, July 7 to be exact, I read the final book in the trilogy, The Broken Road. I know these dates because I have the habit of writing the dates I begin (usually) and finish (nearly always) a book on the first and last page (respectively). I also tend to tick margins and write notes or at least page numbers down on the end-paper, though these days I’ll sometimes just photograph a relevant paragraph, either for posting here as a Commonplace, or for filing in a folder of Reading Notes someplace.

(Technical note: I convert the photo on my iPhone using an app called Pixter, and usually file the result in Evernote.)

A search of this blog finds Fermor mentioned only twice so far:
December 30 2011: So many books read this last year, so few of them commented on here. End-of-year reflections will haunt me for the next seven weeks, I'm sure — I'll be too busily distracted for them after that — so I won't anguish over my failure to share notes on Frederic Tuten, or Patrick Leigh Fermor, or Carolyn Brown, or Patti Smith, to cite only the most impressive of the authors I've learned from recently.

November 21 2012 (written in Australia): The shop reminded me of those of fifty years ago, a series of small rooms with crowded shelves, well enough organized but better suited to browsing than go-and-get shopping (except that my age and size make the necessary floor-crouching difficult between close-set bookshelves). I looked for a copy of something by Patrick Leigh Fermor to give to my brother, who's done his share of global wandering, but found only the new biography, which I must hasten to obtain. (It was far too large to carry on the airplane). What I did find was [Laurens van der Post’s] Venture to the Interior, in a dog-eared Penguin paperbound that must be thirty years old.

P. Leigh Fermor has been recalcitrant, mysteriously so. He’s considered one of the great travel writers. He began traveling in December 1934, only sixteen, by setting out on foot, with five pounds sterling in his pocket and another five promised monthly at waypoints, heading from his rural English home for Istanbul. December, 1934, crossing Germany on Foot! What was his mother thinking of?

He kept a journal, but lost it, later found it, lost it again. He met rich men and paupers, royalty, diplomats, shepherds, thieves. He supported himself for a while painting portraits of strangers. He fell, memorably, in love. He struck up amazing friendships.

And he walked — which is what excited me, in 2011, when my own recent walk from Geneva to Nice was still in my mind (as it continues to be; will always be).

A Time of Gifts appeared in 1977; it was later reissued by the New York Review of Books; I don’t know what brought it to my daughter-in-law’s attention. I read it hungrily, excited by the walk, but also impressed by Leigh Fermor’s wide-ranging intellectual curiosity (history, art, food, languages, high and vernacular culture) and his detailed, enthusiastic accounts. As soon as possible I went on to Between the Woods and the Water (1986; also reissued by NYRB). Since my grandson Henry, who’d accompanied me through the Alps, had already read the first book, I lent him the sequel as soon as I’d finished it.

Then I waited, impatiently, for the third and final volume. Trouble was, Leigh Fermor had not written it, and he was getting on, and it was likely it would never appear. But, of course, it has appeared, in a sense — posthumously, edited by Artemis Cooper. (It was Cooper's biography, Patick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, that I'd neglected to buy in Australia; it too is now available from NYRB.)

No one would claim the result would have satisfied the author, who’d put the project aside decades before, then was talked into revisiting it in his final years. I’m sure his mind was sound to the end; but I think he may have lost interest.* It had been a long time since he’d finished the second volume; a much longer time since the events themselves had unrolled.

Still, *The Broken Road* is a wonderful book, vivid, interesting, a bit nostalgic. It made me want to see Bucharest again, and explore Bulgaria. It certainly makes me want to hit the trail again soon — I’d hoped to get up to the Sierra this summer, but that looks increasingly unlikely.

But here’s the reason I’m posting this: Lindsey finally got around to A Time of Gifts, and was as impressed as I, and wanted to go on immediately to Between the Woods and the Water. Would I find it for her? Sure, I said, it’s around here somewhere. (FERE ALIQVVBI HIC ILLVD SCIO, says Bhishma’s handsomely calligraphed note, pinned next to the computer.)

Trouble was, it was nowhere to be found. Then I remembered loaning it. Never do that with a book you love. Finally I ordered another copy, reasoning the loan had turned into a gift in its turn, and why not?

Immediately, of course, the first copy materialized — on the dining table, in plain sight.

This surpasses all rational reality, I said to Lindsey, who was not so sure. I’ve been reading (and tremendously enjoying Harry Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven these last few days, and the oddly erratic realities enveloping his characters may have begun to appear here…

*I may be projecting here. I've dropped more than one project after too many years of fussing…