Saturday, April 21, 2018

Epithalamion

Portland, Oregon, April 21, 2018—
Today, a bright spring day here, is my youngest granddaughter's wedding day.

Edmund Spenser wrote his Epithalamion to celebrate his wedding, on June 21, 1594, to Elizabeth Boyle. In twenty-four stanzas he describes the entire wedding day, beginning while it is still dark and he anxiously waits for his bride to awake, continuing through the actual ceremony, and ending with the hope that “the sweet pleasures of theyr loves delight… may raise a large posterity, Which from the earth, which they may long possesse, With lasting happinesse” may finally rise to heaven.

The poem is long, complex, and intricate, like marriage itself, with reference to both Greek mythology and Christian symbol. It has a complex pattern of rhyme and meter; it numbers 365 lines, for example, one for each day of the year.

Spenser’s language is early modern English, which sounds quite different from our English, more French, and without silent vowels. I have kept the original rhyme and meter as much as possible while slightly adapting the original meaning to this special day, “forever holy” to many of us.

Stanza 14, from Epithalamion

Now al is done; bring home the bride againe,
Bring home the triumph of our victory,
Bring home with you the glory of her gaine,
With joyance bring her and with jollity.
Never had man more joyfull day then this,
Whom heaven would heape with blis.
Make feast therefore now all this live long day,
This day for ever to me holy is,
Poure out the wine without restraint or stay,
Poure not by cups, but by the belly full,
Poure out to all that wull,
And sprinkle all the postes and wals with wine,
That they may sweat, and drunken be withall.
Crowne ye God Bacchus with a coronall,
And Hymen also crowne with wreathes of vine,
And let the Graces daunce unto the rest;
For they can doo it best:
The whiles the maydens doe theyr carroll sing,
To which the woods shal answer and theyr eccho ring.

my adaptation:

It’s done: you’re married, Framza, with a single name,
And soon be on your way to your own home —
Fly home in glory, happier than you came.
Where doesn’t matter: Portland, Venice, Rome —
No one has seen a day more joyful than this one,
No matter how much favor he’s been shown.
Let’s party on, the rest of this whole day!
This day will always be holy to you—
Pour out the wine! No measure, no delay,
No half-full glasses: fill them to the brim
Pour out for her and him.
Sprinkle wine on the door-posts and the walls;
Let them get drunk and happy just like us!
And crown the jolly god of wine, Bacchus,
Vine leaves for Hymen, for the god of marriage calls.
Let the Three Graces dance among the rest,
For they can do it best,
While all the maidens sing their wedding song
And all of Nature answers back the whole day long.


—for the wedding of Francesca and Hamza, April 21, 2018

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Three years since Leedy left

Bhishma at the harpsichord  A Basart
Eastside Road, March 28, 2018—

IT IS SOME TIME since I have posted, and longer, much longer, since I have posted about my late friend the composer and scholar Douglas Leedy/Bhishma Xenotechnites. This is the third anniversary of his death, which I wrote about at the time.

Flawed, no doubt, as are we all: but a gentleman and a scholar, and a noble man. He lived alone, almost a recluse at the end of his life, though when we met, in the middle 1960s, he was friendly and gregarious, a quick wit and a pleasure in groups.

He played French horn, and harpsichord (as you see), and various Indian instruments, and harp, and recorders, and mbira, to my personal knowledge. He sang with a quiet, rather intense voice, very melodic.

He was a marvelously gifted mimic who could jump from Groucho Marx's voice to Bernie Sanders or Janet Yellen or Pierre Boulez or an Indian railway conductor at the snap of a finger. He read Greek, Latin, Italian, French, German, Polish, and English (and had little patience at my linguistic laziness but was always ready to help).

Enormously well read, opinionated, respectful, credit where due, no suffering fools.

Fastidious at the table, in the kitchen, with his pencil.

When a very dear friend dies it's my weakness that I can hardly bear to confront his figurative remains. (I have recordings of interviews between my mother and her father that I still can't bear to listen to.) But for too long I've been sitting on various writings he sent me over the years, at first typed, then beautifully hand-written when his wasting disease made typing impossible.)

I hesitate to announce a project, and make no real promises: but I thought I'd commemorate this sad anniversary with the first in perhaps a series of monthly or bimonthly uploads of these essays. I do this in some humility, knowing he'd have reservations about their typographical appearance, and would undoubtedly have afterthoughts about the content itself.

Many of these writings are in fact drafts, and there are marginal pencilled annotations I can't always make out. Then there's the frequent problem of fonts — Greek, mathematical, musical. In the present case I've simply reproduced his own musical examples rather than set them in type.

Bhishma did not favor the idea of intellectual property; he was a most generous scholar. I hope no one will misrepresent his work, his thought, his ideas; but I feel very strongly that they deserve to be saved and shared.

Almost at random, I begin this trajectory with his fascinating contemplation on the musical interval of the fourth:

THE POWER OF 4


You can download the essay as a pdf
You can download the essay as an e-book

Let me know if you find egregious errors, or if you have comments to share.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Steak and potatoes

ST. VALENTINE has come and gone, bringing Ash Wednesday with him — a curious and perhaps ominous conjunction that I don't recall ever experiencing before. But perhaps it means nothing.

Dinner last night was superb: Cook found a fine thick rib-eye at the local meat counter, and prepared it inspired by a recent NY Time recipe by David Tanis involving salt and pepper, garlic and rosemary. The steak sweats in those flavorings half an hour or so, and is then cooked on one side in a very hot skillet, then turned and finished in the oven.

Potatoes as she often cooks them, in butter, with salt, pepper, garlic, and chopped parsley.

We did not have salad: instead, my favorite green leafy (well, one of them): Swiss chard.

     ðŸ·Dolcetto, Pecchenino "San Luigi" (Dogliani), 2016: ottimo, as the Italians say, simply the best.

Best of all, there was enough left of this feast (except for the chard) to have exactly the same meal tonight!

RESTAURANTS VISITED, with information and rating: 2016      2015     2017

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

’Pataphysical Mechanisms

Charlotte Posenenske: Series D Square Tubes
Photo: Johnna Arnold
Mechanisms
on view at The Wattis Institute
through Feb. 24, 2018
Eastside Road, February 13, 2018—
MUCH CAN BE SAID — or written — about the show closing soon at the Wattis Institute, which, in the words of its curator Anthony Huberman,
test[s] existing systems with inefficient mechanisms, impossible tools, and elaborate protocols that misalign outputs from their inputs.

A precursor of the show was Pontus Hultén's memorable (and Walter Benjamin-haunted) The Machine at the End of the Mechanical Age, which the lamented Henry Hopkins brought to the old San Francisco Museum of Art fifty years ago. That show, though, pondered machines, while this one ponders mechanism: the workings of machinery, whether physical machinery of substance or metaphorical machinery of concept.

(Mechanism:machine :: mind:brain)

Another ghost haunting the Wattis Instituter: Marcel Duchamp. At every turn. On entering, Charlotte Posenenske's marvelous make-to-order sculptures assembled by gallery staff, from industrial ductwork, to Posenenske's instructions. They immediately recall Duchamp's Pulled at Four Pins and Malic Molds, which I believe were inspired by Duchamp's amused liking for sheet metal installations of various kinds, particularly rooftop installations.

(Of course I'm influenced by personal biography: my father was a sheet metal worker; I grew up smelling muriatic acid and solder and contemplating, fascinated, the emergence of three-dimensional forms from two-dimensional sheets of tinplate.)

Pushing the mind-body metaphor, Posenenske's duct-sculptured is inescapably figurative. The pathetic fallacy of the Industrial Age is the equivalence of mankind and machine. Fallacy has always its humorous side, the humor of absurd inevitability; Posenenske's work is the perfect introduction to the show.

Danh Vo: Twenty- two Traps
Photo: Johnna Arnold
Further into the Wattis galleries you stumble into a sculptural installation of iron spring traps, most of them likely from the 19th century — traps whose intended prey ranged from rats to bears. Duchamp's Trébuchet comes to mind: a strip of oak flooring with four ordinary coat-hooks attached to it, to be screwed down the floor to trap the unwary. One concept of conceptual art is its forcing of the viewer's mind to ponder — that word again — the continually expanding ramifications of the ideas implicit in the seen work, and rarely has "work" been a more appropriate word for it.

Has Mechanisms trapped you yet? Then perhaps it's time to consider the beautiful, pristine, contemplative, dedicated and disciplined work of the late Jay De Feo: a series of her inimitable mixed-media drawings on one wall, an installation of a grid of Xerox manipulations on another. In general De Feo worked from a real and ordinary object (a familiar readymade?), utterly divorcing it from its usual context, considering it as a three-dimensional thing valuable, for the moment, for her, as a bearer of form, defined by the curves and sheen of its surface, and above all a challenge (always successfully met) to the expressive ability of her hand and arm.

You see this in the mixed-media drawings, of course, whose beauty and truth led me to this installation in the first place; but also in the wonderful Xerox manipulations which, again, reduce three dimensions to two, another challenge to the mind's comprehension of what the eye sees.

Louise Lawler: Formica
(adjusted to fit, distorted for the times,
slippery slope 1)

Photo: Johnna Arnold
Now we're ready for Louise Lawler, who prints her photographs specifically for the site displaying them. Formica (adjusted to fit, distorted for the times, slippery slope 1) is perhaps an extreme example of this: normally she stretches her photograph in one dimension or the other in order to make it fit the dimensions of the exhibition space; in this case she also distorts it, partly to mimic the curvature of the roof above, partly (no doubt) to refer to the distorting manifolds of the intellectual subject of the exhibition. And, the artist specifies, to reflect the distortion of the res publica since the most recent presidential election.

(It should be noted that the subjects of Lawler's photographs are themselves works of art, photographed as they are installed in galleries, that their display in other settings will be a kind of transplanting, thus a function within a cultural and societal mechanism.)

Another side of De Feo's example is explored in the elegant small sculptures of Zarouhie Abdalian, who chooses small metal hand tools, refines and nickel-plates them, and then assembles them into compositions without in any way attaching them to one another. You're forgiven for recalling a chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table. If you bump the sculpture stand (please don't) the assemblage is likely to fall apart and gallery staff will have to reassemble it (recalling their assembly, though with bolts and nuts, of the sections of Posenenske's ductwork). Another trap.

There seem to be endless discoveries in this installation. One more: Aaron Flint Jamison's Greaser, a slab of purpleheart (hardwood) formed of invisibly joined pieces, nearly twelve feet tall and perhaps half an inch thick, with a machine attached to its midsection causing it to vibrate nervously to a resonant frequency. The elegance of anxiety, or of excitation.

Mechanisms is accompanied by a catalog whose abstraction and intricacy requires more concentrated attention than I have had time to give until now; I hope to remedy this. There is also an extremely helpful guide to the exhibition with floor plans and detailed descriptions. The entire affair — exhibition, concept, catalog, individual works — can be exhausting, invigorating, meaningful, or overwhelming, depending on your mood and state of mind. So are we ever victims of our surroundings.

CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, 360 Kansas Street, San Francisco; (415) 355-9670

Monday, February 12, 2018

Ideal geometry

l-r: East-West (diptych), 48 × 88 in, 1968; Sunstrut, 108 × 48 in, 1981; San Francisco Spring (Sweet Rain), 108 × 114 in, 1974
As installed in the Brian Gross Gallery, San Francisco, January 2018

Eastside Road, February 12, 2017—
Paintings by Leo Valledor
Brian Gross Gallery,
   San Francisco
through Feb. 24 2018
AMONG THE HEROS, as I see them, the truest of the great painters of the San Francisco Bay Area in the great years of the second half of the last century, none produced purer work than Leo Valledor (1936–1989). Essentially self-taught, as I understand it, he exhibited early, at 19, in the pathbreaking Six Gallery in San Francisco.

He left town in 1961 to establish a career in New York City, where he joined five other California artists — including the sculptors Mark di Suvero and Peter Forakis, also emigrés from the Bay Area — in the founding of the legendary Park Place, where a new, formalist art emerged to succeed postwar Abstract Expressionism.

Perhaps Park Place was inspired by the Six Gallery; certainly in must have represented the breathing of new energy into the New York scene. There are various uses of geometry, however, and Valledor’s painting has always suggested the purity and idealism of geometry as a conceptual meditation on proportion, where other artists seem to explore more strictly visual expressions. Valledor’s work is often compared to Frank Stella’s, for example: but Stella’s use of shape and color seems to me to be what Duchamp dismissed as “retinal,” relying on purely sensual effect.

And Valledor is compared to Ellsworth Kelly; but Kelly’s hard-edged paintings are abstractions and (especially) croppings of realistically reproduced natural objects — often floral — whereas Valledor finds his imagery, apparently, purely within an intellectual imagination.

Providently Valledor (like Forakis) returned to the Bay Area in 1968, showing at the San Francisco Museum of Art and the San Francisco Art Institute, and teaching there, at Lone Mountain College and as a guest at UC. Berkeley.

There have been other Bay Area geometrical painters, of course: Thomas Akawie and David Simpson represent two poles bracketing others. Centered between them, I suppose, Hassel Smith, whose Search for the Source of the Nile was a truly great canvas, one of the finest of its period. (But clearly a representational landscape.) But one tends to site hard-edge abstraction within the Los Angeles area, when thinking of California, not within the Bay Area. In the south many, probably most of them were dedicated to substance and finish. But there too there is an Idealist: Robert Irwin.

I think of Valledor and Irwin as semblables, brothers in spirit. In their maturest work they appeal to the retina not simply to fascinate or please it but to engage its collaboration in an appeal to the mind. They are not illusionists: there work doesn't in any way trick the mind. (Though in the later paintings here, the "new slant" enjoys a degree of playfulness.) They are idealists, not abstracting away from anything but approaching pure abstraction on its own terms.

I am most moved, in this exhibition, by a magnificent series of three paintings from Valledor's middle period. And paticularly by the 1974 San Francisco Spring, whose perfection eludes verbal commentary — you simply have to stand in front of it, look at it with one eye and then the other, back away, reapproach, quit it and quickly turn your head to gaze at it again.

The current exhibition of Valledor’s canvases at Brian Gross is very beautifully installed and lit. Isolated respectfully on the end wall, San Francisco Spring reflects some of the color of Sunstrut, around the corner, separating the chaste silver rectangles in San Francisco Spring from the 1968 diptych East-West. Nothing I write can express Valledor’s brushwork, which is far from flat and featureless, but whose animation energizes the painting through capture of the light that falls on it, not through the dynamic substance of the acrylic paint itself. These surfaces are perhaps calculated, a bit self-assertive, appearing when closely inspected as if to confess proudly that, yes, an artist's hand has achieved this near-ideal refinement.

I suppose no artist could long remain in the rarified air of San Francisco Spring: the sudden yellow and more playful shapes of Sunstrut suggested the path that was to follow. The later paintings — sad to refer to the work of a gifted artist just fifty as "late" — retain the sobriety and elegance of the middle-period ones, but bring in a new instability. I suppose my favorite here is Ezistance (1986), a truncated equilateral triangle divided into three strips of near-value violet, purple and red (to grossly simplify color descriptions). The shapes of these strips — two elongated triangles flanking a rhombus — cause the canvas to vibrate between flat and folded, and the weight of the colors, the unease of the illusion, and the size (96 by 34 inches) make this a very imposing piece, gaining stability, even a kind of majesty, from its authority.

The gallery featured Valledor in a one-man show two years ago; I hope it continues this cycle in the future. The Neri show at Stanford's Anderson Center that closed recently and the Robert Hudson-Richard Shaw show (with Jack Stuppin) in Santa Rosa give me hope the glories of 1960s Bay Area painting are being revived for a generation not fully aware of the significance of its inheritance.

•Brian Gross Fine Art, 248 Utah Street, San Francisco, California 94103; (415) 788-1050

Monday, December 11, 2017

A TOUR OF NETHERLANDS AND ITALY: 1

A TOUR OF NETHERLANDS AND ITALY October-November 2017
Prinseneiland
I: Amsterdam
1: Arrival; October 27, 2017
We landed at Schiphol at 8:30 in the morning, flying from San Francisco with layover in Philadelphia. We know Schiphol well, but still the first order of business is going Dutch: getting the sound of the language in the ears (and to an extent in the mouth), getting SIM cards for our iPhones, reminding ourselves about the “chipcard” good for all trains and trams in The Netherlands, getting a couple of cappuccinos, and getting a haircut. Then we took the train to Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, where we splurged for a taxi to our home for the next few days, on Prinseneiland, a 15-minute walk from the station but we’re tired from the flight and we have these suitcases…

Our European travels always involve visits with friends — friends so intimate you might well call them family. Writing about these travels is therefore complicated. There are so many stories, so much history, much of it personal. I find it all endlessly fascinating and often suggestive of Big Themes, and so I ache to write — but how to protect the privacy of people I love like my own family? But I can describe Cynthia’s apartment, I think. You enter the lobby of a former warehouse — every building on this island is a former warehouse — and go up three flights of stairs (8, 11, 13 steps), out onto a rooftop, then up another storey on a spiral steel staircase (14 steps).

The apartment
There is one big highceilinged room with kitchen, kitchen table, desk, shelves, chairs, a sofas. There is one bedroom (hers; now ours) big enough for a big bed, a four-foot rack for hanging clothes, perhaps a chest. Above, there’s a cozy sleeping loft, temporarily hers. It has a doorway out onto another roof for her use as patio, drying-yard, etc. Her apartment (and another, similar, at other end with its own matching spiral stairway) are new additions on ancient brick warehouse like many others on the island, about which more later.

The apartment is all white with one black half-wall above the kitchen wall. There are black very steep stairs to the sleeping loft. Cesar the tortoiseshell cat is the very happy lord of all he surveys, scrambling up the ladder-stairs when he wants to visit the roof; he reminds me of Carl Van Vechten’s book Lord of the Housetops.

We have a simple lunch of bread and cheese and much conversation; then leave Cynthia and walk the short distance — ten minutes at most, two bridges — to the restaurant Marius for dinner with Tom and Judith. I immediately asked after her father, a world-famous neurologist, still hard at work — he published a new book only last year. He turned ninety last June. His work left time, his family thought, for few friends. It turned out, though, that he was fast friends with a number of professional acquaintances, though in touch with them only through correspondence.

They arranged for a congratulatory symposium to be held in Amsterdam. It was attended by friends from around the world. Many gave papers in his honor. You couldn’t understand half of what they said, the daughter told me; and then Father gave his talk, and it was completely understandable and often funny, all about his work over the years with all this community. It was all in English; hardly anyone there spoke Dutch. The symposium was held in Bondsgebouw ANDB (General Dutch Diamond Cutters’ Union), a fine old Amsterdam School building, a Berlage building from 1900.

For her gift, Judith had learned Bach’s chorale-prelude Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring and played it for him, in public. This was a great effort for her; she wanted to play it as well as possible. At the end, thanking her, he said (again publicly) that he had wanted to ask her to do that, but didn’t, fearing it too much an imposition. Years ago he and I met at a party where we disputed, slightly in jest, the merits of Bach and Mozart. That’s not music, I said of Bach, it’s numbers. Mozart’s not music, he said, it’s sentiment. And so on.

He is a very serious, very droll man. At another party a couple of years ago we were conversing when another man approached. Excuse me, Judith’s father said, somewhat resignedly, I have to talk to this man, I’ll get back to you. I watched them converse rather earnestly; then the other fellow left and I returned to the neurologist. He excused himself: I had to talk to him; he’s a very important psycholoog, I’ve never met him, but we’ve collaborated on books together.

Yes, I said, and what exactly is a psycholoog? Interesting question, he replied. I am a scientist; I know about physically existing things. My field is the brain: I can tell you what it is, how it works. The psycholoog talks about a mind. No one has ever seen one.

Kees, in front of his Marius
Dinner was delicious, of course. Marius was packed. The chef is Tom’s brother and also my daughter’s brother; she lived with his family for a year as an exchange student, forty years ago. We have nearly merged, our two families, one Dutch, one as I always say Californian — the United States having become too complicated to discuss.

I write about these dinners elsewhere so won't describe them here. Here, in the next few installments, which I hope to upload roughly once a week, you're going to encounter ruminations on place, people, and their intersections. This is what usuually happens when I travel, and observe, and speculate, and write. Most recently it resulted in a little book written last April in Rome: Where to Dig, and how far down. You can buy a copy here. It's cheap (but mind the postage rates!), and makes a nice holiday present…

Next: Strolling the Western Islands

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Small Concerto for piano and orchestra (1964)

(reposted, with edits, from January 28, 2010)

THE EARLIEST PIECES of mine that I still like to think of, Three Pieces for Piano, were written in October and November, 1963, and February 1964. At the time we were living on a small grant from Edith Fitzell, a gentle, enthusiastic widow who took recorder lessons from me, and who volunteered at KPFA, the listener-supported radio station in Berkeley. She sensed my need to devote an unbroken year to musical study, and enabled me to quite my day job. (I was then a laborer for the City of Berkeley, working mostly on the sidewalk crew, breaking up old sidewalks and laying new ones.)

I spent that year studying composition with Robert Erickson and conducting with Gerhard Samuel, and listening to as much music as possible — much of it on the radio, for KPFA broadcast a great deal of new music in those days.

The first and last of the three pieces were written slowly and intuitively, at the piano. They are centered on soft dynamic levels and smoothly phrase lines, and meant to be played very softly. The middle piece was added later, for contrast, pitched on a much louder level, and alternates violent and rapid gestures with ringing sonorities. It uses only pitches omitted in the outer movements; otherwise the composition follows only intuitive principles of structure, not conventional tonal or serial concepts.

Much of the music in the outer movements is essentially unmeasured and meant to be played quite freely, and the third movement ends with a performer's choice between two possible approaches to the close.

In 1964 I orchestrated the music as a Small Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. No new material was added; I simply assigned some of the notes to rather large orchestra, including a harmonium in the wings, a pair of Wagner tubas, and alto flute among the more usual instrumentation. In this form the music was premiered in August 1965 at the Cabrillo Music Festival, with Nathan Schwartz as soloist and Gerhard Samuel conducting. It was the first time I heard my music played by an orchestra: a very delightful experience.

(The solo pieces waited for their premiere until March 1993, when the late Rae Imamura played them at Annie’s Hall, Berkeley, on an instrument tuned not in equal temperament but to Kirnberger 3.)

The orchestral score of the Small Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is available now, either in print (8.5x11, 8 pages, saddle-stapled) for $12 or as an e-book, at Lulu.com. The Three Pieces for Piano are available at Frog Peak Music.

Sound files of the three movements of the Small Concerto are available online:

First movement (2:02; 3.5 MB)

Second movement (2:33; 41.1 MB)

Third movement (1:56; 3.4 MB)

A PDF of the score can be downloaded here (10 pages; 600 kb)