Monday, March 27, 2017

Contentment in the face of decline

17426181 10155141190612162 3135907696036097733 n Monday, March 27, 2017—

SO MANY RECENT experiences converging; time to awaken this Eastside View. The view outside is green green green as the unusual rains continue. It’s the time of year, early Spring, when I always recall Robert Nathan’s marvelous novel One More Spring , read alongside a dozen other books in a course I took on the 20th-century novel from one of my most influential teachers, Sidney Meller, at Santa Rosa Junior College, sixty years ago. It’s time to re-read it, I think; as I recall, it’s an optimistic view of life going on in spite of the Great Depression, aging, poor health, and poverty.

And this is where I read. I posted the photo to Facebook the other day, and drew an interesting comment from a Facebook friend living in Europe:

I must admit, Charles... I envy the construction of your later years; I sadly doubt I'll do anywhere near that well...
my response:
“the construction of your later years ": a felicitous phrase, Paul, giving me a thing to contemplate. Much of it has been luck and serendipity, of course, and nearly all owed to my wife's serenity and frugality. But to an extent it's been a deliberate choice over career, and intended as a lesson to the grandchildren …
his reply:
Of course one aspect of luck/serendipity is also knowing when to go with change and opportunity - I'm afraid I tended to be a bit pigheaded and uncertain, refusing to make decisions when unsure; some of those non-decisions avoided problems, others left me a bit in limbo. Of course I know there are still probably some years to move towards where I'd want to be...
(and I congratulate myself that one grandchild was quick with her response: “and a wonderful lesson it is.”)

Then there’s this:

I and Pangur Ban my cat
’Tis a like task we are at,
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

’Tis a merry thing to see,
At our tasks how glad are we
When at home we sit and find,
Entertainment to our mind.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye,
Full and fierce and sharp and sly.
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge, I
All my little wisdom try.

So in each our task we ply:
Pangur Ban my cat, and I
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Four quatrains where the original has, I read on Wikipedia, has eight. We are told further that it is "an Old Irish poem, written about the 9th century at or around Reichenau Abbey. It was written by an Irish monk, and is about his cat. Pangur Bán, "White Pangur", is the cat's name, Pangur meaning a fuller."

I read the verses in Everyday Life in Medieval Times, by Marjorie Rowling. I like those Everyday Life titles; they're old-fashioned and probably pretty out of favor by now, but I like them. Just as, hokey as it is, I like the translation, which is no better than most of us would have done ourselves. (Thomas Fowler, a 19th-20th c. Irish cleric.) Doggerel, almost, saving the subject. And I particularly like that it was written in Irish, presumably by an Irish monk, in the ninth century, on an island in Lake Constance, where itinerant monks were keeping culture alive in a dark time. These are the things I contemplate, or among them.

A WEEK AGO we saw a performance of King Lear , put on by A Noise Within in Pasadena. It was one of the best Lears I've seen, beautifully balanced/ This Lear was not simply mad; he was apparently in the early stages of dementia, confused as to why he was behaving the way he was, trying to make sense of things. Among other things, language: trying to understand what he, and his daughters, meant by their various statements. Trying to bring heard statements (his own included) into conformation with remembered experience in its logical consistency, which is all we have to go on.

Lear, of course, growing old, decided to divide his realm into three equivalent parts and leave each to one of his three daughters, as our president has decided to put his business into trust and leave its management to his daughters and their husbands. In the Pasadena production the two older daughters were not evil from the beginning, but became corrupted by the sudden responsibilities they were faced with and maddened by the illogical and unpredictable turns their father takes as his own madness develops further. It's a vicious loop spiraling into a hellish descent in spite of Gloucester and Kent, who seem to understand the problem but are politically and socially unable to interfere with its process. You can see how this relates to our present political situation.

My brother wonders if this situation is material for an opera. No, I think; too big and sprawling even for a Ring-like cycle. But the choosing of the Cabinet might make a comedy. And a play about the descent of this presidency into chaotic incompetence, and its ultimate resolution into a caretaker administration, has a Shakespearian promise. It should be written quickly, before it actually takes place, so it will be seen as fiction certainly, and not alternative fact.

I've been silent here for months, benumbed like so many by the bizarre quality taken by the times we live in. I've been meditating on the differences between Knowledge, Awareness, Understanding, Belief, and Faith. Things are so much simpler for Pangur Bán. Were they really that simple for me, too, and for the rest of us? Possibly not. Certainly not now; not in the foreseeable future. I feel, at times, like Lear, and desire my quiet room. I hope to be as silent as that cello, as purposeless as that bicycle wheel.

The central problem of musical composition is the relation of the moment to the ongoing process. Of course not all composers know this. Many simply accept the norms of musical composition they are given and continue them. But I came to maturity as a composer (if ever) in the 1960s, when Time and Process and a skeptical address to Tradition were as natural as mother's milk. I had planned to spend the first four months of this year writing about those years, as some of you know, continuing my memoir Getting There into the next twenty-five years of my life: but I have been struck by the extent to which the qualities of those thirty years, 1964-1987 to be exact, seem to have been forgotten, or at least quite misunderstood, by those who've reached their maturity since.

I had thought the present morass was simply the result of failure of nerve and of the triumph of short-term greed over long-term enjoyment. But the sudden recent turn of political events has revealed, at least to me, a much bigger and more fundamental evolution. Everything goes along slowly; then everything hits a bump and crashes about. I think we've just hit such a bump, and the 1960s and '70s are as dead as the Bronze Age, as Cycladic sculpture, as Latin, as the liberal arts.

In the meantime Spring has returned, one more spring. The flowers have returned, as they always do. Today I walked with a daughter and a friend seven miles among the redwoods, climbing steeply at times, noting at various times iris, trillium, poppy, blue dick. The recent storms have smashed a number of trees, snapping them in half or blowing them completely out of their root zone — always an impressive thing to see. Other young trees will replace them. With luck, something like the Irish monks will maintain the liberal arts, and write delightful but oddly regretful poems in the margins in spare moments.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Rare message from Nice

Nous français, nous avons notre Polynésie,
Ces Marquises qui ont terminé Gauguin-
Pris dans la porte provisoire des siècles et des cultures

Gardes-toi ces sables plus secs de l'Afrique
T'en auras besoin pour le buvardage final

                                                             —Ch Lunaire

(We French, we have our Polynesia,
Those Marquesas who finished off Gauguin—
Caught in the tentative doorway of Centuries and cultures

Keep the drier sands of Africa
You'll need them for the final blotting)

Friday, February 10, 2017

Moon 1059

Moon 1059
left eye clear: right, rainbow-ringed
February moon. 
they say there's a comet too
this moon is enough for me


the Alps, late Schubert,
a lifetime: for the long haul —
after rain, summer

Photo: Curt Clingman

Wednesday, February 08, 2017


Malaise, the word that comes to mind
everyone seems to feel about the same 
overlapping truths noised 24/7

two more friends gone
getting as familiar as morning

got to get on with it

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Perception, Good Taste, Quiet Music

Eastside Road, January 11, 2017 —

BECAUSE IT HAS BEEN so noisy lately let me encourage you to concentrate, for an hour, on small and quiet sounds.

Perception coverTHE INSTITUTE FOR ECOTECHNICS is an extremely interesting private organization that conducts researches into art, consciousness, and technology on a variety of platforms that has included a closed-environment center in Arizona, a seagoing ship of their own construction, a gallery and cultural center in London, and a conference center in Provence. There seems to be no limit to the energy and intellectual curiosity of its associates. It is or has been, however, rather closed, and I may be committing an indiscretion in writing about it here.

Almost twenty years ago I was asked to participate in one of their annual (or perhaps biennial) conferences in a marvelous old manor house in the countryside outside Aix-en-Provence. The conference theme was characteristically both general and sharp-focussed: Perception. Participants came from many different countries and represented many different areas of expertise. One woman spoke of perception as it related to botanical experiments conducted in space; another spoke of his work with the fragrances of plants growing in the Amazon forest canopy. Hard and soft sciences were represented; also engineering. But, it was explained to me, not arts and letters. Would I address them as they influence the way we come to perceive, and to perceive that we do perceive?

I have long been interested in the problem of writing about music, and was suddenly struck by the possibility that the nucleus of the problem likes in perception — in how we process our awareness of music, of being aware of sound vibrations: and this whether we are listeners or musicians. And, being a composer, I wanted to organize my investigation as itself a sonic event, in which the speaking voice — my own — would alternate with many kinds of music, in a sonically illustrated lecture meant to discuss but also express the possibility that we can organize sound waves in order to elicit both verbal and nonverbal understanding.

The choice of music would be crucial. It would have to be accessible to the layman — not only accessible, but interesting; meaningful; even moving. There should be several kinds of music, some of it involving words. The examples would have to be the right length, no more than a few minutes; and there should be a common thread, capable of being spun along throughout the lecture. In the end I settled on the Lament as my theme: one nearly all of us have had occasion to profit from. I gathered my musical examples and wrote the following text, delivering it to an attentive audience with the help of my sound engineer, John Whiting, whom I thank for having brought it back to my attention after all these years.

You can read the lecture as an e-book here. Alas, the sound examples will appear only as text: you'll have to find recordings of the examples yourself, perhaps on YouTube.

Thursday, December 29, 2016


                listen (mp3)                score (pdf)

Portland, Oregon, December 29, 2016—

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

That beast the piano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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