Sunday, May 30, 2010

"The garden of the creative imagination..."

I stayed up late last night to finish Tracy Daugherty's "page-turner" of a literary biography of Donald Barthelme, Hiding Man (Picador, 2009).

I've never read a biography about an artist so unknown to me. How could one of the most important writers of 20th century fiction elude a voracious reader? Barthelme, one of the most acclaimed short story writers from the 60's through his death (at 58) in 1989, never appeared in my cultural sights. Daugherty's book entered that radar late last year following glowing reviews in the New York Times Book Review and at least one other publication to which I pay heed. My curiosity was aroused enough to buy a collection of Barthelme stories. As one of his critics put it, Barthelme wrote "the most haunting book anyone ever chuckled over."

I imagine if someone plopped down into the middle of one of my pieces, they might find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Barthelme's style has been described as "opaque," his post-modernism compartmentalized as "difficult." He bemoaned the "loss of reference" in modern life.

I want writing to awaken the senses and stimulate the imagination. I want to read and write language that makes connections and invites exploration. I want to foster discovery and engender adventure. Sometimes those references are obscure. What is unfamiliar is too easily dismissed. The road less traveled is easier to ignore.

In an interview Barthelme corrected the idea of the avant-garde being necessarily distant or removed from the mainstream.

"The function of the advance guard in military terms is exactly that of the rear guard, to protect the main body."

Facing the mess the 20th century was, the modern artist could engage or escape. Those who chose the former route are not usually found in Disney or Hollywood.

"Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art."

His writing is compact, compressed, and full of surprises. Traditional narrative and character-development take back seats to innovative form and a style peppered with irony. He wanted his "tone in certain places to be a drone, to get the feeling of the language pushing ahead ahead but uninflected."

His answer to the "difficulty" noted above is engagement on the part of the participant. "The reader [or listener, viewer, etc] reconstitutes the work by his active participation, by approaching the object, tapping it, shaking it, holding it up to his ear to hear the roaring within." Daniel Barenboim makes similar observations in his advocacy for active participation with modern music. I am listening to Boulez in their honor.

Barthelme reinvigorates language in his pithy "stories," his sparseness concentrating their impact. Less is indeed more where Barthelme is concerned. He relished "when the sentences suddenly explode or go to hell."

Daugherty summarizes Barthelme's view of art's role in post-modern life:

"Rather than content--an explanation of something--art's value lies in the fact that it offers forms for our experiences."

And as great artists from Michelangelo to Picasso and Beckett to Barthelme have found, the right form forms its own (objective) meaning and creates a space in which (subjective) meaning can be experienced.

In the essay Not-Knowing (the title of a posthumous collection of non-fiction, also quoted below), he writes about this.

"The combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they're allowed to go to bed together, allows the writer to surprise himself, makes art possible, reveals how much of Being we haven't yet encountered."

Substitute "notes" or "colors" for the words, and his observation applies to music and painting. Yes!

Such "combinatorial agility" can be dizzying. Literally. Barthelme was "interested in intoxication, in dazzling the mind." One of his strengths as a teacher was the exacting standards to which he held his creative writing students. "Your mind is constantly capable of surprising you if you work it hard enough."

And therein lies the rub hinted at above. The "loss of reference." The "impoverishment" of culture. The relentless march of technology. The frenetic pace demanded by consumerism. All these factors enforce a "theft of complexity" according to DB. "Theft of complexity from the reader" and in a catch-22 for the artist, "theft of the reader from the writer."

Again, he is not praising difficulty for its own sake. We prophets for the life of the mind and pride of place for "high" culture know that art "mediates access to our deepest experience" (as another of Don's critics wrote).

Life is complex, and the factors I decry above do not make me a technophobe or philistine (though I may be both). I simply choose engagement over escape. Artists like Barthelme help "vivify our plight even if they do not clarify its outcome."

One of his short pieces is a characteristically witty, insightful and piquantly brief acceptance speech on winning the National Book Award for Children's Literature [sic].

"Writing for children, like talking to them, is full of mysteries. I have a child, a six-year old, and I assure you I approach her with a copy of Mr Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity held firmly in my right hand. If I ask her which two types of cereal she prefers for breakfast, I invariably find upon presenting the bowl that I have misread the instructions--that it was the other kind she wanted. In the same way it is quite conceivable to me that I may have written the wrong book--some other book was what was wanted. One does the best one can. I must point out that television has affected the situation enormously. My pictures don't move. What's wrong with them?"

I'm reminded of a dream last night that involved a tennis match, travels, and the difficult decision of what to eat for breakfast. I wish Don were around to turn it into a story. The mysteries of the unconscious shaped by the imagination into art.

"The difficulty is to manage a book worth watching. The problem, as I say, is full of mysteries, but mysteries are not to be avoided. Rather they are a locus of hope, they enrich and complicate. That is why we have them. That is perhaps one of the reasons why we have children."

Barthelme sired two children, yet left many more in his stories, still flowering through the garden of his creative imagination.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The beauty of problems: Hamlet and Barthelme

"Problems are a comfort." So says my author-of-the-moment, Donald Barthelme, in the best piece I've read on the subject of writing itself. It is the eponymous piece in his collection of essays and interviews, Not-Knowing (Counterpoint, 1997).

I have been referring to Barthelme of late, and at the end of March wrote about the operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet ("Blasphemetries").

"Problematic" is one of the most frequent adjectives used to describe Thomas' Hamlet (see the entry mentioned above for more on the opera itself).

A problem for the character is good for the actor, observes the director Declan Donellan. He uses Shakespeare's Juliet as a case study in his essential book on acting, The Actor and the Target.

Problems focus our minds. The concentration required for problem-solving does not allow for self-consciousness and is an effective antidote to self-absorption. This dynamic--not dissimilar to the balance of neurosis and intellect described by William James--goes some way in explaining why creative types thrive under pressure.

Two of the country's major opera houses have recently presented new productions of the Ambroise Thomas adaptation of Shakespeare's neurotic hero, Hamlet. Both tackle many of its problems directly, and find different solutions. The MET production (shared with several European companies) is character driven. The Washington National Opera (WNO) presentation is driven by the production. Both make the case that "problematic" works must be led by compelling performances. Both deliver.

The WNO production is one of the best modern productions I've seen. The boy-wonder Thaddeus Strassberger has designed a brilliant unit set (that is, one set that remains in place throughout the evening--a cost & space-saving device, and a solution to a frequent problem of economics and expediency where the most expensive of art forms is concerned).

The set is a "plinth" of a building--a hollowed-out coliseum or castle--where all the action occurs. The setting is a cold-war era country in the brittle throes of a totalitarian revolution. The issue of "updating" is literally thrust upon the audience as the chorus storms into the house for the opening scene. A Stalin-like statue is toppled as the usurping king Claudius enters, giving a power salute to the intoxicated, aisle-cramming chorus. Glaring lights and a shower of propaganda (leaflets dropped from a fly above) bombard the still unsuspecting audience, seconding the motion this production will not be your mother's Hamlet.

Suffering from a "loss of problems" Barthelme quotes Wittgenstein's condemnation of much modern philosophy as being "immeasurably shallow and trivial." The same verdict could be pronounced on many a Regietheater ("Director's Theatre") production (AKA: "Eurotrash." For the record, I am an apologist for both this opera and many a Eurotrash production). But I don't need to promote Strassberger's cause/case, as he is garnering acclaim around the world for his intelligent, imaginative and artistically integruous productions of standard and unfamiliar fare. And you can still see for yourself as the WNO production runs through June 4.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
(from 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens)

And I do not know which cast to prefer when comparing the MET and WNO productions. Both quartets were outstanding. If Simon Keenlyside (MET) is an unparalleled Hamlet, Michael Chioldi held his own and helped carry the WNO production. James Morris (MET) and Sam Ramey both demonstrated what presence is in a seasoned performer in very different but no-less engaging portrayals of Claudius. Jennifer Larmore (MET) and Elizabeth Bishop brought compelling dimension to Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude. The real standout in the WNO cast is the Ophélie, Elizabeth Futral (FEW-trull, for the record). I needn't qualify my bias as a close friend and long-time confidant and assistant to her husband, Steven White. Elizabeth's artistry speaks for itself. She began rehearsals on two days notice for a role she'd never sung. At opening night three weeks later you would have thought she'd been performing this daunting role for years.

The opera's most perplexing problem is the end of Ophelie's mad scene. Musically, a dénouement is called for following the heroine's unhinging in a life-sapping cadenza. In the most famous operatic mad scene, Donizetti solves the problem dramatically. Following the famous cadenza Lucia shares with the flute, her brother Enrico enters, which gives the composer (and librettist) a narrative segue into a cabaletta-like coda to the extended scene. After spending herself in the fireworks of "Spargi d'amaro pianto" Lucia dies. Cut.

Ophelie's codetta occurs after her death. Hm. The most glaring unsolved problem in the MET production is this scene. Strassberger has a solution which he sets up with exquisite care. He is aided in his plan by Futral's prodigious dramatic gifts as an actor. A broken mirror becomes a knife in her hands. Will she slit her wrist before she gets to the river bank? (The stage's raked platform is draped with a flowing cloth that is both set and prop: another example of creative innovation.)

Following the vocal drama of her cadenza, she plunges backward off the end of the elevated platform into the "river." As the curtain falls, the spellbound audience awaits the final musical punctuation to her scene. She has "drowned" herself. Will she sing from offstage? The curtain transforms into a scrim of broken shards reflecting the light like a panel of shattered stained glass. The "panels" remain suspended as the curtain parts to reveal Ophelie in the middle of the river, 20 feet above the stage, in an impressionistic cloud (effectively disguising the device which holds the gravity-defying body of the diva).

It was the most striking coup de theâtre I've ever seen, and a masterstroke of a solution to the problem of staging Ophelie's "post-mortem" aria.

A colleague who is covering the role of Horatio described the opera's "slow burn" which for him only begins to smolder with the mad scene. The set pieces are few and far between which means the traditional "arias" are integrated into the rich fabric of the score. This sublimation of recognizable "numbers" contributes to the work's density (and makes it problematically "slow" for some). Shakespeare's original is a wordy, heady play whose wit cannot best its tragic core. The opera's balance of low-voice principals underscore the dark hues. Though the prima donna Soprano is one of the great heroines in 19th century grand opera, her suicide-achieved quietus is a primary example of music's unique ability to represent tragic irony (or romanticize tragedy).

It is a difficult piece. So back to Barthelme: "Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art."

Ambroise Thomas has left a difficult but not impenetrable problem of an opera that requires the right balance of intellect, artistry and will to recreate it effectively.

Barthelme concludes his essay in praise of the difficulties which require such creative solutions. "The problems...enforce complexity." We don't spend too much time with work that does not engage our imaginations or stimulate our senses. Predictability "exhausts our patience." The kinetic energy of life drives art, which "cannot remain in one place."

"A certain amount of movement, up, down, across, even a gallop toward the past is a necessary precondition."

And even with the most difficult, dense or dark works, "art's project is fundamentally meliorative. The aim of meditating about the world is finally to change the world."

Thank God for problems like Hamlet and Barthelme.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Technique, Style and Soul

What makes a great performance so? Perhaps it is as "simple" as achieving balance across a continuum that includes three essential elements: technique, style, and soul.

Technique being the perfect-as-possible execution of all the constituent elements involved. Attention to details. Facility.

Style being less "fixed" than technique, more difficult to measure, yet quantifiable. Fluency. Flow. Communication. Intelligibility. Authenticity.

Soul resisting description. The viscera that connects technique and style and adds mystery. Heart. Guts. Difficult to define. Even more difficult to mistake or miss.

The eminent conductor Riccardo Muti is a wizard of technical accomplishment and stylistic fluency. His Verdi performances--from Nabucco & Attila to the Requiem & Don Carlo--are a diamond-sharp study in why attention to detail is paramount.

The articulation of the brass instruments in his La Scala Requiem recording--the trumpets in "Dies Irae" and the trombones in "Sanctus"--is electrifying. Hair-raisingly precise, played with stylistic, Italianate flair. Which is exactly why it is so thrilling to hear.

Details lesser mortals overlook emerge as illuminations of their creator's genius in hands like Muti's. "Repetitive" accompaniment figures reveal their true colors, and in a tension-ratcheting scene like the Filippo-Posa duet (Don Carlo), "predictable" 8th note patterns in the strings sound like a chest-pounding heart beat or ticking bomb. Both interpretations fit the situation.
Go "figure..."

Muti puts the move in movendo. This is not speed or facility for its own sake. The aforementioned "Sanctus" from Verdi's Requiem is unbelievable for the passage-work of not only the brass, but the other 200 hundred musicians of the orchestra and chorus. Six-winged celestial seraphim should make such ear-opening sounds.

As a member of the Westminster Symphonic Choir performing with the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, I missed working with Muti by just a season. Perche?!?

I still remember a dream I had during my first semester of graduate school. Muti had returned to campus, and was treated like a demigod. He was dressed like an eastern mystic in a flowing robe (in the dream it was a yellow sundress). The entire campus community followed him around like disciples. I can still picture his wide-brimmed summer hat.

The handful of recordings from those years in Philadelphia are benchmarks. The Berlioz, Brahms and Scriabin symphonies, the verismo operas (even if his Tosca is unevenly cast, Giuseppe Giacomini's inimitable Cavaradossi covers a multitude of alleged missteps).

"They are growing tired of my sugary-sweet dramas" complained Puccini, sometime between Tosca and Madama Butterfly.

Let 'em eat cake, Giacomo.

One of Don Barthelme's voices takes a swipe at his critics by imitating one and complaining of a literary movement gone "a little sweet." It is described--with typical tongue-in-cheek acidity-- as "the wine of life turning into Gatorade."

Alas, some of Puccini's imitators did just that, and we are left with Il Divo and other phantoms where operas used to be.

In the same piece, Barthelme drops the fictional ruse and addresses the critics of modernism directly. Without calling them vampires, he calls them on the carpet of their deconstructionism for the life they suck out of new literature with academic analysis. "A tyranny of great expectations obtains, a rage for final explanations." Such "interpretations" rob art of much of its essential mystery. "Tear a mystery to tatters and you have tatters, not mystery."

That is the open-ended, inclusive, room-for-interpretation space art--and the human beings who make it--requires. The place where technique and style mingle with soul to emerge in the work as a greater whole and so move us.

When interpreters like Muti flesh out essential details and offer committed, impassioned, informed interpretations, we are left breathless because they have (been) so inspired.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Celebrating Life with Great Music

"Superb," "exquisite," and "sensational" were some of the adjectives used to describe yesterday's Chorale concert at the Chrysler Museum of Art.

"The best concert of choral music I've ever heard" was how one patron described the experience. "You experienced God" were the disarmingly bold words of another.

I am often asked what type of music the Chorale sings. I usually begin with an academic answer like "classical, a cappella choral music."

Much of the music we sing is simply unfamiliar. I know that behind questions like "what kind of music do you all do?" lurks the more pressing issue of "will I like it?"

Yes. But don't just take my word for it.

"Their [artists'] creations modify the beholder" noted the writer Donald Barthelme. The process itself is transformative for the creative artist. And it is transformative for the artists who re-create, interpret, and perform. Art is also transformative for those who participate by listening, watching, viewing, and/or observing.

One throws caution to the wind by singing along full-throated to a song blasting on the car radio (and so "forgets" one's self). Or one feels as if time stands still in the presence of utter beauty. Regardless, the enthralling power of the aesthetic is a shared experience. Whether or not we are conscious of the nature of that power does not alter its effect.

Barthelme makes the case for consciousness. "The reader [or listener, viewer, etc] reconstitutes the work by his active participation, by approaching the object, tapping it, shaking it, holding it up to his ear to hear the roaring within."

I love that (it comes from a posthumous collection of his essays called Not-Knowing, published by Counterpoint, c. 1997).

I mentioned Bill Hennessey's excellent "Director's Note" (in the current Chrysler Museum magazine) during a spiel at yesterday's concert. He shares a great metaphor about the 14th c. Italian poet Petrarch's mountain-climbing experience. As is often the case with such adventures "the sense of accomplishment and exhausted exhilaration, the marvel of an uninterrupted view...the feeling we are literally on top of the world" motivates introspection. Bill quotes Petrarch's observation of having "seen enough of the mountain, I turned my inward eye upon myself."

One of my favorite things about listening to music is what each such experience inspires. Music stimulates me. It appeals to my senses, engages my imagination, and touches my soul. When I am attentive to "the roaring within," the music I love simulates mountaintop experiences, regardless of whether I'm in Carnegie Hall or just listening to a song on my ipod.

The Chorale does sing a cappella, classical music. But it doesn't take a music degree to understand it, nor are there prerequisites for appreciating its beauty. Its appeal is immediate, and like all great music, it has the power to speak to every aspect of what it is to be human. All of the arts have this life-enriching power and that is one of the many reasons they are indispensable to a meaningful existence.

"I have immortal longings in me" proclaims Shakespeare's (and Samuel Barber's operatic) Cleopatra. Even if the art we love is subject to "the ravages of time," our participation in and with it gives us a sense of the eternal, the numinous and the sublime.

That may sound lofty. Such categories may strike some as out-of-reach. Much of the music we do is mistakenly believed to be so (because it is unfamiliar, modern, or some of both). Ignorance, in its purest sense, is the root of misunderstanding.

"No one who writes as well as Beckett can be said to be doing anything other than celebrating life." Barthelme is writing about one of modern literature's most misunderstood geniuses. The statement could apply to the unfamiliar writers of new music that populate Chorale programs.

This one is packed with well-written music evoking a spectrum of experiences. From joy to grief, from mystery to amazement this great music celebrates life with soaring melodies and splendid harmonies in a rich palette of musical colors.

The concert is entitled Perpetual Light, and will be repeated May 22, 8 pm, at Churchland Baptist Church, and May 30, 3 pm, at Williamsburg Presbyterian.

What kind of music do we sing? Beautiful music. Ear-opening, mind-blowingly powerful music. Music that will awake your senses, pique your imagination and stir your heart. Music you will not hear anywhere else in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Ariadne's thread...

[For notes on the Chorale's imminent Perpetual Light program and the music's connections to art, see the previous post, "Music and art and the Ineffable." For more context on this "lyric essay," see last month's posts, or just follow Ariadne's thread wherever the references lead].

"To be ugly, that is what Death is...As long as I am beautiful, I am 10 times more alive than the others."

Proclaims Cléo in Comme Toujours Here I Stand, in New York's Big Dance Theater production of same. Based on Agnes Varga's French Nouveau Vague film, Cléo from 5 to 7.

And echoing Martha Graham to Agnes De Mille: "There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive."

Martha Graham, alive and kicking--or dancing up a wall?--in Barbara Morgan's photograph, "Letter to the World (kick)."

Don't you love words that sound like what they mean? Kick. Splash. Pluck.

Onomatopoeia. From the Greek. Two words, actually. Meaning: "the name I make."

"Ancient Greek is like a big lion turning and turning in place before lying down," says the classicist, playwright and poet Anne Carson.

"And English a jumpy little cat." Thud. Bump. Meow.

"I have only ever had one goal, and that is to move," said composer and organist Louis Vierne.

"A north german contrapuntal temperament projected into the arioso south" is how the post-WWII emigrant composer Hans Werner Henze (b. 1926) tellingly described his self and style.

Ariosi being one of the first fruits of that self-imposed exile. It is a searingly beautiful (lyrical and atonal) series of arias and interludes for soprano, violin and orchestra on the classical poetry of Torquato Tasso.

Nocturnes and Arias, 4 Poems for Orchestra, and Five Neapolitan Songs, all HWH works warmed by the Mediterranean sun, basking and dancing in the same light-reflecting sea.

What parties Henze, Bachmann, Auden & Kallmann and Walton must have had on the legendary island of Ischia!

Did they speak Italian together? Play charades? Or multi-lingual word games? Auden would have won those, but I bet Henze would have won Pictionary (had it existed).

"Stanzas written in Dejection near Naples" is one of Shelley's exilic odes. It was set by another expat Entartete Künstler ("degenerate artist," an odious Nazi label), Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-1996).

"Lines written in an album, at Malta" by Lord Byron is the shorter (and more saccharine) poem with which Goldschmidt opens his Mediterranean Songs.

Ah, Keats. Alas, they were not thee.

Goldschmidt--like his degenerate colleagues Schulhoff, Braunfels, Haas, Krasa and Ullmann--deserves to be more widely played & sung & heard.

Must every labyrinth contain its own Minotaur?

James Stephens' "The Centaurs" stamp with "power and pride" in Goldschmidt's cycle (May Swenson's singular "Centaur" does not).

What essentially differentiates the Siciliana from the Barcarolle?

Is it simply the dotted rhythm of the former--so the latter could also be the former, but not necessarily?

Why do I care about this now, of all times, in the middle of Spring?

Schubert's Meeres Stille. Another song of the sea. Another eloquent Goethe setting. Sublime. Selah.

"Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art," Donald Barthelme wrote with particular pith.

Another artist deserving wider reception, Barthelme's eccentric, witty and individual short fiction is a product of its time. It also transcends temporality through the fierce intelligence of its author. What a rare pleasure to read smart writing that makes one think and laugh out loud.

His biographer, Tracy Daugherty notes Barthelme's style "requires a pinch of uncertainty so the energy of discovery can be built into the work."

Like gun-powder, that pinch creates an explosion when it is triggered and released. The "energy of discovery" literally hits the reader upside the head.

Barthelme died in 1989, at the age of 58.

The "posthumous reception history" of artists is a fascinating field.

Take for example, the Tudor composer Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585). The most recent monograph on this great composer draws from his relationship to various periods in the centuries since his death, since so little is known about the biography of his life.

Reimagining (reinventing?) such shadowy life stories is grist for the mill of period dramas. Not afraid of the campy or gratuitous, Showtime's juicy drama,The Tudors gives us the artist-as-disheveled-and-eccentric genius with a queer Tallis (or at least a Questioning Tom).

When will David Markson's next "novel" appear?

Will this make it into mine?

"Borderland insanity, crankiness, insane temperament, loss of mental balance...when combined with a superior quality of intellect in an individual, make it more probable that he will make his mark and affect his age, than if his temperament were less neurotic."

William James thus affirms the "crazy, crackbrain'd" connection--however tenuous--between genius and madness in his ever-relevant The Varieties of Religious Experience.

"Superior intellect...seems to consist in nothing so much as in a large development of the faculty of association by similarity," James writes in a footnote that gives one pause. If "association by similarity" means metaphor, does it follow that poets are our intellectual superiors?

"Psychologists might write fascinating histories. Put professionals out of business. Megalomania for the Pharoahs...Melancholia for the Middle Ages. Schizophrenia in the eighteenth century," Bellow's cranky protagonist Herzog writes to his colleague Shapiro, before observing "a curious creepy mind, that one, convinced that madness always rules the world."

And here I thought it had. Ha!

How does one pronounce Barthelme?

Bart-Hell-Me? Barth-Ell-May?

Does that yield 6, 9, 18 possibilities? None of the above?

Reacting against the "feckless post-confessional" school of poetry, the Language poets emerged armed with the force of obscurantism. No one seemed to notice the redundancy of their name. But then, when the Note composers took over the academy, or the Guache painters the art-world, no one batted an eye either.

Is it evolving taste or shifting neuroses that accounts for my current fascination with the thorny music of Harrison Birtwistle?

(We were mad long before Lucia).

When will I open again the box containing Carson's latest "poem," Nox?

Birtwistle's Theseus Game sounds like it's winding down: could we already have reached the end of Ariadne's thread?

The five emaciated figures in the Giacometti courtyard refuse to answer.

TV Men: Can you please repeat the question?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Music and Art and the Ineffable

Painting is the most lyrical of the visual arts. And music is the most colorful of the "live" arts. It is no wonder the vocabulary used to describe both forms have so many words in common. Line, palette, chromatic, light, volume and harmony are among the most frequently invoked.

To attribute musical qualities to painting and visual associations to music compliments both and sharpens our perception of each.

This Thursday, members of the Chorale will join me and the directors of the Chrysler Museum of Art for a program of music and art for their Mowbray Arch Society. We will perform a handful of songs inspired by, connected to, or literally depicted in a few of the paintings in the Chrysler's treasure-trove collection.

One week from today, the Chorale will present its season finale concert, Perpetual Light, in the Museum's grand, reverberant Huber Court, as part of the Virginia Arts Festival (May 16, 5 pm:

The program is subtitled "five centuries of a cappella classics." That rather generic descriptor is like saying, "Monet and Van Gogh painted flowers." Factual, and lamentably wide of the mark.

The centerpiece of the program's first half is the Missa pro Defunctis (AKA: Requiem) of Tomas Luis da Victoria (1548-1611).

The greatest choral composer of the Renaissance (sorry Palestrina, Victoria is the musicians' and critics' choice) is a near contemporary of one of its greatest painters, El Greco (1541-1614). Besides their shared Spanish provenance, both artists are revered for the highly individual and expressive power of their art.

Both studied & worked in the capital of the European Renaissance, Italy (El Greco in Venice; Victoria in Rome--with Palestrina). Each, in a style difficult to mistake for any other, combines classical (ie: western) values with iconic & mystical ones. Though Italian in origin, chiaroscuro (literally, "light-dark") techniques strengthen the unmistakably Spanish traits of both artists.

Put another way, both Masters have that intangible soulfulness their descendant, the playwright, poet, artist & composer Federico Garcia Lorca called duende. The visceral, earthy, flesh & blood qualities that stamp Spanish painting from El Greco to Picasso, and that infuse music from the cathedral to the opera house to the flamenco dance halls all pulse with duende.

"The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, 'The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.'"

The counterpoint to Victoria in the Chorale program is the a cappella Requiem of Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968). From the Generazione dell' Ottanta (the "generation of the '80's"), Pizzetti was the most successful and acclaimed composer in Italy after Puccini. Though his contemporary Respighi is more popular today, the leading Italian critic of their day wrote of

“Chopin’s sensibility for the piano, Ravel’s for the orchestra, and Pizzetti’s for the chorus.”

One listen to Pizzetti's Requiem will reveal why.

Indebted to the same chant upon which Victoria based his compositions, Pizzetti reacted against the hyper-emotionalism of fin-de-siecle expressionism and the melodrama of verismo opera. His music is more closely aligned with the restraint & refinement of the neo-classical movement in architecture (like Art Deco & Beaux Arts). A contemporary of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Pizzetti's own neo-classical style emerged years before that of the great Russian composer.

Evidence of the porous--and limiting--quality of such labels abounds in this Requiem. The "conservative" use of Gregorian chant is integrated into a palette that recalls the splendor of the Venetian baroque (the poly-choral "Sanctus" imitates brass choirs scattered throughout a Basilica like St Mark's). The chromatic expressiveness of the harmony recalls that of Victoria and El Greco. Pizzetti's juxtaposition of the famed dies irae ("day of wrath") chant conjures Berlioz (Symphonie Fantastique). The juxtaposition of the chant with an eerily wordless descant stretches further back to the grotesque and visionary--if disturbing--world of Hieronymus Bosch (decades before El Greco).

Our obsessive need to categorize, label & contain arises from our desire to control as much as it exposes our fear of the unknown. Umberto Eco's brilliant new monograph, The Infinity of Lists is one liberating antidote to this all-too-human characteristic. He writes

"The fear of being unable to say everything seizes us not only when we are faced with an infinity of names but also with an infinity of things."

In discussing the "infinity of lists" in Homer, for example, Eco describes the "topos of ineffability:"

"Faced with something that is immensely large, or unknown, of which we still do not know enough or of which we shall never know, the author proposes a list as a specimen, example, or indication, leaving the reader to imagine the rest."

Though of finite length and scope, these Requiem settings--and the art associated with them--are examples of the seemingly infinite attributes and associations such masterworks inspire.

The individual pieces the Chorale will perform on either side of these colorful musical canvasses of Victoria and Pizzetti are miniature models of this very ineffableness.

The concert opens with a two-minute gem of sonic radiance by the young Bermuda-born composer, Gabriel Jackson. His setting of William Blake is called "To Morning" and the luminous composition is as rich in detail as one of its poet's equally famous illustrations or engravings. Indeed, the attention to telling minutiae that engage the imagination--in painting and music--is another defining feature of both.

The contemporary Scottish composer, James MacMillan may be the best composer of classical choral music alive today. Though just 50 years old, his influence is already felt on composers like Jackson, among others. Like many a composer of sacred music, iconic and mystical images feed his creativity. The timelessness such art evokes--doubly ironic in the case of music, which only exists in measured time--is the very essence of the ineffable. MacMillan's music performs the difficult feat of sounding both suspended in time while moving fluidly, inexorably forward. His sacred anthems, "A Child's Prayer" and "Christus Vincit" are literally breathtaking.

"Stunning" and "sublime" are frequently used to describe the beauty and effect such art has. This concert closes with one of the most potent examples of our "topos of ineffability," Gustav Mahler's Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen ("I have become lost to the world").

Mahler (1860-1911; he will be fêted throughout 2010-2011 as a result of the double anniversary) was that rare polymath among artists: an equally successful composer, conductor and impresario. His influence in all three arenas continues to reverberate. Though seemingly Apollonian and Dionysian opposites, Karajan and Bernstein (respectively) are Mahler's descendants, as are composers & song-writers as varied as Britten, Shostakovich, MacMillan, the Beatles, Lloyd Webber & Brad Mehldau.

Among other accomplishments, Mahler defined a genre, the orchestral song. Ich bin der Welt is the most beloved of his settings of the Romantic poet Friedrich Rückert. It was also the favorite of our dearly beloved & recently departed friend, Lisa Relaford Coston, in whose memory it will be sung.

A contemporary of Goethe and Schiller, Rückert was admired by Emerson and the New England Transcendentalists. His poetry is a first cousin to the great 19th-century landscape paintings of Friedrich, Constable, and Turner.

Mahler creates a mystical landscape in music by elongating his harmonic progressions so that time sounds suspended. Rückert's verse aches with longing for that sublime repose of the beyond. This longing--Sehnsucht is a German form of duende--mirrors the landscape painters' depiction of the ineffable in nature. It echoes from their time to Mahler's to today.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

More mad scenes...

This is another David Markson-inspired "lyric essay" that is a post-script to another recent post ("Mad Scenes") inspired by my wife's acclaimed debut as THE prima donna of operatic madness ( the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor)...It is dedicated to Amy, and "Cousin Boss," Tracy.

Hans Werner Henze's 5th String Quartet is dedicated to the memory of Benjamin Britten. Influenced by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Henze calls his score an example of "musica impura." It "is unable to deal in abstract formulas...[it] allows the imperfections of life, of the body, of relationships, illness, even physical suffering to break into and even determine its structure."

The fourth of the six movements is based on the "mad people's madrigal" from his earlier opera, We Come to the River.

Another of Henze's crazy movements is the third character study from his Shakespeare suite for solo guitar, "Mad Lady McBeth."

The Scottish King and King Lear are both mad Shakespeareans. But Richard III? Prospero? Caliban? Crazy or eccentric? Mad or just bitter?


Robert Louis Stevenson, not particularly renowned for madness, wrote a poem sizzling with its passionate side, "After Reading Antony and Cleopatra." I am stopped in my tracks when I read lines like:

The sea's roar fills us aching full
Of objectless desire—
The sea's roar, and the white moon-shine,
And the reddening of the fire.

He closes with this gauntlet-throwing quatrain:

Who talks to me of reason now?
It would be more delight
To have died in Cleopatra's arms
Than be alive to-night.

Whether hyperbole or insanity, Stevenson survived reading Shakespeare, living to write about it. Such red-blooded poetry is a riveting reminder of art's ability to quicken the pulse and make us feel more alive.

Philip Langridge's riveting, red-blooded performance of Peter Grimes' mad scene just began playing on my ipod.

(It appears on my new "mad scenes" playlist following Bernstein's frenetic scherzo Profanation from his Jeremiah Symphony. It precedes Bernstein's own mad scene for the Celebrant in Mass.)

Bernstein conducted the premiere of Grimes. Langridge's breakthrough role was Tom Rakewell, who goes mad after being cursed by the mephistophelian Nick Shadow at the end of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress.

Alan Bennett's play named The Madness of King George III was changed to The Madness of King George when the film appeared, for the sake of titular simplicity where Hollywood audiences were concerned ("But I didn't see the first two...").

Mad poets previously mentioned: Clare & Smart. Must not omit Hölderlin & Cowper.

The former beloved of composers from Brahms to Britten to Hindemith to Henze.

Finally reading Bellow's crazy brilliant Herzog.

Which opens with "If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me."

Beckett's protagonists are all a bit touched.

Was Gesualdo mad or just angry to kill his wife and her lover? Regardless, he lived the remainder of his years depressed.

Donizetti and Duparc spent their last years in asyla.

Asyla=plural of asylum; title of Thomas Adés' four movement orchestral fantasy, op. 17.

(It follows Barber's Medea's Dance of Vengeance and the deranged Tarantella from Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 on the aforementioned playlist).

We are currently listening to the Tarantella from Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien.

The Tarantella being a mad ritual of sorcery or a frenzied dance of death.

Tarantula. Tarantism. Tarantella.

Schumann was also crazy (as were Eusebius and Florestan: just ask him).

Henze (b. 1926) claims to have met Selim & Suleika, characters from Goethe's West-Eastern Divan (1816).

They "appear" in his mad song cycle Six Songs from the Arabian (with poetry by the composer, auf Deutsch).

I met Henze in 2001. He did not appear mad. We had a thoughtful conversation about music and society. He signed my copy of the score to his 5th Symphony, written for Bernstein and the New York Phil.

Mad 5th's: Beethoven, Mahler, Shostakovich & Henze. (Promethean 5th's--literally: Liszt & Scriabin)

Bruckner, Prokofiev & Vaughan Williams took the less-traveled road of noble understatement in theirs.

Was Prokofiev crazy in the head? He chose to return to the USSR long before he suffered a brain-injuring fall in the mid-1940's. After which he wrote (in response to WWII, his misunderstood 6th Symphony, et al) "We are now rejoicing in our magnificent victory, but thousands of us have wounds that cannot be healed...We must not forget this."

Against forgetting. Only connect. Shostakovich carried that torch. His scherzi are all mad tarantastic [sic] dances, deliciously satirical and sardonic.

"I am by nature a conflagration..."

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Filling the uninhabited spaces: more modern-day mythology

Unlike David Shields, whose latest book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, accomplishes the increasingly difficult feat of being original, I love novels. I mentioned Shields' book in essays last month, as it is, among other things, a "manifesto" in defense of the lyric essay, the short story, poetry, and the blurred lines between fact & fiction, memoir and story. Traditional novels bore him with such "tired" traits as plot, character development and narrative. As his two hundred page book is a collection of quotes, aphorisms & pithy observations, I suspect his prejudice is the result of an attention deficit and says more about its author than the form he dismisses.

I just finished a 200-page novel last night (also referenced last month) that reaffirmed my faith in the genre. David Malouf's Ransom (Pantheon, 2009) is another contemporary adaptation of a Greek myth. Its crux is the famed meeting of King Priam and Achilles from Homer's Iliad, in which the aging Trojan king asks the Greek hero for the body of his son, Hector, whom Achilles killed and mutilated. "I clasp your knees, Achilles...think on your Father, Achilles" entreats Priam in Tippett's operatic version of the tale, and the unlikely scene of a bereft king kneeling before the mighty demigod has inspired adaptations since Homer's poem appeared (see April's posts for more on Achilles, Priam, & co).

Like many a reader, the first sentence of a novel for me is key. I am drawn to writing that is bold & audacious or poetic and evocative. Before I finished Ransom, I read a story by the sensational Chilean writer, Roberto Bolaño, whose fiction can be poetic, but is more often outrageous. He died at the age of 50 in 2003, and produced a dizzying body of fiction in the last decade of his life, much of which is just appearing in english. The first paragraph of "The Return" (from another forthcoming collection) opens with this provocative couplet of observations:

"I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is a life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villaneuve is a necrophiliac" (from Harper's Magazine/April 2010, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews).

Malouf's novel is of the poetic variety, and while it is "just" 219 pages long, his style evokes the historical period and world that gave rise to the "epic." It is rare I buy a novel without reading that revealing opening paragraph. I took it on advice from a review by Daniel Mendelsohn in the New Yorker, and was not disappointed.

"The sea has many voices. The voice this man is listening for is the voice of his mother." So begins Malouf's tale that reimagines the worlds of Troy and Greece at the pivotal eye in the storm of the famed Trojan war.

The magic of that calm is conjured in prose of simple clarity, near the novel's end, as Priam prepares to return to Troy with the body of his son.

"Nine days for the Trojans to make a journey into the forests of Mount Ida and fell the pine logs for Hector's pyre. In the city, nine days of ceremonial mourning. On the tenth the burning of Hector's body. The eleventh for the raising of his burial mound. On the twelth the war would resume."

The details themselves enact the sense of ceremony they elegantly describe, reminding the modern reader of what has been lost. And as only great art can do, the specificity of the setting is transcended, and the reader feels the loss of noble ceremony that has accompanied the relentless march of technology and modern warfare. In that context, the next sentences cause us to question what "progress" really is.

"But it was the eleven days of peace that Priam had felt shining around them as they dipped their hands into the bowl and quietly talked.

Days of sorrow, but also of holiday from the din and dread of battle. A time for living."

Malouf relates in his "Afterword" how Ransom arose from his experiences as a child in Brisbane, the center of the Allies' Pacific Ocean operations in WWII. His novel is original in imagining and narrating stories that occupy only a few lines in Homer. From the friendship of Achilles and Patroclus, to Priam's childhood adventures (his name gives the book its title) to his journey from the gates of Troy to Achilles' camp and back, Malouf's new tell rings true to its source.

In one of my essays last month, I wrote about Carl Phillips' latest collection of poetry, Speak Low, and its through-line of Greek references. It is full of resonant images and observations, and repays rereading. Conjuring Achilles and Priam himself, Phillips writes

"...the Greeks described fate as a thing of substance, weighable
on a set of scales, pourable into steep urns--one for happiness,

another for woe--..."

A poet (and librettist--what a great chamber opera Ransom would make!) himself, Malouf's opening chapter, centered on the world of the short-lived hero Achilles, uses the ebb and flow of the sea as a motive.

"But the sea is not where it will end. It will end here on the beach in the treacherous shingle, or out there on the plain. That is fixed, inevitable. With the pious resignation of the old man he will never become, he has accepted this."

Writing like this packs a punch that does not weaken on repeated readings. The same could be said of great songs & symphonies, plays and operas, paintings & sculpture.

Phillips' couplet above evokes the nature of chance where fate is concerned, and in his poem as in the myths, the gods dole out the portions that fill the "steep urns." Malouf's book features a couple of attention-holders that, if not literally deus-ex-machina devices, are equally surprising and effective.

When first we meet Priam, he is brooding and grieving the loss of his son, Hector, slain by Achilles in revenge for Hector's killing of Patroclus, for whom Achilles had "wept without restraint."

When Priam calls his life--and fate--a mockery, the goddess Iris appears (unceremoniously sitting on a sofa) to correct him.

"Not a mockery, my friend, but the way things are. Not the way they must be, but the way they have turned out. In a world that is also subject to chance."

Yes, indeed. Score another point for the novel.

Another example of a particular setting resonating a more universal truth occurs when Priam leaves the safety of the walled city to begin his trek to the Greek camp. Accustomed to stoic and regal restraint, he is confronted with something other.

"Silence, not speech, was what was expressive. Power lay in containment. In keeping hidden, and therefore mysterious, one's true intent. A child might prattle, till it learned better...But out here, if you stopped to listen, everything prattled. It was a prattling world."

The heart of the book is the awkward, human encounter between the old king and the dashing hero. When Achilles first sees Priam, he believes the white-robed man to the be the ghost of his father, Peleus. Priam appeals to Achilles' own fatherhood in a moving episode wrought with tragic irony (after Priam's son, Paris kills Achilles, the latter's son Neoptolemus kills Priam).

Though describing Achilles, Malouf's imagery could enshroud any of Homer's tragic heroes as they face their end.

"Ice ribs him round with an iron grip. It is the coldness of that distant star that is the body's isolation in death."

Near the end of the novel, we share a fleeting moment of victory with Priam, as the stuff such immortal tales are made of unfolds in prose that is anything but prosaic:

"It is only a provisional triumph, of course; the gods are not to be trusted when they tilt the balance momentarily in your favour. And what sort of triumph is it to be bringing home the body of a son? But he has done something for which he will be remembered for as long as such stories are told. He has stepped into a space that was uninhabited and found a way to fill it."

That is why I read literature, listen to music, go to the theatre, and spend afternoons staring at art: to step into those spaces inhabited only by the creative imagination. That is more than reason enough.