Friday, December 02, 2016

Coming to grips with a historical moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Wandering among sound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        Soiled pin.
        Soda soda.
        Soda soda.

        Not a particle wader
        Add send dishes.

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

IMG 2725

Friday, November 18, 2016

Against authority

Eastside Road, November 18, 2016—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Parallel narratives

Pasadena, California, November 6, 2016—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Molière's Imaginary Invalid

Pasadena, California, November 5, 2016—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 28, 2016

Two short songs

Eastside Road, October 28, 2016—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 23, 2016

What is art?

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, my friend replied, but what is art?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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