Saturday, November 19, 2016

Wandering among sound

Screen Shot 2016 11 18 at 9 14 41 AM
Eastside Road, November 19, 2016—
"Songs move through time, seeking their final form. What happens on that path is only partly up to the writer, the singer, the musicians. It may be partly up to the audience hearing the songs, watching them as they are performed, with the response of the audience, even of a single member of the audience, coming back to the performers…"
—Greil Marcus, writing of "Bob Dylan, Master of Change," in the New York Times, October 13, 2016

FOR A NUMBER of days I've been working a few hours at re-notating a piece I wrote in 1974: Dates, a sort of chamber cantata for soprano and three instrumentalists, to Gertrude Stein's poem collection of that name.

The notation has not been easy, because the original notation is not completely conventional. Much of the piece is in mobile form, meaning that the musicians are given a certain amount of latitude as to just when they play their notes. (The name comes from Alexander Calder's hanging sculptures, whose shapes take various overlapping configurations literally depending on which way the wind blows. Marcel Duchamp referred to these sculptures, when they first appeared, as "mobiles," and the name stuck.) The notes themselves are stipulated, as well as the order in which they are played; but I wanted to give them precisely the freedom Greil suggests "songs" themselves have, the freedom to seek their own final form. "Final," it must be added, only provisionally, for that one performance.

Mobile form, like the related "open form," is of course one of the conventions that developed in the 1950s and '60s, when musical composition was finding new energies in its dissatisfaction with the constraints of traditional musical forms and organization of pitches (whether tonal or serial). You might call it is a conservative view of the indeterminacy of sounds pioneered by John Cage. I think of it as a way for the composer to moderate his authority and perhaps suppress his ego.

Perhaps there's an analogy with the method Stein employed to write her poetry. She worked late at night, alone of course, in the silence of her apartment, at her writing desk; but I believe she recalled words she'd heard or overheard in the course of the day, letting them appear as they would among other words taken from previously published sources, or in the continual process of meditation.

Dates was written for a concert I helped organize in February 1974 on the occasion of Stein's centennial birthday; but also for my friend the clarinetist Tom Rose, who needed a new piece to play for his postgraduate degree at Mills College, where I was then teaching. I added two other instrumentalists to the mix, both then also teaching there, both now alas no longer with us: the marvelous violinist Nathan Rubin, who doubled easily on viola, and the engaging yet serious percussionist Jack van der Wyk.

The cantata is in three movements and runs to nearly fourteen minutes in the one recording I have. (Since it is in mobile form the possible duration of the piece can vary within limits.) Today I'm sharing only a minute and a half of the piece, to illustrate the mobile-form concept. The score is reproduced above; you can listen to the excerpt here. (This performance features the late Judy Nelson, soprano, and the instrumentalists for whom the music was intended: Tom Rose, Nathan Rubin, Jack van der Wyk.)

The recorded excerpt opens with the last words of the fifth poem in the cycle, then immediately moves into the Trio shown above, on which the soprano superimposes the sixth poem:

        Soiled pin.
        Soda soda.
        Soda soda.

        Not a particle wader
        Add send dishes.

I'll have more to say about Dates, perhaps, when I've finished notating the entire score. I reproduce below the original manuscript of this excerpt…

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Friday, November 18, 2016

Against authority

Eastside Road, November 18, 2016—

FOR A COUPLE of weeks now I've been thinking, from time to time, of the production we saw on Sunday, November 6, of Jean Genet's play The Maids. It was the last of three plays we'd seen produced by A Noise Within, the Pasadena professional repertory company we have subscribed to for the last fifteen years. (I wrote previously about the other two plays: Molière's The Imaginary Invalid and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia: you can read those comments here and here.)

It was a very strong performance of a quite effective production of a neglected major play, cast on three tremendously effective actresses; and its narrative intensity, concerning the fantasies of two sisters who serve as maids-in-waiting to a rich bourgeoise, left me (and the rest of the audience, I'm sure) drained. Still it seemed to me the next day, as we drove the four hundred miles home, that it would be easy to write about it. I had two entries into the task. The benign one concerned an old lady we met twenty years ago, a well-to-do Frenchwoman, who lived in a 17th-century fort with her even older bonne, the maid who'd attended to her when she was a little girl, and who'd been given to her by her parents as a wedding present, and who was now so old and decrepit the roles had been reversed, and the old lady was waiting on her maid.

That's a much prettier story than the one Genet based his play on, a crime which in fact took place in France in the early 1930s, when two sisters from an unprivileged family, gone into service, developed over the years a fantasy life feeding apparently on their resentment for their employer, each in turn playing the part of Madame, acting out a fantasy in which they murder her.

That gave me my second insight into the play: it is, of course, I thought, a parable of the French Revolution. An orderly structure prevails, but it rests on the exploitation of the lower orders, who ultimately rebel — in this unfortunate case killing the master(s). That would be an interesting way to address this play, particularly on the eve of our national election, which threatened, I thought, to install an autocrat in the White House.

But then before I could find the time to sit down and write the election took place, the day after we returned home; and the returns came in, much more quickly than I'd expected, and here we are.

I had thought all along Trump would prevail. I thought so during the primary campaign, when everyone around me disagreed; and I thought so after the conventions, when everyone around me called me a pessimist. It's not much comfort in this case to be able to say "I told you so."

If The Maids is a parable of the French Revolution, it is also a parable of the Trump campaign. Much of the electorate seems to have been in the position of those poor sisters: working (or not) in a system that provides them employment and identity within a context they don't understand, don't appreciate, don't want, a system that has evolved mysteriously within economic and cultural conventions they don't fathom (nor do I, often); resenting the system, their dependency on it, their invisibility within it from the point of view of those who profit from it.

The sisters cope with all this by developing a rich fantasy life. When their mistress is away they take turns playing her role, each as mistress forcing the other as maid to ever more degrading and servile positions — this while at the same time conspiring to escape their situation by murdering their employer. You don't have to look far for an analogy with those unemployed and underemployed Trump supporters who aspire perhaps one day to be Trumps themselves, if not in terms of wealth at least in terms of self-certainty; and who in the process will likely wind up destroying the fabric that provides their pittance, unsatisfactory as it is.

The Noise Within production, designed by Frederica Nascimento and directed by Stephanie Shroyer, respected every intention of Genet's script, translated by Bernard Frechtman. The set distributed the casual artifice of an Art Deco apartment across a big stage; the cheap opulence suggested Madame's detached, airy yet somehow troubled persona well, important because the character does not actually appear until quite late in the one-act, ninety-minute play.

The two maids were well cast and splendidly acted. Donnla Hughes was Solange, the elder sister, withdrawn, furtive almost, observant, calculating. Jaimi Paige was Claire, the younger, emotional, distressed, nervously sensitive, impulsive. They were convincingly older and younger sisters, and Genet depends on that intimate relationship as he investigates the closeted nature of their position. But they went deep into the individual qualities of the personalities as well, suggesting distinct meanings of both the position and their responses to it.

Emily Kosloski played Madame, an interesting role that packs a lot of depth and detail into relatively infrequent and restricted stage presence. Here the production helped, for she is as present figuratively, through both stage decor and the sisters' fantasies, as she is physically when on stage.

It's not important at this point, with the entire Noise Within fall schedule now behind us, but I want to mention that the final two scheduled performances of The Maids were cancelled, in order to add two extra performances of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. We have subscribed to the company for years both for the quality and range of the productions and for the convenience of seeing three plays within just a few days. We'd been planning to see the final weekend, which would have been just last week; in the event, we had to reschedule. At this point I think it's just as well: seeing Genet's play after the election might have been just too depressing. In any case the company did everything it could to facilitate our last-minute change.

I'm sorry, though, that they decided to sacrifice Genet to Stoppard. I suppose box office had a lot to do with this. If so, another indication of what's wrong these days: publicity, entertainment value, and vogue override investigation, thoughtful interpretation, and substance. That's how it is these days.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Parallel narratives

Pasadena, California, November 6, 2016—

BEAR WITH ME: I am thinking at the keyboard: how to describe my reactions to two recent productions of Tom Stoppard plays.

I don't like to miss any chance of seeing a Stoppard play. For far too long I refused to see Travesties, his first big success, because I thought (from what I had read, always a poor way to approach an intellectual decision) he was infringing on the creative property of one of his subjects, James Joyce. 

(Joyce, Stein, Ives, Cage, Picasso, Duchamp: my double trio of heros in my formative youth.)

It was only the press and critical noise that attended Arcadia, many years later, that persuaded me finally to confront Stoppard on the boards, and I haven't really looked back since. I find his range, his characterization, his language quite fascinating. I rarely leave a performance of Stoppard without thinking, and usually thinking of writing. His work is literally inspiring.

Alas, it is also vulnerable. The two most recent productios we've seen — The Hard Problem at ACT in San Francisco, two or three weeks ago; Arcadia at A Noise Within here in Pasadena, yesterday — both suffered, in my view, from vocal delivery. To so distracting a degree that my mind, old and tired as it's been recently, simply shut down.

Stoppard's plays demand a certain mental effort from the viewer. His literary, historical, philosophical references come thick and fast; they are central to his plot and suffuse the atmosphere within which it moves.

Like most engaging plays, his move through dialogue, and his lines are often fast and brittle, like Noel Coward's, while also frequently evasive and elliptical. And more often than not a character momentarily sidelined and silent will be doing something — whether reacting facially or stroking a tortoise — that has to be noticed, even though another part of the stage seems to be the chief focus of the moment.

In both these productions the thick grainy material of Stoppard's play was lost, at least to me, in a swamp of extravagant English accent. American theater companies so frequently succumb to this. It's obvious that Stoppard's characters, like those in much of Shakespeare, are English: why must their vocal delivery wear highly colored St. Andrew's crosses? 

The Noise Within Arcadia was particularly offensive in this respect, taking both the 19th- and the 20th-century characters well over the top: meant I think merely to be occasionally arch, this production turns them into burlesques. That works in a play like The Imaginary Invalid, seen the previous evening: it doesn't work in a serious dramatic contempation.

On the other hand there was much to recommend here: the acting was subtle (apart from vocal delivery), the characters well developed, the pacing both measured and rhythmic (I would like two intermissions, not one), the physical staging both attractive and suggestive.

I'm not sure I felt ACT's The Hard Problem was as successful a staging. Like the Indian Ink of a few seasons ago, it relied on an excessively wide and generally shallow physical setting, which subconsciously invites a similar view of the play itself. But I write this weeks after seeing it, and out of sorts about these productions generally, and will stop here.

LAST NIGHT, across town at Firelight Theatre on Vermont Street, we saw a play of a completely different character: The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare), by Daniel Henning.  

Henning, who told me after the performance that he had long been a student of the 1963 Kennedy assassination, had the ingenious idea of mapping that event — what is know, historically, and what has been hypothesized in endless speculations — on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. JFK is of course Caesar; Brutus is Lyndon Johnson, Cassius is J. Edgar Hoover, and so on. (Giving the part of the Soothsayer to JFK's secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, is brilliant.)

The action begins with preparations for the Dallas motorcade, duriing which conspirators fear the president's overwhelming popularity will make him almost a king; it extends five years forward, ending in the assassination of Bobby Kennedy — who is, of course, Marc Anthony.

It sounds like a gimmick, but It really works. I've complained here, from time to time, about the unfortunate productions of Shakespeare that result from well-meaning attempts to "bring Shakespeare to the modern audience," when what's really needed is to bring the modern audience to Shakespeare. Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Festival has even determined to commission 37 "translations" of Shakespeare into contemporary English.

They'd do well to consider mounting a production of Henning's play, preferably with a Julius Caesar using the same cast.  They could, in fact, hire the cast we saw last night: they were excellent.

Here the accents of individual characters was used to good effect. Time Winters, as LBJ, insinuated a soft Texan drawl into Shakespeare's "untranslated" English; Ford Austin's JFK and Chad Brannon's RFK ironically modulated a Boston accent, bringing the dimension of cultural distinction to the plot.

The play belongs to LBJ and J Edgar Hoover, the latter played magnificently by Tony Abatemarco. Their scenes were electric, whether exploding or barely contained. I will never be persuaded that LBJ was in any way complicit in the Dallas tragedy, but that's beside the point: this is a fascinating, important drama; it deserves to enter the repertory.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Molière's Imaginary Invalid

Pasadena, California, November 5, 2016—

NO REASON TO BE too serious about this: Molière's The Imaginary Invalid is pure comedy, the child of commedia dell'arte and the classical French comédie, laced with satire against class-based social order and the medical profession, but driven by a lust for laughs. 

And yet. Molière's targets deserve his barbs as much as ever. And in the end Molière himself collapsed playing the Invalid on stage, and died within hours. "I told you I was sick," reads the joke epitaph; days before the possible death of American democracy, it's not entirely funny. 

We're here on the biannual visit to A Noise Within, the repertory company who will give us Tom Stoppatd's Arcadia today and Jean Genet's The Maids tomorrow. It's the right sequence, I think: Molière puts us in a take-a-cosmic-view perspective, from his three-century distant perch. 

ANW is playing a streamlined and updated adaptation (by Constance Congdon) which cuts three or four minor characters but preserves much of the detail — including the thunderclaps accompanying every reference to the evil stepmother. And I am particularly taken with the idea of casting the always remarkable Deborah Strang as the maid Toinette, a role usually given to an ingenue. 

Here, Toinette assumes a position equal to Argan, the title character. She is figuratively and literally behind and above it all, often perched on a ladder, shelving bottles of Argan's effusions, or trying to let a little light and air into his close and stifling world. 

Apollo Dukakis manages to round his character, often as appealing and sympathetic in his vulnerability as ludicrous in his gullible self-involvement. (I couldn't help finding Argan-Toinette reminiscent of Trump-Hillary.) And Dukakis, with the transformative assistance of Kelsy Carthew as his daughter Angélique, brings real nobility to the breakthrough moment when he realizes she indeed loves him. 

The moment almost parallels, in its poignancy, the ridiculous extravagance of the burlesque of this production: Rafael Goldstein as a chicken-crossed De Aria, Carolyn Ratteray as the wicked Béline, Angela Balogh Calin's superb sets and costumes.  

Molière collaborated with Marc-Antoine Charpentier on this play, originally a three-act comedy-ballet. I'd like to see a reconstruction of the original, with period instruments and choreography, but I understand the restrictions of the contemporary entertainment industry. 

New music was substituted for the final romp, as well as the opera-spoof pastourelle improvised ny Angélique and her swain Cléante (Josh Odsess-Rubin, very sympathetic snd capable). Julia Rodriguez-Elliott directed. I liked every aspect of her work while I was watching, and the more I think about it afterward the more impressed I am with it.