Friday, December 19, 2014

Schjeldahl on sculpture

Why I read Peter Schjedal, in the New Yorker:

"Sculpture is the hardest art. Unlike diffidently wall-mounted painting, it intrudes on an already crowded world: mediocre painting is easily ignored; mediocre sculpture is exasperating. To be tolerated, let alone welcomed, a sculpture must have immediate and persistent drama, often announced by a certain shock."

The New Yorker, December 22 & 29, 2014, p. 68

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Haring and the ancients

•Keith Haring: The Political Line.
  Through February 16, 2015.

•Lines on the Horizon:
  Native American Art from the Weisel Family Collection.

  Through January 4, 2015.
M.H. de Young Memorial Museum,
  50 Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park,
  San Francisco; 415-750-3600
Eastside Road, December 17, 2014—
117_Untitled Self Portrait_1985_Sachs_PA.jpgKeith Haring (1958–1990)
Untitled (Self-Portrait), February 2, 1985
Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 in. (121.9 x 121.9 cm)
Private collection
© 2014, Keith Haring Foundation
Plate rabbits.jpgPlate (opposing rabbits), ca. 1010–1130
Mimbres
Earthenware with pigment
3 9/16 x 6 11/16 x 9 1/4 in. (9 x 17 x 23.5 cm)
Gift of the Thomas W. Weisel Family to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
2013.76.90

WHAT A FASCINATING contemplation of contrasts, these two exhibitions! And yet there are common threads, I think, latent though they may be, which makes the visit particularly moving. On the most perceptual side, that thread is linearity — lines of imagery and design; more metaphorically, linearity of development. (Perhaps the exhibition titles were meant to recognize that.)

On a less perceptual side, there's a link of regret — that particular kind that comes in contemplating irrecoverable loss. The incredibly prolific and immediately popular Keith Haring died far too young, of complications related to AIDS, in 1990, only thirty-one years old. And the native American work, of course, represents cultures now gone entirely, a thousand years ago or more recently. (Of course the traditions continue in work, even excellent work, being done today: but the cultures expressed in this exhibition are gone forever.

In the case of Haring another cultural loss occurs to me, not a real one but one constantly threatened: the loss of depth and significance to immediacy; specifically of artistic expression, whatever that is — let's beg the question for the moment — to market agendas. I almost didn't go to the Haring show; of all things it was a short review in the newspaper that influenced the decision, pointing out that the effect of work seen "live" quite displaces that of its all too frequent reproduction. The review suggested this was a function of scale, and some of the paintings here are very big indeed. But it's not only scale: it's the energy of the work that needs to be experienced: energy of drawing, of gesture, of color, of figure-ground, of weight.

Two of the paintings persuade me that Haring was meant to be a very important painter of his time, even of his century: Moses and the Burning Bush (1985) and Walking in the Rain (1989). Nearly all Haring's work can be read for political position, but Moses has what is for me a bigger, deeper implication. It addresses the urgent and eternal forces that lie behind transient desires. Politics is always for the moment, an expression or an activity at a given time toward a given result. Very occasionally a political expression touches deeper issues, perhaps even universal and if not eternal then at least epochal. Goya comes to mind here, and I think Haring's Moses comes close to that degree of depth and intensity. It's as if the existential anguish behind Haring's evident cynicism and scorn is confronted, for once, itself.

As to Walking in the Rain, there's a dual-level linearity here, one composing the figure, the other the ground, that seems to stand for a confrontation of immediacy and timelessness. The technique and imagery are handled so well the confrontation seems almost resolved; the artist leads us to contemplate both, simultaneously. The resulting connection of the individual subject and his condition which is shared by all is all the more poignant. For me, too, both the imagery and the title bring Max Ernst to mind: there's no immediate equivalence, but Haring's allover figuration (which is not at all nervous, merely energetic) recalls Ernst's decalcomanie, and the title recalls Ernst's Europe after the rain.

Haring's paintings, sculptures, and drawings are distributed through a number of rooms, and take time to take in. Along the way, other artists came to mind: Willem de Kooning for his color, energy, and sometimes anger; Philip Guston for the mystery and arbitrariness of his vision; Matisse for the frequent classical simplicity of thick line and the formalism it conveys, Ernst and Goya as I've indicated; even Hieronymus Bosch for his apocalyptic expression of the inescapable commonplace vulgarities of life. I don't think Haring could have worked without these predecessors, without even a conscious awareness of them.

Haring is an essentially urban, even metropolitan artist. To my taste he was too often distracted by the seductive demands of the market: but you could argue that that market is the fertile soil of his inspiration, that his ubiquity in the popular visual clutter of his time is a proper return, like taking table-scraps back to the garden in compost. Even his by-work is nutritive and remarkable, like that of the Surrealists. I think, finally, that he is two artists in one — the glib, commercial, totally accessible post-pop maker of multiples and statements, standing somewhere between Roy Lichtenstein and Jeff Koons; and the intelligent, deep, ultimately tragic inheritor of Abstract Expressionism. This is a very important show.
A396674_V1_hero8.jpg
Attributed to Nampeyo (Hopi-Tewa, ca. 1860–1942)
Vessel, ca. 1890–1910
Earthenware with polychrome
2 15/16 x 10 1/16 in. (7.5 x 25.5 cm)
Gift of the Thomas W. Weisel Family to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
2013.76.38
ringtail.jpgVessel (ring-tailed cat), ca. 1010–1130
Mimbres
Earthenware with pigment
3 1/4 x 8 1/4 in. (8.2 x 21 cm)
Gift of the Thomas W. Weisel Family to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
2013.76.158
EXHILARATING, PROVOCATIVE, and ultimately satisfying as the Haring exhibition was, however, simply entering the exhibition of Native American art from the Weisel Family Collection was literally breathtaking. The first piece I chanced to look at was this vessel by the Hopi-Tewa potter Nampeyo, perhaps a century old: the energy of the deep polished background, combined with the abstraction of the imagery, so certain and aloof as to be utterly objective, continued the preoccupation with dualities that Haring's best work had evoked.

Adjacent, though, were a number of Mimbres ceramics from up to a thousand years earlier, and one's sense of scale and scope and universality was immediately overwhelmed. Words cannot convey the serenity and permanence these works have attained. Part of this effect must be attributable to the inherent fragility of the medium. Some vessels have been broken and pieced together; others have had holes knocked into their bottoms, symbolic of their surrendering utility to meaning I suppose, most likely at the time of their burial.

Some, most improbably, seem to be intact. What strength: of material, of purpose; of intent. Everything about these pieces — material, form, volume, color, line, balance, imagery — everything feels completely achieved. These wonderful pieces from a thousand years ago are the Cycladic sculpture of our continent. These photographs barely convey their presence: the imagery, the lopsided form, and the darkened white all give them a false sense of familiarity. Whatever its original purpose, a piece like these is no longer a quotidian thing; seen in person it has the enigmatic immediacy of a fine African tribal mask or, to my kind of comprehension, a late Philp Guston painting, or a musical composition of Giacinto Scelsi's.

These works, and the others in the exhibition, honor the donation from the Weisel Family Collection of some 200 objects to the de Young, including more than fifty pieces of Mimbres ceramics, a stunning accession. Many of the works are much more recent, but little less significant. There are two Navajo First Phase chief's blankets, from the first half of the 19th century, whose austere, bold surfaces are an eloquent response to the ancient ceramics.

blanket.jpgA396764_hero.jpg
Ledger drawing, ca. 1880
Cheyenne (Tsitsitsas)
Colored pencil on paper
7 1/4 x 11 7/8 in. (17.8 x 27.9 cm)
Gift of the Thomas W. Weisel Family to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
2013.76.128
Wearing blanket (first-phase chief blanket, Ute style), ca. 1840
Navajo
Wool; weft-faced plain weave, diagonal-join tapestry weave, eccentric curved weft
51 3/4 x 69 1/2 in. (131.4 x 176.5 cm)
Promised gift of the Thomas W. Weisel Family to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
L12.103.18


There's also a series of Cheyenne "ledger drawings" made by a Plains indian — certainly the work seems to be that of an individual — toward the end of the 19th century, when pages of discarded account ledgers took the place, for such artists, of hides, as readier to hand and, no doubt, cheaper. The drawings are made with colored pencil, in some cases apparently brushed with water; nearly all in profile; some with effective use of a dark wash of color to push the image. The static quality of the compositions, and the relatively unmodulated color, suggest a linkage with the work in textile and ceramics, and you can't help wondering about the extent of the artist's awareness of a long tradition.

"Native American" art objects, in this small but evocative exhibition, range over a thousand years of history, a little less than a thousand miles of geography. A similar period in Europe would take you from the weaving of the Bayeux Tapestry to, say, Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. I suppose one could link those two works, but it's clear there's a profound difference in orientation between the North American art of that millenium (I haven't mentioned a marvelous Tlingit sculpture of a bear, also in the de Young exhibition) and that of the two sides of the English channel. The contemplation of such differences is, for me at least, endlessly fascinating.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Announcing my debut as editor-publisher

•Jean Coqt: Skagen.
ISBN 978-0-990-75880-8
•Jean Coqt: Tarifa.
ISBN 978-0-990-75881-5
Healdsburg: Ear Press, 2014
skagencoverthumb.jpg
Eastside Road, December 6, 2014—

I  MET AN INTERESTING man a year and a half ago in, of all places, the waiting room of a chiropractor, in Nice, where I had finished a long hike in the French Alps. We found that we had in common that we were waiting while friends were under treatment, that we were Californians, and — on our having exchanged cards — that we shared first names. 

Beyond that, we were both fond of literature. In fact it was on learning that I had published a few books, exclusively of my own writing, that he offered his card  — which revealed further that we very nearly share monograms: for his name is Charles Lunaire,
Untitled.png


and I combine my first initial with my companion's:
CSmonogram.jpg


With his card Lunaire handed me a challenge. Many years previous, while a university student in Grenoble, he'd befriended the proprietor of a second-hand book shop he often visited. One day, when the two were talking about French literature and particularly about Proust, the shopkeeper mentioned a novel in typescript that had been left with him years previously. Of its author he knew only his name: Jean Coqt

The shopkeeper recalled Coqt as a vague, uncertain fellow, nondescript as to dress and expression, well read but not particularly enthusiastic about any particular region of literature — attracted or not almost equally to history, poetry, theater, music, gastronomy; uninterested in only mathematics and the physical sciences. (This had particularly annoyed Lunaire, who was at the time devoted to the study of geology.)

Why had this meek, reclusive man brought an enormous typescript, hundreds of pages of cheap foolscap covered with smudged, carelessly typed sentences, to a second-hand bookshop? The shopkeeper could only surmise that the poor fellow was near the end of his rope, had dedicated who knows how many years to the effort, had probably not even finished the thing, had to free himself from the obsession, couldn’t bring himself to burn it, wanted it to survive somehow. He’d pretended he was hoping for comments on it, but he must have known the shopkeeper was very unlikely to bother reading it. And in fact he’d simply set it up on top of one of the bookcases, where it gathered dust and cobwebs until Lunaire happened one day to see it while reaching for a volume of the Archives de la Commission Scientifique du Mexique publiées sous les auspices du Ministère de l’Instruction Publique. (Lunaire remembers the title clearly, and still regrets not having purchased it.)

Lunaire said that he’d read only the first quarter or so of the novel, and had been impressed with the style — somehow engaging, easy to read, yet not quite in focus. He seemed unsure as to the point or plot. The novel, which is called Skagen un roman de l’Europe, apparently consists of a number of independent novellas or stories, each bearing the title of an unimportant European city, each in a different country. Perhaps, Lunaire said, the book is about Europe, but it is not a history or a geography; it is a novel, in fact, whose characters are perhaps nations, or villages, or geographical features, or events.

Well: I was curious about this Coqt, and his writing. I said I’d like to see it, but that I certainly wouldn’t consider publishing it myself. For one thing, I have things of my own I still want to get into shape; for another, my French was certainly not up to the job. But then Lunaire threw a curve: he said he’d translated the first section into English, more or less without meaning to — he makes a little pocket money translating from French to English, and can’t seem to help scratching out English versions of certain French passages when he reads, even if there’s no pecuniary reason for it. He’d send me that first section in an e-mail, if I liked; he’d be curious to know what I thought of it, of the translation, and of Coqt’s style.

A few months after my return from France an e-mail finally arrived, with the first four or five sections — you can hardly call them “chapters” — of the opening of Coqt’s novel, the book giving its title to the entire project: Skagen. I was immediately impressed, and asked him to send the rest when he’d finished it.

That took another month or two, but eventually it came, with some notes of his own. I had hardly any editing to do, and that for three reasons: the copy was quite clean; Coqt’s writing (in Lunaire’s translation, at least) is eccentric and best untinkered with; and besides, I’m a little lazy. I do enjoy page layout, though, and had fun trying to make a real book out of what is in fact only twelve or fifteen thousand words.

I sent a .PDF file of the result to Lunaire, and he almost immediately wrote back, approving my work enthusiastically — it had inspired him to get to work on the translation in earnest. He had a few little corrections to make, but nothing serious. And in another three months he sent the next section, Tarifa.

I hesitated a long time over how exactly to publish the entire Skagen. Should I wait until Lunaire had finished the whole thing, and publish it as a single volume — or, more likely, a two-volume novel? Or should I go ahead and publish the individual books as Lunaire completed them, on an analogy with the serialized novels of the Victorian period, or those books that were published in fascicles, a century or more ago?

Lunaire’s own unpredictability furnished the answer to that riddle. After Tarifa, not a word from him for months. I decided to shelve the project and get back to work on my own things. But then, just a couple of months ago, he sent three e-mails with extensive sections of a third book, apparently called Vianden or Veinen, it’s not yet quite clear. It’s as different from the first two books as they are from one another. And he tells me he’s working simultaneously on a fourth, though it apparently doesn’t follow Vianden immediately in Coqt’s typescript — I don’t know why Lunaire has skipped a book or two, and I’m not going to ask.

All this to announce that, yes, just in time for Christmas, the first two instalments of Skagen a novel of Europe are published, complete with ISBN numbers. Like most of my own books they’ve been printed and bound by the online publisher Lulu, and for now that’s where you can buy them. They sell for $9.95 each, and shipping is extra. You can order them here.

I’m pleased with my work on these books, and excited that a chance visit to a chiropracter has led to the introduction of an unexpectedly interesting and completely unknown voice to the canon of modern literature. Please encourage Lunaire to continue his translations; order copies of Skagen and Tarifa for yourself, and consider them as gifts for the new year!

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Virgil Thomson: sharpness, precision, definition

•Virgil Thomson: Music Chronicles 1940-1954.
The Library of America, 2014
ISBN 978-1-59853-309-5
Edited and with notes and chronology by Tim Page
Eastside Road, December 4, 2014—
I HAVE SPENT the last two or three days reading through Virgil Thomson, having received the surprise gift of his Music Chronicles from the publisher; I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps in the hope that I would write about the book here.

I’ve written about Virgil here before, of course. [Here and here.] We met him in the middle 1960s, and it’s bemusing to think that I’m now a generation older than he was when Lou Harrison brought him up our front stairs, at 1947 Francisco Street, to introduce us over lunch.

I never knew him well, though Lindsey and I visited him in his Chelsea Hotel apartment whenever we went to New York, back in the 1970s and ‘80s. He invited us to dinner there once or twice; we dined out once or twice; we dined at Chez Panisse once or twice. He was friendly to us; conversation was by no means one-sided. He gave me some advice on vocal writing, and I was bold enough to dedicate my Duchamp opera to him; he seemed genuinely interested in it.

During the fifteen years or so that I wrote music criticism professionally, for the Oakland Tribune, I dipped into his published criticism fairly often. I always wrote better, I think, for having read him, though it was sometimes necessary to resist his influence: one must speak, after all, with one’s own voice.

What a pleasure, now, to re-read Thomson! His prose style is so direct, clear, engaged and engaging, occasionally surprising; and the ideas he considers and reveals with that style are so persuasive, well-grounded, and important in considering his subject-matter — which is always, in the published work, music, the art, its producers, and those aspects of society (including history and economics) which are inextricably connected with it.

Music Chronicles reprints the four volumes of newspaper columns Thomson issued during his career and, I think, in one case at least, after his retirement from the New York Herald Tribune, which had the intelligence (and forbearance) to sustain him from October 1940 until October 1954: The Musical Scene; The Art of Judging Music; Music Right and Left; Music Reviewed. There are also 25 articles and reviews from the NYHT that Thomson had not chosen for republication, a couple of essays specifically about the mechanics of newspaper music criticism, and a welcome collection of eight early articles are reviews from before his NYHT stint. Missing are , among other things, the articles Thomson wrote for The New York Review of Books. Perhaps they’re being saved for a second volume in this quasi-official Library of America publication (the nearest thing our country has to Frances Pleiade Edition).

What I’ve been reading, then, is essentially the New York Herald Tribune, from late 1940 to about 1948, as it confronted, through its chief music critic, a musical scene incredibly rich in any epoch let alone wartime. “Chief” music critic, for Thomson had a stable of stringers only too happy to pick up a little pocket money covering events even Thomson didn’t have time for: John Cage, Lou Harrison, Peggy Glanville-Hicks and others. (Their writing was often nearly as impressive, and nearly always greatly influenced by their boss’s.)

These are basically concert reviews and Sunday “think pieces,” as we used to call the more extended essays we wrote on generalized subjects or aspects of music other than its actual performance. I don’t know how VT actually wrote his copy, whether at home or in the office, from notes or not, in revised drafts or not. I like to think he wrote as I used to, at his desk, on the (manual) typewriter, on long sheets of foolscap, triple-spaced and pasted, eventually, end to end, lest the sheets get out of order on their way to the linotype machine. Revisions, if any, would have been made in heavy pencil between the lines.

As you read through these pages you quickly form the notion there was little revising to be done. VT seems usually to have the nut of his essay in mind before beginning to type it; the nut and a few of the sentences as well, especially the opener. Headings, too, sound like his voice: “Age without Honor”, “Velvet Paws”, “Being Odious” (a comparison of three orchestras), “Hokum and Schmalz”, “Free Love, Socialism, and Why Girls Leave Home” (a review of Gustave Charpentier’s opera Louise).

VT writes about complex matters, subtle distinctions, hidden influences, unsuspected associations, dealing with an art form notoriously resistant to verbal analysis and discussion. He is successful largely for four reasons, I think: keen observation, clear analysis, economical expression, great assurance. Let me give one example, from a review of a Philharmonic Orchestra concert that had presented Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, and Darius Milhaud’s Suite française and Le Bal martiniquais:
There is humanity in the very texture of Milhaud’s writing. Tunes and countertunes and chords and percussive accents jostle one another with such friendliness, such tolerance, and such ease that the whole comes to represent what almost anybody might mean by a democratic way of life. Popular gaiety does not prevent the utterance of noble sentiments, and the presence of noble sentiments puts no damper at all on popular gaieties. The scenes have air in them and many different kinds of light, every brightness and every transparency, and no gloom or heaviness at all.
You might complain that this description, while perfectly apt, will only seem so to those who know Milhaud’s music and who therefore already have this impression. VT does not merely preach to the choir, though, in his graceful, informed, yet often plainly vernacular prose; he voices realizations not perhaps otherwise verbalized, sets the music almost visually and certainly intellectually in front of an audience that otherwise confronts it only with the ears.

(Or program notes; or an invisible announcer’s introductions: these come in for careful, thoughtful, and critical assessment from time to time.)

VT writes about judgment, modernism, pipe-organ voicing, the choice of repertory, the effect of audience or the lack of audience, the divisions of labor among “executants,” managers, boards of directors, educators, and critics. He writes about technical matters like rubato, dynamics including crescendo, the choice of tempo, and intonation, making such things understandable, I think, by the lay public. He describes the rhythmic differences between tango, rhumba, beguine, and Lindy hop. He writes about generalized complex historical matters, and he writes about personalities.

I despair of describing VT’s writing, when it is so easy simply to give quotations, so here they are, more or less at random:
Stravinsky knocked us all over when we first heard him, because he had invented a new rhythmic notation, and we all thought we could use it. We cannot. It is the notation of the jerks that muscles give to escape the grip of taut nerves. It has nothing to do with blood flow…
—Music Chronicles, p. 969


The Satie musical aesthetic is the only twentieth-century musical aesthetic in the Western world. Schoenberg and his school are Romantics; and their twelve-tone syntax, however intriguing one may find it intellectually is the purest Romantic chromaticism.
—ibid., p. 126


Oscar Levant’s Piano Concerto is a rather fine piece of music. Or rather it contains fine pieces of music. Its pieces ae better than its whole, which is jerky, because the music neither moves along nor stands still. The themes are good, and if they are harmonically and orchestrally overdressed, they are ostentatiously enough so that no one need suspect their author of naïveté.
—ibid., p. 139



The greatness of the great interpreters is only in small part due to any peculiar intensity of their musical feelings. It is far more a product of intellectual thoroughness, of an insatiable curiosity to know what any given group of notes means, should mean, or can mean in terms of sheer sound… the great interpreters are those who, whether they are capable or not of penetrating a work’s whole musical substance, are impelled by inner necessity to give sharpness, precision, definition to the shape of each separate phrase.
—ibid., p. 275
Impelled by inner necessity to give sharpness, precision, definition to the shape of each separate phrase. This is what VT does, thoroughly and reliably, day after day and week after week, in prose which never fails to suggest conversation, discussion among similarly thoughtful (if perhaps never quite so articulate!) participants.

A couple of times, while typing the above quotations, Gertrude Stein came to mind. VT learned the rhythms of his prose, and beyond the rhythms the phrasing, I think, from his long experience with both her conversation and her prose. One of her most significant lectures was called “Composition as Explanation,” and I think its title (let alone its substance) offers a key to what VT intends in his journalism: he composes his explanations in an earnest desire to share and celebrate meaning: the meaning of music, of art, of humanity.

Let none of the above mislead you: VT has pronounced dissenting opinions from time to time, and delights in expressing them. In his first NYHT review he dismissed Sibelius’s Second Symphony as “vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description” (this from a critic proud of his Kansas City background). He doesn’t much like Brahms. As for Beethoven, he writes, in an essay discussing Mozart’s liberal humanism,
Mozart was not, like Wagner, a political revolutionary. Nor was he, like Beethoven, an old fraud who just talked about human rights and dignity but who was really an irascible, intolerant, and scheming careerist, who allows himself the liberty, when he felt like it, of being unjust toward the poor, lickspittle toward the rich, dishonest in business, unjust and unforgiving toward the members of his own family.
—ibid., p. 80

He is writing about Beethoven the man in that passage, of course, not about Beethoven's music. He has extremely insightful comments on the music. He sees the problem of the Fifth Symphony, for example, and of the Ninth. I think he understands the causes and the meaning of the German sensibility in music; that's revealed in a remarkable aside finding parti pris between the (otherwise very different) musical sensibilities of Chopin and Schumann. But over and over in these pages VT praises French sensibility and distrusts German. He notes, somewhere, that Beethoven introduced a note of militancy into concert music that has continued in the German musical tradition up to the middle of the 20th century; a note utterly lacking in the French repertory. He links this introduction to the difference between the German beat-oriented impetus and the French one, dependent on the phrase.

The American musical establishment favored the German wing of the history almost from the start and continuing, certainly, down to our own time. My own grandfather, hearing of my dedication to music when I was in high school, counseled me to learn German to prepare for study abroad and to be able to learn from the “important” sources. Beethoven continues to dominate repertory, though his symphonies seem finally to be giving room to those of Shostakovich, which (as VT points out) are hardly less militant.

Of course VT was an expatriate living in France from the end of his college years until 1940, his formative years. He had gone to Paris, not Berlin, to study with Nadia Boulanger; he’d remained there to converse with Stein, to observe Satie, to read Rameau, to refine an essentially Parnassian taste. His detractors, whether confronting his musical composition or his journalism, found him waspish, simple, trivial, or stilted, in order to marginalize his work as gossipy, dull, irrelevant, or pretentious, and thereby avoid having to give serious thought to the implications of his findings.

But I think his detractors were (and are) wrong. Wrong, and small themselves, and p[perhaps fearful of foundational truths about their own work. Music is primarily an intuitive thing, it is true, but it supports intellectual consideration carefully and authoritatively brought to it. That, ultimately, is VT’s achievement, that and the entertainment he provides in the process.

Music Chronicles contains, besides VT’s work, a fine, full, helpful Chronology of his life, the customary note on the text sources, concise but useful page-notes, and a near-encyclopedic section (85 closely-set pages!) introducing the many musicians referred to, whether a Bunk Johnson or a Pierre Boulez. The volume is exceeding well thought-out, nicely designed, easy on the eyes; and deserves a place close to hand.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Flarf

If I had to do it again and it was the best thing about it is not the same thing to say

The fact I can get it right away with the best of the year
and the other hand is the only thing that would have to go

I'm so tired and my friends
to be able too
see my friends to be able too
see my tweets of people are going out

I'm not sure if I could be a good day
to be a good day for me to be a good day
to be a good time to get a good day to be a good day

The only way to get the same thing as the first
place would have been a good idea but I can't even get the hang of it


— the text predictor

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mahler, and the Seventh

IT WAS A FELLOW employee at the Berkeley Post Office, Gary Jerburg I think his name was — this was after all sixty years ago — who introduced me to the music of Gustav Mahler. In those days he was still a neglected, even an unfamiliar composer — of works one knew only by reputation, and the reputation was far different then.

I remember, for example, a paperback guide to the symphonic literature, The Symphony by Ralph Hill, published by Penguin Books — in those days serious how-to-listen books seemed important. ("The purpose of this book is to guide the intelligent and serious listener towards a deeper understanding of the masterpieces of symphony, which he is likely to hear frequently in the concert hall, on the air, or on the gramophone.") Mr. Hill did not take kindly to Mahler, "Bombastes Furioso, caustic, cynical, ironic, intolerant and dictatorial…"

Gary brought me a couple of long-playing recordings of Mahler: the Bruno Walter recording of the Fourth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde, and I was hooked. Before long I'd added Walter's recording of the Ninth to my shelf. I think it was the long-playing record, and especially the then-new stereo technique, that made the popularization of Mahler possible: before long, of course, Leonard Bernstein finished the job, and Mahler's been a permanent fixture of the standard repertory ever since. His time has come, as he had promised it would.

The other day Mahler's Seventh Symphony was in the air hereabouts — the Bay Area, I mean — as Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony through it. I didn't hear it: I was away at the time. I probably wouldn't have heard it even if I'd been here, as I'm not fond of Thomas's way with Mahler, and I'm particularly fussy about the Seventh.

At one time I studied the Seventh fairly closely, probably in the early 1960s. I bought the Eilenberg edition of the pocket score in April 1962, according to my bookplate, and when the Berkeley Public Library acquired the Universal Edition edition a few years later, with Mahler's many changes from the earlier state the Eulenberg edition presents, I carefully added in all those changes into my copy.

There were two recordings of the Seventh in those days, as far as I can remember: Hermann Scherchen's, with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, and Maurice Abravanel's, with the Utah Symphony. I liked them both, for different reasons. When I "listen" to the Seventh with my mind's ears, it is with Abravanel's tempi and weighting, though I seem to remember Sherchen's version often seeming more graceful.

The Seventh has curious architecture. Landscape architecture, I think I mean. Two long developmental-but-episodic movements start and finish the piece, whose central movement is one of those shadowy Mahler scherzos, flanked with two fragrant, rustic serenades. The orchestra includes cowbells, a mandolin, a guitar. The very opening is striking — a quiet steady but uncertain rhythmic figure which Mahler wrote came to him as he was rowing, at night, on an Alpine lake, with a suddenly cautionary but peremptory solo on the tenor-horn. If you've walked the Alps at nightfall you know the feeling.

Siege Ozawa led the San Francisco Symphony in the Mahler Seventh in 1976, and I remember thinking he led it beautifully. It was the only work on the program, as is often the case — it runs over 80 minutes in most performances. Ozawa had asked me it I had any ideas as to what to program with it, and he was surprised and I think amused at my answer: Start with Strauss's Tales from the Vienna Woods, I suggested, and continue with the Webern Symphony op. 21.

This would of course have added maybe twenty minutes to the program. I thought you could take a short intermission after the Webern. The connecting thread through the pieces is the plucked strings: zither in Strauss, harp in Webern, mandolin and guitar in Mahler. Austria throughout.

The most important thing, I think, is not to let Mahler's finale get too boisterous. Most conductors fall down here, and I think that's what made Ralph Hill think of Mahler as "Bombastes Furioso". The Seventh is on the Haydn model, not the Beethoven: the weight's on the opening movement, not the finale. Allegro ordinary, Mahler says, though he added Pesante to the second version in a number of places, and does, it's true, end fortissimo. But I think the rhythms are jaunty and rustic, not pushy and overpowering; Mahler's still in the mountains in lederhosen, not in uniform on a parade ground.

So I prefer these days to look at the score from time to time, and to "hear" the piece from the page, and from memory. But note, if you've read this far, that this morning, thinking about writing this, I discovered the Abravanel recordings available as a download, from a source I don't usually like to patronize, for only $2.99, for all nine completed Mahler symphonies, with a few song-cycles thrown in. The recorded sound is far from adequate these days, but the tempi and weight and attitude strike me as just right — at least in the Seventh, which is the only one I've dipped into so far.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Lullaby and Finale


Eastside Road, November 8, 2014—
JUST WHEN I THOUGHT there was no particular reason to write any more music — in July, 2004, to be precise — Eliane Lust asked for a new piece. She was planning a recital program of lullabies and thought I’d like to supply one. She’s a favorite of mine; she did such a splendid job with my piano sonata Bachelor Apparatus , even consenting to play it in costume seated at a piano perched on a cart being hauled across the stage by a strongman in Margeret Fisher’s amazing dance/theater piece drawn from our opera together.

And, by coincidence, I’d just bought a new piece of notation software which made it easier than ever to print music, and even to synthesize it somewhat suggestively; and I’d installed it on a new laptop, a tiny one that I’d taken with us on an annual week in Ashland, where we like to go to see Shakespeare (and other plays), and where we were when Eliane’s e-mail request came.

Partly to learn the software (and to demonstrate it to a friend who was among those spending the week with us), partly to see if I could write a lullaby, I quickly composed this piece. The next day, after the computer played it to us and I discovered how incredibly long it is and how somniferous, I decided to add a Finale, partly to awaken the audience, more really to awaken the performer.

The pieces have something to do with the music in the Trio for Violin, Piano, and Percussion. The same chromaticism is there; the deep clusters; the insistent repetition. I don’t think these have much to do with Minimalism; to me they are more closely related to the hermetic poetry of Gertrude Stein. But I could be wrong about that. In fact, Lullaby is a sort of by-piece to the much longer Sonata 2 Compositio ut explicatio.

Eliane introduced both movements in a program of lullabies and barcarolles given at The Dance Palace, Pt. Reyes Station, California, Oct. 17, 2004.



click here for synthesized performance (.mp3)

click here for score (.pdf)