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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com
Thursday, May 29, 2008
* * *
Second UPDATE, Sunday June 1, round-up of other reviews.
* * *
UPDATE, next night 2nd thoughts below.
* * *
Did they rehearse?
It was bad enough that Oscar-winning actors F. Murray Abraham and Patty Duke occasionally stumbled over the archaic syntax of the King James Bible in tonight’s performance of the Genesis Suite with the Seattle Symphony and the University of Washington Chorale. But when Duke gave Abraham a “look,” as if to say, “your turn,” and Abraham returned the “look,” and both stopped reading, and the ending of the text to the sixth movement -- “The Rainbow” -- got dropped, that was embarrassing.
Seven composers wrote the seven movements of Genesis Suite, six of them European refugees, brought together by the seventh, a Hollywood composer named Nathaniel Shilkret. The two biggest names of mid-century classical, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, opened and closed the piece. Darius Milhaud is the only other big name; I had never heard of the others -- Alexandre Tansman, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ernst Toch, and Shilkret -- before borrowing the CD from the library a few months ago. Tonight’s performance was the first since the 1945 Los Angeles premiere. What should have been historic was a train wreck.
Schoenberg's wordless prelude set a promising atmosphere. The other movements set stories from the first book of the Bible -- the Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Flood and Noah’s Ark, the Rainbow, and Babel. Hollywood star Edward Arnold narrated the premiere. An interesting mishmash of dissonant modernism and Hollywood emotionalism, the Hollywood emotionalists totally hold their own -- after all the Bible is, among many other things, a hot Hollywood property. Schoenberg’s mysterious, delicate abstraction works well for the prelude, but Stravinsky’s anti-climactic closing is a dramatic let-down and an emotional bummer. It works narratively -- his music accompanies the story of Babel -- and in the context of Nazi-era refugees it makes sense. (Six of the seven composers -- all but Stravinsky -- were Jewish.) Ernst Toch ends "The Rainbow" -- the penultimate movement -- with a rousing glow; "Babel" was -- is -- truer to the historical moment.
The orchestra and chorus sounded well, but Duke and Abraham have no excuse. Gifted actors both, they appeared to be reading the text “cold.” When they hit it, they were terrific, but at times they stumbled like 14-year-old congregants volunteering to do the reading at the Sunday morning service. And, as I mentioned, during “The Rainbow” they just stopped -- and never even mentioned the rainbow!
Conductor Gerard Schwarz should have taken the movement again. Is classical music a genre of vaudeville? Is the motto, “the show must go on?” When, at one point during the premier of Kierkegaard, Walking by Kyle Gann in January, the Seattle Chamber Players got lost, they stopped and started again. A much more respectful approach -- respectful to the composer and to the audience. When things went kerblooey tonight, Schwarz hoped to pull a fast one. While Duke’s face beseeched him for direction, he ignored her and kept barreling ahead, hoping to “put it over.”
He probably got away with it.
They got a Standing O.
While the audience stood and clapped, the soloists and Schwarz put on brave faces, and the orchestra members grimaced. Duke leaned up to give Abraham a showbiz kiss, and he stood stiffly and barely reciprocated. So awkward! Everybody onstage knew they had blown it.
It was a shabby show in another way too. Schwarz commissioned local glass artist Dale Chihuly to contribute a moving backdrop to accompany the suite. Chihuly commissioned a filmmaker to film his paintings in an abstract, animated fashion. The result was an occasionally pretty, irrelevant, incompetent distraction that had nothing to do with the text or the music, thematically or emotionally. Once I realized that they had no clue about what they were doing, I did my best to ignore it.
But Chihuly is a star, Seattle’s most famous artist. If that's how the so-called Arts Community works, it's a sham. Famous people working together, charging high prices, and exhibiting no care as to whether what they’re doing makes any sense or has vitality, can only be about famous-name prestige-enhancement. It's not about the work.
Abraham and Duke could have been brilliant, had they cared to read the text a few more times before opening. When they connected, they knocked it out of the park. Both conveyed the joy of the Biblical Creation story more thrillingly than anybody I’d ever heard. Abraham nailed God’s frequent wrath. I’m left feeling floored both by their talent and their unprofessionalism.
The orchestra deserved better too. The concert’s first half -- a symphony by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu and a violin concerto by Erich Korngold -- came off well. Like the composers of Genesis, Korngold and Martinu were refugees from the Nazis and wrote these pieces in America.
Korngold’s concerto was the hit of the evening. Drawing themes from his popular Hollywood film scores and interspersing them with virtuoso turns for the violinist, Korngold packed a crowd-pleasing punch. Sexily-clad soloist Stefan Jackiw -- open-collar shirt untucked -- filled Benaroya Hall with the sound of his violin. His playing -- and his look -- were hot. The crowd loved him, and the soaring proto-John Williams-esque theme of the third and final movement sent us to intermission happy.
And even though the actors crashed and burned, it was a treat to hear the Genesis Suite. Kudos to Schwarz and the orchestra for interesting programming and good performances. Next time, though, please rehearse more with your guest stars.
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UPDATE, next night, a few notes:
A co-worker saw the concert too. She noticed that Patty Duke looked lost at one point, but she didn’t realize that the narrators actually dropped text. (I’m not certain that Duke was at fault; it could have been Abraham’s mistake. The 1945 premiere employed a single narrator.)
My co-worker loved Dale Chihuly’s visuals. People like pretty. I felt snobby for feeling that the pretty should relate to the music and the text. But that's the way I feel!
I wish I could go to Saturday night’s repeat of the concert, because I’m certain that the actors will nail it.
“Crash and burn” is too harsh a description of the actors’ mistake. “Stumbled and fell” is fairer.
Live orchestral music: It’s great. The dynamic range and the sounds of the instruments are tremendous.
The tuba player used a mute on two pieces. The mute looked to be three feet tall. I’d never seen one before.
* * *
2nd UPDATE, Sunday night, June 1:
I really thought that the second performance of the Genesis Suite would draw more attention. It was the only piece upon which Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky collaborated. They were the two most influential classical composers between Debussy and Cage, and they happened to dislike each other to such an extent that they took pains never to meet, even when their collaboration was in rehearsal and performance.
The Seattle performance has only received a brief review in each of the Seattle daily papers (only one of which is available online), and one blog post besides mine.
The other reviewers were more positive than me. Nobody else mentioned that in the “The Rainbow,” the narrators neglected to mention the Rainbow, which is indeed mentioned in the text. (I checked the Naxos recording before posting Thursday night.) Blogger Zach Carstensen noted the Duke stumbled at points, particularly during “The Rainbow,” but he didn’t mention that Abraham had stumbled as well. Carstensen also noted that the narrators’ amplification was too loud, which indeed it was.
John Sutherland, writing in the Seattle Times, complained of Duke’s timbre, which underscores the liberties that Schwarz took with the piece. The original version used one actor to narrate. Schwarz’s Naxos recording (which I recommend) used five narrators, and the Seattle concert had two. Dramatically, I liked the alternation of male and female voices, but it did give the piece an unorthodox feel. I grew up in a Protestant church with female ministers. I appear to be the only person to have found Dale Chihuly's contribution distracting and irrelevant. Seriously, a computer I had seven years ago had a built-in program that generated more interesting psychedelic images in response to music.
It appears that the actors will have gotten away with their slipshod preparation. The cavalier contempt that the actors displayed toward the composers, the audience, and the orchestra and chorus, who were well prepared, is depressing.
I should -- and do -- feel grateful to have had the opportunity to hear the piece live. But expecting the actors to prepare to the extent that unusual turns of phrase don't throw them for a loop is not too much to ask in exchange for $29, the cheapest ticket available when I bought mine, and the 2nd cheapest listed.
It ain't right.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
I vaguely remembered having heard “I Happen to Like New York,” by Cole Porter, in a Woody Allen film, and loving it, and had no idea which film, for many years, until the other night, when I happened to watch Manhattan Murder Mystery, and there it was, at the top of the film.
What a beautiful song! The last strain, its gorgeous cry of life:
And when I have to give the world a last farewell,
And the undertaker starts to ring my funeral bell,
I don't want to go to heaven, don't want to go to hell.
I happen to like New York. I happen to like New York.
I hadn't seen an Allen film in many many years. Realized: not only is he a good story teller, and often hilarious, but I love his directing style too. He does that Robert Altman thing of overlapping dialog really well.
Keaton, Alda, Houston, everybody else -- all the acting was great.
It’s Bobby Short singing the song off screen as the opening credits unroll. Not only are the words aces, but the accompanying 3-note lick that pounds relentlessly throughout the song, in varying registers as the harmony shifts, gives the song power.
Wallace Stevens’s poem “Table Talk” is an answer to Porter’s song. Porter wrote in 1930, Stevens in 1935. “Happens to like” is the key phrase in Stevens’s poem. And, like the song, it’s about the quickening of one’s preferences by the acknowledgment of mortality. One of my favorite Stevens poems.
Granted, we die for good.
Life, then, is largely a thing
Of happens to like, not should.
And that, too, granted, why
Do I happen to like red bush,
Gray grass and green-gray sky?
What else remains? But red,
Gray, green, why those of all?
That is not what I said:
Not those of all. But those.
One likes what one happens to like.
One likes the way red grows.
It cannot matter at all.
Happens to like is one
Of the ways things happen to fall.
Monday, May 26, 2008
At the afternoon party a week ago Sunday, where I played harmonica and guitar for a couple of hours with friends and brand new acquaintances, among the circle was a semi-pro singer-guitarist-songwriter whom I’d hooted with before, a super nice guy named Larry Murante. Friday late afternoon I caught his set at Folklife (the annual Memorial Day week-end folk music festival at Seattle Center), and he was terrific. Lovely, strong voice with nuanced tone & phrasing; solid rhythm guitar playing with tasty thick mod folky chords accessed from alternate guitar tunings. Covers: a beautiful “Time After Time” (Cyndi Lauper’s, not the pre-rock standard), which he sang at the party; “Kiss,” by Prince, a great tune that made me think again how I wished that Prince had followed the Grateful Dead’s lead in this one respect and hired a lyricist; and an unannounced Nanci Griffith song that I didn’t know but a friend ID’ed. He played some good originals too; one, in particular, “Point of Entry,” was terrific -- inspired, wise, passionate, beautiful. Bumped into a bunch of old friends and new acquaintances at Larry’s set, and had that enjoyable experience of connection -- “How do you know him too?”
Saturday I worked on the roof of our 2-story house, tied to our chimney, trimming branches that have been scraping the roof. Saturday night I picked up my college pal Professor Logie, in town for a rhetoric conference, his field. His last visit I gave him a copy of my band’s CD (at the party where the above picture of Robert, Mac, and me was taken, almost two years ago). When he read the credits he realized that Bob, Ruby Thicket’s drummer, had been a good friend of his in high school. “How do you know him too?” I know him through Robert, Ruby Thicket’s bassist, who was having one of his famous music parties Saturday night; Bob would be there; it would be fine to bring Logie too.
I played Robert’s upright bass for 45 minutes or so as a pick-up band played old fiddle tunes; lovely trance-inspiring music; fine, fine fiddle and banjo players; at one point there were 3 fiddles, two banjos, rhythm guitar, and me -- how I love plucking that big string bass. Logie and Bob had a reunion, not having seen each other in over 20 years. A gaggle of kids -- including mine -- ran around nonstop. At one point Robert had one on his back and two in his arms, so I scooped up three in my arms and we crushed the five airborne ones together, to much merriment. Won’t be able to do that next year! They’ll be too big! Maybe I should lift weights.
(One of the most memorable musical events so far of 2008: Robert’s New Year’s Day music party, an impromptu group playing fiddle tunes and jazz standards in the dining room -- guitars, fiddle, accordian, bass -- an 80-something-looking fiddler calling most of the tunes. He calls a 1920s-sounding obscure novelty number, about the singer’s wedding night, when he was surprised to find his lovely bride taking out her glass eye and putting away her wooden leg, all these prosthetic body parts he hadn’t known about, and how sad he is that when he hugs her, there isn’t anybody there! The 80-ish man sings the lead, and a 30-something man sings perfect harmony; knows the song cold; I don’t know if they know each other. A round of solos from everybody, and then they sing it again, only this time instead of the lyrics, they sing the song’s solfege, the do-re-mi language of the western musical scale, the lead singer naming his notes, the harmony singer naming his, which are, obviously different. They nail it -- it’s a traditional part of the arrangement, clearly. Marvelous, a real mind-bending ear-bender. End of the song, everybody laughs and claps in delight and astonishment.)
Saturday night, late night for the kid after the party; he wakes up with a bad dream, crying, terrified, not fully awake, not able to articulate; the only thing he can tell me is that someone is making him go on the roof (where I had worked all afternoon); I ask if I can sing him a song, he says Yes; I ask what one, he requests “Take Me out to the Ball Game,” I sing, he falls asleep. A minute later there’s more crying and fear, I offer to sing, he says Sure but doesn’t have a request, I sing “Octopus’s Garden,” he falls asleep and sleeps the rest of the night. In the morning he wakes up happy and remembers none of this.
Later that day, Sunday, at Folklife again; we see one of the musicians from the night before, she’s in a terrific old-timey duo, Squirrel Butter; she plays solid rhythm guitar, sings well, and tap dances during the instrumental breaks, keeping the rhythm guitar going. I say hello after the set, “Sounded great! Weren’t you at the party on Beacon Hill last night?” She was; very friendly; complimented my bass playing, which is pushing credulity, but I don’t mind too much. The kid and I pass an hour playing catch with a little nerf football that a health club is giving away, on the grass as a dozen people hula-hoop around us and people nap in the sun, listening to the music.
My beloved spouse had to leave Folklife before the kid and I did, so it was one-on-one time. We quarreled some on the bus home; I was annoying him without meaning to, he got grumpy, and no matter what I did I continued to annoy him, so I went with it and teased him a little, which didn’t help. While putting him to bed we talked about it. I said that parents often tease their children. He asked why and answered the question himself, “Because parents like to be mean to their children.” I conceded that there may be an element of that, but that it is also an expression of love. With his acute understanding he said, “But that’s not the way that kids like to have their parents express their love. When I’m a parent I’m not going to tease my children.” I promised that I would remind him of that; that he probably wouldn’t remember a pledge made at age five, and that he would probably find it interesting. He asked how I would remember, and I said I would put it on my blog. He fell asleep quickly and had a good night’s sleep.
Speaking of trancy-music experiences: A few weeks ago, driving the kid to his pre-school, I ask if he wants to sing a song. He says No, he wants me to sing one. What song? “A Hundred Bottle of Beer on the Wall.” I start out, what the heck, skeptical that I’ll make it to the end, but after about 30 bottles of beer, I get giddy, swept up in it, it’s like religious trance music, except ridiculous and therefore funny, and I make it to the end for the first time in my life, making him join me in singing the last bottle of beer down from the wall, and at the end, realize, I don’t know how it ends! Disappointed that there’s no coda, no denouement. But an enjoyable song to sing; a memorable and gratifying musical experience. Brief fantasy of soliciting ten bands to record ten bottles of beer each, in their own style. Nah. Has anybody ever recorded it? No idea.
Ah! Wikipedia has answers! This formula is elegant:
<number> bottles of beer on the wall
<number> bottles of beer!
You take one down, and pass it around
<number - 1> bottles of beer on the wall!
Many continuations past “no more bottles of beer on the wall” listed in the article. The only one that appeals to me, especially the intervention that the article cites: “a recent variation concludes ‘negative-one bottles of beer on the wall’, which is usually interrupted with much yelling before it can be continued.”
Take one down! Pass it around! How communal! How convivial!
And -- they’re on the wall! How decorative!
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Andrew Boyd and Donna Summer love you.
My friend Andrew Boyd and his group Agit-Pop have a powerful video up attempting to intervene in Bush’s apparent desire to bomb Iran.
We have to make Congress do the right thing. Call your rep, call your Senators, even if you have already, call them again.
Now playing: Donna Summer, “I Love You.” Beyond the choruses, the words have never sunk in, but it’s a lovely tune/production/beat, and she’s a great singer.
Love love love love love. Not war.
Awful how the Iraq War has become normal.
Why hasn't Bush been impeached and convicted? That's what I'm going to ask my Congressman.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
For a long time it’s struck me that when a beloved arty rocker goes bad, or a beloved bad-ass rocker goes bad, it is much more of a bummer than when a beloved pop singer goes bad. The pop singer asks for no investment in their image. An arty rocker and a bad-ass rocker both ask for special recognition of their persona -- artist or bad-ass -- and when they betray that image, it affects the perception of their earlier stuff too. At least for me. At least for a while.
Talking Heads were one of the arty rockers who affected me that way. I loved their early albums as they came out, and my band in high school covered “Psycho Killer” for years. Speaking in Tongues was their last terrific album, if not quite as fabulous as Remain in Light,
For Speaking in Tongues, the band got Robert Rauschenberg to design a Limited Edition version of the album, to be sold at a higher price. I was a Rauschenberg and a Talking Heads fan, but it never occurred to me to cough up the extra money.
The Limited Edition was a bad sign. It sold a taste of the exclusivity of the Fine Art Market, at a middle-class price. (I don’t remember what the price was.) What does that have to do with rock and roll? I can’t deny that it’s a variety of pop -- snobbery sells -- but I still don’t like it.
My old friend Jay has a comment to last night’s post on Rauschenberg, an anecdote about when he worked as a mover for the artist. It’s funny, because I had been thinking of soliciting Jay to share a reminiscence about Speaking in Tongues. As I recall the story, Jay and his friend Mike Edison had gone to Tower Records and stood in line for an hour when head Head David Byrne and Rauschenberg were there to sign the Limited Editions. But instead of buying the record and asking for an autograph, Jay and Mike brought a camera, and asked David Byrne to take their picture. To Byrne’s credit, he laughed, and took the picture. (I never saw the picture.)
I had met Mike during an epic visit to New York to visit Jay my sophomore year, Jay’s freshman year at NYU. An indelibly memorable encounter happened that trip, which maybe I’ll write about some day, but one result was that I finished reading a book about Rauschenberg, which inspired me to make a collage poem about the trip. Included in the collage was a note that Mike had left for Jay in his dorm mailbox,
LOVE . . . LOVE WILL
KEEP US TOGETHER!
With a drawing, by Mike, of the Captain and Tennille. I must have asked Jay if I could keep the note as a memento.
I called Jay to ask him if he might be interested in writing about having his picture taken by David Byrne. He said that he didn’t remember the story well enough. He told me that Mike had recently published a memoir, I Have Fun Everywhere I Go: Savage Tales of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock, Pro Wrestling, Talking Apes, Evil Bosses, Dirty Blues, American Heroes, and the Most Notorious Magazines in the World. (He worked for Screw and High Times.) I never met Mike again, but I always remembered him, partly because I had included that note he left Jay in my collage poem, and partly because of that David Byrne story.
Tonight in my email is a mass email from a publicist who found my blog, telling me that Mike Edison is doing a reading from his book in Seattle Wednesday night. I’d love to go, but I have to work late and won’t be able to make it.
Later that year -- sophomore year -- a bunch of people in the dorm decided to put out a literary journal, and my collage poem went in it. We decided to custom make all of the covers, divvying them up among the dozen or so contributors. I stayed up all night making my covers, in my single dorm room, the first room I ever had to myself, having shared a room with my brother growing up, and having shared a room freshman year too. On one cover -- inspired, again, by Rauschenberg -- I glued a full bottle of beer. I gave that copy to my poetry teacher, the terrific Ken Mikolowski. I’m sure he drank the beer.
Monday, May 19, 2008
In Slate magazine, Jack Shafer is pissed off that people loved the work of Robert Rauschenberg, who died recently: “The solemn tributes to Robert Rauschenberg in today's newspapers prove that you're more likely to encounter an independent mind operating in the sports pages than the arts section.”
The same day in Slate, Jim Lewis waxed luscious about Rauschenberg’s fabulousness.
I have mentioned Rauschenberg many times hereabouts, at greatest length in October 2005. I wasn’t going to write about him now because he became such a Brand Name by the end that I didn’t know what to say -- the Seattle Symphony paid him something like a Million Dollars to do a collage for their new symphony hall a few years ago, and the influence of his style is so ubiquitous now that it just looks like a nice painting.
As I thought about it, though, I realized that the influence of his style captures only part what’s unique about him, which neither the tributes nor the diatribes I’ve seen have done justice to.
Rauschenberg began as a fascinating conceptualist and ended as a massively influential stylist. I can’t think of a parallel figure. His friend John Cage was hugely influential as a conceptualist, but, while many people, including me, love a lot of his music, he’s not famous for an influential style. The kicker is, Rauschenberg was more of an influence on Cage than the other way around.
In 1952 Cage composed his silent piece, 4’33”, the fame of which has gone far and wide. But in the year before then, Rauschenberg had painted completely white paintings, inspiring Cage to his make his silent piece. Cage admitted the influence, saying, “The white paintings came first; my silent piece came later.”
Rauschenberg and Cage were jointly germinal in the development of Happenings in the 1950s and ‘60s. Rauschenberg presaged such beautiful works as Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os -- in which Johnson erased large chunks of Milton’s Paradise Lost, leaving behind radiant word clusters -- with his 1953 work Erased de Kooning Drawing, which is just what its title says.
More famous than his conceptual works, though, are Rauschenberg’s collages, often gorgeous and elegant constructions in which he aspired to an aesthetic of “multiplicity, variety, and inclusion.” It’s hard to imagine now, but works on which he painted on untraditional surfaces, such as 1955’s Bed, scandalized patrons. Now it just looks cheerful and friendly -- -- like Rauschenberg’s demeanor (Slate’s disputing Rauschenberg commentators, both of whom met the artist, agree on this point), and, surprisingly, like the mainstream myth of the Eisenhower ‘50s.
Rauschenberg had a greater impact on me, as a musician and aspiring poet, than Cage did, because I thought his collages were beautiful. Cage challenged my mind, and I found and find many of his non-collage music lovely, but I didn’t find his sound collages -- the ones that I heard, anyway -- beautiful. Cage’s principal of non-selection did not seem like an honest way for me to proceed. Rauschenberg’s “multiplicity, variety, and inclusion” inspired me much more -- it included aesthetic judgment. Not to exclude the ugly, but to contextualize it. And -- Rauschenberg’s collages are beautiful.
I don’t know with certainty, but it’s my hunch that his collages were hugely influential in book design. Martin Williams’s beautiful book The Jazz Tradition came out in 1971, seven years after Rauschenberg’s Kennedy homage, Retroactive I. I can’t help but feel that the book designer found inspiration in Rauschenberg. Ain’t it a lovely cover?
I bought that book 10 or 11 years after it came out, when I was a teenager. It blew my mind as much as Rauschenberg did. I still find inspiration in something Williams says in his introduction, extolling jazz’s drive to individuality. This is one of the few quotes I’d like to have on a coffee cup (and I’ve quoted it before):
The high degree of individuality, together with the mutual respect and co-operation required in a jazz ensemble, carry with them philosophical implications that are so exciting and far-reaching that one almost hesitates to contemplate them. It is as if jazz were saying to us that not only is far greater individuality possible to man than he has so far allowed himself, but that such individuality, far from being a threat to a co-operative social structure, can actually enhance society.
I still find political as well as aesthetic inspiration in this Williams quote.
If Rauschenberg maintained his conceptual fertility after his 15 year explosion from the early ‘50s through the mid to late ‘60s, I wasn’t aware of it. He continued to make nice looking works, an avatar of Williams’s individuality, and he became very wealthy -- far wealthier than Cage or than any of the musicians Martin Williams championed, even Miles Davis.
By becoming an ubiquitous influence and a wealthy brand name, Rauschenberg became irrelevant as a possible model. I know an artist who follows Rauschenberg’s lead in painting on fabrics, but her work differs from his in many ways, most immediately in being intensely socially engaged -- like classic jazz, and unlike most Cage and Rauschenberg. Social engagement is not a requirement for lively or beautiful art, and if Rauschenberg’s later work lost its liveliness and even some of its beauty, he had liveliness and beauty in spades for a long time.
As I write this, I struggle with an ambivalence. I am grateful for Rauschenberg’s work, but I resent him. And it’s taken me this many paragraphs to remember why. In 1985 Rauschenberg designed a limited edition pressing of Speaking in Tongues. When Talking Heads made a concert film of the subsequent tour, they titled it after a line from the album, “stop making sense.” I hated that line. I was in college, or recently dropped out, and we were living near the beginning of the Reagan onslaught, of which Bush the Second is the insane apotheosis -- and what Reagan said didn’t make sense. David Byrne’s second-hand, college-sheltered Dada pissed me off. The original Dadas lived through the first World War. The horrors of Reaganism killed people. But not so many in America; Talking Heads (of whom I had been a fan) certainly faced no consequences. We needed to start making sense. We’re still struggling to. (Funny: Now playing on computer shuffle: “Born Under Punches” -- Talking Heads, a beautiful song, from the album preceding Speaking in Tongues.)
Well, good for Rauschenberg for taking the record cover gig. What the heck. It’s not his fault that the Talking Heads started going downhill about then.
Rest in peace. Thanks for the mind-benders and thanks for the beauty.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
* * *
On the phone the other day my aunt remarked on Seattle’s prosperity. She has lived in Michigan all of her life.
Thursday night we went to a fundraiser for a homeless program. Swank restaurants had donated desserts, and my beloved spouse won a bodacious swank chocolate cake in a raffle. What were we going to do with a whole cake? We invited our neighbors and had a party Friday night. Our next-door neighbors have the best backyard for a party, so they hosted. Five households were represented -- the 2 directly north of us, the one directly south of us, one kitty-corner across the alley, and us -- and the kids -- unsurprisingly -- went bananas. Unseasonably warm spring evening, the kids tore around the yard, singing songs and dancing wildly, climbing on me and another dad, hollering and carrying on. The next-door 4-year-old taught us a funny song, and the next-door 3-year-old made up a song and dance, and our 5-year-old sang and danced -- frequently 2 songs were going simultaneously, loudly. Near the end of the party the 3 of them piled into a hammock, and I would pick them up in a hammocked bundle and roar, and they would scream in delight. After I would set them down, they would yell, “Again!” After a few lifts I got tired, and eventually said, “OK, last time.” When I set them down, the call came, “Again! Again!”
“OK, but this is the last time. Promise you won’t ask me to again.”
They all 3 nodded, very solemnly, “Yes, we promise.”
So I picked them up and roared and shook them around, they screamed in delight, I set them down, and they immediately hollered, “Again!”
I laughed harder than I had in I-don’t-know-how-long. Not that I was surprised. The predictability, the transparency -- it was beautiful.
Eventually the party ended, and I felt very sad -- sadder than the kids, who know, it’s late, it’s sleepy time. It really struck me how much sadder I felt than they seemed to. Maybe to a kid, tomorrow is another party. Adults feel it differently. I thought of the scene in Mary Poppins, where they visit Mary Poppins’s Uncle Albert, who hosts a tea party on the ceiling, because laughter in his house makes people float, and the only thing that will bring people down to earth again is a sad thought. And the sad thought that brings them down is the realization that the party must end. And this makes Uncle Albert -- portrayed by the wonderful, intense Ed Wynn -- this makes him so sad that he sobs for minutes, “The party must come to an end! That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard!” [Sob!] I thought of that, and almost started crying myself.
I got over it quickly.
Three parties on Saturday. My beloved spouse took our kid and the next-door kids to a fair and a parade at a nearby neighborhood, everything for free. I missed that one because I had to work. Afternoon annual barbecue at my beloved spouse’s workplace; I was going to skip that one in order to work on my bike and mow the lawn, but I ended up dropping by to pick up the kid, who was tired and wanted to leave before my beloved spouse felt she could.
And then an office party for my job. The Mariners had donated a luxury suite to another nonprofit for a benefit auction, and my boss had bought the suite for a party for our staff. My spouse and kid came too -- the kid’s first baseball game. The luxury suite is luxuriously de luxe! Free food and drinks -- beer, pop, bottled water -- big comfy chairs, free sunglasses for the kids, free programs -- it was amazing. I thought of what my aunt had said that morning on the phone, about prosperous Seattle. A bad precedent for the kid’s first ballgame. But a blast. The Mariners won 4 to 2; Ichiro had an RBI double and scored two runs; Bedard pitched a good game. The RBI double was the most exciting play of the game, with a close play at the plate as a runner scored from first. We did the Wave. We danced to “YMCA” when they played Village People’s record. We sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” It was weird, but exceedingly pleasant, to be the beneficiary of surplus luxuriousness being donated to nonprofit organizations for charity events -- an auction and a raffle -- twice in three days.
Two parties today, just me and kid, as my beloved spouse had to work. Brunch-and-afternoon party at friends C- & E-’s house. The kid and I baked banana-chocolate bread and brought the last fifth of the luxury raffle cake. C- & E-’s 8-year-old and 3 other kids acted out Goldilocks and the 3 Bears. My kid sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and the song our 4-year-old neighbor had taught us Friday night. I tried out a new song, which needs rewriting. And then a long jam session with some very good guitarists. I mostly played harmonica -- a blast.
And then a birthday party this evening for a classmate of the kid’s, at a private gym that’s set up for birthday parties. The kid got sweaty; I did all the activities too, as did a few other parents; good talks with other parents about kindergarten angst and comparing notes on eating and sleeping and learning habits of the kids; great to see the kids running around; it was a blast.
And now -- it’s put away laundry, and clean the kitchen, and read a bit, and bed. When putting the kid to bed tonight we counted the parties he’d been to recently -- 7 in 4 days -- and his eyes grew huge and he said, “Oh my gosh, I’m so lucky!”
I’m lucky too, kid. So lucky.
Beautiful Sunday morning, this is what I want to do right now -- Bake banana bread for a brunch party at friends' house. Finish writing a song to play at the brunch party. Mow the lawn. Do the laundry.
* * *
Update, 11:27 AM. Baked banana bread with the kid. Mowed the lawn. Did a load of laundry and hung it to dry. Didn't quite finish the song, but close enough to fake for friends with a cheat sheet.
Off to the party. Happy Sunday!
Thursday, May 15, 2008
I read a review of John
Ashbery’s stuff which finally began to
Explain to me why people go ga-ga over
He’s a poet’s poet.
He writes poetry about poetry for poets.
Don’t take my word for it – that’s
What the reviewers have been saying, first a reviewer
I admire in The Nation magazine a couple of months ago, and now
Someone I’ve never heard of in the New York Times.
They both said the same thing. They didn’t
Say that he’s a poet’s poet or that he writes poetry
About poetry for poets – that’s what I
Concluded after reading the reviews. Both
Reviews say that Ashbery parodies traditional
Poetic forms and approaches, and that he
Proceeds by digression (frequently, I would
Add, by syntactically obscure
Digression, with much reliance on the
Antecedent-less “it,” so that
He suddenly casually refers to “it” as if you –
The reader – knew what “it” is, though he has
Given you no information about it – I mean, “it” [those
“scare quotes” are mine, not
Digressions will suddenly veer into
Glory, some gorgeous
Phrase or image that
Makes it, apparently, all worth-
While, though, I must
Admit, these poet-reviewers (both reviewers are poets themselves) seem
To like – or, love – the
Obscure digressions for their own sakes
Me, give me the
Give me the
Gorgeous phrases neat.
The digressions, you can
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the whole thing were like the good part?”
A wise man said that. I’m probably
Misquoting. I could – I will – look it
Up later, but may or may not
Fix it. Ken – that’s the wise guy’s name – I’m
Betting wouldn’t mind too much being
Misquoted. I could be
Wrong. I should write him a
Letter. I think he has
Email but I don’t know it. I don’t know his
Address either but I can write to his workplace, my old
College. I have set up, I realize, an
Expectation that this poem will
Uncover its own
Or gorgeous phrase, and yes, I, too, will
Be disappointed if it doesn’t. Sometimes
Disappointment is its own
Reward, but I’ve lately had my
It’s also true that the implied critique of
Ashbery – that he cares more for
Literature than life; or, rather, his work
Does – applies to this poem as
And that does sadden me, not that
I love literature too, but that
Imagining showing this poem to my
Only a few of them care about
Ashbery, and many
Have never heard
Of him. Well, friends, Ashbery is the most
Respected poet in America now, has been
For many many years, and I’ve never quite
Cottoned to him. It’s not that
I expect poetry to make clear
Statements necessarily, not at all, it’s just –
And again, this applies to this one
Too – that the Death of Pan grieves
Me, even as I, too, wear the mask of the great
Dead Pan, I mourn his death, I feel in my
Boggy depths the trembling loss his absence
Tear off the mask, you might
Say, and I am curious to know whether
This poem would allow me to, because
I am not master of this
Poem, but its servant, doing
My best to fill it pleasingly, regardless of mood, mine
Or the poem’s. Melodrama fills the
Drama with music. The god hums
In your ear, you are
The actor, away from the poem the drama
Unfolds. Keeping the drama offstage might feel
Like a cop-out, but
The Athenian tragedians proceeded thus. You
Know more than you realize, know
More than you
I had thought that that last line
would end the poem but then
I went and bought Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
by John Ashbery
at the dollar bin of the used book store and
read some of it. Dude can write! No
He had me in serious chuckle mode a number
of times, and then would reel off these gorgeous
images and phrases.
The book starts with one of the great catchy lines of
the last half-century:
“I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.”
Absurd, funny, romantic all at once. And therein
lies Ashbery’s secret. It’s the romanticism
wrapped in jokes. Piled in layers of irony.
“Each thing” is a clunky, ugly phrase, and it’s
perfect. The vision of Ashbery as a poet of
romanticism wrapped in a protective
husk of irony comports with the verdicts of
the two reviewers with whom this poem
commenced. It makes me wonder whether
Anglophones are uncomfortable with the grand
style. It often occurs to me as I read someone
in translation -- Lorca, say, or Rilke -- as I
get swept along in the swelling phraseology,
I wonder whether I would feel so pleased
if I thought the poet wrote originally in English.
A puritanical spirit runs through Anglophonic poetry,
since after the Victorians anyway, with
a few latter exceptions, such as Robert Duncan, whom
I love. Ashbery’s romantic swells might be
even more impressive than Duncan’s, but they’re
or at least usually
staged in a deflationary context. I admire the
romanticism and find the undercutting
When I showed some of these prosy poems to some
friends, strangers, and acquaintances a month or so
ago, a friendly correpondent, who is a considerably
more learned, elegant, and accomplished
writer than I, said that they reminded him a little
of Ashbery in his talky mode, which I found
appalling, saved only by the qualifying “a little,” since
Ashbery is king of the hill, A Number One, top of the
heap. Also, since I don’t particularly like
Ashbery, in particular one of the poems this correspondent
cited, “The Instruction Manual,” though now I should
consider how much Ashbery’s tongue was in
his cheek. Absurd of me to say I don’t like
Ashbery, absurd of me to complain of an irritatingly
undercutting tone in a text that relentlessly
undercuts. Absurd of me to criticize someone’s
deflationary style in such a
deflationary style. Absurd. Obviously
The poem takes a deep breath, looks
around, sighs. “Sighs” and “size” are homophones,
which is only funny when the Shirelles or
Carole King wonders
whether she can believe the magic of
your size. Love
lurks around dark
corners, a night-time
the deck, of
run away, love wants
to catch you, and even though it’s
personal it exceeds its
lack. The merely personal is
insufficient. I’ll take what’s
necessary and keep my eyes open
for what’s sufficient.
* * *
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
* * *
On Tuesday the kid and his friend got into an argument at school. I asked my son to tell me how the argument went.
He calmly repeated what he remembered:
“I said, ‘You did it on purpose,’
and he said, ‘No, I did it on accident,’
and I said, ‘No, you did it on purpose,’
and he said, ‘No, I did it on accident,’
and I said, ‘No, you did it on purpose,’
and he said, ‘No, I did it on accident,’
and I said, ‘No, you did it on purpose,’
and he said, ‘No, I did it on accident.’”
The kid had no idea that he was virtually quoting Poor Richard’s Almanack:
Many a long dispute among Divines may be thus abridged, It is so: It is not so; It is so: It is not so.
I heard a handful of great songs in a row on oldies radio while driving yesterday.
"Radar Love" -- who did that song? What a great song! The best part -- the drums and the bass just riffing with nothing else for measures at a time. Then the verses with guitar fills answering. Choruses are OK, functional, nominally more exciting but effective really more just by way of contrast. I don't understand the words -- but the noise is joyous. (Looked it up: A Dutch group called Golden Earring did it in 1973, and the speeding car of the song is a ‘70s Dutch 3-wheel car! The video’s plot is charming too.)
"You're No Good" -- Linda Ronstadt. I love the line, "I'm gonna say it again" -- because it feels so good to say it! You're no good! The catharsis of invective. What a great song, and she's a fabulous singer.
"Lady Madonna" -- so much musicality to such an "ehh" lyric, and does it matter? No. It doesn't matter. The music is infectious. The endearment of style -- when Ringo plays a tasty drum fill, my heart beams -- that's Ringo! My sonic friend! I've built an imaginary bond with this musician, so that when I hear him do something pleasing, the pleasure is increased by the fiction of our relationship. I'm rooting for him, I like him.
"Tears of a Clown" -- Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. A fabulous song, terrific vocal and instrumental arrangement, great singing. Watching the documentary about the Motown house band, the Funk Brothers, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, made those musicians endearing too, even if I don't remember their names or even know which ones played on which records.
The narratives of publicity help to endear musicians to their public.
* * *
I've been listening to two different Fats Domino tribute records recently. I’ve mentioned one of them before, a collection of covers from the '50s, '60s, and '70s called That’s Fats: A Tribute to Fats Domino. I was listening to it recently, thrilled again by the wildly eccentric, frenetic performances by the Four Lovers (Frankie Valli's group preceding the Four Seasons), Dion and the Belmonts, Cheap Trick, and others. As a rule, the African American singers are smoother, more elegant, more polished -- this was often the case in 20th century African American pop -- it was more refined than white pop. When Elvis covers Little Richard, for example -- Richard's singing is more intense, but his band is more refined. Elvis's band was terrific, but simpler and rougher. On this Domino tribute, the covers by African American musicians are great, but tamer than the covers by white musicians.
The record vaguely reminded me -- didn't John Lennon cover a Domino song on his mid-'70s tribute album to '50s rock and roll? I went to the used record store to look for it, and found something better -- a 2-disc Domino tribute charity album for New Orleans post-Katrina, made of all new recordings except one archival recording -- Lennon's mid-’70s cover of "Ain't that a Shame."
Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino is a terrific album, but all the way through, nothing on it is as wild or intense or just plain weird as the songs by Four Lovers or Dion and the Belmonts or Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio on the older comp. It's an old story that rock has become as smooth and institutionalized as Perry Como was in his time and style; listening to these tribute albums in succession brought it home for me.
One partial exception to the rule of smoothness: Neil Young. He does an elegant cover of "Walking to New Orleans," accompanied by an orchestra and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, but he's still a freak-weird singer, even toned down as here. Hearing him made me wonder -- who's a freak weird singer now? I thought of two -- John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, and Joanna Newsome. And neither of them are nearly as big a star as Neil is. The mass audience for freaky weirdness has dried up. I think Darnielle & Newsome are making their livings from their music, they seem to be doing fine, but the difference in scale is striking.
Other exceptions to the rule of smoothness: Herbie Hancock's '70s-funk-jazz-style synthesizer solo on "I'm Gonna Be a Wheel Someday" brings a splash of old-school noisy joy; Olu Dara's shambles elegantly and eccentrically through "When I See You"; Ben Harper with the Skatalites bring infectious ska exuberance to "Be My Guest"; local New Orleans musicians Rebirth Brass Band, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Walter "Wolfman" Washington (whom I saw and wrote about 17 months ago) all bring an intensity to the proceedings, as does the archival John Lennon recording. And looking at this list, it strikes me: Most of the musicians on it are African American. And most of them are jazz. But the whole album is terrific.
* * *
My son and I had stopped going to our Tuesday night open mike because he's had swimming lessons on Tuesday nights, but last night was a night off from the lessons, so we went to the open mike. The kid sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and I played piano for the first time in public since high school. I sang an old song that the kid wanted to sing back-up on. It was great to hear everybody again. Our friends Jillian and Jim, who sat in with my band a month ago, had arranged one of my songs for voice and bass, and they played it last night -- very different than any arrangement I would have come up with; I loved it.
* * *
Seventh wedding anniversary the other day. Grateful for my tremendous good fortune.
* * *
Spring is here.
Friday, May 09, 2008
The paradox of memory -- that we remember so intensely, that an unexpected smell can bring back a long-gone milieu, whole and complete; and yet our memories are so faulty. It is foolish to trust one’s memory in the details. I do it all the time.
* * *
At the college reunion last October, at the poetry reading in honor of two creative writing teachers who have been there for more than 25 years, I recited Leigh Hunt’s poem “Abou Ben Adhem.” I had memorized it in honor of my grandpa, who had had to memorize it to join the DKE fraternity in the 1920s. My freshman year Grandpa had phoned the Dekes and told them that his grandson was at the university. A representative of the frat invited me for a chat. I was a hippie-punk bohemian, and the Dekes appeared to be one of the more buttoned-up frats. The frat rep knew that I had no interest in joining, and I knew he had no interest in me, but we went through the interview in honor of my grandpa, this friendly young guy’s brother Deke from a cohort 55 years before. I learned of “Abou Ben Adhem” years later, having read it in a ’50s anthology of “popular poetry” that I’d picked up at a rummage sale for pennies. One summer day Grandpa started reciting it; I recognized it and asked why he knew it. I memorized it to please him, and then years later set it to music when I was working on an album about my family.
So at the reading in honor of my (modernist) poetry prof, I had it in memory and recited it. My friend L- had come for the reunion too, and we had bumped into each other during some downtime, and he had tagged along to the reading. L- had lived in Egypt and Mauritania, and was fluent in both of those dialects of Arabic. He told me that “ben Adhem” meant “son of Adam” -- in other words, “human,” specifically, “male human,” and that in Egypt people called strangers “beni Adem” in order to get their attention, in the same way we might holler at a stranger, “Dude, watch out for that falling piano!” I felt silly for not realizing what the words meant -- “ben” is a surname prefix in Jewish names too; I should have known it and was happy to learn it.
Leigh Hunt had been a friend of Keats and Shelley’s. Bicycling to work this (Thursday) morning, I cried while reciting the poem to myself.
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold: -
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said
"What writest thou?" -The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered "The names of those who love the Lord."
"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still, and said "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men."
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.
My grandpa’s younger brother had been a Deke with him, two years behind him; Uncle John had then been a frat brother with Jerry Ford, who was a year or two younger still. Uncle John died my freshman year. He was a soft-spoken guy with a dry sense of humor, much quieter than my grandpa, his louder, wilder older brother. He never married and moved away to Minneapolis as a young man, coming to visit most years. He came home to Kalamazoo to die. The last time I saw him, in the hospital, he was bedridden, and he said to me, quietly, “Of course I’d be happy if you were to join the Dekes.” And then he smiled. “But I imagine my brother may have told you all about it already.”
Thursday, May 08, 2008
Here’s the legend. I may fudge a detail or slightly misremember a quote, but that’s how legends go. This really happened.
Shortly after the great contralto Kathleen Ferrier was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill her, she performed Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (“Song of the Earth”) under the baton of Mahler’s friend Bruno Walter. At the end of the last, and by far longest, song, “Der Abschied” (“Farewell”), she broked down in tears and failed to sing the last repitition of the last word, “ewig” (“ever” -- “Everywhere, for ever, horizons are blue and bright! / For ever and ever . . .”). After the performance she apologized in horror to Walter, who magnificently replied, “My dear Miss Ferrier, were we all such artists as you, we all would have been in tears.”
I heard a gorgeous rendition of “Der Abschied” a week and a half ago, and it’s not solely because the legend of Kathleen Ferrier’s tears was echoing in my mind as I listened that I got teary at the end. Kathryn Weld sang it -- and the Seattle Chamber Players and Friends played the scaled-down arrangement -- beautifully, with exquisite tenderness, delicacy, and strength.
It’s a massive piece -- a 28-minute song, with recurring riffs and a gradually unfolding melody. Weld and the band held the audience spellbound. Weld has tremendous stage presence, standing still with her hands against her thighs, swaying slightly to the music, rooted like a willow in a gentle breeze. But that wouldn’t matter if she didn’t deploy her rich tone in service to a well-felt musical line.
“Der Abschied” was one piece of five presented by Seattle Chamber Players that night over the course of three and a half hours, and two of the remaining four rivaled the Mahler for vividness and splendor.
Pianist/vocalist/composer/sampler-player/koto-player Tomoko Mukaiyama was a featured performer on three of the evening’s other four pieces. Her musicianship was the equal of Weld’s, and her stage presence was even more striking.
A solo piano recital of Sommer Reisen (“Summer Travel”), Mukaiyama’s own 35- or 40-minute piece that incorporates a Schubert Impromptu, opened the evening. As she took the stage to the crowd’s applause, she banged the first chord as she was sitting down and before the applause had finished -- Well! That got our attention. The piece blended a nuanced and powerful reading of the Schubert with her own sometimes dissonant, sometimes lilting and somewhat minimalist-inspired digressions, and occasionally her own recordings of urban soundscapes, recorded in five different Japanese cities. A splendid opener to the evening.
The evening’s other enchantment came from Tao, a piece by the Nederlands post-minimalist composer Louis Andriessen, for solo piano, women’s voices, and ensemble. Mukaiyama was the piano soloist. The piece’s details have faded in the 10 days since I heard it, but I remember being struck by Mukuiyama’s powerful playing, and the smooth shimmering glitter of the ensemble and four female singers. The composer and performers wove a tight sonic texture. The bright dissonance of the singing reminded me that Andriessen is a highly regarded Stravinsky scholar. At the end of the piece, Mukaiyama moved from the piano to the koto, where she plucked a few sounds and sang, quietly, into a microphone, as the ensemble pianist, Harumi Flesher, played some of the same figures that Mukaiyama had played as a soloist. Flesher played from a piano farther back from the foot of the stage, with the piano’s top not raised as highly, so her sound was muted compared to the soloist’s. The visual/sonic confusion played pleasant mental tricks. Mukaiyama’s non-professional-sounding singing added an unexpected, delightful color as the piece closed.
The remaining two pieces -- Bagatellen by Heiner Goeggels, for violin, clarinet, and sampler; and Farewell by Zhou Long, for pipa and erhu solo and ensemble -- both had striking moments as well. The Seattle Chamber Players’ violinist Mikhail Shmidt and clarinetist Laura DeLuca shone in Bagatellen as they played frenetic, dissonant unisons over deadening, down-tempo industrial/techno beat from the sampler, which Tomoko Mukaiyama wielded. The piece closed with self-generating noise from the sampler, as Shmidt and DeLuca had left the stage, leaving Mukaiyama alone onstage with the grey noise, looking as though she were auditioning for a catastrophic Beckett play. I would have cast her. The most memorable moment in Zhou Long’s piece, which pleasantly melded Chinese and Western timbres and harmonies, came when Jonathan Chan on erhu (a two-stringed Chinese instrument played with a bow) and Joshua Roman on cello played glissandos in harmony, making a unique and delightful sound.
The Seattle Chamber Players are a local treasure. I saw them over three days in January, and now all four times I’ve seen them, they have filled the air with stimulating, memorable, expertly played, exploratory sound.