Friday, August 22, 2014

Zappa in sonnet form

There's a blogger with too much time on his hands who likes to rewrite pop lyrics in the style of Shakespearean sonnets.  (See I thought I'd give the form a try on my own:

I dreamt I was a lad in Arctic climes,
Where bitter cold the tundra wind doth blow,
And there my weeping mother cried betimes:
“O be thou not a naughty Esquimaux.
“Keepest thou thy money in thy purse,
And ever be a good and trusty fellow.
Beware the spots that huskies may immerse,
And never eat the snow if it be yellow.”
As prudence be the stuff of common weal,
My mother’s wise enjoinings did I heed,
Until a trapper whapped my baby seal
And spurred me to a base and violent deed:
Life’s Authoress, do not your son chastise
For rubbing golden crystals in his eyes.
― Frank Zappa: Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Poem for Robin

Thinking about Robin Williams led me back to Edward Arlington Robinson's "Richard Cory":

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Last thoughts about Robin Williams

Saddened as I am by the suicide of Robin Williams, I have to admit I lost interest in his work early in his career. He first caught my attention as Mork, not in his own series, but in the fantasy episode of "Happy Days.” I forget when I first saw it. I was studying abroad in February 1978, when, according to Wiki, it first aired, but I was home by the end of August, and I must have caught in a rerun. I remember thinking, who is this guy? I had no idea, but he was hilarious.

I was an instant fan when “Mork and Mindy” premiered. I don’t recall ever laughing as hard as I did during the show’s first hour. The bits that come easily to mind thirty years later were Mork’s attempt to free the eggs, and his imitation of Spencer Tracy in “Inherit the Wind.” These were the days when I harbored the pipedream, like on of O’Neill’s drunks, of being a comic, and Williams quickly became a hero, a model that could never be successfully copied.

The novelty of a show like Mork and Mindy wears off quickly, however, and the series faded rapidly after its first season. Even Jonathan Winters couldn't save it. After the show was canceled, Williams never reached those early heights again. The albums were a disappointment, They contained some brilliant bits (Elmer Fudd sings Bruce Springsteen), but those were few and far between, and separated by uninspired hyperactivity (Shake Hands with Mr. Happy). The jokes that lay beneath the mania were often no better than the kind of one-liners Bob Hope put out, and as with any performer who relies on improvisation, Williams seemed to spin his wheels for long periods while inspiration to strike. The comedy didn't build. Instead, he went from peak to peak, slogging through some pretty deep troughs. He wasn't as consistently funny as those comedians, like Steve Martin, George Carlin, or Woody Allen, who wrote and structured their routines.

It was Williams who made me realize that even the greatest comedians are truly funny only about half the time. The Marx Brothers, long my favorites, peaked with “A Night at the Opera” and limped along repeating themselves for another fifteen years. Woody Allen and Steve Martin abandoned standup for the movies, and Martin finally gave up the movies for music. Even Jonathan Winters, Williams’ own hero, was often more clever than funny. He never made a great movie, or even gave a great performance in one. Williams had a better record on that score, at least, since he was willing to branch out into serious acting. He kept working, and by most standards, enjoyed the kind of success that makes his suicide all the more puzzling.

But depression is not a rational process. Robin Williams didn’t sit up on the last night of his life weighing the pros and cons of his existence. At that point the pain was too much, and he knew only one way to make it stop.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sunday afternoon

Cycled out to Valley Forge,
Where Friedrich breakfasted with George,
Relishing, with Prussian zest,
The Continental sausage fest.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The worst advice ever given to a creative artist

Thinking of Charles Ives and the hostile reaction his music has weathered from so many professional musicians,  I'm reminded of his confrontation with Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the great music patron, as recounted in Jan Swafford's Chareles Ives: A Life With Music (p. 220). As Swafford tells it, Coolidge visited the Iveses in at their summer home in Redding in 1915, and Charlie tried out "Saint-Gaudens" and "Washington's Birthday" on her.

"Mrs. Coolidge listened sourly," Swafford goes on, "deplored the awful sounds, and finally walked out of the house. As she got into her motorcar she fired a parting shot: 'Well, I must say your music makes no sense to me. It is not, to my mind, music. How is I that -- studying as you have with Parker -- you never came to write like that?  You ought to know the music of Daniel Gregory Mason. He has a real message.' "

Thanks, Liz.


Lately I've been obsessed (in a healthy way, I think) with Mozart's E flat Piano Concerto K. 271, and this morning I received in the mail my third recording of it, which cost one cent at Amazon, to the benefit of Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee. It is Alfred Brendel's last recording, of three, with Charles Mackerras conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. I am listening to it at this moment. Ladies and gentlemen, this is The One.

This is the sort of music -- and performance -- that almost succeeds in making life bearable.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The slug on my wall

Sunday I biked to the Morris Arboretum where Martha Knox was selling her woodcuts at an art show. Just to show my support, I purchased a copy of "Leopard Slug," a small, hand-painted piece I believe is from her series "In My Yard." Today I put it in a two-dollar Ikea frame and  hung it on the wall above my desk. For such a small picture, it adds a surprising and wonderful dash of color to my living room. I thought I was being quirky when I picked it out, but Martha tells me it's actually one of her more popular works. I can see why. Everyone loves slimy invasive species.

The bike trip to the arboretum was a killer. I was fine when I stuck to the Schuylkill Trail, but Harts Lane in Whitemarsh was a steep  climb on the order of "the wall"  Manayunk. At one point I had to get off the bike and walk, and at several others I had to stop and catch my breath. When I returned home, I lay down on my bed and didn't move for close to  two hours.

Bramwell Tovey conducts Beethoven

Bramwell Tovey will conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the Mann Center on June 27. I won't be able to attend, because my work schedule won't allow it, but I did manage to score a brief phone interview. The resulting article may be read here. I'm not responsible for the headline, by the way, which should say he will conduct Beethoven and Britten, not perform them.

Tovey was born and raised in Britain, and he resides mostly in British Columbia, where he is the music director of the Vancouver Symphony. I must confess I had not heard his name before I accepted the assignment to write the article, but I found him to be a genial interviewee with plenty to say. He also had a good sense of humor, which I rarely expect from a jet-set conductor and composer. He chuckled when I asked, in regard to his opera The Inventor, whether Ottawa enforces the same Canadian content regulations for music as it does for TV and radio. It doesn't, apparently. No one in the government contacted him about the work, although part of it does take place in Halifax.

Jeremy Denk on Ives

Jeremy Denk has written a sympathetic and characteristically chatty review in the the New York Review of Books of Stephen Budiansky's new biography of Charles Ives, which I've read. I'm not sure who this Ransom Wilson is. I don't remember him from the book, he doesn't appear in the index, and it was the critic Tim Page, not Wilson, who, according to Budiansky, dismissed Ives as a "basement tinkerer" who knocked out "ditties" on Sundays (p. 15). (So, the Fourth Symphony and the Robert Browning Overture are "ditties." In thinking of those pieces, and so many more, the word never would have occurred to me.)  I suppose Denk went back to the article in the New York Times Budiansky cites in his notes and found Wilson's name there. In any event, I have never heard of him, and I imagine Ives will be remembered and argued about long after he and Tim Page are forgotten.

I'm also puzzled by Denk's statement that "Ives's music often falls flat in performance." I have heard many performances of Ives that were far from flat -- among them Denk's own, with Soovin Kim, of the four violin sonatas. It was such a wonderful evening I recall it easily after seven years -- though I am still not sold on Jeremy's recording of the Concord Sonata.

I'm note sure, either, how high the Concord towers over Elliott Carter's Piano Sonata. My own feeling in comparing the two (since you asked) is that Carter, overall, is the more accomplished, but there are moments in Ives -- for example, "Hanover Square North" -- that take me places no other composer since Beethoven has ever taken me. (Jeremy also has an irritating habit, somewhat common among Ives partisans, of making the case for Ives's greatness while at the same time backhandedly slighting  the music.)

I recommend anyone with an interest in Ives to read Budiansky's book. He's particularly good on the composer's health problems, and, mercifully, he avoids the imbroglio over the dating of Ives's compositions. (Maynard Solomon is never mentioned.) If I had a complaint, it would be that perhaps he spends too much time on the insurance industry and the  treatment of diabetes. Biographers seem to feel obligated to put all their background research on the page. If it stands out more in this book than it might in some others, however, it does so because the book is so admirably concise.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Happy Birthday, Martha Knox

My humanist friend Martha Knox, a mother and woodcut artist who recently spent some time in the  the hospital for a gallstone, celebrated her 36th birthday yesterday. The day before, on her Facebook page, she specifically asked her friends not to give her the standard saccharine greetings. She wanted edgy, she wanted cynical, she wanted insulting. I couldn't quite make myself insult her, but I did come up with this.

We celebrate, for what it's worth,
The day of Martha Knox's birth,
And raise a song, in dulcet tones,
Of purple hair and bladder stones,
Of butterflies on blocks of wood
And humanistic motherhood,
With healthy snacks and wholesome games
For daughters with outrageous names,
Knowing as we do full well
Her soul headed straight to hell.