Tuesday, October 28, 2014

I Mandorli

Cardona di Alfano Natta, October 28, 2014—

Siamo uccelli di passagio
, I explained to Gabriella last night at dinner, we're migratory birds, we need to come to the same trees year after year.

Not always, of course; we do skip years; our migrations are annual, give or take, but not always the same route. But we do like our familiar temporary settling places, and among them this is a favorite.

It is half past seven; I've been awake half an hour. The fog is beginning to lift. Out the window I see the familiar rumpled landscape, the irregular fields divided among many different crops — olives, grapevines, dry cornstalks, lush green pasture. a couple of cars glide soundlessly along an invisible narrow road. To the right, the east, quite nearby, the village, stucco buildings, tile roofs, a square church-tower with two windows and a giant clock on each face; you'll be able to read the time out in your field, though anyway the bell tells the half-hours. A black and white cat comes across the tiles just outside my window, sits, regards me without interest, looks out at my view, then seems to think of something and moves on.

We came here first fourteen years ago, Gabriella tells us — I hadn't realized it was so long ago. She and her husband Franco bought this farmstead on the edge of the village a few years before that, having moved from the city for a quiet life. Over the years they've added to the property, and now their B&B offers several rooms and apartments. Franco has made wine and olive oil; Gabriella tends to the orto, the kitchen garden, and bakes, and makes delicious jams and tarts. 

Here she is now with breakfast: a fine mortadella-like Piemontese sausage, two goat cheeses, a basket of toasted bread, butter, apple butter, a bowl of walnuts and hazelnuts, fresh-squeezed orange juice, a basket of apples, oranges, and bananas, and carafes of coffee and hot milk. We decline the yoghurt, as always. It is all too much, of course; it is mostly not only local but della fattoria, from the place itself; it is all delicious.

One of the problems with my other blog, Eating Every Day, is that occasionally it asks me to write about a meal prepared by one of its readers. I know this to be the case here; Gabriella mentioned it herself last night, at the table. We hadn't wanted her to go to the trouble to cook for us, and perhaps she didn't really; perhaps she and Franco always dine like this: fried cheese, radicchio salad, soup, roast lamb, beets and onions, giardiniera, tiramisu. Domestic and delicious.

The bed is comfortable; the air tranquil. Theo the basset is two years older than when last we saw him, and deaf, Gabriella tells me, deaf like me — my ears still blocked from last week's flight. We all get older, those of us fortunate enough to survive. But one of the attractions of this familiar roost: it does not change, nor does its setting. 

Oh, there are little changes. The chapel down at the corner, which had lain a ruin for decades after its deconsecration — the population has not grown here! — it has been taken over by the municipality and gussied up with a new and to my eye irrelevant pseudo-Classical porch and is for sale, if you have an extra quarter of a million Euros. There are no toilets in it, Franco tells me, and when I ask if there's any plumbing at all, he shrugs. Well, it could always be installed. 

I don't know what you'd do with it. To my eye, Cardona doesn't really need anything. A mile down the road, in Alfiero Natta, there's a bar and a little store. Cardona has only its church, telling the hours patiently to anyone who'll listen, and the sleepers in the cemetery down the road toward Tonco…

Sunday, October 26, 2014

San Salvario, Torino

our building, Via Principe Tommaso


WE CAME HERE to Torino to atttend the Salone del Gusto, an international fair celebrating food and its producers, specifically those embracing the qualities famously statedd by Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement:

Buono, Pulito, Giusto

Good, Clean, Fair

Petrini is from Piemonte, as was my father-in-law; and Torino is the capital of Piemonte and one of Italy's biggest cities.  We have spent four days wandering through the Salone, and we determined to take today off. I'll write about the Salone later — it's fascinating, and we attended two notable conferences there; there's much to write about. But tonight I want to write a bit about Torino.

It's not what you think an Italian city is. It's always struck me as being a bit reserved. We spent a pleasant hour with our host in a neighborhood bar discussing the possible reasons for this, and much of the following will be a paraphrase of his comments.

The city was founded by Julius Caesar, a long time ago, as a camp and a headquarters for his campaigns in both the neighboring territory and, further, the definitive settlement of Provence and the campaigns into Gaul. The original camp left its rectilinear layout to the old city, which lost its importance in the dark ages, when neighboring more prosperous towns shouldered it aside: Asti, Monferrato, Saluzzo.

In the 16th century, I think it was, certainly by the 17th, it began to regain some importance as a capital of the emerging kingdom of Savoia: but it remained small and relatively isolated, even from such nearby (by modern standards) cities as Milan. It is a mountain town, Marco went on; it's always addressed the mountains, even though it is on the Po. 

After the French Revolution, and during the Napoleonic times (which in Italy extended toward the middle of the 19th century) the city began to enjoy some considerable importance, and grew considerably in size. We are staying in one of the suburbs of that time, San Salvario, say a hundred or so blocks lying to the southeast of the main railroad station.

Marco contributed to a fascinating guidebook, L'altra Torino: 24 centri fuori dal centro (The Other Torino: 24 centers outside the center), which we took with us today on our casual walking tour. It describes much of the history I've outlined, and points out the first Waldensian (Protestant) church, the hotel whose bas-reliefs portray the pretty young working girls of the quarter in the time of gaslight, the building that housed the Fiat offices, Natalia Ginzburg's birthplace — things like that. 

I like its offbeat interests, effectively lightening its serious purpose. Marco is a young man, but a Piemontese, after all: he understands the beauty, the necessity, and the purpose of the past as it relates to the present. 

That's an essential component of the Torinese character, I think. Lord knows things are up-to-date. The Metro is like a fast sleek horizontal elevator: the tracks are completely enclosed under glass; doors open quietly and effortlessly when the train glides into the spacious, well-lit station; you feel like you're entering a hotel lobby, not a grubby train, when you step inbto the carriage — though it may well be crowded, especially if you're on your way to the Salone.

We had a number of pleasant conversations today. At Franky's bar, near the train station, where we stopped for a cappuccino because we wanted the wi-fi, we were pleasantly asked where we were from, and given a little treat — a delicious filled cookie, in fact — when we turned out to be from as far away as California. This of course led to conversation about pastry, which is so good in Torino in general, and seemed exceptionally good here — my croissant was flaky and delicaely rich, very Parisian in the best sense. The pastry-cook spoke no English, but beamed at meeting Lindsey and enjoyed our enjoyment of his work.

Later in the day we had a substantial conversation with a woman met in a pubic market, where an afternoon contest had been organized in which ordinary people, from Torino and nearby villages, stood behind their very best bagna verde, green sauce. This is made of parsely, garlic, anchovy, and oil, with perhaps other things thrown in; it is made very carefully, with great attention to balance, and is then spread discreetly on, for example, boiled meat.

The young woman apologized that she wasn't really Torinese herself; her father was from Abruzzo and her mother was Roman; she was from Lazio; but she'd settled in Torino because she liked its intellecttual, language-conscious, literary, prudent atmosphere. She was fluent in German, French, and English, and seemed a little ashamed and maybe surprised that she didn't speak Piemontese, the local dialect as they call it — in fact, I think it is more a language of its own, closely related to Occitan.

We are staying in an Airbnb apartment, and I recommend it, in spite off its 96 steps' removal from the street. It is sober and quiet here, three blocks away from the busy Via Nizza.  It is quiet enough now, in fact, half-past-nine, that I think I'll stop here, get my papers in order, and begin to pack. Tomorrow we return to the Salone for a last day; then rent a car and drive to the country, to a very different venue. I hope from now on to have a little time to write like this, and I hope you find something to enjoy in the result…

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Death of Discourse

New York City, October 21, 2014—

UPWARDS OF A THOUSAND people, I'd say, jammed themselves into a small triangular patch separating the automobile access to the Lincoln Center from Broadway, which itself was at a standstill with taxicabs, emergency vehicles, and police cruisers. It was a little before seven p.m., and the opening performance of a run of John Adams' opera The Death of Klinghoffer was set to begin in a little over an hour.

The opera is based on the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, by the PLO, during which an American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, was murdered in his wheelchair. Set to a libretto by Alice Goodman, the opera, conceived by the director Peter Sellars, premiered in Brussels in 1991, and has been produced a number of times since, often to protests, largely from Jewish groups.

The history and content of both the opera and its protests are well covered on Wikipedia; I won't recapitulate that here. I saw the opera in San Francisco in 1992 and wasn't eager to see it again last night; we're here only two days, en route to Italy. But we did walk past the demonstration on our way to a restaurant we've long wanted to sample, and I talked briefly to a lone dissident from the general mood of what seemed to me a restrained but noisy crowd of protestors.

He was young, well dressed, good-looking, earnest, and very much aware of danger. He wore a yarmulke, and held a hand-lettered sign above his head, apparently prepared in some haste; I never could quite comprehend it, though STOP THE HYSTERIA was bold enough to read at some distance."What hysteria does he mean," my friend wondered; "let's go find out," I replied.

The poor fellow was being harangued by two or three men who were asking him how he could shame his own people, denying the evils of the PLO and Arabs in general, when the Nazis had murdered six million Jews in the Holocaust; how he could permit the Metropolitan Opera to produce an anti-Semitic opera. 

He countered that he agreed about the PLO but that it was wrong to generalize about the Palestinians, not to mention the Arabs, and that the opera was not anti-Semitic. "Have you seen the opera?" he asked, reasonably enough I thought. His hecklers said they would never see such a thing, reflecting the general attitude of the crowd was that it was anti-Semitic propaganda masquerading as "art".

A young woman was listening to all this, reporter's pad in hand, taking notes, trying to interview the man with the sign. I talked to her briefly, then told the man I agreed with him, as far as I can tell, and asked him if he felt himself in danger. He was aware of it, he replied.

I asked if he thought the protest was organized, either by a single group or a coalition, and if so who he thought it might be. 

Look, he said, I don't know anything about that, probably a lot of groups are represented here, probably some groups I even belong to myself. But it's important to counter this kind of hysteria with truth and reason.

I asked if he'd seen the opera. Not  yet, he answered; I'm going later in the run. I have no opinion of the opera until I've seen it myself. I don't believe it has a political agenda.

At just that moment one of his earlier hecklers returned, approached him from behind, gave him a kick in the backside, then sidled away. I turned to see where Lindsey and my friend had got to and rejoined them, and the next thing I knew the poor fellow was being led away by a couple of uniformed cops, still holding his placard aloft, telling them he was going willingly, he was not resisting, he only wanted to express his opinions freely and peacefully.

He should be silenced, a man in front of me said. Let the police take care of it, his friend replied, with a smile.

Someone had set up a public-address system; a soprano wailed through The Star-Spangled Banner, and a recorded instrumental version of the Israeli national anthem followed. We felt our dinner reservation approaching, and walked on up Broadway.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Out and back

NO ONE MORE AWARE than I how badly this blog's been neglected lately. Please excuse this neglect, and prepare for more. I've been away, and I'm about to set out again.

There was a time when I posted fairly detailed notes on such travels, sending them as group e-mail "dispatches" to a list of readers that ultimately grew to over a hundred — too big for the e-mail managers of that day, whereupon I began this blog, a little over nine years ago. There have been over six hundred posts since then, on topics related to travel, books, music, art, theater, politics — whatever I've felt like writing about.

I write these things mostly to find out what I think about things. I don't know why I want to know what I think about things: it's probably simply a habit, formed a long time ago, when something (or more likely some one) led me to believe it was one's duty to examine meaning.

Yesterday we drove home from a four-day tour to Ashland, Oregon, where we've been in the habit of seeing plays put on by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Comments on those plays have formed a number of posts to this blog over the years, all the way back to July 2005; and apparently there are those among you who are interested in these comments: I notice someone from Oregon City has just looked in on last March's remarks about three plays we saw earlier.

This year we decided against seeing the entire season, for two reasons: I've been growing increasingly impatient with re-interpretations of Shakespeare — Troilus and Cressida was the last straw — and we've been unenthusiastic about too many of the new plays by new playwrights. It hurts to say that; one always wants to retain curiosity and enthusiasm for the work of one's own time: but now that I'm in my eightieth year I find too often the "new" is merely the latest revelation of ignorance of yesterday's "new."

So we saw three plays last March: The Cocoanuts; The Tempest; The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window; and enjoyed all of them. We stayed away from Ashland through the summer, and returned last week toward the end of the season for a final threesome: Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, and the most promising of this year's new plays, The Great Society.

I'll give you the most negative report first: Richard III was damaged almost beyond repair by the new "sound system" the festival administration has installed in its outdoors Allen Elizabethan Theatre, which attempts to reproduce Shakespeare's Globe Theater. We sat at almost the exact center of the audience, just under the edge of the balcony, seats 11 and 13 in row L, twelve rows back from the apron. Many, perhaps all the actors wore body microphones. The sound was carefully managed, I'm sure, but much of the time spoken lines drifted to us as much (or more) from the clusters of loudspeakers high above the stage as from the actors themselves. You could put this to good use in a production designed to take advantage of it — the ghost of Hamlet's father could take on new and terrifyingly disembodied presence, for example — but until this sort of thing is familiar enough to be ignored completely it will always be, for me, at best, a technical gimmick, distracting from the performance. It's as if Richard were to muse on the winter of his discontent through a megaphone.

Another distraction: the choice of the deaf actor Howie Seago, who is also mute, to play Hastings. His lines were spoken by Omoze Idehenre and signed, in American Sign Language, by Seago. I can understand the desire to extend theatrical boundaries, to widen the community of actors; but sometimes this works better — Seago was useful, interesting, and sympathetic as the ghost of Hamlet's father, but quite a distraction inRichard III .

These problems were particularly unfortunate because otherwise there was much about the production, and its performance, and James Bundy's direction, that seemed both effective and faithful to the text. I was taken aback by the amount of humor Bundy found, but it was made faithful to Richard's persona by the powerful yet subtle acting of Dan Donohue in the title role.

The women in the cast were particularly strong - Idehenre as Mistress Shore, Kate Hurster as Lady Anne, Robin Goodrin Nordli as Queen Elizabeth, Franchelle Stewart Dorn as a magnificent Queen Margaret, and Judtih-Marie Bergan as the Duchess of York. An extremely interesting play could be devised keeping their lines, trimming other roles, and thus presenting the familiar psychological drama from a completely different perspective.
Shakespeare's comedies, to my mind, suffer less from extreme directorial departure than do his tragedies. (By their very nature, the Histories are another matter altogether: they're successful either as literal representations of the time they treat, or when brought forward to underline parallels between their events and those of the present day.)

The Comedy of Errors was set in 1930s Harlem and played by a cast of black actors (with a couple of minor exceptions), and I thought the result worked perfectly, enlarging a white audience's understanding of the black American experience of that era while maintaining Shakespeare's goofy rewrite of commedia dell'arte and Plautus. The actors were superb, clowning much of the time yet finding moments of pathos and edginess when appropriate, playing with asides to the audience, sight gags, pratfalls and the like, yet projecting real character and preserving the sentimental magic of the inevitable recognition scene at the close. The whole play went by very quickly, without an intermission; I could happily have sat through another performance as an encore.
Speaking of Shakesperian Histories, Robert Schenkan's The Great Society continued the pageant opened a couple of seasons ago with the same playwright's All The Way. The subject, of course, is the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, his access to office following the assassination of J.F. Kennedy in 1963 and his triumphal passage of the Civil Rights Act forming the first play, his inability to continue the social reforms he envisioned and his entanglement in the Vietnam War the new one. The Great Society is long and detailed, but dramatic and fascinating. It is pageant, I think, not play, because it is the historical events that seize the audience, not the personae of those who shape or succumb to them. Jack Willis was superb in the lead role, and he was supported by a fine set of actors in such roles as Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, and Hubert Humphrey. The deliberate attempt to make a contemporary American counterpart to such plays as Henry VI is audacious, no question about it: but it has been successful. This is important theater, restating the essential purpose of theater, to tell a community's stories to the community, lest the historical lessons otherwise be lost and forgotten.

Monday, September 15, 2014

String quartet: En balançant; Screen; Vie lactée

Score: En Balançant
En balançant, for two pairs of bowed instruments (first half of the score)
Score: Screen
Screen, for four to six bowed instruments
Score: Vie lactée
Vie lactée, for any four bowed instruments (first half of the score)
I HAVE WRITTEN ONLY one string quartet. ("So far," I suppose I should add; but I think it unlikely I will ever compose another, unless it is a re-notation of this one.) But even a simple statement like this is misleading, for my String Quartet is in three movements, each of which was originally written to stand alone, and was conceived for a different kind of instrumental configuration. The three movements were only gathered into a single unit a few years later, when I needed a string quartet: and the performance I heard on that occasion so pleased me that I now find it difficult to think of the three movements as separate entities.

Throughout the late 1960s I was concentrating on the quartet idiom of instrumental concert music. Conventionally this idiom has reached its apex in the string quartet, as it developed from Haydn through (at that time) Bařtók, Cage, and Feldman. What fascinated me, in the quartet, was the ability and the necessity of each of the four musicians to remain independent, focussed on his own material, but aware of each of the other three and of the evolving product of their simultaneous work.

As you see, the music is written out in "graphic notation," which was en vague in the 1960s. I was not particularly concerned with pitches at the time I composed them: I was thinking of representing the sounds of the music as elements in a spatial analogue of the psychoacoustical dimensions in which music is heard, freeing the music from the constraints of conventional melody and harmony as they are attached to a system of pitches, allowing them to become present as the musicians more or less intuitively are led to produce them.

As already noted, Screen was the first of these three movements to be composed. The title refers to the idea that the piece could be performed simultaneously with other compositions, and heard by the audience as a sort of acoustical screen through which the other music would be filtered. Although I intended the piece to succeed if standing alone, I did in fact combine it with other pieces; it appears as an aural ingredient in the early From calls and singing for chamber orchestra and in the opera The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even and with the Variations for harp with optional chimes in another chamber piece, Voie lactée.Screen was thought of as a string quartet, but I was drawn to the string sextet configuration as well, and from the beginning intended it to work for any four to six bowed instruments. The other two movements, though, were quite specifically written for four and only four instruments, though the specific instrumentation is not determined. (On the performance whose recording is linked to this post the three movements are played on violin, viola, cello, and contrabass.)

The titles of the outer movements refer to passages in Marcel Duchamp's great painting on glass, La mariée mise à nu par ces célibataires, même, which — together with the verbal notes Duchamp assembled to accompany the painting — form the subject of the opera alluded to earlier. En balançant describes the physical state of an important part of Duchamp's upper panel, which represents the Bride as a "pendue femelle"; Vie lactée was my unintentional pun on the voie lactée (Milky Way) which spreads across the top of his painting, representing the Bride's aura.

While Screen is quite free, its ten pathways playable in any order, left to right or reversed; the outer movements are more directed. They are to be played in sequence, left to right only. En balançant presents only two pathways, and is meant to be played as a canon, the second pair entering whenever they desire. The balancing act is meant to be performed by each pair, and by the pair of pairs.

Vie lactée is even more conventional, requiring the quartet finally to play in tight ensemble, free as to the specific pitches and the relative loudness and tempo but determined by attentiveness to the score. The three movements therefore represent a sort of catalogue of quartet possibilities, ranging from the equipoise of the opening movement, through the loose lyricism of the second, to the coherent expression of the third.

I have heard a number of performances of the quartet (though many more of Screen), and I've been pleased with all of them. My favorite, though, both for its performance and for its instrumentation, is the one linked to this post. It was in fact the first performance, played in 1971 I think. I no longer have a program from the performance, which probably took place in the Berkeley concert hall 1750 Arch; and I'm not even certain of the personnel. I know the late Nathan Rubin played violin; I think Ron Erickson played viola, Tressa Adams cello, and Jedediah Denman contrabass. Perhaps someone reading this will know.

I listen to this recording every night as I fall asleep, and am surprised at how often its sounds fall together in configurations that seem new to me. This was of course the intent: to provide notation that would allow musical sounds to develop, combine, separate, adopt changed configurations, and exist completely free from anyone's ego-expressive intent. Perhaps falling asleep to the music explains my fairly rich dream life.

You can listen to it too: just click on the titles under the score pages. Let me know if it puts you pleasantly to sleep.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

That second sonata

Profiting from an early rise, while we still have unlimited bandwidth, I've uploaded sound files to my second piano sonata, Sonata compositio ut explicatio, to my website, and you can hear the whole piece now by streaming it.

It's an undertaking, for the sonata is an hour long. I've written about it here before, and won't add anything more here.

The three movements are available separately, but of course I'd prefer you listen to the whole thing, perhaps as background music…

First movement (32:15)
Second movement (5:21)
Third movement (20:04)

You're welcome.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Top Ten

A friend posts, on Facebook — yes, I spend some time there every day —
[A friend] tagged me, asking for a list of ten books that have stayed with me in some way, so here goes, off the top of my head, right this minute:

Paul Klee, Pedagogical Sketchbook
Lou Harrison, Lou Harrison's Music Primer
Vergil, Georgics
N.O. Brown, Closing Time
Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day
James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State
Benedict Anderson, Language and Power
Marshall G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam
Lawrence Weschler, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin
Edward Gorey, The Raging Tide, or the Black Doll's Imbroglio

"Rules: Don't take more than a few minutes and do not think too hard. They don't have to be the "right" books or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way. Then tag 5 friends including me so I can see your list. Don't make fun of me. No particular order." So, on to:
and then, of course, he leads a list of five Facebook friends with me.

After nodding at three of his choices and agreeing with their worth I gave the matter a little thought, more than a few minutes, because it's in my nature to disregard direct instructions. So many books came to mind: Montaigne first, curiously; then Robert Nathan's One More Spring, of all things; Crime and Punishment, Shakespeare… would it be fair to consider the Encyclopedia Brittanica one of ten books? Even Brittanica Jr., which meant so much to me in my childhood?

Finnegans Wake. Tender Buttons. How restrict myself to only one Henry James novel, or one Austen? What about Tristram Shandy? Gulliver's Travels? The Great Gatsby?
How could I exclude Mallarmé, or the Tintin books, or Chekhov, or Turgenev? Pirandello?

Look at the relatively recent reading: Manzoni, Herman Bang, Harry Mulisch, Sebald, Walter Benjamin, Geert Mak, Woolf, Lady Murasaki, Vittorini, Levi, Patrick Leigh Fermor…

No, I'm sorry, Daniel; this is not a matter for the top of my head. Or, rather, this is the way the top of my head seems always to work — perhaps simply because, at my age, I have the leisure to take my time getting to the top.

In the end I think I've been honest: these are the — well, yes, eleven — books that have stayed with me in some way, over rather a long span. There's not a title here that hasn't been staying with me for at least twenty-five years, maybe thirty; and two or three of them made their first impression close to seventy years ago.

Are they in no particular order? No: they're in the order in which they occurred to me, in the course of the great sifting; and perhaps the last retrieved, of the eleven, were the first to make their impress…

Don't make fun of me.
R. H. Blyth: Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics
John Cage: Silence
Christopher Alexander et al.: A Pattern Language
Wallace Stevens: Collected Poems
Francis Ponge: Le savon
W. A. Mozart: Letters
Georges Perec: W or the memory of childhood
Marcel Duchamp: Notes to the large glass
Homer: Iliad
Deems Taylor (ed.): A Treasury of Gilbert and Sullivan
Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farmer Boy
I've sent this on to five friends, of course, staying with Daniel's game. It'll be interesting to see if they join in…