Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Perception, Good Taste, Quiet Music

Eastside Road, January 11, 2017 —

BECAUSE IT HAS BEEN so noisy lately let me encourage you to concentrate, for an hour, on small and quiet sounds.


Perception coverTHE INSTITUTE FOR ECOTECHNICS is an extremely interesting private organization that conducts researches into art, consciousness, and technology on a variety of platforms that has included a closed-environment center in Arizona, a seagoing ship of their own construction, a gallery and cultural center in London, and a conference center in Provence. There seems to be no limit to the energy and intellectual curiosity of its associates. It is or has been, however, rather closed, and I may be committing an indiscretion in writing about it here.

Almost twenty years ago I was asked to participate in one of their annual (or perhaps biennial) conferences in a marvelous old manor house in the countryside outside Aix-en-Provence. The conference theme was characteristically both general and sharp-focussed: Perception. Participants came from many different countries and represented many different areas of expertise. One woman spoke of perception as it related to botanical experiments conducted in space; another spoke of his work with the fragrances of plants growing in the Amazon forest canopy. Hard and soft sciences were represented; also engineering. But, it was explained to me, not arts and letters. Would I address them as they influence the way we come to perceive, and to perceive that we do perceive?

I have long been interested in the problem of writing about music, and was suddenly struck by the possibility that the nucleus of the problem likes in perception — in how we process our awareness of music, of being aware of sound vibrations: and this whether we are listeners or musicians. And, being a composer, I wanted to organize my investigation as itself a sonic event, in which the speaking voice — my own — would alternate with many kinds of music, in a sonically illustrated lecture meant to discuss but also express the possibility that we can organize sound waves in order to elicit both verbal and nonverbal understanding.

The choice of music would be crucial. It would have to be accessible to the layman — not only accessible, but interesting; meaningful; even moving. There should be several kinds of music, some of it involving words. The examples would have to be the right length, no more than a few minutes; and there should be a common thread, capable of being spun along throughout the lecture. In the end I settled on the Lament as my theme: one nearly all of us have had occasion to profit from. I gathered my musical examples and wrote the following text, delivering it to an attentive audience with the help of my sound engineer, John Whiting, whom I thank for having brought it back to my attention after all these years.

You can read the lecture as an e-book here. Alas, the sound examples will appear only as text: you'll have to find recordings of the examples yourself, perhaps on YouTube.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Lullaby

Lullaby
                listen (mp3)                score (pdf)

Portland, Oregon, December 29, 2016—

WE WERE SITTING AROUND in the living-dining room of a big house we used to rent for a week with six friends, in Ashland, there to see five or six plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Tuesday through Sunday we went to the theater, both afternoon and evening performances many of the days: Shakespeare, classic American plays, new plays.

We rose at different times, colliding in the kitchen putting our breakfasts together; we lunched and dined together often, or broke up into smaller ensembles to accommodate maverick tastes.

We discussed the plays, occasionally played games, read aloud to one another. But we also dropped out from time to time for some individual work. Gaye worked at a newspaper column; Mac proofread a grad student paper; Stefan sketched at a musical idea of some kind.

I checked my email: Eliane, a marvelous pianist who'd played my first sonata, was thinking of putting together a recital of lullabys. Would I write one for her? I gave it a little thought. What is a lullaby actually? The word has come to connote sentimentality… a pretty tune, meant to ingratiate a child into giving up consciousness yet again. I didn't need that: what I needed, in those days, was something that would put an adult to sleep. A soporific, not a lullaby.

I"d recently installed a music-notating application on my laptop, and thought I'd try it out. It didn't take more than a couple of hours to play my Lullaby into the laptop. The result, a little over four minutes long, seemed to need something to follow it, to get the blood moving again, so I added a Finale. That was a dozen years ago; now I'm beginning to think it needs another movement to come before the Lullaby. I'll keep you posted.

Eliane played the piece not long after it was completed, on a program of piano lullabys by a number of composers. It didn't have the desired effect; it seemed to me the audience listened rather intensely, as if expecting something to happen; no one fell asleep. The Finale broke the tension nicely.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

That beast the piano

Pasadena, December 20, 2016—
MUSIC HAS BEGUN to interest me again – I mean actually listening to it, preferably live — and in the last two or three weeks we've gone to three concerts, all of them involving the piano.

I have a troubled history with the piano. My first lessons were in the basement of the church across the street from my grandparents' house in Berkeley, at the corner of Bancroft and McKinley Streets. This was before the war — world War II, I mean — and I have no recollection at all as to how the lessons went. My grandparents had an upright piano, a wedding gift to them I believe; we certainly never had one in our own home.

Perhaps that's why by the time the war began, when I was six years old, and we moved from the grandparents' neighborhood to the neighboring town Richmond, I was shifted from piano to violin. (Though that must have happened earlier, as I do recall playing violin in a children's orchestra on Treasure Island, during the World's Fair there, which was surely ended by the time the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor.)

When I went away to college, in 1952, I was immediately assigned to a piano teacher, for I'd indicated my preference to major in music. I hated practicing, mostly because I hated scales. The lessons ended after a few months, and I never studied piano again.

That didn't keep me from buying a piano, in 1961 or 1962, when the University of California in Berkeley tore down its practice rooms in order to build a new Student Union. A friend who was a real pianist told me I could get one for $100. He had to have it delivered to his house, and from there he, another friend, and I pushed it the several blocks down Channing Way to our house. I'd rented a piano dolly for the occasion, and somehow we managed the curbs and the steps up to our duplex.

For the next few years I was a self-taught pianist. My only interest in the thing was a composer's interest: checking the physical possibility of fingering, the voicing of chords, the lingering effect of overtones, the sound of staccato, sostenuto, and the like. And, of course, trying to learn to read orchestral scores at the keyboard, which I knew (from my reading) to be both important and routine among composers and conductors.

In those days, too, and for years afterward, I could afford only cheap used turntables, whose problems with flutter and wow were particularly cruel to recordings of piano music — so I rarely bought any. I was an instrumentalist; I'd specialized in bassoon in high school; the orchestral winds and strings spoke much more seductively to me than did the piano which was, it seemed to me, a soloist by its nature, offering no place to hide.

And yet over the years I've composed a few things for piano. My first professional performance was of a piano concerto, in fact; at the Cabrillo Music Festival in 1965, when I was already all of thirty years old. Since then there have been two sonatas and various little pieces, and I've learned over the years not to let my own shortcomings prejudice me against enjoying those of others.


SO IN THE LAST few weeks we've gone to those three concerts. The first was a recital of music by contemporary Italian composers, in San Francisco's Center for New Music. I'd heard about it from Facebook, of all things; one of my Facebook friends is an Italian composer and conductor, Marcello Panni, who I met when he was a visiting prof at Mills College where I used to teach. (He conducted my opera The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, in 1984, and we enjoyed one another's company.)

On November 9 — I hadn't realized it was so long ago! — we went to the Center to hear a piece of Marcello's along with other music by a number of his Roman friends, played by Fausto Bongelli. I was particularly drawn by Marcello, of course, but also by the promise of music by Giacinto Scelsi, a favorite composer of mine. It promised to be an interesting survey.

Bongelli is a very big man. Not stout: big. He looks like he should be smoking a cigar with his right hand, drinking a whisky with his left. Instead he used those hands to assault the piano. He went after it without letup, barely pausing at the end of one piece before attacking the next. There was no way really of knowing what we were hearing when. I listened carefully as a result, forming ideas about the pieces — none of which I'd ever heard before (nor did I know of the other composers on the program) — as much in order to distinguish them from one another as to get to know them for themselves.

Half of my brain is a critic's brain. A critic, I think, leaning on Joseph Kerman's definition, is a person who studies works of art in order to try to find or assess or mostly simply to enjoy their meaning and value. Meaning within their own language and within the history of their art; value not as a rating or an approval (or disapproval) but as a degree of usefulness or beauty or simply interest.

So here I was forced by Fausto's odd approach to the piano recital to work particularly hard as a critic, with the result I think that the other half of my brain, which is shared by a composer and a writer, rarely was able to get involved in the evening. I did think I knew which of the six or seven pieces was Marcello's, and when I spoke for a few minutes to Fausto — so engaging and physically present a man I feel Im on first-name terms! — I turned out to have made the right guess, and had a glance at the score among the disorderly pile of papers from which he'd played this fascinating program.


A  MONTH LATER we were back at the CNM, in the heart of San Francisco's Tenderloin District, to hear another piano recital, similar in some respects though quite different in another. We heard a single composition, Dylan Mattingly's two-hours-plus Achilles Dreams of Ebbets Field, played by another pianist with striking presence.

Kathleen Supové approached the keyboard dressed as Alban Berg's Lulu, in a Louise Brooks hairstyle and a lace-trimmed leopard-print slip. An intrepid page-turner sat at her left, anticipating her sometimes sudden and rather imperious nods and glances. (You can read Patrick Vaz’s evocative description of the evening here.)

Mattingly is young, at the beginning of a career and the end of a serious college education which centered, it seems, on studies in classical antiquity. Achilles Dreams of Ebbets Field has a detailed program fastening its 24 sections, played with only one break serving as a short intermission, to the 24 books composing Homer's Iliad. I did not read the program, and have not yet: I wanted to listen to the music. I was infatuated with James Joyce in my own salad days, and spent a lot of time threading my way through the maze of his Ulysses, and Stuart Gilbert's trot, and all that; I don't particularly want to continue dealing with what I learned, as an English major, to call Secondary Sources.

I have the feeling Achilles Dreams… is in the tradition of Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze, inspired by the composer's acquaintances whether literary or historical or immediate, and as valuable (vide supra) as his expressive responses to these acquaintances can be to another sensibility (namely mine, or for that matter yours). I will say that in spite of the length of the work, and the relative lack of variety of mood, not to mention of tempo and texture, my attention never wandered; I was entranced, you might say, throughout.

This may have been greatly due to the performer. It must be a tremendous undertaking to get to know the details of so large a piece of music and then to find a way to embrace the long trajectory defining its structure. This was only the second time Supové had played the piece publicly, and I had the impression she was still approaching it from its outside, working at various doorways and windows to get into it. Perhaps the piece itself is Ebbets Field: she approached it as fiercely as an Achilles, fortunately without a vulnerable heel. (Unless that of her right hand, which frequently was held remarkably flat, slightly below the fingerboard, even though her fingers were strong and effective in Mattingly's frequently martellato style.)

The sound of the music, to me, lay between Charles Ives (I'm thinking of the Concord Sonata) and John Adams, (say, Phrygian Gates) without ever really being in the least derivative. Perhaps Ives was associated with the ancient Greeks — his New England transcendentalism would make that work — and the Adams style, to put it crudely knitting contrasted with Ives's carpentry, stood for Mattingly's view (or experience) of the contemporary world.

To know, I'd have to hear the piece again, preferably on a recording allowing me to stop and backtrack and so on, and with the score, and with, of course, the program. I am very much interested in the kind of thing Mattingly has attempted here, working with literature and music and history, merging the two halves of the brain, the critic’s and the composer’s.

I confess I went to each of these solo piano recitals with the score of my own second sonata, and shamelessly approached the pianists after their performances to put it into their hands. I hope this will be considered by way of a compliment to them: had I not enjoyed their approach to the instrument and the music, I wouldn’t want them to consider playing my own.


SATURDAY NIGHT we attended a third concert: Eliane Lust, a pianist I’ve known for some years, was playing a concerto with the Kensington Symphony. And it was an engaging program — lightweight, perhaps, but potentially fun: short excerpts from extended orchestral works by Manuel de Falla and Alberto Ginastera; a Concierto folklórico for piano and strings by John Carmichael; Morton Gould’s Latin-American Symphonette.

Carmichael, born in Australia in 1930 but now living in the United Kingdom, was the music director (and I suspect therefore rehearsal pianist) of a Spanish dance company, Eduardo Y Navarra, from 1958 to 1963; his Concierto, composed in 1965, reflects this experience, as the titles of its three movements show: La Siesta Interrumpida; La Noche; Fiestas. I found the piece entertaining but shallow, with much repetition and little development. Nor was the solo instrument given much to do. On the other hand Eliane played with her characteristically insouciant elegance, chiselling the rhythmic phrases, voicing the chordal writing imaginatively, cutting through the sometimes gluey string writing with edgy percussive attacks which never, however, seemed contrived as self-display: everything was for the music. I wished she had been playing a Milhaud concerto.

Gould’s “symphonette” — the last of four — was composed in 1941, I think (sources differ on this), and is a better piece than I’d expected. It is certainly light music, as the modest title suggests was intended. The four movements are based on, and titled, Rumba, Tango, Guaracha, and Conga. The writing frequently overwhelmed the community orchestra and its conductor, Geoffrey Gallegos; brass and percussion got out of hand now and then, and the small string sections were often overwhelmed. But there are some nice details in Gould’s scoring: I thought of Mahler now and then.

Marcello Panni, Dylan Mattingly’s parents, and Eliane Lust are all friends of mine — they’ve visited our house and we theirs; we’ve dined together; we all like one another. It can be difficult to write critically about the work of friends and associates, but I’ve always felt the potential gains from communities of interest outweigh the possible harms latent in what’s often called conflicts of interest. Besides, god knows there’s no money involved here…

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Three Songs from Tender Buttons

ThreeSongsCover
Eastside Road, December 15, 2016—

I MET THE WRITING of Gertrude Stein through the old RCA Victor recording of Virgil Thomson’s opera to her libretto Four Saints in Three Acts. That would have been in 1955 or thereabouts. What charmed me immediately was the innocence, clarity, fantasy, and good humor of both the words and the music. There were other examples of this sort of brittle, intelligent Modernism, notably William Walton’s setting of Edith Sitwell’s poems in Façade, but it was Stein who remained a constant favorite over the years.

It was not until 1972, though, that I thought to make my own musical settings of her work. This was Dates, a sort of chamber cantata for soprano, clarinetist, violinist, and percussionist. (The instrumentation includes clarinets in Eb and A, bass clarinet, violin and viola, marimba and vibraphone.)

Then in 1975 I turned to Tender Buttons, her collection of “cubist” prose poems, most of them short, and quickly set three of them: “Peeled Pencil. Choke,” “Dirt and Not Copper,” and “The White Hunter.” John Duykers sang the last two in one of those Bicentennial concerts nodding to American composers, but he will not remember this.

The wonderful soprano Judy Hubbell asked, I think, for some songs, and I thought of working my way slowly over the years through the whole of Tender Buttons, setting the texts to different performing forces. “A Carafe” was the first to appear, in 1983, and “Suppose an Eyes” and “Rhubarb” followed in 1989 for a recital she gave in San Francisco. It seemed logical to issue them as the present set.

In 1987 I got more serious about this and decided to begin setting the plays. I was learning to compose at the computer, and turned to Ladies Voices for inspiration, setting the play on three sopranos, woodwind quintet, and trap set. Two years later I made a complementary setting of I Like It to Be a Play, for three male voices (tenor, baritone, bass) and string quartet. (I would like one day to have the opportunity to set a finale to the trilogy, What Happened a Play, for the combined forces of the first two chamber operas.)

In 1997 I returned to Tender Buttons for a concert in Santa Cruz, setting “It Was Black, Black Took” and “Red Roses” for mezzo-soprano, violin, bass clarinet, and piano, and adding to them a setting of a fugitive Stein text, “You Can Only Say What You Know,” which I know only from Lew Welch’s quotation of it in his book How I Read Stein.

If you want to know more about my infatuation with Gertrude Stein I refer you to a little book I wrote in 2002, Why I Read Stein (thanks, Lew Welch): Oakland: Mills College Center for the Book, 2002. Foreword by Sumner Carnahan. 40 pages. ISBN 0-9648938-5-1

These Three Songs from Tender Buttons are meant to be light-hearted, though I do think “A Carafe” has rather a winsome quality, especially in Judy Hubbell's performance. I have added score and recording to my website: the score can be printed out, folded, and stapled in booklet form. The recording was made in live concert with amateur equipment, and there are little errors, but I am very fond of the performance, with Judy Hubbell, soprano; Roy Malan, violin; and the late Marvin Tartak, piano.

score (pdf; 16 page booklet; 446 KB)                 recording (mp3; 3:40; 3.5MB)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The New SFMOMA

IMG 2963
Eastside Road, December 10, 2016—
I HAVEN'T YET REALLY explored it nearly enough, but I'm here to tell you I'm pretty happy with what they've done to San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, which has felt like a troublesome member of my family for fifty years.

More, I suppose; I recall visiting it with a French class from my junior college days back in the middle 1950s, when the high point of our visit was Renoir's life-size bronze Venus Victorious, beautifully installed in a Beaux-Arts rotunda in the old SFMA.

I still think of this museum by that monogram. San Francisco Museum of Art. In those days it wasn't thought necessary to put the word "modern" in the name; pre-modern art was well known to live out in the Golden Gate Park. SFMA was installed on the top (fourth) floor of the Veterans' Memorial Building, the north twin of the San Francisco Opera House, in three long rectangular galleries surrounding a huge central rotunda, smaller rotundas supplying articulating knee-joints, handy for such items as Venus Victorious.

The northern gallery was devoted to the museum's permanent collection, pride of place going to perhaps the oldest piece in the collection, Matisse's Woman in a Hat, not only nailing down the institution's claim to Modernism but nodding to local biography: it had been in the collection of one of the Stein siblings. From there the permanent collection continued with an engaging series of canvases giving equal weight to Mexico, Germany, the United States, Russia, France, and England. Nor was the San Francisco Bay Area neglected, though I came to think, in the 1960s when I began to think (and write) more seriously about painting, that one could well fill the entire SFMA with local masters: Lobdell, Smith, Bischoff, Diebenkorn, Thiebaud, Brown, De Feo, Jefferson… and then later on the next generation.

About the time I retired from daily art reviewing the SFMA moved to a brand new building, and from the City Hall-Symphony-Opera nexus to the emerging arts-entertainment-convention center building up south of Market Street between Second Street, let's say, and Fourth. I hated the new building, designed by the Swiss architect Mario Botta, a big five-storey cube of a monolith crowned with a turret (the pretentiously named "oculus") whose stripes hinted at Giotto — a hint repeated in the enormous lobby. Botta was no Giotto. When I interviewed Botta at the time the museum opened he gestured proudly around himself in that lobby and said he'd given it to the community as an assembly point, like a cathedral; I said it reminded me more of an oversize Greyhound Bus station.

Now, however, the Third Street building has been reclaimed with the simple, efficient, relatively inexpensive (I'm writing ironically) application of a sort of overcoat against the back of the Botta building. The oculus remains; so does the bus station. Upstairs, though, the galleries are larger, more airy, better lit; and the paintings — and the objects seem to be mostly paintings; sculpture seems sequestered for the most part off in its own more marginal domains — the paintings are further apart.

I do think these new galleries can tend too far toward the anodyne. I can't decide, for example, just how to respond to the juxtaposition you see above, of Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, two of many powerhouses of postwar American abstractionism. The pairing is elegant, of course; the two canvases have much to say to one another. They stand like sentinels on either side of the passageway into a roomy gallery devoted to Clyfford Still's gifts, a number of his own paintings given with the stipulation they always be on view an never share space with competitors. Motherwell's elegy is protected from too close an inspection by an ingenious baseboard projection keeping intruding feet a proper at a distance; Kline's canvas, slightly smaller, slightly less intimidating, apparently needs no such device. (This in spite of its subtleties of color and texture, which invite close reading.) IMG 2961Motherwell is around the corner to the left from Mark Rothko, whose characteristic red-over-black has the requisite weight and mystery to hold its own among strong company — the Joan Mitchell and Jay DeFeo canvases to its left, and, across the gallery, equally strong work by Philip Guston.

The Rothko speaks especially to one of the friends with me; the Gustons speak to me. I don't visit this museum often; perhaps not often enough. I have such memories of the old SFMA on Van Ness Avenue: spending a magical half-hour talking to Guston, alone, in his retrospective, a few weeks before his death. Talking to Diebenkorn, to Thiebaud, to Jasper Johns. Talking to Georgia O'Keeffe, for God's sake, for nearly an hour, dodging her own questions about myself — what a master manipulator she was — in order to get into the immense cloud paintings she had been making, in her nineties.

Many of these paintings are old friends, friends who seem to know me as well as I know what I think I know of them. Arthur Dove's enigmatic, quietly exultant Silver Ball No. 2 ; Helen Torr's Windows and a Door ; Diego Rivera's The Flower Carrier ; all in the second gallery, just as they had been on Van Ness Avenue. I was astonished at seeing these paintings all holding their place just as they had half a century ago, and at the rush of familiarity, certainty, ease, and reassurance that attended my seeing them thus once again. And then the familiar strangeness within each of them individually, their air of challenging me, once again denying any possibility that I could finally know and understand them: their strength, their meaning lies in their ultimate impersonal and austere remoteness.

I have been retired nearly thirty years, and for nearly thirty years I've resisted going to galleries and concerts. In the old days I'd get to six a week, on average. Now in my eighties I seem to have got past the fatigue that had set in, the fatigue and the cynicism that had come with the rise of so much commercial fine art. There's that here at SFMOMA, of course; I can't get excited about the new German painting (sorry); most minimalism leaves me cold. I'm sure I'll get back to this museum sooner next time, and perhaps linger longer. I'll try to keep you informed, in case you're interested.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Coming to grips with a historical moment

•Gregor von Rezzori: The Snows of Yesteryear.
translated by H.F. Broch de Rothermann
Introduction by John Banville
New York: New York Review Books
IN A SENSE, I think, the history of our century has been writing its own autobiography. Decades of complacency following World War II — complacency founded on neglect, evasion and postponement — are ending at a precipice. There are so many problems, so many crimes, that it is too easy to attribute the moment to favorite causes. I am not given to political analysis; politics, like economics and molecular biology, is an area too intricate to attract my impatient mind. I have been distracted, seduced some might say, by an essentially literary view of the historical moment and the conditions that have led to it. But literature, like any art, has its utility beyond mere entertainment.

At the moment I'm reflecting on a book just read, Gregor von Rezzori's The Snows of Yesteryear, an extraordinary book. It is a memoir cast on a series of portraits: of the author's nursemaid, his mother, his father, his sister, his governess. Born in 1914 in what was then Czernowitz, the capital of the duchy of Bukovina, he lived to see historic changes, as Czernowitz moved from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Kingdom of Romania (when it was re-christened Cernăuți) to the Soviet republic of Ukraine (Чернівці [Chernovtsy], the current form). These twentieth-century political lurches had their precedents:

Czernowitz, where I was born, was the former capital of the former duchy of Bukovina, an easterly region of Carpathian forestland in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains, in 1775 ceded by the former Ottoman Empire to the former Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian realm as compensation for the latter's mediation in the Russo-Turkish War; the Bukovina was at first allocated to the former kingdom of Galicia, but after 1848 it became one of the autonomous former crown lands of the House of Habsburg.
—Gregor von Rezzori, The Snows of Yesteryear, p. 275

Simply on the level of entertaining reading the book is quite sufficient. Rezzori's writing, in this translation (from German) by H.F. Broch de Rothermann, is fascinating: lapidary, detailed, appealing to the visual and auditory senses, occasionally sending this reader to the dictionary. Beyond the writer's language, his characterizations, of city and landscape as well as people, is evocative, accurate, and often wryly humorous. Eccentricity and neurosis were the common coin of his childhood surroundings, of his family, their domestic life, and their settings, which range from Czernowitz to Vienna to Cairo.

Over and over, in the course of three days, I found myself posting quotations from the book to my Facebook feed:

The picture … epitomizes an irrevocably lost period in my sister's life. That childlike innocence, the existential oneness with all living creatures, the deep embeddedness in the ever astounding richness of all nature became a thing of the past and ceded its place to the realization of the complexity of being. [pp 10-11]

Among the experiences from which we learn nothing that we didn't know already, there is to be counted the insight that the reality we consider as all-dominating in truth consists mostly of fictions. [35]

The strange reciprocity between spirituality and daimon inherent in any enthusiasm—enthusiasm that often deteriorates into fanaticism and corrupts the original purity of great ideas (and, inversely, filters pure intentions and aspirations from what is foul, placing them in the service of the devil) —seems to emerge quite regularly with each new generation. And nothing seems more difficult for the young than to elude the currents of their time. [156]

…essentially, one can't quantify the degree by which the quality of life not only of the privileged but also of the disadvantaged has been cheapened and debased in our century. The tangible expression of this—depredation of nature, hybrid growth and chaos of cities, drowning of the world in junk, lack of orientation in Man—has been pointed out, and yet it does not address the substance and core of the loss. [201]

Well, you can see where this memoir is headed. Rezzori writes about a coming-of-age at a historically pivotal time and place. The family, German-speaking and Vienna-centered, seems to have been relatively comfortable. The father was usually away on trips combining business (government inspections of governmental buildings) and pleasure (hunting in the Carpathian forests); the mother was neurotically poised between artifice and exigency.

Gregor shared these parents with a sister four years older — her father's favorite. He grew up essentially alone, wondering about the world that had produced this family before his own birth and the society that existed outside the home, beyond his permitted range. In what is perhaps the center of the book Rezzori writes memorably, fantastically, of a moment defining the frozen tension at the center of this childhood: he is looking out a window, sees a swallow light on the end of the minute-hand of the town clock at quarter of three, hears

the cheerful noises of a bevy of boys — lost in the wind and as if shrunk and made transparent by the distance: a sound merely dreamed, possibly. And indeed, the reality it evoked for me was totally abstract. I imagined those boys as being lively, but they were also abstract to me… surely engaged in wild games, and I almost could feel their hot breath; at the same time a sense of being excluded from the rich stream of life cut deeply and painfully into me… I was overcome by a fear I had hitherto not experienced. The world around me split up into imaginings, illusions and lies — and I was no longer one with the world.…

The swallow sitting at the end of the minute hand of the tower clock did not move and the hand itself stood still. Time stood still. The sound of the children was lost in space. The tweeting of the swallows fused into a single piercingly high note lie a thread spinning away into the skies. … The whole world stood still.

"The whole world stood still," he recalls, and then "suddenly the swallow flew away and the minute hand snapped over to quarter past three… once again the sounds of the children could be heard from afar." [pp. 110-11] He was ten or eleven years old, in a boarding school in Kronstadt, now Brașov, Romania. He joined his now separated parents only during Christmas and summer holidays: in Vienna and nearby mountains with his mother, hunting in the Bukovina woods with his father.

Some of the most heart-warming pages describe his relationship with his father, oddly both elusive and attractive, given primarily to his pleasures, pragmatic, yet intelligent, even intellectual. Like many hunters, the father loved Nature; was truly alive perhaps only in the woods, which "had hardly ever been touched by human hand and only rarely were visited by some stray shepherd or by a Huzule poacher. To spot and scout stags, we sometimes lived for weeks in the open."

One might have believed that in these circumstances my father would be just as happy as I. Yet a shadow of melancholy often darkened the grave serenity of his comportment while hunting. He saw that such idyllically primeval conditions would soon be over. One day he told me: "remember this day. It will soon be impossible to spot within the span of a few hours a pair of ravens, two imperial eagles, a golden eagle and a peregrine falcon." He was right. [162]

Von Rezzori — the son, I mean, the writer — was gifted with one true talent, he tells us: drawing. But he was channelled into more "practical" areas, in those distant days well before "graphic arts" was to become the savior of talented but undisciplined youths — chemistry, architecture, medicine, mining. Finally he declared that he wanted to give up studies for good, whereupon he was considered "an ignoramus, a mere consumer of illustrated periodicals, a harbinger of the barbarians, who, he foresaw, would soon engulf all of Europe."

He perceived this barbaric invasion as advancing from two sides: from Bolshevik Russia as much as from an America dancing in worship around the Golden Calf. "To fashion present-day Americans from the Pilgrim Fathers, we sent them our human dregs," he was wont to say. "Jefferson's America was drowned in the flood of human riffraff flushed in from Ellis Island. With the conquest of the West by the immigrant rabble, the greed for possession has become epidemic. Any act of violence, any fraud, any whopping lie is all right as long as it serves the pursuit of money, success and power. And it infects us all." [175]

Inevitably The Snows of Yesteryear is about loss, erosion, disappearance. "We lived in Bukovina… as the flotsam of the European class struggle, which is what the two great wars really were. Our childhood was spent among slightly mad and dislocated personalities in a period that also was mad and dislocated and filled with unrest." [200-01] Rezzori muses often, both philosophically and poetically, on memory, nostalgia, irrelevance, and renunciation. I think nostalgia — taking refuge from an ugly or irritating present in a possibly misremembered but clearly preferable past — has a useful function: it prepares us to be less unhappy about the coming final goodbye.

It can also convey us, when we transcend mere personal nostalgia and adopt a more objective frame of mind, into a somewhat more distant place from which, perhaps, our more disinterested view of both past and present can more accurately discern historical relationships and processes. Periods of historical decline — I mean the decline of cultures and civilizations — are similar to the personal relinquishments that prepare one for death. "Among the theories I developed concerning the possible causes of my sister's premature death, there is one according to which the gradual loss or, more accurately, the renunciation of the poetic content in her life contributed to a psychosomatic preparation for death." [201]

Another book fell into my hands today at lunch, Julian Barnes's Nothing to Be Afraid Of, which I wrote about here five years ago. "Memory is identity," Barnes writes [p. 138], and recalls on the next page watching a friend successively losing her memory. "It was a terrifying example of what Lawrence Durrell in a poem called 'the slow disgracing of the mind': the mind's fall from grace." Further [p. 203], Barnes quotes the dying Jules Renard as having said "that writers had a better, truer sense of reality than doctors."

Writing of the dying Austro-Hungarian civilization, von Rezzori seems to me to have a better, truer sense of reality than do many of the historians I have read. He is not a teacher of history; he's an entertaining, witty, observant, cordial guide who accompanies us through those times and places, nudging us now and then when there's a little detail that we suddenly see for the first time as standing for an entire understanding, an aperçue lasting from quarter of three to quarter past.

I am a writer and as such I have not only the right but also the duty to raise the level of reality, as I see it, to the very point where it threatens to tip over into the unbelievable. But if one seeks to achieve this by drawing—as I do—on the autobiographical, paraphrasing and transforming it and inserting it into fictional and hypothetical happenings, then one runs the danger of falling into one's own trap, with the result that one no longer knows what is real and what is not. This exceeds the moral sphere and comes dangerously close to schizophrenia.
Our own American postwar moment has been writing its own autobiography, I think, and may have suddenly fallen into schizophrenia. Books like The Snows of Yesteryear can help us see this, and help some of us through the moment.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Wandering among sound

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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:

        5:
        Spaniard.
        Soiled pin.
        Soda soda.
        Soda soda.

        6:
        Wednesday.
        Not a particle wader
        Aider.
        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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