Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Dostoevsky on stage

WELL, YES, I seem to have left a few things hanging. I'll try to be concise, and catch them up in turn, starting tonight with comments on
  • A Noise Within
  • We saw three plays down in Glendale last month, rather an odd set but one nicely showing off the abilities of this repertory company we've followed now for years. We saw an effective if somewhat conventional Richard II, which distressed me considerably for the first few minutes as I was quite irrationally convinced, in the previous few days, looking forward to it, that it was Richard III that was scheduled: a play I very much like. Alas, no: the misshapen villain looked me in the eye and began lecturing about the winter of our discontent and I was in for it.

    Four evenings later it was a very different matter: Michael Frayn's Noises Off is a very funny play, fast and funny, about a theater company falling apart during the performance of a fast and not terribly funny farce called Nothing On, whose first act is performed in each of the play's three acts: first as seen by an audience, but in rehearsal; next seen from backstage, where the actors have begun succumbing to jealousy, anxiety and drunkenness; finally on stage again, a few weeks later, when the company is in a state of total collapse. Of course this is a marvelous vehicle for a true repertory company whose actors are used to working together, developing a play through a number of performances over a period of weeks: the performance was superb.

    I had looked forward to the theatrical adaptation of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment with considerable curiosity. I hadn't read the book in over fifty years, so got down my old Penguin paperback and devoured it in a week. What a book! Absolutely riveting in its suspense; teeming with detail; intellectually and morally provocative. Since my first reading I'd been to Petersburg — Leningrad it was, then — and knew those scents and streets first-hand. ¶ The adaptation, by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, was fascinating, narrowing the plot almost exclusively to the cat-and-mouse between Raskolnikov and the police inspector (Michael A. Newcomer and Robertson Dean, respectively), with just enough allusion to other plot elements to involve Holly Hawkins as Alyona, the old-lady pawnbroker; Dunya, Raskolinikov's sister; and Sonia, the girl who ultimately ... but I won't put any spoilers here. ¶ Newcomer was magnificent, memorably so, onstage virtually throughout the 90 minutes unreleaved by intermission. He'd clearly studied the novel carefully and thought about its implications quite extensively; you could believe his mind capable of quite absorbing both Raskolnikov's careful philosophical deliberations and his intellectual methodology. Dean and Hawkins were quite up to his level; Craig Belknap's direction was thoughtful and balanced; and Michael Smith's design is both authentic in its realism and subtle in its psychological effect. As is everything about this play and the novel it draws on: and, alas, it's all too topical still.

    Sunday, November 22, 2009

    Music in Los Angeles

    TWO CONCERTS HEARD last Saturday in the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Hall, the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, have given me much to think about. We were particularly eager to hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct Mozart: he's a known quantity with contemporary music and with big colorful Romantic works, but what would his Mozart be like? The occasion was an intriguing concert on the regular season: the "Prague" and "Jupiter" symphonies (nos. 38 and 41) flanking Alban Berg's Violin Concerto, Gil Shaham the soloist.

    It turns out that Dudamel's as fine a conductor of Mozart as of anything else. He seated first and second violins opposite one another, as is certainly right with this repertory, and reduced the strings to 14-12-10-8-6. He took all the repeats and moderated the tempi. He made the music serious, quite serious, minimizing interpretation, clarifying the scores. The "Prague" symphony revealed its essentially operatic, expressive quality, connecting to Don Giovanni and, even more, Le Nozze di Figaro; the "Jupiter" emerged on the other hand as the abstract, architectural masterpiece it is, enjoying its counterpoint as decorative line while revealing it even more as structural fabric.

    We sat above and behind the first violin section, slightly skewing the aural perspective but getting a fine view of Dudamel's address to his orchestra — his face as well as his stick technique. For a young man (28) he's remarkably mature, completely assured, yet engaging. In so many ways he makes me realize orchestral music, all the standard Eurocentric concert music, has moved into a new era. There seems to be a relaxed, egalitarian relationship between him and his band (and his scores, for that matter): the work is done jointly; conductor and instrumentalists commit equally to the effort.

    There were occasional problems resulting from this: first bassoon tends to rush his quick patter in the "Prague"; upper winds reveal occasional uncertainty as to the precise location of a downbeat. But I only noticed such things four or five times in the entire program; and they were more than offset by the beautifully precise tuning of octaves, the fine balance of dynamics.

    The Berg concerto was remarkably detailed. Berg's orchestration always works on paper, but rarely in the hall; he's a sort of 20th-century Schumann in that respect; conductors must study the intent his scores reveal and guide their musicians in rehearsal to a clear expression of the details that make up Berg's complex, sometimes weighty, but always lucid music. Here Dudamel absolutely triumphed: you felt your ears were hearing the printed score as well as the delicious sounds. (Shaham seemed to me a perfect collaborator, playing effortlessly, dramatically, authoritatively, leaving nothing further to be desired.)

    What the program finally amounted to was a perfect coupling of Berg and Mozart. Both composers emerged as living, breathing, important, humane, utterly contemporary creators of music that is significant, affecting, brilliant, and intelligent.
    Saturday night we attended quite a different affair, the opening concert of the LA Phil's "West Coast, Left Coast" festival of, well, west-coast new music. The Kronos Quartet opened the late-night concert (it began at 9:30) with a suite of three pieces whose titles were unstipulated in the program booklet.

    Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt, who perform as Matmos, followed, presenting a loose but steady stream of electronically processed sounds, as often from amplified physical objects as from synthesizers. Suzie Katayama then led a string-and-guitar ensemble through a three- or four-movement piece by Michael Einziger; and then Terry Riley joined Kronos and Matmos in what seemed a group improvisation grounded on a notated structure.

    The long evening ended with Riley's solo improvisations at the keyboard of the fine Disney Hall pipe organ, a magnificent instrument. Singing occasionally, Riley moved effortlessly through a global range of musical expression, from blues and barrelhouse to Indian ragas. I had been discouraged by the music that preceded him: it seemed thin, routine, graceless, dutiful. Matmos, for example, seems to repeat mechanically and joylessly the kinds of sounds John Cage and David Tudor found so much more expressive, witty, and graceful in Cage's Variations series, forty years ago.

    Riley, though, brings the spirituality, intelligence, and sensuousness of that period right down to the present, because of course he was there. He did in his own performance at that organ just what Dudamel had done with Mozart and Berg, found a way to project everything that's human and humane in music, while casting aside all the merely theoretical and historical and routine.
    Dudamel has taken Los Angeles by storm, and tickets to his concerts are extremely hard to come by. I'm grateful to the Los Angeles Philharmonic for providing our seats to his concert.

    Tuesday, November 10, 2009

    Gertrude Stein: two plays, part one: What Happened

    WE DO LIKE TO GO to the theater, Lindsey and I. We see all the plays in Ashland at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; we see nearly all the plays in Los Angeles (Glendale, actually) at A Noise Within. We catch occasional plays closer to home, in Berkeley or San Francisco or even up here in Sonoma county, in Santa Rosa or Sebastopol.
    We like the standard repertory; we like new plays; we like the classics; we like drama originally in other languages. We'll be in Glendale in a week or ten days to see Shakespeare, an adaptation of Dostoevsky, and Michael Frayn's wonderfully funny Noises Off (confusingly, perhaps, at the repertory company called A Noise Within, playing its last season this year in Glendale before moving next season to a new house in Pasadena).

    I have a lot of favorite playwrights: Chekhov, Shakespeare, Euripides, Moliere, Pirandello, to name five who come quickly to mind. Behind them come dozens more — I won't go into that now; maybe some day I'll draw up a list of Top Hundred. (I did that years ago for composers, listing them by nationalities; it was an amusing little exercise.)

    Right now, though, my irreducible Favorite Playwright is Gertrude Stein. I met her dramatic work over fifty years ago, through Virgil Thomson's setting of her Four Saints in Three Acts. This began an enthusiasm that's never ended — you can read its history in my little book Why I Read Stein. I've set two of Stein's plays as little operas myself, and would love to finish the trilogy if someone would only promise to produce it. (Ladies Voices and I Like It to Be a Play have been produced; What Happened A Play remains to be composed.)

    Well. When I heard the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies at UC Berkeley was producing a number of one-act plays, and that among them would be two of Stein's plays, I was absolutely delighted and made plans to drive down to see them, and Sunday we saw two of the three programs, one with What Happened A Play, the other with Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters.

    I wish I could be more enthusiastic about what we saw. Each program opened with Eugène Ionesco's Salutations: five actors, hundreds of adjectives, recited in alphabetical order, in two quite different physical productions. The afternoon production continued with Suzan-Lori Parks's Devotees in the Garden of Love in a strikingly beautiful physical production, with impressive acting by Jessica Charles, Kelly Strickland, and Dekyl Rongé, but delivered so stridently (as was much of the Ionesco) that the intelligibility of the lines was all too frequently lost completely.
    After the intermission the program promised What Happened. What we got was that play, in all its textual beauty, with interpolations of perhaps improvised, perhaps written-out lines having little to do with Stein's play, sometimes in Spanish, nearly always mundane.
    A director's note may explain this:
    …I initially intended to clarify at some length Stein's approach towards language and art with the hope of assisting the audience in "understanding" this admittedly challenging yet beautiful text. But, in the end, I realized that such definitive understanding is exactly the opposite of what she intended. Therefore, please just sit back and watch, hear, think, and feel. Sometimes we push too much for a singular meaning.

    Scott Wallin is right to reject singular meaning, but wrong, I think, to multiply it unnecessarily. He is particularly wrong, in my opinion, to let his audience assume everything heard here was Gertrude Stein's. Her plays are famously overheard conversation, but they have an integrity, stylistically and theatrically, that comes from a single observer's point of view (far-reachingly intelligent though it be), filtered through a single writer's editorial and expressive technique.

    Stein herself discusses this better than I can. (She's as redoubtable a critic as she is a playwright.) I quote from Jason Fichtel's useful discussion 'When this you see remember me': The Postmodern Aesthetic of Gertrude Stein's Drama, posted at time-sense, an on-line quarterly I'm going to have to explore:
    I think and always have thought that if you write a play you ought to announce that it is a play and that is what I did. What Happened. A Play. . . . I realized then as anybody can know that something is always happening. Something is always happening, anybody knows a quantity of stories of people's lives . . . everybody knows so many stories and what is the use of telling another story. What is the use of telling a story since there are so many and everybody knows so many and tells so many. . . . So naturally what I wanted to do in my play was what everybody did not always know or always tell.
    [from Stein's Lectures in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), p. 207]

    What Happened, Fichtel writes,
    becomes a cubist experiment in playwriting. As she does in Tender Buttons, Stein continues to experiment with cubism in literature—trying to describe the world around her in varying, complex, and indirect ways.

    Well, okay, this kind of thing is said all the time. I reject the notion of "experiment" here; the word has too useful a primary meaning to go on using it in this vaguely condescending way; the "experimental" Modernists didn't develop art theory and then write or paint or compose experiments to try it out; it's the critics and academics who make "experiments" of the primary sources they grapple with. Nor do I like the word "trying" in Fichtel's last sentence. Stein damn well does express (not "describe") "the world around her in varying, complex" (but not "indirect ways"; she does that because it is in fact a varied, complex world, and her brilliant decision was to distill and reproduce it, not narrate or "describe" it.

    I suppose you have to be a Modernist, or at least an aware member of one of the Modernist generations, to enjoy Stein qua Stein; and I suppose we have to be patient with the critics and stage directors who, not being of the Modernist moment themselves, almost invariably come to her — when they do, with any degree of seriousness — through a postmodern sensibility. And I suppose we should be grateful for productions like this one: at least they bring Stein's plays to the attention of the audience; perhaps that will lead one day to closer attention to the texts themselves.

    And, of course, one of the banes of the postmodern moment is the director elevating his own craft to a position equal, if not superior, to that of the author whose work he presents. I'd like to see this the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, and Dramaturgy, taking the dramaturge to be a spokesman for the author, not an explicator or interpreter.

    As before intermission, the performance of What Happened was hurt by rushed and shouted lines, helped by quite beautiful visuals — colors, lighting, gesture. Dramatic theater is enlarged by bringing to its preparation concepts from dance and performance art: but it's too bad rhetoric and vocal expression is apparently denied equal consideration. My guess is, though, that the vocal problems will be dealt with in subsequent performances; and in spite of all the reservations expressed here I'd go back for a second sight if I weren't going to be out of town.
  • Salutations, by Eugène Ionesco, directed by Charlotte McIvor; Devotees in the Garden of Love, by Suzan-Lori Parks,directed by Godfrey Plata; What Happened, by Gertrude Stein, directed by Scott Wallin; Durham Studio Theater (Dwinelle Hall), UC Berkeley; repeats Fri. Nov. 13 (10pm), Sat. Nov. 14 (3pm), Thurs. Nov. 19 (7pm), Fri. Nov. 20 (10pm), Sat. Nov. 21 (7pm)

  • Since writing the above, I've run across the complete text of What Happened: A Play online, with an intelligent description of its origin, here. O wondrous Internet!

    Thursday, October 29, 2009

    The Duchamp Opera


    I'M THINKING ALOUD, or rather my fingers are, mulling over what on earth I'm going to say for half an hour this evening about my Duchamp opera. Marcel Duchamp worked on his Large Glass, La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même, for twelve or fourteen years, definitively abandoning the project in 1923. It's two things: 1) a painting on glass, say two meters high, painted in mixed media (oil paint, lead foil, lead wire, dust, varnish) on two panes of glass; 2) a collection of notes, memos, and drawings that accumulated over the years he was working on the thing and was subsequently published in at least three different collections.

    One of those collections, The Green Box, was published in a typographical version by the English artist Richard Hamilton, translated into English by George Heard Hamilton, in the early 1960s; this was my introduction to Duchamp. Soon afterward, the first retrospective of Duchamp's work was given by the Pasadena Museum; Lindsey and I borrowed Mom's car and drove down to see it. I was hooked.

    two pages of The Green Box

    I'd already begun setting some of those notes and memos to music, working right in my copy of Hamilton's book; before long it became clear I was thinking of an opera. The Large Glass seemed to me to be a deep, detailed, resonant and serene landscape, and as Gertrude Stein says landscapes are suitable for only two things, battlefields and plays. We mostly all prefer plays, and I prefer my plays with sound.

    That was 1964-1965. Two years later an early version of the music was performed in Berkeley, in October 1967. The next May Duchamp died. I was then working at KQED, and I wrote and produced a 40-minute obituary program, describing the evolution of Duchamp's work from his earliest paintings through to a guided tour of the Large Glass. For that purpose I made a fullsize replica of The Glass, paintings its elements on sheets of acetate.

    In the meantime I'd been reading the growing number of books about Duchamp and his work, learning enough French and Italian to handle some of the best, and translating about half of Jean Suquet's Le Miroir de la mariée. And when in the middle 1970s we were able to begin traveling in Europe one of my first projects was to make a sort of pilgrimage of the places Duchamp had lived in, photographing them. On one occasion I even met his widow, Teeny Duchamp: Why didn't you visit us, she asked; I didn't want to intrude on you, I answere; The ones you want to visit always feel that way, she answered.

    portable cardboard model stageset

    I made a traveling kit of things related to The Large Glass and to my projected opera: a collapsible cardboard model stageset, with flying or detachable set-pieces, some repeating Duchamp's imagery, others things of my own — that's the score to Variations, for harp and percussion, on the back wall stage left. With it of course went the Hamilton edition of The Green Box and my steadily growing collection of manuscript pages and drawings.

    In 1980, I think it was, the first scene of the first act was staged in San Francisco, with a young John Adams conducting the Conservatory New Music Ensemble. Somewhere I have a grainy black-and-white video of the event, which was not entirely successful. By then I was teaching part-time at Mills College, and in 1984, there, the entire first act was staged, in a wonderful mise-en-scène by the dancer Margaret Fisher, and the first three scenes of the second act were performed in concert form.

    Margaret Fisher's model stageset
    We were working toward a complete production, to be given a year or two later at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but the funding was lost.

    There exists an audio recording of the Mills College performance, though the original recording was lost in the Oakland Hills fire. The video of the Mills College performance is unfortunately only of archival interest. When the full production in San Francisco was scuttled I lost interest in the opera and turned to other things. I don't know if I'd want to have to work on a complete production, in the unlikely event one ever becomes possible. Some things are best left mythic.
    Okay. Get to work on the talk!

    Friday, October 23, 2009

    Bride concerto

    HERE WE ARE again, revisiting old work instead of doing new work. I think it's one of the great drawbacks of technological improvements: the greatly enhanced ability to revisit, review, revise, Lou Harrison's motto was Cherish. Consider. Conserve. Create. Mine seems to have devolved to Revist. Review. Reconsider. Revise.

    The project at hand is honorable, though, because it's attached to an event by its very nature retrospective: the Duchamp show in Healdsburg at the Slaughterhouse Space. This installation, which closes November 7, gathers visual work by XXX artists — painting, sculpture, video, installation — in the haunting and endlessly beautiful atmosphere of a former slaughterhouse. (These four photos give only a rough idea of the space.) Recorded music from or associated with my Duchamp opera runs continuously as you investigate the exhibition.

    IMG_0747.jpg IMG_0746.jpg

    Among the events associated with the exhibition is a short talk I'll be giving next week, describing the translation of Duchamp's painting to the rather different medium of staged opera. I've written about this before on this blog; today, since I just finished re-notating its first movement, I'll introduce you to my concerto for violin with harp, percussion, and small orchestra, one of two solo concerti concealed within the long fourth scene of the second act of the opera. There a solo piano often represents the Bachelors; the violin represents the Bride. Both have prominent roles in a Ballet with chorus and vocal soloists in that scene, and much of the music can be extracted, stripped of its vocal material, and performed as purely instrumental works. The piano concerto has yet to be realized, though a version of it has appeared as a solo work, the Sonata: Bachelor Machine of 1989.
    For that matter the Violin Concerto has not yet been fully realized, even though it, like the rest of this long scene, was completed in 1985: the opening movement, which contains a number of passages written in non-standard “graphic” notation, has yet to be transcribed and performed. In 1989 I extracted the second, third, and fourth movements of the concerto for the Cabrillo Music Festival, where it was performed on a concert of works in progress. I was told the Concerto was particularly interesting to the program committee because of its many silences and light texture, and there was some dismay when I mentioned that I hadn’t yet finished putting notes in.

    One small joke in the score is its snare drum: the part was lifted literally, and without permission, from Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra (1959). After the concert, when I asked what he thought of my concerto, he suggested that I transpose the whole thing up an octave. When I told him that I’d lifted his snare drum part, he suggested that I should have taken the solo violin part.

    There remains the question of what this Violin Concerto is “about.” Beni Shinohara, who played the piece beautifully, asked that very question while the piece was in rehearsal, and I told her about one of the underlying themes of Duchamp’s painting — its ironic erotic atmosphere, in which the Bride, always swaying out of the Bachelors’ reach, remains in a constant state of unrelieved excitement. “I thought it was something like that,” Beni replied, and played it beautifully.

    I've entered these notes, a snapshot of the opening measures of the score, a .pdf of the Romance which served as the opening movement, and an .mp3 of the opening of the performance of that movement on my website.

    Thursday, October 22, 2009

    Food, art, community

    I WROTE ABOUT last Saturday's Futurist Banquet over at Eating Every Day, but find I have more to say about it; and comments more general than my eating blog is meant to convey. Over there I simply record the day's intake, really, though of course I hope there's occasionally something more interesting than the daily inventory. There I list and describe; here I usually intend something more speculative or fanciful. There I hew to discipline: I may go a day without posting, but never three. Here I would like to publish frequently, but more frequently, especially lately, find reasons to abstain.

    But this Futurist Banquet — now there was something to experience, to celebrate, to consider, to think over. And the more I think about it, the more I discuss it, the deeper and more complex, even dense and manifold, it becomes.

    I can't give the event justice; that would be a scholar's work, certainly a critic's. I've only seen two other discussions of the event so far, here and here; each has better photographs than mine, the first of them has video as well. Each of them steered me further to the webpage describing the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's series of events connected to its show Metal + Machine + Manifesto = Futurism's First 100 Years, among which this banquet was the only event I attended. (If I lived closer to San Francisco I'd have attended others.)

    (Since writing that paragraph — this blogging sometimes spans a couple of days — I've found much the best account, written by Marcia Gagliardi for her Tablehopper blog, here, complete with links to a number of YouTube videos and Flickr still photos.)

    Here's what SFMOMA promised us:
    Feeding on Futurism's appetite for destruction, OPENrestaurant revisits F. T. Marinetti's provocative Futurist Cookbook from 1932 — which combined polemics with actual recipes designed to transform society — and realigns the movement's arguably fascist palate with a more sustainable approach to life. Look for cyclists delivering a locally sourced "wild beast" and a women-only kitchen carving edible sculptures against a backdrop of stadium seating, emergency sirens, and spinning walls. Guests attending this clamorous banquet can expect to exalt in sounds, smells, and constant motion, and delight in, among other things, beef ice-cream cones, avocado cocktails, and flying panforte.
    All this added up to a sort of closing bookend to a mute conversation I've been having with myself (and, in my imagination, with Curtis Faville) about the position of cuisine among the items generally though of as making up a culture. The opening of that conversation has to do with the significance, now in the early 21st century, of cuisine as an "art," whatever that is. This close is not about art; it's about rite. (I'm aware of Walter Benjamin's comments on the links between the two.)

    The Futurist Banquet was given, after all, in the context of "high art"; the locally much-vaunted SFMOMA building was intended as its architect to be a sort of contemporary cathedral, a great public space offering refuge, reflection, but also social and even commercial activity, just as did the great buildings of the European age of cathedrals (and, though he didn't say so, the earlier one of the great Mediterranean-basin mosques). (I write this from memory: I interviewed Mario Botta a number of years ago, when his design for the building was first announced.)

    I disliked the building when it was completed. It's too small, physically, for its ambitions; it keeps changing its mind about its materials; its reliance on artificial light and materials greatly compromises its evident (though vague) yearning for transcendence. It doesn't make me think of Chartres, or Winchester, or Cordoba; it makes me think of the Greyhound bus station in Oakland.

    But the engineers of this Banquet overcame all this with one simple, elemental, authentic stroke, bringing in the fragrance of fennel and flesh. The Futurists of Marinetti's day were in many ways a bunch of dilettantes, men (no women) of independent means, well-read; brain workers. They meant to replace backward, peasant- or bourgeois-based, complacent society with industry, war, discipline, above all energy.

    To their credit, the engineers of this Banquet — I'm not sure exactly who they were, though OPENrestaurant clearly played the central role — went a big step beyond the Futurists. Relegated them to the past, in fact: with respect no doubt; with charity; but still with recognition that the Futurist moment is well behind us. What we need now is to replace a complacent industry- and war-based society with one more holistically grounded in a more natural economy.

    That smell of burning flesh and fennel galvanized the crowd, immediately summoning instinctual responses. And by doing that it brought many of us out of our individual preoccupations — fashion, tech, art, whatever it was motivated our curiosity to attend in the first place — and knit us into an impromptu community. All around me, as the 1200 feet of aluminum foil was stripped from the carcass (I thought of Duchamp's "Halo of the Bride"; others thought of the Shroud of Turin), as the women carved the steer (I thought of avenging Furies; others thought of vestal virgins), I saw facial expressions, heard involuntary vocalizings, that revealed surprise and awe and utter focussed awareness — you can see this too, in the YouTube videos — that can only be compared to religious experiences.

    By a lucky coincidence we'd already planned a trip to a Portuguese community in the Central Valley, Thornton, where we'd see a bullfight, two evenings after the Futurist Banquet. The Portuguese end their bullfights with a line of eight forcados challenging the by now spent but still dangerous bull. At an invisible signal the lead forcado suddenly runs headlong at the steer, leaps over his head and between his horns, and grabs the animal around the neck; his companions rush to follow him, the last of them grasping the bull's tail; after quite a tussle the animal is brought to the ground.

    That leap between the bull's horns always makes me think of the Cretan bull-vaulters. The bullfights, even the bloodless Portuguese bullfights, are of course illegal in California, as I understand it; but because they are associated with the religious celebration (in Monday's case the celebration of Our Lady of Fatima) they are exempt from this ban. In spite of Walter Benjamin, the component of RItual (and awe) are still associated with art, for bull-dancing, even bull-fighting, like cuisine, is an Art, an art enduring from less sophisticated societies, whose communities gathered around fundamental needs and instincts.

    The smell of flesh and fennel must have permeated the fires on the beach before Troy, the sacrifice of Abraham, the underground temples of Rome, and the forecourts of the mosques and cathedrals. They finally made an honest woman of Mario Botta's temple to modern art, and I was very lucky and grateful to be there. Proud, too, that so much of the inspiration and the work and the spirit of the event is attributable to the community that has evolved through the years at Chez Panisse.

    Thursday, October 15, 2009

    There is too much to think about.

    AMONG THE BLOGS I follow, using Google Reader, one of my favorites — once past the truly wonderful blogs my daughter and granddaughters maintain* — is Languagehat. The author of this blog has two enthusiasms I share: language, of course, and hats: but the latter rarely find their way into his blog, more's the pity.

    I'm particularly taken by his recent entry, which refers to and includes his own translation of a short text — texticle? — by Ivan Bunin, Kniga ("Book"). Because if there's a subect besots me more than hats and language, it's books; Languagehat wrote pithily on this a few days ago. So to get back to this blog of my own, neglected these past two weeks when too many other things crowded it off my front burner, here's a gentle suggestion that you might well enjoy reading Book, and Languagehat in general.

    And, speaking of books, there's Curtis Faville's assay of Powell's Books, over on his Compass Rose.

    *Giovanna Zivny: Giovanna's Trifles, mainly on food and drink and life in Portland.
    Grace Zivny: Grace on the Go, on life as a graduate student in The Netherlands, and food and drink, and baseball, and other matters.
    Francesca Zivny: A Casa a Caserta, on life as an exchange high-school student in Italy: the food, the family, the classes, the driving…
    Emma Monrad: Emma Goes to College, on life as an art-school student, photographer, and bonne vivante in Portland.
    Toute la famille (Zivny): Baseball Without Borders, on, well, baseball, as it looks and is in the world beyond these United States.
    Do look in on these; I think you'll enjoy them.

    Sunday, September 27, 2009

    Out of business

    THE TIMES ARE NOT good. The nice Greengrocer in the nearby town of Windsor is closing at the end of the month. It was too good to make it, I suppose, in this bedroom community of nearly 30,000 souls, few of whom probably cared enough about what they were eating. The Greengrocer was a locavore's shop: wine, meats, dairy, and produce all came from within 150 miles. It was the only place in Windsor where we could buy local organic milk. We'll still get it, but we'll have to go to Healdsburg, two or three miles farther away. And I don't know where we'll be able to get dependable meat, except at the farm market.

    Even worse in a way, Sawyer's News Agency in Santa Rosa is closing. When I was in the sixth grade and spent an occasional day in town, riding in with Dad but spending the day not at his sheet-metal shop but strolling the streets and parks, Sawyer's was one of the first places I'd enter. There I'd gawk at forbidden comic books and mysterious paperbacks and maybe, if I had a quarter, pick up a copy of Model Railroading.

    A few years later I was buying New World Writing and Discover and novels by William Faulkner and pop-science books by George Gamow. Sawyer's was, quite literally, my first bookstore. It was so good, and so early, that when I got to Berkeley and saw the openings of Moe's Books and then Cody's Books, neither was much of a surprise to me.

    Sawyer's is closing, I read in the local paper, for the same reason that Cody's did: the double whammy of high rent and competition from big-box stores and the Internet. Here's what we need: town and city governments must provide legislation for low-income retail space, analogous to low-income housing. Our civil system depends on an informed citizenry, just as our economy requires frugality; and neither newsstands nor shoe-repair shops can survive landlords concerned only for short-term bottom lines.

    And if you think you can console yourself with a decent drink, don't get too complacent about that either: the popular Upper Fourth bar, near Sawyer's, is another recent shut-down. This story seems a little more complicated, though, to judge by some hilarious but also sad and pathetic accounts here. Ah, Internet, how cruel you can be at times.

    Saturday, September 19, 2009

    Exposition, Development, Recapitulation

    I think there's something to be said for the idea that Modernism stands at the beginning of the third of three great ages of human existence: the one preceding the awareness of consciousness, which Julian Jaynes puts at about the time of Homer; then a long age which is characterized by the long slow crescendo of human consciousness; and then a third age that begins with the awareness of the awareness of consciousness.

    Well, perhaps Modernism is really best understood as a logical development of the Renaissance, whose “moment” is the true beginning (as if a single moment can define it) of this third age. But if you draw a rough analogy to the development of an individual human, maybe it would be:
    1: Human life unaware of consciousness. Infancy-childhood: human history up to the Renaissance. (Sorry, Age of Pericles; I know you really belong later; you jumped the gun.) Prehistory.

    2: Human life aware of consciousness. Adolescence: human history Age of Pericles-Modernism. History.

    3: Human life aware of the consequences of the awareness of consciousness. Adulthood: Modernism on. Will there be an early senescence? Probably. Metahistory, or Historicism.

    This looks like college-student late-night talk, I know. And it’s influenced by a book many think of as dubious, Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977). Jaynes, an American psychologist who published no other book, held consciousness to be a cultural construct, not an autonomous function of the individual human “mind.” (Those are precautionary quotes; let’s not take up the question of “mind” here.) As I recall — I read the book a long time ago, and haven’t revisited it — he takes care not to fix an exact date or cultural “moment” at which this construct appears; but he does identify it, in the Mediterranean context, with the Homeric age, arising between the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

    Jaynes cites evidence for his hypothesis in linguistic and economic models, among others, and finds in psychological evidence of our own time parallels to the historical (and prehistorical) patterns of unconsciousness, consciousness, and their interfaces. I found his discussions persuasive; and am particularly interested now to read scientists arguing for the abrupt big changes that can determine human behavior, collectively (politically) as well as individually. Nassim Taleb, in The Black Swan, discusses such cataclysms in the economic sphere; the research geologist Dave Wahl, in the current issue of Terrain, discusses them with respect to climatological changes. (Taleb; my earlier blog on Taleb ; Wahl.)

    Historicism is inevitably recursive. I’ve always loved Francis Ponge’s description of recursive irony — he cites Maurice Ravel's La Valse — as typical of periods "when rhetoric, dying, examines itself.” (Lane Dunlop's translation, in Soap [London: Jonathan Cape, 1969]; in the original Ce genre est particulier aux epoques ou la rhetorique est perdue, se cherche: [Le Savon: Paris: Gallimard, 1967]). [Cited in my article “What's the Matter with Today's Experimental Music? Organized Sound Too Rarely Heard,” Notes, December, 1993.]

    To continue woolgathering: there may be a parallel between all this and the inevitable process which finds "art" declining from Religion to Art to Entertainment. (See Walter Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction ; and see also Wikipedia on Walter Benjamin. Come to think of it, Benjamin himself should be added to Jaynes, Cage, Duchamp, and many others as a seminal organizer of aware-or-consciousness consciousness.)

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009

    Duchamp: Étant donnés…

    JUST FOR THE hell of it, and because Marcel Duchamp's final work Given: 1st the waterfall; 2nd the illuminating gas is in the news these days, and because I'm working up thoughts on Duchamp for an exhibition to open next month at the Slaughterhouse in Healdsburg,

    here's a short piece I wrote about after seeing the Duchamp centennial exhibition in Philadelphia in 1987. I apologize to those who know all this perfectly well. This is, after all, only journalism.

    [first published in the Oakland Tribune, Dec. 13, 1987]

    Marcel Duchamp: Centennial Exhibition

    By Charles Shere

    PHILADELPHIA— The two indispensable masters of 20th-century art were Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. The Picasso centennial, in 1981, was marked by festivities around the world, including an epochal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

    The Duchamp centennial was observed this year — in a low-keyed manner that would doubtless have pleased the iconoclastic, relatively egoless master. The only notice taken among the larger American museums is on view in Philadelphia, where his three great masterpieces are on permanent exhibition.

    The big news for Duchamp fans is Philadelphia’s publication of the last remaining major Duchamp text, the “manual’" he provided for the installation of his controversial posthumous masterpiece, Given: 1st the Waterfall; 2nd the illuminating gas.

    This is a sculptural installation, dramatically lit, viewable (by only one onlooker at a time) through a pair of peepholes in a weathered wooden door in a dim alcove in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

    In the 45 years before his unexpected death in 1968, Duchamp had been assumed to have given up all art activity. His greatest work was the unfinished painting on glass, accompanied by a collection of written notes and memoranda, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (the “Large Glass"), abandoned in 1923, broken in 1926, laboriously pieced back together in the mid-1930s.

    But from 1946 to 1966 he worked secretly on his last grand project, a shockingly erotic yet characteristically enigmatic installation about which opinion is still divided.

    Duchamp’s relatively small output — a handful of mature paintings, the Bride, Given... — has been held up as a reproach to the endlessly prolific Picasso. The two artists were opposites in many ways, though they agreed on the central role of the libido in their creative and personal lives.
    •   •   •

    The third son in a family of six children, four of whom became artists, Duchamp was born in a small town in Brittany. He moved in with his older brothers, in their Paris studio, when he was old enough to leave home.

    At 25 he painted his masterpiece, Nude Descending a Staircase. The Cubist establishment in Paris objected to its title and he withdrew it from that year’s exhibition, but the following year it created a scandalous success in the famous Armory show of modern art in New York.

    Ironically, he had already abandoned painting. For a few months he worked as a librarian in Paris; then he evaded World War I by traveling to New York, where he joined a brilliant circle of eccentrics and modernists gathered around the pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

    Here he continued work on the “Large Glass,’" the tantalizing depiction in abstract shapes of an arcane mechanical tableau on two sheets of glass totaling nearly six feet wide by nine feet high.

    The “Large Glass’" is analogous to James Joyce’s final novel Finnegans Wake as a monument of extreme modernism. Together with the prose notes Duchamp took during its elaboration — a body of texts that assume poetic depth and dimension — it provides a bottomless source of philosophical and esthetic speculation and commentary by subsequent generations of artists and critics.

    Whether deliberately or not, by 1923 — his 36th year — Duchamp had forged a modern mythology. Its significance has yet to reach the man in the street, but it has influenced generations of fellow artists, from the Surrealists of the 1920s through the conceptualists of 50 years later.

    It’s hardly surprising that Duchamp went underground after this startling achievement: how could he follow it? Yet the posthumous installation, whose realistic theatrics achieve the promise of the full title of the “Large Glass" in what amounts to a continuation and inversion of that earlier work, is hardly less complex, resonant and challenging.

    Except that it is a closing parenthesis, a work that completes rather than commences a great individual creative gesture.

    The ironic secrecy of its conception and execution, the lurid realism of its situation, above all its willful stylistic irrelevance in the context of late-20th-century art — these put Given... outside the realm of the art of its time, again challenging conventional assumptions of the methods and the meanings of 20th-century art.

    Duchamp’s centennial is hard to do justice to. Most of his work is in the one museum, and two of his greatest works are unmovable by their very nature. The critical world continues to be embarrassed by his laconic open-mindedness, his challenging intellect, mis deft, virtuosic modesty.

    Philadelphia was right to honor the occasion with a deceptively low-keyed celebration: a tidying of its Duchamp gallery and a gathering of significant sketches, maquettes and notes for the “Large Glass" and Given....

    Duchamp’s honor and celebration belong to the future. A mainstay of modernism, he is yet to be fully comprehended even by postmodernists. His work will always stand somewhere off the center of the long tradition of visual art, from cave painting through Leonardo to our own time.

    But it will continue to challenge and stimulate the best artists and thinkers, propelling new work that gradually filters its bright spirit down into the common culture. It is particularly appropriate that his work should be housed, and his centennial observed, in Philadelphia, the city that gave birth to the United States in a superb merging of reason and revolution.

    Monday, August 17, 2009

    Handler of Gravity

    In 1971 I wrote a piece of music called Handler of Gravity as the centerpiece of a concert of instrumental music from an opera, then in progress, based on Marcel Duchamp's painting La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (usually translated as The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even). Duchamp provided his painting with an extensive "commentary" in the form of notes, sketches and memos; and Handler of Gravity is based on one of these.

    Page2 copy.jpg

    The complete score is available as a PDF on my website, but it'll take a long time to load!

    The "handler" was to influence the Bride's decisions by responding to changes in a sort of gravitational field — the details are unclear, and in any case the handler was ultimately left out of the painting. Duchamp's note is accompanied by a sketch of a six-pointed star-shape surrounding a spheroid body; the six points represent points from which threads would stretch toward the central body, defining its location and shape by their tension.

    Six systems of music, each lasting about a minute, were conceived as both linear and textural analogues of these threads. The unsynchronized repetitions and reinforcements in the music was meant to represent the variations and displacements of physical bodies caused by gravitational disturbances.

    Much of this was suggested by the curious rhythmic disturbances which frequently characterize organists — or, rather, their performances. The result is a rather different kind of organ writing, a sort of comporomise between standard notation and a kind of tablature; the hope is to ensure an idiomatic organ character by harnessing the little clumsinesses of the instrument.

    The organist must be the central body who determines but also is subject to these disturbances — by realizing the music as accurately as possible (with respect to dynamics and pitch) while altering "rhythm" by responding to the difficulty of fingering (and footing), to the acoustical circumstances of the room, to the registration possibilities (themselves determined by octave location and dynamic), etc., etc.

    Handler of Gravity was premiered in the Chapel on the campus of Mills College on March 13, 1971. I think the organist's name was Ted Ashford; I can't find any of my concert programs at the moment. (When I looked for them just now, though, I did find my good pair of glasses, missing a number of months.) I wish I had a recording of the concert: it lasted an hour or so, and involved simultaneous performances of Handler of Gravity (with someone — David Smith, I see, now I look at the score, and, yes, it was Ashford — playing the optional chimes and glockenspiel), three graphic pieces for string quartet; and occasional overlays of Bachelor Apparatus, for four pairs of trumpets and trombones (they were stationed outside the chapel).

    There have been three quite different adaptations of the original score, each about eight minutes in duration:

    Five Pieces after Handler of Gravity, for solo piano (premiere: Nathan Schwartz; Jan. 17 1976, Oakland Museum). Each of these pieces was provisionally dedicated to one or another of the five music critics on the three major daily newspapers in the San Francisco area at the time, since Duchamp sometimes referred to his Handler as a "Juggler of Gravity."
    score: FP she03, 12 pp., available from Frog Peak Music
    Tender of Gravity, for nine instruments (fl-pic, o-eh, cl-bass cl, bn, harmonium, vn, vla, vc, cb) (premiere: Irene Pruzan, Lenore Sleeter, Tom Rose, Cyrle Perry, Beth Anderson, Nathan Rubin, Ron Erickson, Teressa Adams, Jedediah Denman; 9 May 1974; 1750 Arch Street, Berkeley)
    score: FP she04, 14 pp., available from Frog Peak Music
    Ballet: Handler of Gravity, for full orchestra (3-2(eh)-2-2(cbn)/4-2-3-1/pno/hrp/1perc/timp/strings) (premiere: Shere, Contra Costa Symphony, Kensington, Calif., 28 Oct. 1976), as part of a compilation provisionally called Music for Orchestra). This version also stands at the end of the second act of the full-length opera The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.
    score: Ear Press, 14 pp.,available from Frog Peak Music

    Thursday, August 06, 2009

    Recently read… four quick summertime books

  • Kate Walbert: A Short History of Women. New York: Scribner, 2009
  • A novel about five generations of women, from Dorothy Trevor (married name: Townsend), born 1880, died in London of self-imposed starvation in protest of the denial of voting rights to women, to her great-great-granddaughter Dorothy (later Dora, in honor of Dora Maar) Barrett-Deel, born 1989, enrolled at Yale where she is busy with, apparently, Women's Studies.

    The novel unrolls through the central intelligences of seven of these women, beginning with Evelyn, the only one to speak in the first person:
    Mum starved herself for suffrage, Grandmother claiming it was just like Mum to take a cause too far.
    Immediately the reader's thrown into a group of interesting people, the more interesting because slow to be developed. Walbert's particularly good, I think, at balancing her characters and their settings — local, political, historical, psychological. Some of the characters, particularly the males, are shadowy indeed: but that doesn't make them the less present. Grandmother, particularly, while virtually never present on the scene, emerges as a strong, laconic, iconic presence.

    I thought occasionally of Dorothy Richardson while reading this Short History, but I thought very often of Virginia Woolf, particularly of The Waves and The Years. (Amusingly, Dora mentions those of "V. Woolf" among her favorite books, "even the last two indecipherable ones." One of these days I must get to Between the Acts.) Walbert learned a lot from Woolf's discursive yet curiously elliptical way of covering long years of human lives, even generations, in expressive yet teasingly veiled pages.

    I found the characters and the events of their lives absorbing, both for themselves and (perhaps especially) for their role in Walbert's artful historical allusions. Whether describing a late Victorian lecture hall or a beginning blogger a century later, her eye and ear seem sensitive and accurate. And there's an undercurrent of good humor here; everyone's too well grounded in the grain of daily life, privileged or not, to cultivate a drily doctrinaire view of the human condition.

    There are plenty of reviews online: here, here, here, and here. All four of these correctly note the double value of the novel: as it is written, evolving through a complex of characters, settings, locales, and points of view; and for what it considers: "the woman question." That latter aspect is responsible for the online review I most enjoyed, here, because it most misses the point, ignoring the more basic matter: the novel for what it is.
    Linda Hirshman writes
    What happens when a history of women gets presented as a novel? Well, it finally gets such a history onto the cover of the Times Book Review. But, I would argue, something is lost. Presenting history as fiction immunizes it from just the kind of analysis and criticism women’s history desperately requires. …
    To tell a story of five generations of women, from the hunger striking vote-seeker to the bisexual Yale freshman, is to stand next to historians of the social and political movement we call feminism, unmodified.

    It is a fraught stance.

    Though Hirshman does not really explain just what the stance is fraught with, she refers to Plato, and seems to be complaining that, being a novel, A Short History of Women cannot function honestly as history. Of course that was never Walburg's intention. Novels are not history; they simply enable us to understand the human condition within historical events.

  • Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica. New York: New American Library, 1961

  • Why had I never read this before? I heard someone raving about the book on NPR a month or so ago, while driving up to Portland, and determined to read it as soon as possible. The very next day this ancient Signet paperback jumped into my hands in a used book store, and I read it the day after that, and re-read it a week or so later.

    It's an amazingly beautiful book, full of striking physical description of both natural and human actions and events. Children from two families, of rather different classes, are sent home to England following terrific storms in Jamaica; they fall into the hands of pirates; ultimately they arrive safely to participate in a horrific trial.

    Hughes seems to me to have discovered exactly the nature of the child's mind. Not the adolescent's: the child's. It is a strange and scary thing, strange because we rarely think much about it, scary because it is the kernel of our adult mind. I won't say more about this, except that it would be very nice indeed to spend an evening in the company of Richard Hughes and Robert Louis Stevenson.

  • Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin: What We Eat When We Eat Alone. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 2009

  • Here's a delight, a sparkling, breezy book full of wisdom and humor, in a nice small package, with Pat McFarlin's hilariously accurate and insouciant drawings. The author's voice comes through so true and characteristic that you never doubt the accuracy of her interviews and quotes, and she records the confessions of a fascinating number of people.

    They simply tell us what they eat when they eat alone. It's not what you might think. True, some — especially men — seem to take the easy way out: a sardine sandwich, say, accented with a bit of lemon juice; or fried polenta and cheese. Or fried cheese without the polenta. Others, though, cook imaginative and sometimes fairly complex dishes, perhaps returning to them for several consecutive meals.

    Madison has two agendas here: to entertain and instruct her readers with workable recipes for dishes one might not think of otherwise; but also to investigate the resourcefulness and, through that, the human nature of the lucky friends who warm to her queries. There's more than a little philosophy and psychology here, but there's nothing dry or theoretical. As I said: a delight.

  • David Lebovitz: The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - and Perplexing - City. New York: Broadway Books, 2009

  • I'll call him David: like Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin, he's a friend, and it's hard to stick to the professional surname style. David is a very funny man, and has grown over the years, through a number of books, to be an admirable writer. In this book he deals with more than just the food, though he does that very well indeed: he investigates his adopted city and its natives, their manners and methods, above all the insights into things more profound or complex that develop out of chance and trivial encounters.

    There's a bit of Connecticut Yankee as Innocent Abroad here, though you'd never think of Mark Twain while actually reading Lebovitz. The history-fraught layers Paris imposes on the simplest transactions, so foreign and "indecipherable" to the caricature American tourist, really begin to divulge themselves on closer (and longer) acquaintance, and this book gives Paris and Parisians credit and respect for the subtlety, complexity, and above all pure quality of the delights they offer.

    In short, more to this book than appears on its surface — yet a quick and very entertaining read. Everyone I know who's read it has been delighted with it. Me too.

    Monday, July 27, 2009

    Yet another obituary

    Michael Steinberg, music critic and musicologist, died yesterday, peacefully a mutual friend tells me, in hospice, in Edina, Minnesota, of cancer; he was eighty years old. He was a thoughtful, intelligent, rather good-humored man, was my impression. I didn't know him well.

    I have seen only two obituaries so far, one by Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times, available online here; the other by Keith Powers, in the Boston Herald, here.

    Born in Breslau, Steinberg came to the United States by way of England, one of the fortunate Jewish children saved from the Third Reich by the Kindertransport. To me he was a New Englander with a core that was consummately European, even German. He was careful, even impeccable in thought and speech, quick to observe, eager to consider, a little slower to conclude, almost reluctant to announce the inevitably resulting opinion.

    Mark Swed mentions me in his obituary, and I want to set his mention in context. I met Steinberg in August 1975 at Tanglewood, where I was participating in a workshop got up by the Music Critics Association for the improvement of young critics. Just a couple weeks shy of my fortieth birthday, I shouldn't have been there, though I had in fact been writing daily music criticism only a couple of years at the time. The workshop was run by Bernard Rosenberg, who writes about it a little bit here; it was only when I find his citation online while writing this that I recall other "teachers" in the conference included Robert Morgan, David Hamilton, and Ray Blount.

    After the sessions we generally repaired to a local bar to continue talk in a less formal setting, and there I felt free to converse on equal footings over brandy-and-sodas. (It was very warm; but I've never liked gin-and-tonics after sundown.) And it was at one of those sessions that … but let Steinberg tell the story himself:
    That's an awfully damn East Coast thing to say!" That scornful remark was addressed to me by the composer and writer Charles Shere. I no longer remember what terrible thing I had said that elicited Shere's words. I do remember that he spoke them at Tanglewood in the summer of 1974 [sic] at a workshop on music criticism and that it came as a shock to me that there could be an "East Coast thing to say" or, by obvious inference, a "West Coast thing." I was the Boston Globe's music critic then, and we on the East Coast though of our "thing" as central and normative, and of everything else as eccentric and peripheral.
    Steinberg printed that as the lead paragraph in a program note to performances of music by Lou Harrison by the San Francisco Symphony; it is reprinted in the compilation For the Love of Music, available here. Presumably this is where Mark Swed found the reference he alludes to in his obituary. The error of date — "1974" for "1975" — is Steinberg's error, uncharacteristic but significant, for by 1975 he was no longer a music critic for the Boston Globe.

    I liked Michael Steinberg as a person and respected him as a scholar and a writer. The paragraph I quote above is characteristic. His intelligence, thoughtfulness, and intuitive fair-mindedness were always present in his work, and he was always able to grow beyond his formative "normatives," and that is rare and admirable.

    Merce Cunningham 1919-2009

    IT IS VERY SAD to hear about the death of Merce Cunningham, surely one of the most remarkable men I ever had the pleasure to meet. What I associate with him, what characterized him most of all to my eye, was the best qualities of humanity: Intelligence, Strength, Grace, Humor, and Invention. He was observant, quick, disciplined, and dedicated. He made great demands, seemed unfailingly courteous, and had that strange ego that is fundamentally egoless, because while aware of his own agenda and skills in meeting that agenda he could simultaneously stand outside it looking on.

    I only met him a few times over the last twenty years or so, but he always seemed to recognize me and to be ready, even willing I hope, to continue a conversation. I was drawn to him of course via his companion John Cage, who I knew somewhat better because we were both interested in sounds and silences, a musician's parallel to the movements and stillnesses of a dancer. My memories of their apartment in New York fasten on a number of details: Merce's drawings are among the most persistent.

    We were lucky to see a number of pieces of Merce's, mostly thanks to his many appearances in Berkeley, sponsored by Cal Performances. Biped, premiered ten years ago (how can it have been so long ago?), was a superb late piece, both nostalgic and forward-looking. Even more lasting is the impression of Ocean, which we saw in its Berkeley premiere in 1994, and which I then had the privilege of seeing three times running in New York the following year: a two-hour piece full of surprise, familiarity, certainty and unpredictability.

    His choreography always seemed to me to duplicate the ultimately unknowable motion of Life. Unknowable, I mean, in that while the physical qualities that facilitate that motion can be seen, studied, understood, and discussed, the inherent questions of purpose and origin and meaning always remain both ineffable and enigmatic.

    To that extent Cunningham was, like so many of the great Modernists of the 20th century, a moral philosopher. I see in both the man and his work a Modernist, but also a Romantic and a Classicist. The cliché is always that there are not many left like him: but then, there never were.

    Sunday, July 12, 2009

    Farm in town

    Portland, July 10—

    I DON'T KNOW WHEN I've enjoyed meeting a new writer so much. Novella Carpenter's book Farm City is a complete success on so many levels. Carpenter's a born writer: fast and accurate eyes, ears, fingers; well-read; a great sense of prose rhythm and structural rhythm; smart and sassy. Her book is very funny, talks straight, and gathers as it goes.

    She started gardening on a vacant lot in Oakland, California, thankful for the benign climate after moving down from Seattle, and one thing led to another. The progression's outlined in the titles of the three sections of this book: Turkeys. Rabbits. Pigs.

    With livestock, and one other thing, a garden moves into a farm. Not effortlessly: the effort's a big part of the story. But, apparently, inevitably. The one other thing is transactions: it's not really a farm until the produce leaves the property. One gardens for one's own self and famiily; one farms for others, for barter or possibly profit.

    Or, perhaps, out of a kind of mania, a benign mania, an obsession with the ethic of Right Living. Her story unfolds artfully and easily in this oddly graceful book, graceful in spite of plain language my grandmother would have found quite offensive. One of the themes of the book is the author's relationship with her mother, a hippie who'd dropped out with her boyfriend and lived the country life a few years. Novella Carpenter hadn't planned on following those footsteps at all, but early influences are deep.

    Another theme is the unlikely setting of this city farm: the Oakland "ghetto." The reader meets dopers, Buddhist monks, the homeless, and poor folks of various ethnic backgrounds just getting by. There are times this book makes you think of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row or Robert Nathan's One More Spring: there's the same curious optimism, even light-heartedness, that can emerge from urban poverty, which develops its own community, even courtesy and mutual assistance.

    I read this morning in Robert Reich's blog that there will be no recovery from the present recession will never come:
    All we know is the current economy can't "recover" because it can't go back to where it was before the crash. So instead of asking when the recovery will start, we should be asking when and how the new economy will begin.
    Part of the new economy will undoubtedly look like what Carpenter develops on her urban farm. I see this already in my own family: a son with a feed store, raising cattle, helping his community with lumbering and such; a daughter whose neighbors are trading vegetables and raising chickens.

    The best thing about Farm City is precisely this optimism growing out of despair, the strength of human competence when the cultural assumptions that have made so much go wrong are simply ignored or circumvented. It's all so damn reasonable, raising chickens and rabbits and carrots and beans, getting on with basic matters and ignoring commercial snares and temptations.

    The next best things about the book are its boundless humor and teeming texture. There's so much happening in this life, so many details, so much to interest us, to intrigue the eye that suddenly observes an unexpected or incongruous detail. Carpenter celebrates urban life while reclaiming it for daily pleasures.

    The reader gets the feeling that she has grown, matured, and achieved a kind of grace not only from her farming but also from her writing. The final chapters are quite moving: she observes the workings of a Berkeley restaurant which, earlier in the book, she might have written off as simply precious.
    Maybe I've read too much Anthony Bourdain, but I had imagined that the back of a restaurant would be a crude, uncivilized place. I expected to get groped, not high-fived. Everyone who passed through this kitchen seemed intelligent and kind.
    Vegetarians will likely be unhappy with Farm City. The education of Novella Carpenter, as an urban farmer but beyond that too, involved her coming to terms with the necessary killing of the meat she eats. She's not unrespectful of vegetarians; she describes a number of encounters with them in perfectly sympathetic terms. But it is not her way, and it has not been the normal way of human activity. A critical part of her book, a running theme, concerns the conscious, conscientious address to the ethical problem of killing and eating animals.

    I think it's the focus, respect, and dedication she finds in Christopher Lee's kitchen that finally nails down these ethical questions.
    In his book About Looking, John Berger wrote, "A peasant becomes fond of his pig and is glad to salt away its pork. What is significant, and is so difficult for the urban stranger to understand, is that the two statements in that sentence are connected by an 'and' and not by a 'but'." I felt well on my way to peasantdom. But I needed Chris to teach me more…
    Chris did indeed teach her more. I myself know Chris Lee well enough to know how remarkably well Novella Carpenter observes, grasps, understands, and describes him: it isn't easy to capture the looks, sound, and character of a living person this accurately and sympathetically.

    But the thing is, Novella Carpenter is patient, well read, and thoughtful. She gardens her mind and history the way she farms, with the kind of passion that springs as much from dedication as desire. She writes, toward the end of her book,
    While rooting around the history of prosciutto making, I had stumbled upon this quote from Pliny the Elder… about Epicurus, the famous Greek hedonist: "That connoisseur in the enjoyment of life of ease was the first to lay out a garden at Athens; up to his time it had never been though of to dwell in the country in the middle of town." … That an urban farmer existed before Christ made me feel like I was—that we all were—merely repeating the same motions that all humans had gone through, that nothing was truly new. This insight gave me a sense of peace.
    Epicurus of course was no mere hedonist; he was a philosopher, profound because realistically involved with the pleasures and problems of daily life. Novella Carpenter is much the same.

    Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer
    By Novella Carpenter.
    276 pages. The Penguin Press. $25.95.

    Friday, June 26, 2009


    Eastside Road, Healdsburg, June 25, 2009—
    NEARLY THREE YEARS AGO I wrote here about a production of Jean Racine's magnificent tragedy Phèdre, which we'd just seen in Glendale, performed by the repertory company A Noise Within. Tonight we saw a very different edition, a performance by London's National Theatre, filmed for "live" broadcast into cinemas. (In fact it was billed as "live capture": the actual performance was given in London earlier today.)

    This was a very different take on the play, using a rather talky, prose translation by Ted Hughes where NW had given it in Richard Wilbur's remarkable poetic translation, more faithful to Racine's French I think and certainly more evocative. Leaving aside for the moment the differences between live theater in a house and filmed theater on a screen, the NT production seemed not Greek or French but English; not fateful but relentless; not tragic but dramatic.

    It is a favorite play of mine: but it is disgusting. Disgusting not so much because of its subject, incest, but because of its vehicle, maniacal obsession. Disgusting and extremely troubling, because Racine doubles the stark immediacy inherent in the original Euripides tragedy. This play is about the extent to which our human lives can be overtaken by the emotions we're all prey to. Euripides was arguably among the first generations of humans consciously aware of these matters, not merely existentially inflamed by them. If Myth has among its sources and utilities the explanation of perplexing phenomena, Greek tragedy is the poetic elevation of Myth, through individual creative (and intuitive) genius.

    Euripides was First Generation, you might say. (Well, Aeschylus was a little ahead of him.) His tragedy Hippolytus, which I confess I don't know, is about the title character's unnatural commitment to chastity; his stepmother Phaedra plays a relatively small role in the action, if not in the subject of the play. Racine's version reverses this authorial position, fixing on Phedre's obsession as the real center of the tragedy.

    You can argue that the central theme of the Greek mythology as we know it is concerned with reproduction, with the urge and the need of individuals to obey a natural commandment to reproduce the species. The issue is issue, you might say; the individual will to defeat death by living on in subsequent generations; and in the case of the excessively egomaniacal (as we would say today) the drive extends not only progressively, into the future, but also laterally, spilling beyond the confines of the individual to assert dominion within all of society.

    At the time of Pericles this drive was being examined primarily as it involves a social (and, inescapably, historical) context, beginning tribally, then moving into a more complex and codified political structure. To attend to the Theseus story-line is to study uneasy neighbor kingdoms: Troezen, Crete, Athens. By Racine's time the political implications cannot be questioned outright; Racine's king, Louis XIV, was divinely ordained. (Phedre's grandfather was the Sun; Louis XIV was the Sun King.) Racine examines the Theseus-Phaedra-Hippolytus story from the point of view of individual obsession, not familial succession.

    Racine's play squarely mediates, I think, between an almost archaic classicism, fully aware and respectful of his ancient Greek sources, and the incipient romanticism of his own day, a century before the French Revolution. We don't yet see, in Racine's play, the possible sources and resolutions of Phedre's severe psychological disturbance, but we are continually assaulted by its presence. And in this Racine puts his audience squarely within his heroine's quandary: in good hands — translation, direction, and acting — we are inevitably thrust into identification with her.

    This is Racine's violation of Aristotle's outline of tragedy: identifying with Phedre, we find no catharsis. We don't leave the play purged of tragic flaw; we leave still reeling from the injustice (to use a pathetic term) of the tragic situation inevitably accompanying Phedre's obsession. The Greeks of Phaedra's day were right, in a sense, to give up the attempt to understand these things, whose sources were simply attributed to willful and inherently ineffable natural urges, tides one might say, personified as Aphrodite or Poseidon or Zeus.
    All this said, what of the National Theatre production?

    I came away of two minds — three, actually. As to acting, direction, and physical production, with one important reservation, I was quite persuaded. Helen Mirren is a remarkable Phedre, somehow (partly perhaps through Nicholas Hytner's direction), bringing Racine's tragic heroine somehow closer to one of Ingmar Bergman's. I wasn't quite so persuaded by Margaret Tyzack's performance as Phedre's nurse, Oenone; there was something a little too automatic in it, too much residue of Juliet's nurse, let's say. Dominic Cooper managed to personify the young, strong, proud Hippolytus, especially as bewildered by the first pangs of love; and Ruth Negga was his equal as Aricia: this was a beautifully balanced pair of tragic young lovers; one wants to see their Romeo and Juliet.

    John Shrapnel played Theramene; he should have been cast as Theseus. He was complex, interesting, subtle, as remarkable in his silences as in his lines. Stanley Townsend, who did play Theseus, seemed to me all bluster and boredom by comparison. But with his single exception the cast rallied to what may have been an exceptional challenge, playing simultaneously to the 900-seat National Theater and to the cameras and microphones bringing them much larger than life to the international closed-circuit audiences.

    In the end, I don't think I saw legitimate theater. The performance may have been real-time, but on the screen, whether in close-up or depicted on the full stage, the look of the characters is flat. Further, there's a confused sense of audience: you're aware of the live theater audience, but much more aware of the real people around you in the cinema. Worse yet, you're aware the actors are completely unaware of you: you're eavesdropping on a theatrical dialogue between actors and their own, real audience, more privileged because actually present before the stage.

    (This quality is exacerbated by certain sonic problems: the microphones drop away when charactes turn their backs; and the actors' suppression of sibilants, especially final sibilants, occasionally produces a curious lisp probably unnoticed by the live audience. "Theseuth," one hears, too often.)

    Worst of all, to my mind, was the effect of Ted Hughes's free-verse translation. It had two negative results: bringing the vocabulary and vocal expression to an informal (though relatively heightened) contemporary context, it simplified and even trivialized Racine's intent, sometimes producing inappropriate laughter in the audience.

    It also made the production uniquely British. The English language is now universal, and in our time if Greek or French is to be translated into English it seems to me the reason should be to render it accessible internationally. I suppose you could argue that Racine frenchifies Euripides, but I don't believe it: and to the extent that he does, he does in order to point out the parallels and dissonances between the Greek and French contexts of his story. Hughes seems simply to make a naturalized British subject of his Phedre, though he retains the French spelling of her name — minus, in more ways than one, her accent grave.

    Thursday, June 25, 2009

    Squeak Carnwath

    Eastside Road, Healdsburg, June 25, 2009—
    FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS now I've been enjoying (inadequate word, that) the painting of the Oakland artist Squeak Carnwath. She's squarely within the Bay Area tradition of painting; if you know that painting over the last forty years you'll see how she fits in.

    Right now she has a big show up at the Oakland Museum of California, forty big paintings or so, beautifully installed in the capacious Great Hall, handsomely lit, well separated from one another but close enough to converse.

    At lunch after seeing the show we mentioned it to a friend, who asked, reasonably enough, what Squeak's painting is like. Um, well. Like all good mature painters she has her recognizable style: you can't miss it. But what is it? You can place her in that tradition I mention above, narrowing in by calling the roll of the Bay Area painters she clearly has affinities with, some well known, others not: William Wiley, Ciel Bergman, Pia Stern, Inez Storer, Phil Linhares, …

    She has a repertory of visual devices that recur from canvas to canvas: an outline standing rabbit, a Greek urn, black LP records, tally-marks, color samples. The paintings are big, five feet square and bigger; and many have light-colored grounds, whites inflected more by texture than shading, with these devices pushing forward, sometimes small, sometimes dominating almost the entire painting.
    Squeak Carnwath, Stolen Borrowed, 2004. Oil and alkyd on canvas over panel, 195.6 x 195.6 cm (77 x 77 in.).
    Collection of the artist, courtesy of Nielsen Gallery, Boston, MA. © Squeak Carnwath/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

    Above all her canvases tend to incorporate counted numerals — 1, 2, 3, 4, … — and the (hand-)written word, often phrases or titles or whole sentences, sometimes perhaps overheard from a radio program playing in the studio as she works, or jumping off the page of a newspaper.

    Now and then a painting will be muted, in grays or grayed beiges; but most often the colors are bold: primaries, secondaries.

    She sounds like Ray Saunders, our friend said over her lunch. Well, yes, I can see that, Saunders belongs to this group too: but Squeak Carnwath paints, I think, though I know it's politically incorrect to say so, with a woman's intelligence and sensibility. This is dangerous ground because so often we react to the classification implied by the statement, rather than the characterization that I mean.

    What I like about Squeak's painting is its contemplativeness, the depth of its understanding, the range of its vision, the faithfulness of its address. I feel comfortable with her and her work, both because and in a way despite its depth and intelligence and immense sympathy. I continually refer to her here by her first name precisely because I am comfortable with her; and while I know she sees more, probably knows more, and certainly paints better than I ever could, there's nothing daunting in that.

    Painting like hers goes beyond the question of Abstraction or Representation. Her canvases are arrangements of emblems, two-dimensional visible things that stand for something or suggest or recall something. It fascinates me that among the earliest modern paintings of this sort is Marcel Duchamp's enigmatic Tu m’; much of the apparently philosophical content of Dada grows out of this approach.

    (Though the 19th-century fool-the-eye paintings of, for example, John Peto announce this development in visual art; and I suppose certain elements of Dutch still-life painting play into it.)

    You pour yourself into these paintings of Squeak's, taking them in entire in their balanced compositions, inflected as they are by apparently quick gestures and decisions. You count off their numerals and tallies, read their words and phrases. (Many of them have their titles painted on their thick edges, which advertise them, in a way, as you approach them.)

    Then you move in if you like, examining the surfaces close too; I like to do this looking with one eye through a cupped-hand framer, as if I were flying close over an absorbing terrain, enjoying improbable juxtapositions of isolated complex colors. At one point I found myself dancing backward away from a canvas, still looking at it with one eye, whirling slowly to find the other canvases moving into view, assuming new relationships. This gallery should be a ballroom; the music would be profound and enchanting, and the dance exhilarating and refreshing.

    Squeak's paintings are important. They carry meaning and experience. Seeing them, imagining the dedication and skill and humility that creates them, you're reassured: none of us experience our Human Condition alone; we all confront life and death, joy and sorrow, awareness and perplexity. When one of us, doing all that, can record those confrontations with such humor, intelligence, and beauty, she does it for each of us, for all of us. I for one am profoundly grateful.

    Squeak Carnwath: Painting Is No Ordinary Object :
    The Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St.; tel. 510/238-2022
    Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.,
    through Aug. 23

    Sunday, June 21, 2009


    THE MODERN THEATER BEGINS with Chekhov, say I. By Modern Theater I mean theater that primarily addresses the modern condition, which puts us in a constant triangulation of self, society, and history. Well, The Modern Theater begins with The Winter's Tale, of course; it only resumes with Chekhov: but it resumes after so long a stretch — since the French Baroque theater, writing and thinking here off the top of my head — that it's virtually a new beginning.
    Last night we went to Santa Rosa, a twenty-minute drive, to see three one-act plays of Chekhov's: On the Injuriousness of Tobacco; A Tragic Man Despite Himself; The Proposal, produced by The Imaginists in their loft-style theater — no proscenium, wings, or backstage.
    These short plays make me think of so much early-20th-century work: Gertrude Stein's chamber plays, the short stories of Saki, the experimental one- and two-page fictions of Virginia Woolf. Chekhov positions himself between the concrete realism of narrative and the abstract pointlessness — well, apparent pointlessness — of the Theater of the Absurd.
    I love his great full-length plays: The Sea-gull; The Three Sisters; Uncle Vanya; The Cherry Orchard. They are marvelous examples of scale and proportion. But these shorter plays are just as carefully proportioned, but tense and alarming in their quick jumps and alternations. They're extremely psychological, of course; more so perhaps than the more extensive, conversational three-act plays.
    A curiously determinate, even fateful number-scheme underlay the Imaginists' presentation On the Injuriousness of Tobacco is a monologue portraying an anxious lecturer; A Tragic Man Despite Himself is a two-man play; The Proposal adds an actress to the number.
    Brent Lindsay was brilliant in all three vehicles, with perfect control of pitch, facial expression, body language, timing, and voice: I don't see how anyone could have done any of it better.
    Eliot Fintushel was nearly his match in the supporting roles in the other two plays, and Tessa Rissacher was marvelous as the canny, down-to-earth would-be bride of The Proposal, an early play (1889) that lifts farce toward the 20th-century Absurdists.
    Staged in a neutral space, directed with style and enterprise by Amy Pinto, the production repeats June 25, 26, and 27 at 8 pm, and we're going back: it was that good.
  • The Imaginists Theatre Collective, 461 Sebastopol Ave., Santa Rosa; tel. 707-528-7554; www.theimaginists.org

  • Green Integer has published these texts in George Malko's translation, which is the version used by The Imaginists; the web page linked here describes the publication and offers a review, by John Stokes (originally run in TLS), with interesting comments on On the Injuriousness of Tobacco, which Chekhov revised five times and completed only in 1902, the year of Uncle Vanya.

    Tuesday, May 05, 2009

    Taming the Shrew

    Eastside Road, Healdsburg, May 5—

    AND WHAT OF the last of the three plays we saw over the weekend in Glendale? Well, treated reasonably decently, Shakespeare's Shrew-taming can't really fail, and while Geof Elliott's direction went over the top now and then, and while the vocal delivery annoyed me if not the rest of the audience with its occasional alternation of chant, shout, and whisper, there was a lot to like about this production.

    Elliott transposed the time to the mid-20th century, leaving the action in Padua. There were bicycles, radios, and the chewing of gum. Costumes were what-you-can-find and hilarious: when Vincentio turns up, in the reasonable, comprehending person of William Dennis Hunt, he's wearing plus fours, as if he'd gone golfing in the 1930s and hadn't been able to change clothes since.

    The play rides or falls from its lead couple, of course, and they were fine: Steve Weingartner a resourceful, mercurial Petruchio; Allegra Fulton a mean-tempered, lanternjawed Kate. Both seemed to me more fully thought-out individuals than is often the case: these were people you cared about and were interested in, not simply funny characters in a predictable tussle. The rest of the cast was quite sound, well up to the principals; I particularly liked Jane Noseworthy's fleshed-out, put-upon Bianca; but the speed of the action and the occasional indistinctness of the lines made them more of a jumble than is necessarily the case.

    What I particularly liked about Elliott's direction was the parallels it drew between Shakespeare and commedia dell'arte, suggested but never belabored; and occasonal flashes of revelation — Vincentio foretells Prospero: who'd ever noticed that before?

    A Noise Within has one season left in its present theater; then, if all goes well, it moves into a brand-new installation in Pasadena. It's been in its present location for a number of years; we've been seeing nearly all its plays since 2001. Over those seasons it's reminded me of the Michael Leibert's Berkeley Repertory Theater, the company that played in improvised digs up on College Avenue, making marvelous theater out of poverty and enthusiasm and intelligence.

    This season was, I think, the best yet for NW. Hamlet, The Rainmaker, Oliver Twist; Ghosts, The Rehearsal, The Taming of the Shrew: fine balance between familiar and unusual but all classical, tested, beautifully thought-out and developed, and presented by casts with real sense of ensemble. I look forward to next season.
    The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare, directed by Geoff Elliott. Lucentio: Antonie Knoppers; Tranio: Jeremy Rabb; Baptista: Apollo Dukakis; Gremio: Tom Fitzpatrick; Kate: Allegra Fulton; Bianca: Jane Noseworthy; Hortensio: Stephen Rockwell; Biondello: Tim Venable; Petruchio: Steve Weingartner; Grumio: Alan Blumenfeld; Curtis: Andy Steadman; Pedant: Mitchell Edmonds; Vincentio: William Dennis Hunt (also a hilarious Tailor). Repeats May 6, 7, 16, 17.