Monday, April 13, 2020

Helene Aylon

Eastside Road, April 13, 2020
I DIDN’T KNOW Helene Aylon well, but I considered her a friend. I first met her in 1975 or ’76, I think. I was working for the Oakland Tribune as the art critic, and saw an exhibition of her recent works on paper, a series called “Paintings That Change,” in which she applied oil along the top (usually, as I recall) of the paper — in time the oil moved slowly across the paper, constantly but slowly changing the painting’s appearance.

I was impressed by the chance beauty of the results, and by the egoless attitude of the artist, who was content to let the medium make the image.

Late in the 1970s she began a new series, “The Breakings,” similarly chance-determined but clearly feminist: she poured linseed oil onto plexiglas panels, let it form a thick skin, then tilted the panels to form a sac containing the oil. At a certain point the sac would break, allowing oil to move across the panel. The results were strong, formal, yet emotional.

In the 1980s Helene turned toward a more conceptual approach, to an area even larger than feminism: pacifism. This began with an ambitious project: she gathered dirt from nuclear bases, mines, and reactors, stuffing it into pillowcases and deploying them in demonstrations at, for example, the United Nations headquarters. This project grew into an international activity, gathering dirt and other material from many sites, often incorporating material from interviews with women living in troubled areas.

I never though of Helene, in those days, as having a settled residence — she would appear one day, seemingly en route from Palestine to Japan, with documentation of projects involving sacks, dirt, narratives. She was always earnest, caring, patient; she seemed resigned to the continual human tragedy.

* * *

At one point, probably in the 1980s, Helene asked me to appear in her defense in a court trial. Sacks of dirt she had taken from various sites had been damaged in storage: the facility’s roof had leaked, the sacks had rotted; the various earth samples, meticulously gathered, documented, and stored, had run together. The storage company was pressing her for unpaid fees; she was refusing to pay and asking damages, I think, for the ruined work.

The trial hinged on one question: was her work art, or was her material simply ordinary dirt. I was asked to testify that she was an artist and that her work was significant. On the day of my appearance I was alarmed. The jury looked utterly uninterested in the proceedings. I listened to Peter Selz’s testimony for the storage unit: Helene was a minor, marginal figure, he said, in a complex galaxy of conceptual and process-oriented artists. The dirt was simply dirt. Much of his testimony was on videotape for some reason and during its presentation I saw that the judge was actually sleeping, members of the jury bored and restless.

My testimony was limited to answers to direct questions from the attorneys for the two sides, and it was apparently insufficient. I finished and was dismissed. Soon enough the jury returned its verdict — against Helene.

She seemed resigned, but in a way I thought her defeat confirmed the justice of her attempt. There is a quiet, Sisyphean heroism to such work. Helene persisted, turning in later decades to work even more ambitious, even more futile to my view: removing paternalism and male supremacy from orthodox Judaism.

In 1996 I spent a week or so in New York City, and she offered me her studio apartment in Westbeth. I spent almost no time with her then; she was away on one of her frequent trips. But another trip a few years later brought her to San Francisco for an exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, as I recall, and we met briefly on that occasion. She was warm, curious about my own doings, expressive. She always had a soft power, the sympathy of human concern attached to the strength of enduring persistence.

Helene was not a distancer. She died of complications of Covid-19 on April 6th, in New York City. She was eighty-nine years old.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Listening to the Haydn symphonies

IVE BEEN LISTENING to Haydn these last few weeks, chronologically as is my absurd compulsion: at first the string quartets, up through Opus 9; more recently the symphonies. I tend to read authors and consider painters and sculptors the same way, reading where possible (and where I am interested) the complete works, beginning with the first and continuing to, ultimately, the last.

I do this because I am interested in the development of the author/composer’s work, both as it evolves intrinsically, you might say, within his/her output, and as it reflects awareness of outside events, whether the work of other, contemporary creative artists or the impact of social or environmental events.

This is particularly interesting when applied to Haydn’s symphonies. Though his are not the earliest in history, he is commonly thought to have defined the form, trying a number of approaches as to the number and disposition of its various movements, until he had pretty well fixed them in his last, “London” symphonies. (Where, to be honest, it seems to me he has sacrificed inventiveness to consistency.)

But how determine the chronological order of Haydn’s symphonies? This is a vexing problem, and one I have settled, I’m afraid, in an absurdly uncritical and arbitrary way: by following comments found by chance, as so much is these days, on the internet — at a website called, cutely, Haydn Seek, hosted by one Gurn Blanston, a fellow about whom I know nothing other than his fondness for Haydn. Blanston writes that his presentation is in turn taken from a German-language website, This website reflects research by Sonja Gerlach; alas, I do not read German and so have pursued the matter no farther.

Blanston offers a table comparing the various number systems, beginning in 1757 with the first symphony. The commonly used numbers are taken from the Hoboken catalog, in which the symphonies are grouped in section I (that’s Roman-numeral-one). Though individual dates are generally unknowable, there’s agreement that Number One — Hob I:1, in D — is in fact the first, scored for pairs of oboes and horns and the usual string quintet.

It’s thought that the first 15 or so of these symphonies were composed for the house orchestra of Karl Joseph, Count Morzin, who hired the composer, then in his late twenties, in 1758, give or take a year. (Too much is uncertain in Haydn’s early history.) Morzin must have had a good band: there are challenging parts for oboe, horns, cello, and contrabass in these pieces.

My method in “studying” these symphonies — the word is too flattering — is to listen to them on YouTube, generally in a performance by Christoper Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, while reading the score, found at What fun to be reading scores again, after years of neglect; to be singing second horn or contrabass lines, even if I do find my bass range is gone and I’m lucky to fake a low F.

This all began with a chance remark by my grandson Simon, who’d gone to a Salt Lake City Symphony concert to hear something of Messiaen’s, I think it was, and The Rite of Spring, and was less than interested in the Haydn 10th (actually the 5th in the new chronology). I immediately listened to the 10th, and was surprised at the part-writing in the violins, especially in the Andante.

Morzin had to let Haydn go in 1760, but recommended him to Prince Anton Esterházy, where he found an even better position. But the Morzin year, or years, saw the composition of probably fifteen symphonies, almost all for the same instrumental forces — oboes, horns, and strings, with a bassoon likely playing with contrabass — but three, all in C major, adding trumpets and drums. The thematic material ranges from country-style dance music to heartfelt slow movements, occasionally for solo violin — Haydn would likely have played those himself, as he “conducted” these pieces violin in hand.

This morning I got to Number 34 (old style: in the Gerlach numbering, 29 — composed (along with five others) in 1763. D Minor is of course a very serious business, and this symphony opens with a stately, formal Adagio that lasts twelve minutes. (Hogwood’s recordings thankfully take all the repeats. Then a suddenly energetic Allegro, with slashing violin themes above a jog-trot propulsion in the lower strings. The Menuetto returns to symmetrical formality, but prominent oboe and horn parts retain the ironic energy of the Allegro; and the final Presto assai, very fast indeed, feels like an invitation to the listeners to move along out of the concert hall.

Who first heard these pieces? Who did Haydn write them for? The musicians first, I think — they must have worried a bit about some of the fast passages, and maybe even — the wind players — about counting their rests. But what about an audience? Presumably the Prince and his family and guests. Austrian nobility and upper-class were musical (the Prince played baryton) and took keen interest in new music. A piece like the opening Adagio of this d minor symphony requires patience: it is as severe and symmetrical as the facade of Esterházy Castle. Attending to this music reminds us of life as it was before electricity and the gasoline engine: as difficult to imagine, for many today, as life without internet and computer.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Back to the blog — via books…

Perhaps stay-in-place will revive the blog, which declined, in some cases died, in the last couple of years — perhaps the victim of increased Facebook activity largely attributable to the distractions of these Trump years.

Let's give it a try with a few paragraphs on reading. These strange epidemic times interfere even with that. The volume of correspondence is much increased — no complaint there; I love reading and writing letters, but it takes time. (Correspondence so far this year, sent and received, runs to nearly 70,000 words, just among friends and family!)

I just read Donald Hall’s A Carnival of Losses, sent me by a friend. Hall was poetry editor of The Paris Review; he died two years ago, nearly ninety years old; this book was his last, a collection of light first-person anecdotes and memories of interactions with poets he had known. I found Hall a little too self-congratulatory, though perhaps at his age and after his accomplishments that can be excused.

Until now I would have logged the successful reading of the book at the website Goodreads, and perhaps left a short “review” there. I recently learned, though, that Goodreads is yet another Amazon property, and I’ve decided to spurn it. This is unfortunate as a number of my children and grandchildren use it, and it’s pleasant to read their comments there — and to keep track of their literary interests. But I will return to LibraryThing, where I note two anodyne reader reviews of A Carnival of Losses: I should add one of my own, I suppose.

I am nearly done with the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s collection of essays, most of them reviews, in The Common Reader, first series. I bought the book over sixty years ago, as I can tell by the style of my signature on the flyleaf. It’s a Harcourt Brace Harvest edition, paperback, published in 1953; it has held up remarkably well. I don’t remember if I read it previously; I think not. Here Librarything offers six reader reviews, and several of them are quite worth looking at. I liked, for example,

The common reader is decidedly not a book to read without the mind and without the heart — both of those organs will be stimulated more than adequately as you read it — but the considerable enjoyment is still there all the same!
What’s next? I’m stalled in Richard Jeffries’s The Story of My Heart and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, in both cases partly because I’ve been reading them as e-books, on my iPhone. A friend has just sent Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Landscapes) with a glowing recommendation, and another is apparently sending me Roy Morris’s Gertrude Stein Has Arrived for which I will no doubt drop everything else temporarily. (And no doubt that will drive me back to Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography.) When the weather's warmer I plan to resume and finish Proust, and I've been hearing a call from Beckett lately, his great trilogy.

In pre-internet days reading a book like The Common Reader was slowed by trips to the encyclopedia. One wants to know more about the Mitfords, the Elizabethans, the Greeks. Wikipedia is quicker to consult, of course, but ends taking up more time, because its distractions are equally quicker. I find it more difficult to write, these days; the future is so vague it seems futile to leave yet more words scattered about. But how I appreciate those left by earlier writers; how gratifying their conversations are now we can't conduct our own with old friends and youngsters!