Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Road trip

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Paso Robles, March 29, 2016—
WE'RE ON A SHORT road trip with a 13-year-old grandson, introducing him to favorite California roads of ours. Until recently I've hoarded some of these roads, telling only certain and special people about them, not wanting them to become too well known. Today I discovered (once again) the folly of this kind of stinginess. They've become better known, of course, as the California population has grown from 20 million in 1970, when we first drove some of these roads, to nearly twice as many today.

Still, they are marvelous roads, two-lane roads, relatively well paved for the most part, through the ranchland and mixed woodland tracing the San Andreas fault from Hollister in the north to San Miguel in the south. The northern half of the road began this morning, for us, at one of my favorite landscapes, looking across the broad San Juan Valley northeast of the Mission San Juan Bautista, and took us first to the formerly sleepy agricultural town of Hollister — now famous as a tee shirt brand and disfigured by shopping centers — to Highway 198, which runs east-west from San Ardo to Coalinga, neither of which towns we actually saw.

The southern half — ah, that's a very special road. It's been improved since last I drove it, several years ago; more of its own northern half has been paved, and today there was no water in the creek, meaning we didn't have to put our Prius to the test of fording open water.

From the summit, at 3500 feet, the road — now gravelled, not paved — drops down into Parkfield, population 18. Today both the motel and the restaurant were closed, so we continued, turning southwesterly, to close the day at a second favorite mission, San Miguel, where the church has been beautifully restored following a long closure after the disastrous earthquake of Dec. 22, 2003.

The proximate motivation of this trip was wildflower season. This year's rains suggested there would finally be a season worth seeing, and the Highway 198, at Priest Valley, promises much for tomorrow's leg, in the Carrizo Plain. The photo at the head of this post was taken toward San Miguel; the one here at the foot, in Priest Valley, looking north. Buttercups, poppies, lupine, owl's clover so far, and others not yet indentified. We'll see what happens next. IMG 6199

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Ladies Voices


followed by


an opera in five acts to words by


music by



commissioned by the Noh Oratorio Society for

instrumentation: three sopranos
woodwind quintet:
flute (also piccolo), oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon
percussion (one player):
trap set, chime in D, antique cymbal

Eastside Road, March 18, 2016—

LADIES VOICES was first performed at the Berkeley Art Center, October 30, 1987, by Judy Ruth Hubbell and Anna Carol Dudley, sopranos; Marcia Gronewold, mezzo-soprano; Patrice Hambleton, flute; Robin May, oboe; Tom Rose, clarinet; Stuart Gronningen, horn; Robert Hughes, bassoon; William Winant, percussion. It was commissioned by Claude Duval and the Noh Oratorio Society for a concert at the Hatley Martin Gallery, San Francisco, November 16, 1987, when the role of the third lady was taken by Judith Nelson.

The Noh Oratorio Society flourished in San Francisco during the 1980s, largely (as I believe) through the benign creative energies of Claude Duvall, calligrapher, actor, stage director, litterateur. The Noh Oratorio Society had a wide range of interests, but always put a priority on the human voice and the use of language: they produced, for example, Michael McClure's ! The Feast ! in 1982; Chaucer's Parlement of Fowles in 1987; Edith Sitwell and William Walton's Fa├žade in 1987; Robert Duncan's Faust Foutu in 1989; and many other works in various venues in the San Francisco Bay Area over a course of twelve or fifteen years.

I have no idea why he or his Society asked me to supply them with a little opera: probably through our shared enthusiasm for Gertrude Stein, some of whose poems I had already set as songs for voice with various instrumental accompaniment.

The brittle, hectoring music of the opera was composed on a Macintosh computer, as an exercise for a course I was taking in computer composition at San Francisco State University, taught by the composer Herbert Bielawa. We worked with the Apple Mac Plus computer, using software produced in those days by Mark of the Unicorn: Professional Composer for notation; another program whose name I don't now recall for a sequencer.

The classic Schoenbergian manipulations of melodic material are Transposition, which is setting the tune on a different starting pitch; Inversion, which is the tune upside-down, you might say; Retrograde, which is the tune stated backward; and of course Retrograde Inversion, which is both methods used simultaneously. These are easy techniques for the computer, which allows the composer to select a melodic passage of virtually any length, copy it, and paste it into the score elsewhere — in a different instrument, on a different pitch level, with augmented or diminished note-values (longer notes, shorter ones), or upside-down, or backward Ladies Voices takes advantage of these possibilities.

It is also a study in harmonic writing that avoids conventional tonality, following sporadic discussions I had had in the course of various visits with Virgil Thomson, and an early example of a growing obsession with counting: in the first act, for example, the snare drum sounds five notes to introduce the first soprano's first word, "Six," and 75 notes in all before the third soprano's last word, "Seventy-five."

The opera sets two plays of Stein's: A Curtain Raiser (1913) and Ladies Voices (1916). David M. Boje has written of Stein's theater with insight:

Gertrude Stein wrote 77 plays between 1913 and 1979 that fall under the general heading, Theatre of the Absolute. Absolute Theatre sacrifices developmental story (the dynamic movement to climax and receding from it) in order to invite the spectator to explore the present moment, and to stay in the present tense of theatrical experience. Stein was focused on opening a space in time, to explore the present moment. Stein wanted to free herself from the grip of developmental storytelling, the progress of time imposed upon story by the coherent narrative form that dominates traditional theatre. Stein sought to break free of the alternative reality created in developmental storytelling, and instead let the play be the reality that the spectators made sense of in the present moment of performance. …

A Curtain Raiser (1913), and Ladies' Voices (1916)… attempt to focus the spectators' attention on the present moment, on unfolding rhythms and textures(e.g. a series of non-referential numbers), with fragments of conversation, etc, all without a developing storyline. Instead of the progress of a coherent (linear) storyline with beginning middle and end, Stein uses fragments of dialogue that isolate from other fragments of dialogue.

(In the Four Seas (first) edition of Geography and Plays, in which the text was first published, an apostrophe sometimes occurs in the word “ladies,” sometimes does not. It has been suppressed throughout in my opera in the interest of consistency.)

I set the two plays in sequence to make a chamber opera in five acts exploring the psychological and musical nuances of three ladies of Gertrude Stein's milieu — the cultured, literary, leisurely set of liberated women in the first decade of the 20th century. Neither plot, setting nor scenario are supplied in Stein's text, but I see no reason to suppress them in production. I imagine a rather tense situation, with the second and third soprano pairing off apart from Genevieve, the first soprano, whose spiritualist trance in Act III contrasts with the amorous play of the other two ladies in Act IV.

I would prefer the instruments to be unseen by the audience, but would like three men and a string quartet to be upstage somewhere in the drawing room of Act II, the quartet possibly to be miming the performance of the opening of my second Stein opera, I Like It to Be a Play.

Act I (Curtain Raiser): The Theater, before the curtain (During the second performance these titles were for some reason spoken aloud at the beginning of each scene. This need not be considered a precedent.)
The three sopranos stage center right, discussing quantities among themselves. Winds and percussion in pit, if available, or in wings, or upstate right behind curtain; in any case unseen throughout the opera.
Act II: A Drawing room, late afternoon
A fashionable room in a Tuscan villa, ca. 1912. The ladies are in afternoon dress, probably at tea. The winds and percussion remain invisible, but a string quartet may be seen upstage left, alternately playing (silently) and resting, talking among themselves. The members of the quartet are never heard.
Act III: The drawing room, toward evening
The french windows at the back of the drawing room have been opened, exposing a flagstone or terrazzo terrace leading to a small formal garden beyond. Chaises-longues, side tables, a bar trolley. The string quartet no longer so evident; or perhaps its members are soundlessly among the company; or functioning as waiters, bartender, etc. The three ladies grow more expressive and animated.
Act IV: Garden terrace outside the drawing room. Later that evening
Twilight. The ladies have descended the steps into the near areda of the garden. The men are rarely visible, and that only at the extreme sides of the stage, engaged in mute conversation or business. The mood is expectant.
Act V scene 1: The Garden. Quite dark.
Act V scene 2: The same.
Duration: 9 minutes
I rehearsed and conducted the first two performances of Ladies Voices. The second performance was recorded, though not very well. (The recording reveals the interpolation of A few years later I was asked to change the orchestration for a performance at The College of Notre Dame, in Belmont, with unsatisfactory results.

The score was published, with a cover illustration, reproduced above, by the San Francisco painter Inez Storer, by Fallen Leaf Press, in 1996 (Fallen Leaf Publications in Contemporary Music (ISSN 8755-2698), No. 78.) It is available, with a set of instrumental parts, from Frog Peak.

The recording can be heard here.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Back to the blog…

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Eastside Road, March 4, 2016—

MARCH. TWO MONTHS into the new year, I resume. I was apparently temporarily frozen, the proverbial deer in the headlights, in the face of a return to this country after a pleasant and eventful European interlude, dismayed by the level of public discourse, discouraged by a number of unfinished projects left over from the old year, distracted by the stupid daily errands and repairs.

Distracted by further travels, too. A week after our return from Stockholm, January 11; we drove down to Los Angeles, returning via Reno (Nevada). Along the way we stopped at Manzanar. This is the site of one of the infamous relocation camps hastily improvised for thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry, taken from their homes on the West Coast and held for the duration of World War II.

The site is ten miles north of Lone Pine, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, the flat, windswept, arid desert at the foot of that remarkable range, near the highest peak in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney. The photo above will give you an idea: it shows the monument in the former cemetery, with a view of the Sierra — the “Range of Light” — in the background. In the foreground, desert.

I have dim memory of that relocation. In 1941 I turned six years old. I lived, with my parents, in a middle-class neighborhood in central Berkeley. A number of Japanese-American families lived in bungalows along Grove Street; I seem to recall the carp ponds in their back yards. One day these families were gone: rounded up, taken away.

The area around Manzanar had a long, complicated, troubled history. Native Americans hunted, gathered, and gardened it for centuries. They were edged out by pioneer whites in the 19th century, attracted by the climate and its agricultural potential, especially after the coming of the railroads, which facilitated marketing.

Manzana is Spanish for “apple.” It was given the name in the 20th century, when it had become an improbably prosperous fruit-raising area. Fairly rich soil, hot summers, cold winters, and abundant water, and the patient and skilful attention of a few hard-working families, produced hundreds of tons of fruit for the quickly growing Los Angeles market  until that city realized its water was even more crucial to its future, and diverted it all for its own use, quickly reducing the land to desert.

The farmers sold their water rights and were left with barren land. Fortunately for them, empty land, on a rail line but far from “sensitive” coastal areas, were exactly what was needed to house a hundred thousand “relocated” Americans — temporarily, of course, just for the duration of the war. 

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This is what Manzanar looked like during World War II. The railroad stretches north and south along the eastern edge of the “camp,” whose neat, orderly blocks of bunkhouses are hygienically set apart to minimize the threats of fire and disease. Each array of eight or so bunkhouses has its own mess hall and two common lavatory-shower facilities, one for each sex. There were minimal recreational facilities — basketball court, baseball diamond — and, of course, the remnants of broken-down orchards, and chickenyards, and a factory where women could help make parachutes and other nonstrategic items needed by the war effort.

1Improbably, the prisoners —for that is what they were —made the best of things. They even made gardens. The federal government has installed an admirable explanatory center at Manzanar, and developed a self-guided tour of the facility. We drove the tour — with a few stops for photographs, and meditating, it took almost an hour. It took us, for example, to the cemetery, on the western edge of the site.

Along the way there were a number of explanatory panels. On one of these a faded color photograph recalls one of the traditional Japanese gardens these people managed to create:

“You are standing before San-shi-en, or 3-4 Garden. Water once flowed over these silent stones, soothing troubled spirits and easing the monotony of long mealtime lines. Designed and bilt by internees, mess hall gardens served as a source of block identity and pride.

“These and other gardens in Blocks 9, 12, and 22, share symbolic roots in ancient Japanese design. In each, you will find three distinct levels aligned north to south: a hill of earth represents the mountains from which water flows south to a pond, symbolizing an ocean or lake. Here, internees planted trees from the camp nursery and hauled stones from the rugged Inyo Mountains to the east."

1  2After the camp was abandoned in 1945 these gardens were gradually buried under windblown sand and the sediment left by springtime snowmelt. Archaeologists unearthed this one in 1999, and reconstructed the fence that had protected it. They have not reconstructed the garden itself; only its rocky bones, as you see in the second photograph here.

One of the mess halls, and one of the bunkhouses, has been restored and is left open for visitors to inspect. Here too welcome, fairly detailed, and sympathetic explanatory panels help the visitor understand just what life must have been like for these people. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph these interiors — it’s just too poignant, too intimate a glimpse into what may have been the most injurious aspect of this place: its theft of the dignity of its occupants.

A number of photographs show them as they were, in this place, at that time. They are surprisingly modern, lively, optimistic. They put on a good face, whether for their own morale, or for the benefit of whatever eventual onlooker they expected these photographs to find. They are well dressed, in the plaid pleated skirts and the sweaters and wide trousers of the early 1940s. You can be sure — there’s photographic evidence — that they jitterbugged to big-band swing; they played cards; they swapped stories.

Ultimately they survived, most of them, and returned, somehow, to a normal life. The war over, they were given twenty-five dollars and a bus ticket to Los Angeles. If they were lucky, a kind neighborhood might have looked after their homes and farms. They were a stoic lot, for the most part, and patiently endured their readjustment, as they had their confinement. Ultimately, during the Reagan administration, the government recognized its error, apologized, and paid a modest compensation.

The National Park Service has done a fine job recording all this, and making it available to visitors. They’ve done this, of course, in order to ensure that such an injustice may never be repeated. It’s something to consider during this presidential campaign. 
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Looking west toward Mt. Whitney

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