Thursday, December 29, 2016


                listen (mp3)                score (pdf)

Portland, Oregon, December 29, 2016—

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

That beast the piano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Three Songs from Tender Buttons

Eastside Road, December 15, 2016—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 11, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 02, 2016

Coming to grips with a historical moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Wandering among sound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        Soiled pin.
        Soda soda.
        Soda soda.

        Not a particle wader
        Add send dishes.

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

IMG 2725

Friday, November 18, 2016

Against authority

Eastside Road, November 18, 2016—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Parallel narratives

Pasadena, California, November 6, 2016—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Molière's Imaginary Invalid

Pasadena, California, November 5, 2016—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 28, 2016

Two short songs

Eastside Road, October 28, 2016—

IN THE LATE 1960s and early 1970s I was interested in making short pieces of music. Some of them were really short. The first was for solo French horn; the second a duet for 'cellos. Some of them were songs, as I was then also preoccupied with setting texts from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.

The other day, looking for something else, I ran across copies of the manuscript scores of two of these — settings of fragments from Marcel Duchamp’s “Green Box,” notes he assembled while working on his “Large Glass,” La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même, which I had been spending a few years turning into an opera.

I always had the idea of these little things being able to stand on their own, as essays in mindfulness, perhaps. It’s hard to get anything from them on a single hearing, because they barely start before they are over. Classify Combs was an attempt to deal with this problem, using repetition not in order to hypnotize (or bore), or in order to build incrementally to an effect — two procedures then in vogue among “minimalists”, who knew their Schubert, Bruckner, and Sibelius — but in order to give the listener time to adjust to the aural fact being presented by the performers.

I think I was trying to transfer a visual problem — how to enter a painting fairly completely, screening out visual distractions, and without considering the amount of time being spent — to a musical environment. Notated music, to me, involves a merging of aural and visual activity. I like to attend to the architecture of the page, the spatial distribution of the notes, and the gestural activity of the phrases visually as well as aurally.

Classify Combs seems vertical to me, tilting upward the perception of time, normally linear like landscape. Ground Glass is more conventional, a small fragment of a horizontal landscape. The critic in me, working long after the composer made the songs, finds this duality of approach perfectly explicable: the former piece is Duchamp’s note to himself concerning an abstract way of doing a distributive thing; in the latter he’s contemplating the choice of a medium (ground glass, or oiled paper) on which the result of such a distribution will take its final place.

Anyhow. You can see the scores of these two short songs here and listen to mp3s of synthesized versions of them here and here.

IT HAS BEEN quite a while since my last post here. Not because I haven't been breathing; far from it. We spent four weeks on the road, on a trip with six stages, each of which was packed with input: friends, family, landscape, dinners, incidents. Those of you who attend to my other blog Eating Every Day will have followed those days through a number of restaurants. There are so many things to do in this fascinating life, and increasingly so little time in which to do them! But I'm back at this Eastside View, and we'll see what happens next…

Friday, September 23, 2016

What is art?

Via della Luca Robbia, Torino, September 24, 2016— 
A CERTAIN AMOUNT of reflection on that thorny and unrewarding question lately, ever since a friend stopped by with a painting he'd made while on retreat among the redwoods at the former home of Morris Graves, near Eureka, California. He'd been enormously impressed with the house, built of local redwood by Japanese carpenters for the enigmatic maverick painter, and by the setting.

I asked how the house was furnished. Were there things Grave had made? Well, yes, paintings of course; the furnishings and cabinetry were wood and local…

But were there little objects he might have made, or did he leave primarily paintings? And what were the paintings like?

The conversation was so long ago (though in fact only two or three weeks) and we've covered so much ground since that I no longer recall the details. I have the impression the Graves presence was largely through the architecture and perhaps the feel that he had lived and worked there, that one was seeing his environment, and thus a good part of his "inspiration," through his sensibility. 

But had Graves whittled any of the door handles, or decorated anything, or was there only his art to be seen?

Ah, my friend replied, but what is art?

Oh, Henry, you don't ask easy questions, do you? I've been thinking about that one for decades. What is art? Well, it begins with attentiveness, and ends with devotion…

I was just riffing, of course, but Henry took me seriously. He takes everything seriously. Just look at the portrair he made of me several years ago, working in pencil on paper — a drawing hardly bigger than a postage stamp, enlarged above.

Art is not a noun, I think; art is a verb. Artist is a nount: an artist is a person for whom life is art. He makes things: they are objects, what the French call objets d'art. Often they are madee with crafft, and then art and craft become confused. 

While thinking about these things, before leaving home on our present trip, I came u[pon three things I've made over the years, in moments of art. I don't pretend to be an artist, but I have moments, I think, as do most of us, of art. Here they are:
The silver earrings I made (after Duchamp) for Lindsey back in the '60s
A painting I found at Deb's house in Flagstaff, maybe in the '80s
A little fake Brancusi whittled from a scrap of pine in the '90s

The earrings are kept in one of Lindsey's secret places, of course, and come out on special occasions. The painting hangs casually from a paper-clip hook at the end of a bookcase. (It's really a vertical, on a longer scrap of board; I've cropped it here as a sort of experiment. I like it better in the original format.)

The Brancusi lives on a windowsill over the kitchen sink, where it must annoy Clemencia who comes every couple of weeks to clean things up. So much clutter in the house! But they all contribute to Art…

At best, I think, art is what we live with. We've just spent three days with a friend in Amsterdam. Cynthia is herself an artist, but it's not easy for me to describe what it is she does: she works with organization, administration, the social or communitarian transformation of visual awareness and uncerstanding. Currently, for example, focussing on milk and wool, on seeing them more clearly both for what they are and for what they represent as products: things produced, distributed, consumed. Tough to verbalize.

Cynthia lives in art and I made a dozen photos or so quickly as we were preparing to say goodbye. Ultimately I'll do something with them, after I'm home; meanwhile I leave just one here:


Friday, September 02, 2016

Sonata 1: Bachelor Machine

Eastside Road, September 1, 2016—

MY FIRST PIANO SONATA was completed November 10 1989 but composed mostly in 1983 and 1984 while working on (in fact, as part of) the opera La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même after Marcel Duchamp’s painting of that name.

A long ballet dominating the middle of the second act, the center of the opera, was conceived as representing the mechanical workings of the Bride and her Bachelors, with solo material given, respectively, to violin and piano. This sonata is the piano material, lacking all other music (solo and choral singing and orchestral accompaniment) but fleshed out slightly with additional notes.

There are two intentions: to make an extended, somewhat virtuosic piece of music for solo piano, and to retain the arbitrary, quirky, stiff characteristic of Duchamp’s conception. The part of the bachelor apparatus that is most present is the “chariot” or “glider,” a contraption that comes and goes in a reciprocating movement, sounding its “litanies (slow life: everyday junk: onanism: buffer of life”) and actuating an elaborate train of machinery which ultimately fails to strip bare the bride.

Sonata: Bachelor Machine was first played by Eliane Lust, July 25, 1990, in San Francisco, on a wonderful program also including Debussy’s Hommage à Rameau, Bartók’s Sonata, 1926, and Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze. What a night!

Parts of the sonata were later used by the choreographer-stage director Margaret Fisher for mixed-media productions of her own: for these, Eliane returned to the piece, even performing it in costume while being towed, with her piano, from one side of the stage to the other.

The three movements are called Cadre, Desires and Frustrations, and Action and Inaction. I wouldn’t mind finding an English word for the title of the first movement, but nothing quite does what the French cadre does: framework, context, grouping...

The music of the Sonata can also make a fairly substantial Piano Concerto, a Big Concerto to complement the Small Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, but it hasn’t yet been notated, except as part of the Duchamp opera. Perhaps one day.

Meantime, you can see the score here and listen to a synthesized recording here. It'll take about sixteen minutes.

Wind music



Eastside Road, August 31, 2016—

I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED to write a piece for woodwind quintet. I played bassoon in high school, and a little clarinet and French horn then and in my early college days, and playing chamber music for winds was a lot of fun.

I'm not sure I've ever heard a piece for winds that didn't please me. Especially the Czechs, of course: Janáček's Mladi has been a favorite since I found a ten-inch LP in a used record store in San Francisco back in the 1950s. But all the others: Reicha, Mozart, Haydn. Even Schoenberg, whose Wind Quintet I think is one of his masterpieces.

Here's how close I've come to writing for wind quintet:

1965 Ces désirs du quatuor, for any four musicians
1970: Bachelor Apparatus, for pairs of winds
1974: Parergon to woodwind quintet: trio, for English horn, bass clarinet, and bassoon
as you can see, not very close. There's another Parergon, for unaccompanied flute; and there's Rose, for unaccompanied clarinet. They were meant to go into a sort of kit for wind quintet, the idea being that any of the independent pieces can be pulled out of the box and played alone, or in sequence, or superimposed on one another if the performing space allows the scattering of the performers. I may get back to this one day.

In the meantime, as a self-imposed penalty for moving further into the ninth decade, I've been trolling the files, sorting out gems from dross. Precious few gems, but some intriguing relics: and among them a few tiny essays for recorder ensemble, written in early 1960, while approaching my 25th birthday.

I was working as a clerk at the post office in Berkeley, where I fell in with a serious, intelligent, good-humored fellow named Charles Watson. Like me, he played the recorder, and before long we’d put together a little recorder ensemble — three or four of us playing soprano, alto, tenor, and bass recorders.

Charles was an engaging man with connections in the community, ranging from the African Methodist Episcopal Church to a louche bar called The Chicken Box, and before long he suggested our ensemble should work up a little concert. He got us into the AME Church somehow, and we played a short program of mostly arrangements from Baroque masters.

I had not yet studied composition — only a couple of rudimentary college courses in harmony and modal counterpoint, in which I fared not so well, finding them tedious and, I thought in the heady flush of Modernism, irrelevant. The twelve-tone method attracted me, but I hardly knew what it was. I had come by the four-LP set of Anton Webern recordings put out by Columbia and was fascinated by the master's short, glittering pieces for instruments; no doubt they lay behind these juvenile recorder pieces.

I'm preparing scores of them in the original instrumentation, for soprano, alto, and bass recorders. In the course of doing that it occurred to me to arrange them for a more conventional ensemble, and here's the result. The upper two voices, for soprano and alto recorders, were left at the original pitch location and given to flute and oboe: the lower two, for alto and bass recorders, were transposed down an octave for clarinet and bassoon. A few other notes had to be transposed an octave one way or another to suit my new orchestra, and I got rid of a few fluttertongues that would have been too brash on double-reed instruments; otherwise the thing's the way it was, fifty-six years ago.

One reason for doing all this, perhaps: play with the fossil and see if it can lead to something. I might add some notes for French horn, and then I'd finally have addressed that old desire. Or I might insert silences along the way — I've come to like them more and more — or cut up the pieces and reconfigure the scraps, to get rid of that stuffy four-movement tempo layout. Don't know. We'll see.

Meantime, you can see the score here and listen to a synthesized recording here. It won't take much of your time. Three minutes.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Three operas: Agrippina; Vixen Sharpears; Powder Her Face

•Handel: Agrippina.
•Janáček: Příhody Lišky Bystroušky
    (The Cunning Little Vixen).

•Thomas Adès: Powder Her Face.

Seen at West Edge Opera, Oakland,
   Aug. 12-13, 2016
El jardín de las Delicias de El Bosco
Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights, ca. 1500, oil on oak panels, 220 cm × 389 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid
Eastside Road, August 17, 2016—

A COUPLE OF young men meet in a London pub, strike up a conversation, and have a few drinks. They're guys: the conversation inevitably turns to sex. They agree on most points. Sex is a natural component of animal life, after all, and if its expression, in individual activity, results in social criticism or disapproval, that says more about social neuroses than individual maladjustments.

But after a few drinks the brash young Londoner is impatient with his new friend, a German who’s just arrived from a few years spent in Italy. The guy has been around, he dresses fashionably, but his ideas seem conventional, even provincial, and he's a little priggish. Born at the height of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, the Englishman points out that civilized restraints on sexual behavior only encourage hypocrisy. The only positive contribution made by this repressiveness is the entertainment value it provides to the tabloids.

The immigrant isn’t so sure. His father was a surgeon; he knows what happens to the bodies of dissolute youths. He’s spent time in the Vatican and in major and minor power-centers in Germany and Italy, and he knows a lot about intrigue and betrayal. A child of the Enlightenment, the turns to Roman history for his discussion. It was a disgusting time, first-century Rome, lacking all civilized restraint, celebrating power and cruelty. Among humans, the pursuit of pleasure too easily becomes compulsive. It leads to social decadence and personal ruin, and must be restrained. You don't want your London to turn into Imperial Rome.

A rather shabby old man listens quietly, musing about the irony of his own situation. These two youths are out of his league. His English has a strong Czech accent. He’s a small-town schoolteacher, not a social butterfly; he loves the forest, not cities. He's been contentedly married for many years — yet he's become obsessed with an idealized kind of love for a younger woman, also married — and at a time when sexual performance is no longer relevant.

The bartender's been listening to the conversation, as bartenders do, and finally makes a comment of his own: You could write a novel about all this, he says, or even an opera.

THE BARTENDER IS Mark Streshinsky, General Director of Berkeley Opera, which produced the results of this conversation this last month. West Edge has settled into an interesting formula, presenting in repertory, in a three-week season, three operas: one from an early era, performed with period instruments; one from the neglected standard-repertory period; one new or relatively new title. (Last summer these were Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, Alban Berg's Lulu, and Laura Kaminsky's As One, discussed here August 3, 2015; next year we are promised Vicente Martin y Soler's L'arbore di Diana, Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet, and Libby Larsen's Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus.)

The operas were produced in an evocative space, Oakland's "abandoned train station," a Beaux-Arts building designed by Jarvis Hunt, opened in 1912 by the Southern Pacific Railway, closed following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, bought ultimately by the developer Bridge Housing, and planned, it is to be hoped, to be retained for public use. (The symbolism – a grand public building erected a century ago for commercial purposes, abandoned and allowed to decay, then stabilized and restored as a nostalgic if somewhat sketchy place for the performing arts — invites comment: but I digress.)

A distinctly musky fragrance hovered in this architectural curiosity last weekend, when we saw the final performances of this randy triptych: Agrippina, composed in Naples by the then 24-year-old George Friedrich Handel in 1709; Vixen Sharp-Ears (a better translation than The Cunning Little Vixen ), completed in 1923 by the Czech composer Leoš Janáček, then just shy of seventy; Powder Her Face, composed by the 26-year-old Thomas Adès in 1996.

AGRIPPINA WAS STARTLING from the moment we entered the theater: the stage was fronted by an enormous enlargement of Hieronymus Bosch's own triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, so large the figures in the lower corners of the central panel — whom we came to feel we knew — were life-sized. The overture, conducted from the harpsichord by Jory Vinikour, was gripping: suggestive in its slow tempi, thrilling in the fast.

Vinikour's orchestra comprised three each of first and second violins, two violas, two cellos, one bass viol, two players doubling on oboes and recorders, one trumpeter, and, most effectively, Richard Savino playing theorbo in the basso continuo. I've read that the original orchestra included contrabassoon and timpani; I missed the latter, and wonder what the former would have done. In any case this orchestra was captivating.

Mark Streshinsky's staging was perhaps in the style of the original, staged in Venice. The plot concerns Agrippina's plots to elevate her son Nerone to the Roman throne after the reported death of the emperor Claudio. Other characters include Claudius's friend Ottone; his inammorata Poppea (desired also by Claudio), Agrippina's two feckless assistants Pallante and Narciso, and Claudio's servant Lesbo. (I reproduce the Italian names: Nero and Claudius are the more familiar English forms.)

Of this crew the only decent person is Ottone; the others range from Claudio's woolly-minded covetousness, through Nerone's impressively indiscriminate appetite, to Agrippina's truly evil manipulativeness. The entire cast was thoughtfully chosen, directed, and costumed: this production was well conceived and integrated. Until I saw Powder Her Face, the next evening, I thought Streshinsky's direction had gone over the top: the central intelligence, I guess you'd call him, was Nerone, whose unfocussed amorousness was like a totally immoral Cherubino. His mother Agrippina was infected with the same virus, and you could see that while the rest of the cast, even Claudio, had misgivings about this, they found it irresistible.

Perhaps because I'm a prig I found Ryan Belongie's portrayal of Ottone the high point of the evening. His counter-tenor voice is strong, sweet, clear, and affecting; his lament was the finest moment of the evening. This is unfair to other performers, who seemed almost equally to occupy their roles, with almost equal gifts and technique: Celine Ricci as an androgynous Nerone, Sarah Gartshore in the disgusting title role; Carl King as Claudio; Nikolas Nackley, Johanna Bronk, and Nick Volkert as Pallante, Narciso, and Lesbo.

Musically, these singers, and their orchestra, made this a marvelous evening. Visually, Sarah Phykitt's set design, Kevin Landesman's lighting, and Alice Ruiz's intriguing costumes anchored Streshinsky's thoughtful, playful, completely amoral direction. I'm not sure what Handel's father would have thought.

VIXEN SHARP-EARS is one of my very favorite operas, if I may make a personal remark. I have always loved Janáček's spiky, evocative, quite original music, whose roots lie in Central Europe's 19th century, but whose individuality reaches far into the twentieth century, toward such other total individualists as, for example, the Italian Giacinto Scelsi. Janáček's gifts for melodic rhythm, harmonic sonority, and instrumental technique are overwhelming, and like Handel he brings these essentially instrumental qualities to a very sympathetic ear for the human voice.

He composed a number of operas, but to my taste Vixen is the best, partly for its musical compression and inventiveness but especially for the great, deep humanity of its subject, expressed through the composer's own adaptation of, of all things, a graphic novella (a sort of comic strip) that appeared in a Prague newspaper for a few months in 1920. The story is simple: a young vixen cub is captured by a forester, escapes back to the forest after growing to maturity and attacking the henhouse, couples with a fox with whom she raises a number of cubs, is shot by a hunter.

There are three principal roles: Vixen, marvelously sung and acted by the soprano Amy Foote; Forester, strongly and engagingly represented by the bass Philip Skinner; Fox, particularly sympathetic in the performance of mezzo Nikola Printz. The large cast also includes a frog, several hens, a cricket, a goofy dog, and Vixen as a cub; these roles were taken by members of the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir.

I've seen three productions of Vixen that I can think of, all of them quite different solutions of the staging problem of rendering animals (and insects even!) both natural and sympathetic without resort to anthropomorphism or sentimentality. Two things are crucial to success: costuming and makeup, here ably rendered by Christine Crook, Alice Ruiz, and Sophia Smith; and physical acting, credited in this production to Pat Diamond (director) but achieved for the most part compellingly by each actor, even — perhaps especially — the children.

First, last, and center, Vixen Sharp-Ears is about Life. Life as a natural force, a force so general that it overcomes individual life and death, spans time-periods beyond individual lifetimes, addresses ethical realities beyond human desires and frustrations. The one overwhelming instinct is to be free, and you can take Janáček's meaning to include individual, political, moral, and economic freedom; freedom from the conventional restrictions of social class and position, but also freedom from the constraints most of us manage to create for ourselves every day as we substitute comfort and convention for vitality and instinct.

I have to confess that after seeing Agrippina and reading about Powder Her Face I was worried about what West Edge might do with Vixen. It would have been easy to sell the opera short, to sensationalize the sexual component, to trivialize the humanity. But Diamond's direction respected the intent, I think, of the original creators; and Foote, Printz, and Skinner beautifully conveyed the depth and reach of the moral and ethical issues. (So did Joseph Raymond Meyers as the dejected Schoolmaster and, in a more comic approach, Carl King as the drunk poacher Harašta, who shoots Vixen.)

Janáček's score was brilliantly performed, in a reduced orchestration by Jonathan Dove, by Jonathan Khuner, leading asixteen-piece orchestra. Janáček needs a lot of notes for his music, and this orchestra was kept busy: I was particularly impressed with the five string players, but the winds were equally up to the task. What a fine, far-reaching, lasting opera this is; what a fine job West Edge did with it.

POWDER HER FACE failed to interest me. Thomas Adès and his librettist Philip Hensher (also a Londoner, five years older than the composer) collaborated on it deeply under the influence of Alban Berg's opera Lulu and Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, and the result seems to me greatly over-worked, too self-indulgent about inner jokes and allusions, and too ready to excuse its own undisciplined bawdiness with the pretext of ironic social commentary.

The story is that of the Duchess of Argyll, whose compulsive fellatios with strangers were a tabloid scandal in the mid-1950s, and who apparently lived an increasingly pathetic descent into reclusive poverty over he next thirty-five years. This "rake's progress" unfolds through five scenes in the first act, four in the second. I can't comment on the second act; we left at intermission.

We left for two reasons: the action of the opera, at least in this production (but inescapably, judging from the plot summary provided), was tediously jokey and in-your-face; worse, the music was unrelievedly busy, strident, and loud. Stage routines ran the gamut, as Dorothy Parker would have written, from A to B: soft-core pornography to lewd comedy. Laura Bohn, as the Duchess, might have been sympathetic but was rarely given scope by either composer or director. Hadleigh Adams was two-dimensional, whether as Duke or Hotel Manager. Jonathan Blalock was perhaps the most successful singing actor by virtue of his role, which allowed him some individuality. Worst of all, Emma McNairy, who was such a splendid, musical Lulu last summer in Berg's opera, was made to shriek at virtually every opportunity.

Mary Chun worked hard to open the busy, opaque textures of the score, and her fifteen-piece orchestra, the contemporary music specialists Earplay, played their hearts out. But I have to believe these gifted singers and musicians, and stage director Elkhanah Pulitzer, did all this in the service of the opera, but they had little help from composer and librettist, who seemed to want to spend endless talent and intellect and awareness of precedent on a silly, one-dimensional, deliberately vulgar piece of theater.

Adès's score has a number of arresting ideas, but except when they're repeated too often — the baritone saxophone bleat, for example — they're too often lost in the crowded, overly busy orchestration. And the vocal writing doesn't work: you can rarely understand the sung English (thank heaven, I suppose, for the supertitles), and the extremes of tessitura are physically painful.

But then I'm an old man, my tastes and sympathies much closer to the Forester's than the Duke's. I'm grateful for the opportunity to have heard half of this opera, I think; and I respect the intellectual content of this three-opera season, whose effect only makes sense, I think, thanks to the triangulation provided by Vixen.

Sunday, June 12, 2016



Saturday, June 11, 2016

The saga continues, and I show my age…

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Mt. Jackson, from our ridge, Eastside Road
Fri. May 27: broken toe
Sun. May 29: Coast walk
Sat. June 4: 22 mile history walk
Mon. June 6: Walkabout at home
Tue. June 7: 8 miles, to Healdsburg
Eastside Road, June 10, 2016—
CONTINUING THE LOG : I left you a little over a week ago after a fine nine-miler out at the coast, with a fair amount of climbing and descending involved.

What I didn't mention was that I did that on a broken toe.

Until Friday, May 27, I had never broken a bone in my eighty years. But that night, in an excess of high spirits (though sober as a judge), I ran through the house, barefoot, to get someone a glass of cold water, having thoughtlessly served only myself. I failed to notice a box of files on the floor in one room — a box that's been there for years — and hit it with the fourth and fifth toes of my left foot.

I wish I'd thought to photograph it: the toes pointed off to the left instead of curling nicely toward the big toe. So I taped them back to the proper position and put an ice pack on it for twenty minutes. And, it being a holiday weekend, made a note to see the doctor on Tuesday. Memorial Day Weekend is no time to visit an emergency ward.

Next morning there was some pain, of course; the entire foot was somewhat swollen, the affected toes particularly so. I took it easy that day, doing a little work outside, because we'd planned that long hike at the Coast on Sunday. As I say, the Coast hike went okay. I took a couple of walkabouts at home the following week — I'll describe them in another post — and then gave the toe its real test last Saturday.

FOR A NUMBER of years the Sonoma County Historical Society has put on an annual walk of about 25 miles, at various locations in the county in the even-numbered years, in San Francisco in the odd-numbered ones. The hikes were the idea of the late Jeff Tobes, an enthusiast for both history and hiking who taught in Sonoma county and shared his enthusiasm with students and members of the Society.

I first met him four years ago, when I joined the hike taking in Fort Ross and environs — an area of particular interest to me since my mother lived and taught out there for a few years back in the middle 1950s. That had been a lovely walk, and Jeff was a remarkable leader, pointing out sites of special historical interest — the smallest California State Park, for example, which surrounds Beniamino Bufano's sculpture dedicated to peace.

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Toward Carneros, June 4, 8:20 am
Alas, Jeff died earlier this year, quite unexpectedly I think; this year's walk was dedicated to him as a memorial, and led quite ably by the competent, easygoing Ray Johnson. About eighty participants convened at 5:30 in the morning last Saturday, in the Sebastiani Winery parking lot. We walked a few blocks, past Sonoma Mission, to the Plaza, where we heard a little talk about the Bear Flag Revolt, and then proceeded south and a little east, out of town, toward Vineburg.

The morning was really quite beautiful. There was no traffic on the city streets at that early hour, and we were reminded to speak quietly when we stopped at a little park for breakfast: residents in the neighborhood were likely still sleeping. It was cool and pleasant, and when we got to open countryside the morning sky was low and gentle. We turned east and north again, then further east to the Gundlach Bundschu winery.

There we had a rest and listened to a winery staffer tell us the history of her company — a history going back to 1858, surviving the utter destruction of the winery in the 1906 earthquake (it was located in San Francisco; grapes were shipped their by barge from a Sonoma county landing), the disaster that was Prohibition, and the vagaries of the wine book of the late 20th century.

The winery is meticulously landscaped; even the vineyards seem gardened. I had always assumed Bundschu was Swiss; the name seems so, but we were told both he and Gundlach were German. Still, there's an impressive degree of neatness here, and I was inspired to try a bottle of their Gewurtztraminer next opportunity. (We had it the other night: very clean; very good — I prefer the Alsace versions.)

We resumed the walk, through the vineyard to a gate on Thornberry Road, finally up off the Sonoma flats and near the Napa County line. The houses here are big, on big, wooded lots, and mostly behind ornamental but effective gates. The road's nicely shaded and a fine stroll, but it is not my kind of place, I'm afraid.

We headed north, then west again, past a few historical sites Ray pointed out, and finally were back at Sebastiani where our lunch awaited us. In half an hour we were walking again, first to visit General Vallejo's grave in Sonoma's Mountain Cemetery, then into the fine oak-studded grassland hills forming the extensive back yard to his home, whose grounds we'd visit later in the day.

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Open Space Preseve on the Vallejo property
This was some of the best walking of the day: off pavement. The trail had climbed a bit, up to the huge water tanks drawing on Vallejo's springs for the Sonoma water supply; then traversed through oaks, as you see in the photo, before descending quite sharply back to city streets and sidewalkes.

We turned north again, paralleling the highway through Boyes Hot Springs, then diverging to stroll through another hilly residential area at Fetters Hot Springs — a more modest version of Thornerry's wealthy enclave. Then west, to turn south again and explore a third hotwater town, Agua Caliente.

It became clear Ray knew how to draw a historical route. He was following old railroad rights of way, for the most part long since co-opted into city streets but occasionally developed into footpaths. He wisely refrained from trying to expand on this history; there were too many of us, and many of us perhaps too inattentive, for even an impromptu lecture. (I'm sure he could have attempted: he seems to know the history well.)

Down here in the flats, in Boyes Hot Springs and El Verano, I felt more at home. The population seems much more modest: blue-collar workers for the most part. The houses are mostly old and small, many of them survivors from a long-ago time when they may have been vacation homes for San Francisco clerical class. In those days you'd have travelled from the city by boat to a landing on the Sonoma county coast, then taken either a carriage or, later, a train to a residential hotel or perhaps, if you had the money, your own vacation cottage.

We walked past parked RVs, small boats on trailers, and basketball goals on little wheeled bases. In one front yard a man was carefully trimming another man's handsome haircut; they smiled and waved to us. Two or three schoolgirls giggled as they saw us troop by, hailed us, asked where we were going, wished us a nice day.

We walked past a number of buildings that had once been inns — not only the spas profiting from the hot water ( agua caliente ) not far below ground, but also ramshackle old buildings, some boarded up, which must once have been boarding houses and, before that, country inns; one even had an attached one-storey addition that probably housed the stablehands. (Why didn't I photograph it?)

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Mother and child on the creek, Maxwell Farms Regional Park
By now it was getting on toward four o'clock and it had heated up — and we'd been walking for miles on asphalt or concrete. My toe was holding up, but my soles were beginning to fry. Fortunately we turned into a marvelous park on Sonoma Creek, Maxwell Farms Regional Park. Again we were on forgiving terrain: packed dirt paths and trails through what once had apparently been orchard or vineyard and woodlots along the creek.

It didn't last long enough: we emerged through a playground and picnic area back onto streets and sidewalks for the remaining few miles back to Sebastiani. When we reached General Vallejo's charming home, already closed to visitors for the day, I'd had enough: the last mile was on a paved footpath we'd already taken. I caught a ride.

My hiking buddy, who'd driven the forty minutes from home to Sebastiani, had thoughtfully brought a few beers in a cold box, and we were glad to have them with the quite satisfying Mexican dinner provided by the Historical Society.

IMG 7447After the hike
photo: Thérèse Shere