Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Homage to John Ashbery

Several years ago, after reading John Ashbery's "Some Trees," I wrote the following poem, which is a direct imitation. The subject matter is mine, as is the negativity, but the form is more or less Ashbery's, with emphasis on enjambment and near rhymes.

To -------
The bee bumps against the glass again
And again, as though her brain
Takes direction from a satellite
That maps the shades beyond it --
Low light that skims the concrete stubble.
Her frustration becomes terrible,
A rattling like venetian blinds
Set in motion by the wind.
She wants only to rejoin the hive
Out there, somewhere, where you live
With my name a blister on your lips.
I raise the sash, and she escapes,
Off to add her fanning to the colony.
We share the impulse, she
And I, except no window blocks
My will, and I am never coming back.

John Ashbery (1925-2017)

A compact, purposeful signature. John Ashbery
signed this copy of Girls on the Run for me
in Philadelphia in April 1999.  
John Ashbery, the only contemporary poet I have read with any regularity, died Sunday at age 90. As with many other poets, I discovered his work through music -- in his case, Ned Rorem's "Some Trees" and of, course, Elliott Carter's "Syringa" from 1978.

That one work spurred me on to read several of Ashbery's books, including Houseboat Days (in which "Syringa" appears), Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Shadow Train, and Girls on the Run, a copy of which the poet signed for me April 1999 before a reading at the abandoned Barclay Hotel in Philadelphia. I mentioned "Syringa" to him, and he replied that while Carter was his favorite composer, he had never liked the piece until he heard Katherine Ciesinski sing it on the Bridge recording. I shouldn't have been surprised. Poets often react badly to musical settings of their work. They must have the sound of their words lodged in their heads, and anything that alters that sound is experienced as a jarring violation. (A composer has set my own "Sonnet: May 1913" to music. I have not heard the song, but I don't doubt I'll have my objections.)

Carter returned to Ashbery's poetry in 2007 with  "Mad Regales," a set of three miniatures for six voices a capella. Something about the verses must have inspired him, as "Mad Regales" was his first choral piece in sixty years. I have no word on how the poet felt about it..

It's hard for me to pin down just what I like about Ashbery's work. Line for line, the cool, conversational tone seems lucid, but after just a few of these, cool, conversational lines, one begins to feel lost. The subject keeps changing, and the lack of context makes the referents of the pronouns hard to keep straight. This sense of disorientation seems to have been the point, as we read in the august pages of the omniscient New Yorker: "a world that is complex requires a poetry that is complex." Fair enough, I suppose, though one could make the counterargument that a directness that makes sense of the complexity would be more helpful.

At the reading in 1999, a beautiful young woman I spoke with briefly, who had never read Ashbery's poetry, told me she was surprised at how funny he was. She was right. He made excellent jokes, a point that has been lost in the barrage of encomia in the press. I'll end with my favorite here, from "Worsening Situation," the second poem in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror:

                          One day a man called while I was out
And left this message: "You got the whole thing wrong
From start to finish. Luckily, there's still time
To correct the situation, but you must act fast.
See me at your earliest convenience. And please
Tell no one of this. Much besides your life depends on it."
I thought nothing of it at the time.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

My own Sunday rituals

Before another week goes by, I want to mention two concerts I attended on back-to-back Sundays. On April 30, in a program at St. Asaph’s Church in Bala Cynwyd, the string quartet contingent of the Elysian Camerata introduced me to the music of Erwin Schulhoff, the Czech who died at the Wülzbourg concentration camp in 1942. (My German-language music dictionary, from 1973, does not have an entry for him. I wonder why.) Barbara Jaffe and Dana Weiderhold, violins; Louse Jaffe, viola; and Talia Schiff, cello, performed Schulhoff’s thematically rich, expressively complex String Quartet No. 2 (from 1924). The piece reminded me somewhat of Bartok, with its thick textures, aggressive rhythms, and folk touches, although, in light of the jazz variation in the second movement, no one would ever confuse the two. The performers seemed quite at home with the progressive idiom, and I was came away wanting to hear more of this neglected composer.
The Camerata’s concert began with Crisantemi and Scherzo, two pretty, early works by Puccini, and ended with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D Major, Op. 44 No. 1, a big, sunny piece without a shade of darkness in it. Listening to it is rather like having a Labrador retriever jump on your shoulders and lick your face.
Shannon Merlino, Silviano Reis and Chen Chen
perform Dvorak's "Dumky" Trio May 7
at the Centre Theater, Norristown. Sorry,
but the photo was tkan directly into the light. 
Then, on May 7, the Centre Theater, Norristown, presented what was, for me, a more familiar program, consisting of two flat-out masterpieces: Dvorak’s “Dumky” trio and Schubert’s F minor Fantasy four-hands. The piano in the lobby of the theater, where the first Sunday recitals are held, has a bad reputation, but the kids made the best of it, and the small audience was treated to a memorable afternoon of music. (The original plan was to move the recital up to the theater on the fourth floor, where another piano had been freshly tuned, but surprise! ― a rehearsal for the June musical, “Chicago,” had been scheduled for  the space at the same time.)
The concert began with a chestnut, the “Tzigane Tango” by Jacob Gade, played by Steve Kramer, cello, and Maria Taylor, piano, who seemed overqualified for such a little bon bon. This work is not much known today, but it was big hit in the 1930s, under the title “Jalousie,” and was recorded by the likes of Xavier Cugat. I came across it in the old radio programs of Bob and Ray, whose character Webley Webster (played by Ray Goulding) would play it on the Hammond organ. Or rather, he would try to play it. The gag was something would always go wrong, and he’d never get through it. As a consequence, I knew only the first couple of bars. That is, until this past Sunday.
I played host at the theater, serving the wine and cheese and making a few introductory remarks. My only regret is that I had to miss the two-piano program presented at the same time by Rollin Wilber and Kasia Marzec-Salwinski down at the ethical society. One has but one life to give for music.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

London's dystopia

My librarian tells me there has been a run on dystopian novels of late. The most popular is, of course, 1984, with Margaret Attwood's Handmaid's Tale also high in demand. The reason isn't hard to discern, unless you've been on an interstellar flight for the past year, and I won't befoul this site by mentioning any names. For my most recent foray into the genre, however,  I went back a little further in time to The Iron Heel, by Jack London, which seemed to me more pertinent to our current situation than Orwell's projections regarding Stalinism or Atwood's world of sexual slavery.

For The Iron Heel imagines life under the Oligarchy -- what we today would call the "1 percent." London writes from an unapologetically Marxist perspective, complete with a long chapter on the theory of surplus value, and what he describes is the last stage of capitalism, a state of affairs that begins in the early 20th century (the book was published in 1906) and lasts for three hundred years. In his telling, wealth has flowed to the top, just as it is doing now. The industrial trusts, which were real enough in London's day, achieve maximum efficiency through the "combination" of production and distribution, driving small manufacturers and independent farmers out of business, until nothing is left except the big corporations and the wage slaves who toil for them. Order is maintained through control of the courts and legislatures, as well as a private army known as the Mercenaries.

The story is told by a bourgeois-turned-revolutionary named Avis Everhard, who is writing in the early 1930s (15 years after London died), but whose manuscript is being published 700 years in the future, about 400 years after the successful socialist revolution that establishes the worldwide Brotherhood of Man, This dual time frame allows London to insert retrospective editorial footnotes that comment on contemporary working conditions, pass judgment on historical figures or explain slang that readers in the far future would find archaic.

It's a promising conceit, but the execution doesn't quite come together. The hero of the book is Avis' husband, the gabby socialist leader Ernest Everhard (what a wonderfully phallic name), who in the early going is an expository know-it-all, but who drops out of sight in the climax of the book, only to take a bow in the penultimate chapter. (When he's not talking, London can't think of anything for him to do.) For me the most appealing character was old Bishop Moorehouse, who is committed to an insane asylum for daring to follow Jesus's example and minister to the poor. He too pops up again near the end, but only for a line, and to no real purpose.

In keeping with London's attempt at verisimilitude, the "Everhard manuscript" is incomplete. It cuts off in midsentence, as if Avis had to run out of the room to avoid arrest, leaving the editor to comment, in the last footnote, that we might never know how, exactly, Ernest met his fate.

Damn you, Jack, You couldn't add another fifty pages?

On the other hand, the climax of the story, the revolt in Chicago, is probably the most exciting thing I'll read all year.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Brahms and friends

The crew of the fine Art Music Company 

performs Brahms'  Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor 

Op. 25 Sunday at the Ethical Society in Philadelphia. 

Playing are, from left, Jonathan Moser, violin;  Kasia 

Marzec-Salwinski, piano; Adelya Shagidullina, viola; 
and Michal Schmidt, cello. Rollin Wilber does 
a yeoman's service turning pages. 
I can't let too much time go by before I post something about the music I heard over the weekend. On Sunday, my friends at the Fine Art Music Company presented yet another well-thought-out and captivating program of chamber music -- this one consisting of works by Robert and Clara Schumann and their discovery Johannes Brahms. Then, on Monday night, I was invited to Opus Piano, on Ridge Pike, Philadelphia, where violist Adelya Shagidullina, who also appeared in Sunday's program, and pianist Kasia Marzec-Salwinski (whose husband, Piotr, owns the piano store) ran through a program they'll be playing Wednesday at the Rutgers campus in Camden.    
I don't want to get bogged down "reviewing" either event. I want to say only that I feel musically sated at the moment, as well as grateful, and that it's been only in the past few years that I've learned to appreciate early Brahms. Over the years, whenever I've been on the mood for Uncle Johannes -- which I am, frequently -- I usually choose something middle to late, say from the symphonies onward. Over the weekend, I was reminded just why that is. Fine Art wrapped  up its concert Sunday with a fiery performance of the early Piano Quartet in G Minor Op. 25, and on Monday, Kasia and Adelya played his E-flat Viola Sonata Op. 120 No. 2. Now, Brahms is always recognizably Brahms. He's one of those composers who, like Bach, did not radically alter their language in the course of their careers, but as a young man, he stuffed his scores like sausages. There's so much going on, and the textures are so thick, I often feel the need to come up for air. Sunday's Piano Quartet was certainly exciting, and it brought the sizable audience to its feet, but the sonata Monday evening let me breathe.

The young firebrand impresses me more and more, but it's the bearded, portly and dirty old man who warms my heart.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Bach in Norristown

Steve Kramer performs J.S Bach's
Suite No.1 for Unaccompanied
Cello Sunday in Norristown.
Yes, it was everything I thought it would be. The gifted young cellist Steve Kramer played three of J.S. Bach's six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello -- Nos. 1, 3, and 6 -- Sunday afternoon at the Centre Theater in Norristown. It was the first of a series of chamber concerts planned for the first Sunday of each month, and the project couldn’t have gotten off to a more auspicious start.

Only about a dozen people turned out, but they were enthusiastic, and most were knowledgeable. The group included a music teacher, a family with a small daughter, and a young volunteer firefighter who said he was taking a course in classical music at Montgomery County Community College. I was flattered to speak to three people who said they learned about the concert from my preview article, which appeared on the front page of last Friday's Times Herald.

But enough about me. The music was thrilling. Steve seems to favor extreme tempi: The fast movements were very fast, and the slow movements, especially in the minor-key Suite No. 5, were lingered over, caressed. As you can see from the photo, I was sitting close enough to see the strings vibrate on the cello. In an intimate setting like this, the low growl of the instrument seems to flow through your bones.

In such an informal setting, ordinary concert protocols were dispensed with. There was no printed program, so Steve named each movement before he played it. The audience also applauded lightly between movements. The effect was a break in the continuity of the music, but that was easily forgotten during the actual playing.

Since the Suite No. 5 ends somberly, Steve sent everyone home with for a brisk encore -- "The Star-Spangled Banner," in honor of his adopted homeland, or perhaps Phillies spring training. It was the loveliest arrangement of that overly familiar tune that I can recall.

One personal note: During some extemporaneous remarks about his role at the Centre Theater Music School, Steve used the expression "don't paint the devil on the wall." He is only the second person in my life I have heard say that -- the first being my mother, who died in 1999. When I was a kid, she often said it as a way of warning not to invite bad luck by talking about it. I so taken aback when I heard again it again yesterday that I actually clapped my hands to my face. Steve is from Denmark, and my mother's mother's family was from what used to be known as the Sudetenland (the region Hitler and Chamberlain haggled over in Munich). I'm sure now that there's a linguistic connection. Mom never told me where she hear it first (or if she did, I have forgotten), but I'm sure now she must have picked it up her mother.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Steve Kramer to play Bach

The cellist Steve Kramer will perform three of Bach's cello suites Sunday in Norristown. Here's a link to my article previewing the event. It was written for a general readership, so there isn't too much about the music. Yes, the guy on the theater board is really hoping one day to bring a symphony orchestra to the county seat. That's an expensive proposition, and I doubt it'll happen, given the theater's limited resources, but a series of chamber concerts is exciting enough.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Ives Uncaged

The microtonalist composer and theorist Johnny Reinhard invited me to his New York apartment Sunday to hear a new recording, which he is producing, of Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata. There must be dozens of recordings of the piece. What makes this one unique is that it involves two pianists ― the young powerhouses Gabriel Zucker and Erika Dohi ― playing separate instruments tuned according to what Johnny calls an “extended Pythagorean” system, or “the spiral of fifths.”

The tuning creates 24 tones per octave and, Johnny says, comes closer to what the composer must have had in mind when he wrote the sonata. In this score, as in others, Ives distinguishes between tones that in equal temperament are enharmonic ― placing, for example, an F sharp beside a G flat in the same measure. To his copyists, this was just bad notation, and it drove them batty. In the Pythagorean system, however, the tones are distinct, and Johnny insists that with his version, he is merely taking Ives at his word.

He also finds justification for his approach in this paragraph from the Epilogue of Ives’s Essays Before a Sonata:

In some century to come, when the school children will whistle popular tunes in quarter-tones ― when the diatonic scale will be as obsolete as the pentatonic is now ― perhaps then these borderland experiences may be both easily expressed and readily recognized. But maybe the music is not intended to satisfy the curious definiteness of man. Maybe it is better to hope that music may be a transcendental language in the most extravagant sense. Possibly the power of literally distinguishing these “shades of abstraction” ― these attributes paralleled by “artistic intuitions” (call them what you will) ― is ever to be denied man for the same reason that the beginning and end of a circle are to be denied.

The century Ives predicted, Johnny said, is now. The circle has been broken, swept up into a spiral of fifths.

Of course, the proof of any theory is in the listening, and I have to say, there are many stunning, ear-stretching moments in this recording. The word that kept recurring to me throughout the 40-minute running time was “liberated.” The dense, complex “Emerson” movement, in particular, gains a new power and resonance. The music seems propelled by a long-pent-up energy, like a tiger suddenly let loose  from a cage. The fresh charge comes at a cost, however, as the last two movements, in which Ives progressively thins out the textures, lose some of their accustomed flavor. “The Alcotts” sounds less naive, “Thoreau” less transparent, with the flute solo at the end (performed sensitively enough by Erin Keppner) struggling to break through the haze. But these are initial impressions, derived perhaps from a lifetime of familiarity with standard performances ― if any performance of the Concord may be called “standard.”  With repeated listening, I expect I might find new values to replace the old.

The two-piano version did not require any form of re-arrangement, Johnny said. All he did was take two copies of the score, black out some of the notes in each, and highlight others. The problems of coordination for the two musicians must have been staggering, but Zucker and Dohi rise to the challenge with astonishing precision. The performance is seamless.


Tuning for the two-piano, microtonal Concord Sonata:

Piano I (Zucker)
  C#   D#         F#    G#   A#
C    D     E     F     G      A     B

Piano II (Dohi)
   Db   Eb            Gb    Ab    Bb

B#   Cx    Fb    E#    Fx    Gx   Cb

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Thought for the Day

The most redundant phrase I know
Would have to be "the winds that blow."
For if the wind's just standing there,
Then what you're looking at is "air."

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The New New Colossus

The Lady with the Lamp looks out to sea
And tells the world, "I'm changing my criteria.
Send all your homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
Unless the little bastards come from Syria."

Monday, January 23, 2017

Oh, how these people have suffered

Russia went through hell in the 20th century (at present it appears to have graduated into purgatory), and its many great artists bore witness to its suffering, either by confronting it directly; or by dreaming, like the early Christians, of the peace beyond the apocalypse; or by simply getting out and moving on. The Fine Art Music Company, a too-well-kept secret in Philadelphia, presented a taste of that survivalist spirit over the weekend with perhaps the strongest program we’ve had from it -- two hours music and poetry that was rooted in Russia’s so-called Silver Age and carried over into the Stalinist era and beyond. 

The composers on the bill were Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Pärt and Schnittke. The poetry, read sometimes in Russian, sometimes in translation, by mezzo-soprano Tatyana Rashkovsky, included the work of Osip Mandelstam, Alexander Blok, and, most prominently, Anna Akhmatova, whose biography  reads like a summary of what befell the country at large.

Performances at the Ethical Society Sunday were uniformly excellent. Rollin Wilber was in top form in three of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes from Op. 32, as was Kasia Marzec-Salwinski in Scriabin’s Sonata-Fantasy Op. 19 and four early Preludes by Schnittke, which have been discovered published only recently. (For all we know, Wilber said during the Q and A, it might have been a US premiere.)

Cellist Yoni Draiblate added sensitive readings of Schnittke’s Musica Nostalgica and Pärt’s Fratres, though I found the pieces themselves unremarkable. Rashkovsky, in songs by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff, was thrilling.

It was a heavy afternoon, but Draiblate and Wilber ended it on a hopeful note with Rachmaninoff’s touching Vocalise, which, in context, felt like a pale ray of sunshine breaking through the gloom. 

The poetry of oppression raised inevitable comparisons to current political situation in the US (the woman sitting in front of me wore a pink pussy cap), but Rashkovsky put it in perspective after the concert. She began life under the Brezhnev regime, she said, and very little can scare her now. While hardly a ringing endorsement of our new chief executive, it makes one grateful for large mercies.

One side note: Kasia and I had a disagreement over the meaning of this verse by Akhmatova, written in 1921:

Don’t torment your heart with earthly joys,
Don’t cling to your wife or your home,
Take the bread from your child
To give to a stranger.
And be the humblest servant of the one
Who was your bitterest foe,
And call the beast of the forest brother,
And don’t ask God for anything, ever.

Kasia saw it as advocating an otherwordly, Christlike ethic of selflessness and renunciation. I took it to be an ironic manifesto of the revolutionary regime, stating, in effect, that from now on life will be miserable, and one has no choice but to submit. I am strengthened in my opinion by the poem’s timing: It was written the same year Akhmatova’s former husband was executed by the Bolsheviks. One the other hand, I must admit my understanding of poetry has often been wide of the mark. I have a talent for missing the point. My college essay on Robinson’s “How Annandale Went Out,” for example, remains one of the signal embarrassments of my life.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Oh, How Do You Feel About Schoenberg?

For Marjory

Oh, how to you feel about Schoenberg?
Please tell me in ten words or less.
I'll need your opinion in writing
Before this affair can progress.

And how do you feel about Webern,
And Carter and Ives and Varèse?
Would you tolerate Boulez and Babbitt
Despite what the Times critic says?

Because if we move in together,
You're going to hear them a lot,
And the last seven women I lived with
Ran out of the house like a shot.

They took all the money and children.
They transferred the cable connection.
They took all the furniture, china, and books,
And left me my record collection.