Sunday, January 28, 2007

Belligerent Echoes

I can't help it. I try to be a nice guy, but every so often my inner Dr. House leaks out. That is perhaps why I love the show so much: it allows me to indulge my sarcastic tendencies in a safe setting where no one gets hurt. I got a little belligerent the other night after my all-Ives concert with Soovin Kim. We were out having a post-concert meal and--it was really my fault!--under the influence of a generous Cosmo and with some incorrigible suggestion from Soovin somehow the topic drifted towards the Barber-Ives Comparison. I believe I said "Ives is a far more intellectually rigorous composer than Barber." Or was it structurally? It was some obnoxious thing that no one should really say, ideally, but it was too late.

One of the assembled company thought this was preposterous, that Ives really just wrote "intuitively" and with very little intellectual control. (What is intellectual control anyway?) And I said "EXCUSE ME?" and with the craggy passion of a riled Ivesian really let loose ... I inadvisedly called Barber a "paint-by-numbers" composer, etc. etc. Egad. Before fists flew, luckily, the subject was changed.

I must admit: the essential, personal fact is that Barber's music doesn't float my boat, while Ives' is one of the great passions of my life. I know in Philadelphia this is nearly a mortal sin (sorry everybody!), while in Danbury (?) it might be more acceptable. However: I once had a hilarious ride in a car with a Danbury presenter, and to liven the floating, idle chitchat I averred my Ives-love, expecting sympathy (he is after all Danbury's claim to fame, not to mention the Connecticut State Composer!) ... But they looked weary, embittered, as if they had been force-fed an Ives casserole all their lives...

There is something about the opening theme of the Barber Violin Concerto, for instance ...

... something that reminds me of some super-sweet pastry from Starbucks, drowned in sugar-drizzle, and maybe with honey and cream on top: maybe one of those "special Frappuccinos" that come up every so often, the Caramel Mocha Cinnamon Pumpkin Extra-Drippy Frappuccino, for $7.99, which I get offered as a sample and decline with a bitter, purist shake of the head. It may be for the same reason that I cannot sit through a Father of the Bride movie; if it were the last movie on a deserted island I would throw myself to the sharks. Certain passages in Spiderman 2 were similarly unacceptable, despite the manifold virtues of Tobey Maguire. However, I am able to consume endless hours of Charmed and The O.C.; the paradoxes multiply. I suppose I discriminate between types of schlock; I am an inveterate, rampant "schlockist."

Just the other day I was playing through Tzigane with Josh, in a rehearsal, and it was all a great deal of fun, and Josh sounded fabulous of course, and I was annoyed that I didn't sound so fabulous in that annoying passage with the repeated notes ... but I was thinking "it's good, but it's no Charles Ives." Even the "dirty" gypsy notes in that piece sound clean, organized, shiny; everything is polished, glittering, sparkling, lush, perfectly voiced: sanitized? It smelt of PineSol, if PineSol were French. But not with Ives; he captures the Down & Dirty better than almost anyone. If he errs, he errs on the Dirty side; but his dirt is not vulgar, it is transcendental fertile earth with lots of terrific spiritual manure. Perhaps the hyper-cleanliness of Ravel is somewhat vulgar, in comparison with the honest, sprawling dirtiness of Ives? ... at least that's the way I feel. Bring on the hate mail!

Ives, like Dr. House, is a curmudgeon. He has an almost self-destructive desire not to be too easily understood; he distrusts clarity, adores the impossible juxtaposition, the impractical counterpoint, the unmanageable, the inaudible. He loves splats and the accumulations of terrific chaotic dissonances.

But, also: Ives is a softie. He has an unbelievable tenderness, a vulnerability to the raw, emotive power of the tunes, a vulnerability to their "reality." (He tries to hide this vulnerability.) When the hymns emerge after his complexities, they are unbearably beautiful, always with a twang, a twinge of dissonance, a reminder of complexities past, now infused into the tune like an aura ... What he adds to the tunes, to these hymns, is not supposed to be destructive or ironic; the added notes and layers are joyful extrapolations, irrepressible tendencies. The "wrong notes," in Ives' world, are often the only "right notes," because they are really the notes to be savored, the outgrowth and taste of enthusiasm. If his ragtimes fall apart, if they court cacophony, that is because that is what they are "inclined to do," because Ives wants to let them smile, let them go. (Really let them go.) For all his comedy, it is not caricature he is after; it is celebratory humor, free of mockery or cruelty ... (This is where he departs seriously from Dr. House). Ives rarely despairs.

He takes a very few precious things, tunes, motives, and handles them with tremendous care and love. (Like Proust: caressing his memories, his experiences). For instance, why should I care about this theme?

Most of the time I don't, or wouldn't. It's an anachronism... hopelessly dated. But Ives recreates his world, his point of view; precisely he recreates in me, freshly, now, his affection for these hymns, his sense of their profuse possibilities and associations... I found myself in airport lounges humming hymns obsessively, loving the themes (I imagined) in the same way he did, and this precisely because he wrote these massive tributes to them, these tremendous surrounding texts, expressing: this is what this means to me, this is the experience of this hymn, the religious, experiential essence of it ... For instance, the last movement of the 1st Violin Sonata is one of the great visions of the march (the hymn above: Work for the night is coming!)... the jangling, clanging, ongoing march, the sense of elation, stride, and what the heck? Even sitting by the pool in Florida, lazily slathered in sunblock, drinking a virgin daiquiri, not at all regretting the fact that the fitness center was closed for renovations, I found myself singing "work for the night is coming": I was a sun-drenched oxymoron.

Barber's theme is beautiful, tuneful, arched, paced... in other words, musical. It proceeds as music "should." (It is compositional, not improvisational.) But Ives' themes don't live like that; they look for a wider justification, a "reason for being." Which is why, in Ives' music, there is a constant dialogue between layers, a recurring sequence: the thing, then the echo; the EVENT, or incident, the musical entity! (wonderful enough) and then the "other" ... Ives is the great master of writing these echoes, these after-phrases, which in their genius suggest a ramification, an inner or deeper meaning, if you like: the hymn as perceived by the soul. There is always the audience without, hearing, perceiving; always another layer, another possible perspective, the curtain drawing out to reveal yet another stage ... the insight which comes like an accident after the fact, the accident which turns out to be the main, most beautiful, point...

Monday, January 22, 2007

... and Forget It

I lurched precariously out of bed at the brisk hour of 10:43 AM, narrowly missed my side table and a nearby ottoman, and found myself standing near the television, waving slightly to and fro like a palm tree in the fair breezes of a Florida morning. My feet clung desperately and groggily to the berber carpet and the abandoned sheets moaned sweet jilted nothings, and in general the question of why I was awake seemed to pose itself in an infinite number of penetrating yet diffuse ways. I knew, if I did something frightfully clever with the little black plastic machine, that some sort of redemptive liquid would emerge, and yet the only salutary action that presented itself was to press the "POWER" button on the television, which I felt might reconnect me with the world I had once loved. At first, the TV supplied only further enigma: a menu of MOVIES and GUEST OPTIONS with a strange musical mantra to ease the transition to the television experience. (Digression: I have never understood the music hotels put behind these menus, music that lilts on and on in eerie abruptly recursive patterns ... I have occasionally, in a tremendous access of laziness, being able to press POWER but exhausting myself in the process and being unable to press any further buttons, even nearby CHAN ... I have occasionally fallen asleep to this "channel" and then reawakened at 4 am, with the music subconsciously clawing underneath the fingernails of my sleep, options glowing ominously in the dark, making me wonder in dream-images why life suddenly seemed a musical Mobius strip, looping and traveling but never finding any fresh surface. Life is a MENU of never chosen options?)

Where was I? Oh yes, on the carpet, swaying, and in front of the now-flickering television, while my fingers stabbed mercilessly at the channel button until something emerged: "The following is not a television program. It is a paid advertisement..."

For some reason those words were the right ones. I sat down upon the bed I had left and stared at the screen like Pierrot besotted with the moon. The story that unfolded was that of the "Nicer Dicer," which converts silly vegetables into omelettes and salsas which emerge as if out of the brow of Zeus, fully intact, from mysterious cupboards. At first it was simply demonstrative: a few instances to prove the perfection of the device, like the Cartesian proof of God. But then, out of the turgid philosophy emerged Dionysian dicing delirium. A Brawny-paper-towel-esque man at least pretended (in that weird bad acting-style which, like that of professional wrestling, seems so characteristically perfect for the genre, which seems to be the key, in fact, to its artistic and economic success) to be passionately swept by the joy of the julienne, and demanded forthwith he be given a NicerDicer. Thwack and thunk and bap and I swear he grunted, and the two of them (the Tristan and Isolde of food prep) thunked together, faster and faster, grunting, squealing with joy! and you couldn't help feeling a little disturbed by it all, and soon the tabletop was a morass of cubes, slices, and other carved forms, and the man couldn't stop himself, he became impatient for even more items, yet more matter to sever and dismember.

It was so perfect. My eyes goggled and shone. Deep memories of humanity kindled, motivating fires amid the taupe mellow oblivion of my room. The pool glistened blue outside. One of my favorite infomercials is, of course, the one where a number of seemingly hungover persons straggle into the Great-Brunch-Resort-Poorly-Decorated-Kitchen-Morning from various bedrooms. All the Great American Types are there: the Crusty Waitress with the Miscellaneous Urban Accent; the Party Bachelor, balding and paunched, hopeful and pathetic; the Staid Married Couple, Probably Presbyterian, Pursing Lips; and the Cute Bemused Old Couple ... it's like a Tennessee Williams play about a food processor. The two presenters/priests stand behind a massive kitchen island (icon of American greatness, Golgotha of our modern mind), and as the characters emerge, they intersperse ongoing purées with amusing commentaries on each of the Types ... a kind of social compendium, poking gentle fun at their devouring audience (which is of course not the "real" audience) and always returning, as in a rondo, to the virtues of blade attachments and color-coded cups. These virtues, they reassure us, can be enjoyed by all America's melting-pot.

Surely the greatest infomercial of all time is Ron Popeil's Hideous Rotisserie. Set it and forget it! On the strength of this minidrama, my incredibly cultured and brilliant friend E bought one of those things--an irony which appalled me, even among the manifold ironies of our lives--and despite my anguished protestations she loved using it until she left in the rain one night... (on purpose?) Watching Ron prong various cuts of meat, one could sense how, through the magic of the genre, the brilliantly untalented writers had plastered visceral masculine appeal onto a white rotisserie oven. Part of the shtick of that infomercial is the stuffing of ever-larger and more improbable carcasses into the device ... Got a whole deer? No problem! just a few strokes of the knife and prong it here and here and click the thingy on, and SET IT AND FORGET IT! I am sure Melville's Great White Whale, if caught, would be Ron-pronged and forgotten until dinnertime when it would emerge steaming and delicious. The blubber would collect in the removable, dishwasher-safe tray. And Ahab would emerge from the briny deeps to dine.

That indeed is part of the infomercial's function: to demystify everything. There is no uncatchable whale. There is no secret to chopping! We are all successful Ahabs. There is no secret to rotisserie cooking! Just plop a cocktail wiener in with some pancake mix and stuff it in the sandwich maker and it's ... whatever it is. There are no secrets, no chores, no learning any more than what you are told. It strikes me that Webern would be an interesting (if dead) composer to commission to write some infomercial operas; his jewelled tapestries of arcane musical secrets might serve as a spectacularly incongruous canvas on which to paint these painfully overt masterpieces of our age. If Art is the cult of Beauty, the Infomercial is the cult of Convenience: they have their cultishness in common. Beauty hides behind veils while Convenience opens its doors 24 hours a day (though employees don't have access to the safe).

My eyes had opened, the bed no longer lusted for me or I for it; I filled a styrofoam cup with water and set the coffeemaker; I had been called out of the wilderness by unadulterated mindsucking crap. And I answered crap's call. I was back, baby. A beautiful sunny day awaited. I would slice and dice the whole world if I could (not literally, duh).

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Charlie Baby

"...After he went, I had a kind of a feeling which I've had off and on when other more or less celebrated (or well known) musicians have seen or played (or tried to play) some of my music. I felt (but only temporarily) that perhaps there must be something wrong with me. Said I to myself, "I'm the only one, with the exception of Mrs. Ives, who likes any of my music... Why do I like these things? ... it just makes everybody else mad, especially well known musicians and critics ...

This Third Violin Sonata is a good sample of an occasional result of the above kind of experience. The themes are well enough, but there is an attempt of please the soft-ears and be good ... The sonata on the whole is a weak sister ... I began to feel more and more, after seances with nice musicians, that, if I wanted to write music that, to me, seemed worth while, I must keep away from musicians."

--Charles Ives

Hear, hear. If only I could somehow keep away from myself! If you're in the New York area and you want to hear this "weak sister" please come tomorrow evening (1/17) to Tonic, where Soovin Kim and I will play various Ives "greatest hits" (if such can be said to exist)... or if you live in the Philadelphia area, please come Friday evening the 19th to the Fleisher Art Memorial, where we will play all Four Ives Violin Sonatas in one evening!

If I only had a dollar for every time some small-minded musician (some Rollo) sniffs dismissively when you express a love for Ives! I can bear up under these trials (loving Ives can be a cross to bear) only because the pleasure of playing this incredible music is continuous, ongoing; these sonatas bear up, grow greater with each time I play them, each time I come back and navigate their improvisatory, ecstatic, zany, reverent madness.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A New Philosophy

The New Year is the evil season for stocktaking (what am I? where am I? what does it all mean?), and yesterday I found myself staring, amidst a table of bargain books, at one entitled The Life Audit. How horrendous, to "audit" your own life like an accountant! But mysteriously, insidiously, I could not prevent myself from opening the book and reading myself in its terms. Particularly upsetting was the Relationship Area, kind of a heartless spreadsheet-of-the-heart marooned at the back of the volume, and in perusing the book's criteria, I came to understand something that perhaps I already knew: that the only truly "successful romantic relationship" I have had in the last two years is with my Jamie Oliver cookbook.

Yes braised fennel with cherry tomatoes white wine and thyme. Oh, baby, pot-roasted poussins agro dolce. And just now with a delicious novel resting on my knee between bites I enjoyed some Neil's Yard goat curd with beets followed by a unbelievably sexy braised lamb shank with parsnips and some bracing purple sprouting broccoli and I allowed myself to take stock of my own delight. Delight is usually sadly unmeasurable.

A romance with a cookbook is an interesting proposition. Suppose you spill some olive oil on your lover ... oh, perhaps this line of comparison belongs in a different blog... Some will say, in order to interact with your cookbook fully you need to put out a fair amount of effort, like a relationship, QED. (However, when you want your cookbook to go away and sit quietly on a shelf in the kitchen it will do so without complaint.) But I am finding the best way to interact with a cookbook is to imagine great feasts in the mind, to live the recipes in an ideal, Platonic world, as they more or less appear in the photos. It saves tremendously on cleanup. The two of you can spend happy hours gazing out windows, imagining forests of tender leeks and plum chutneys and etc. etc. and no one need be the wiser.

A couple of days ago I found myself in the S & M Cafe (sausage and mash cafe, get your mind out of the gutter) staring through heavy eyes at the jetlaggy, noontime hour and trying to force down a despicably over-toasted black pudding, a crusty food scab. Friend J amusingly chose that cloudy gray moment to launch into a discussion about happiness. Do discussions of happiness only occur when one is unhappy? Or do they simply make one unhappy, by definition? Now, friend L (very different from J) had just recently referred to me and my general shtick as "the hapless pianist"--which I assumed was British for absent-minded, disheveled, somewhat given to wandering about randomly, etc. And while J was expounding on Plato's idea of happiness I wondered aloud whether the etymology of "happiness" and "hapless" was the same. J poohpoohed my too-easy effort, but later, smugly, with unmeasurable delight, I informed him that I was right: that they both derived from the Middle English root hap.

One reads a great many essays on happiness these days, as per this article in the New York Times. Scientists are horning on our territory, whoever "we" are. But I want to propose a whole new Philosophy: the Philosophy of the Hap. Hap is so much shorter than happiness, and must therefore be much easier to achieve. Hap in Middle English is supposed to be good fortune or luck; a turn of good fortune. But I propose a more refined definition: a hap is a digestible unit of experience, and it lasts from the moment you are confronted with it until the moment you feel you have "understood" it, that is the moment when its irreconcilable wonder is destroyed by you in the relentless filing process of mental classification. So it is irresistible to try to understand experiences, but you must also accept that in the process you are kind of killing them, and that when you really feel you "understand" them, you don't have them anymore. So, my philosophy is: the impossible prolongation of the Hap. Of course, my philosophy is impossible. Hence I am happily hapless.

Presumably, this blog is somewhat about classical music and in a quest for some topic relevance I'll note that last night I was listening to Dinu Lipatti on friend S's stereo system, who's a very very admired pianist, as you all know, and so I fully expect to get some hate mail when I say the following. It was all very pleasant in its way and as I listened I began to "understand" him a bit more, but I found no Haps. No, not true: there were a few hints of Haps glittering here and there, not too clearly (because that would be "indulgent"), but the score, structure, line had been so digested and comprehended that the Haps were relegated to the corners and some larger construct was sitting in front of them. And they had no time to stretch themselves out. That is the clearest way I can express how his extraordinary playing makes me feel: not wondering at all. And life's too short for that sort of thing, in my opinion. Meanwhile, before you all start throwing things at me for badmouthing this tremendous pianist, I've got troubles of my own... my Jamie Oliver cookbook is getting a little pissy and wants me to pay it some more attention, take it out for a nice dinner maybe once in a while, go dancing, have some fun, instead of sitting around on the couch and imagining what it might eventually do.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Just in case everybody was kinda weirded out by the last post (insert slyly self-satisfied giggle), here's a traditional blog thingamajiggie to get us back on track. For the first time in my life, I realize I have been "tagged." (Have I been tagged before without knowing? Shiver.) From Jessica Duchen:

Find the nearest book. Turn to page 123.
Go to the fifth sentence on the page.
Copy out the next three sentences and post to your blog.
Name the book and the author, and tag three more folks.

"Not so much perhaps of our secret in itself, but of what's represented and as, we must somehow feel, protected and made deeper and closer by it." And his fine face, relaxed into happiness, covered her with all his meaning. "Our being as we are."

--Henry James, The Wings of the Dove

Reluctantly I tag in turn Matt, Eighth Blackbird, and hmmm... Heather over at Musewings. And on the 3rd day of January, 2007, amidst the chaos of our world's endless dirty laundry, and while gazing at yet another sinkful of stewing dishes, I'll offer a toast--even on confessional Think Denk--to secrets, to what our secrets represent, and nothwithstanding the virtues of resolutions, a toast to our being, in the best sense, as we are.

FRIGHTENING POSTSCRIPT: It so happens I picked up the next nearest book just for kicks and giggles right after I posted the above, which happened to be a book of poetry by Eugenio Montale, and on page 123, fifth sentence, I got the following very different thought:

The wind rises, the dark is torn to shreds,
and the shadow you cast on the fragile
railing bristles. Too late

if you want to be yourself! The mouse
drops from the palm tree, the lightning's on the fuse,
on the long, long lashes of your gaze.

All I have to say about that is: eerie. "Too late if you want to be yourself!" And happy New Year's to you too, Eugenio.