Saturday, October 31, 2015

800 Words: The Sardonic Catharsis of Shostakovich Part 3


The best music does not exist merely, as so much pop music does (and as so much forgettable classical music once did...), to magnify the significance of the present moment - if the present moment is all that matters, it doesn't really matter what music you listen to so long as it pumps your adrenaline, increases endorphins, fosters camaraderie, and soothes your mood. If the music burns with no more message than a sentence you can find on a fortune cookie, then it is merely background noise which you can use as a tool to elicit the proper emotional response you which for at that given moment.

The best music is far too complex for that - you listen to it with the knowledge that you have no idea how it will make you feel, because every experience with it can be completely different from the time before. It inspires awe and love, but does so in an extra dimension from a canned music that you know will elicit the response in you which you want before you put it on. What it has to say to you is utterly unique to it, and can only be learned with time and repetition's fourth dimension. In April, it may evoke joy, in July it may evoke nostalgia, in October sadness, and in January, awe, and God only knows what the music will make you feel in twenty years' time.

Nothing else in the world makes us aware of the universe's largeness to the extent of music. There are no words to properly elucidate music's impact upon us, because it clearly exists in a dimension we cannot yet understand in which we can hear time itself be bent. The way this is done is that in every piece of music, there are three types of rhythm: phonic rhythm, metric rhythm, and harmonic rhythm. The phonic rhythm is the most atomic level of music - every change in the music, every change of note or dynamic or tone color by every instrument is an articulation of phonic rhythm, and every possible combination of the above is phonic rhythm as well. Once the phonic rhythm is shaped on the micro level, it becomes metric rhythm, which is, of course, the rhythm around which the notes are organized. Shaping the metric rhythm is, at least in Western music, the raison d'etre of it all - the Harmonic Rhythm, by which music goes through a series of chords, modes, and keys and tells the fundamental building blocks of its story and message. Harmonic rhythm is the macro level of music - spans of time large enough that we don't even perceive the change as rhythm, but rhythm it most certainly is.

It is in the interplay between these three rhythmic forces that music often seems to bend time itself. It is something more than simply beautiful, it is an experience not unlike travel through time, and if not through time, then at least through alternate dimensions. Every shift in the harmonic rhythm, whether consciously or unconsciously, causes your ear to anticipate the next shift. But if a composer is good, he does not fulfill your ear's expectations, and he constantly surprises you. If a composer is great, he utterly transcends your expectations into dimensions completely beyond what your imaginations thought capable. A great composition makes you aware on at least three different levels, not only to contemplate the orderly metric rhythm of this present moment, but also to revaluate all those microscopic phonic rhythms you heard in moments past, and contemplate all the macro possibilities of harmonic rhythm henceforth.

Beginning with Wagner, composers began a process of utter abandonment of tonal expectation. By my estimation, the greatest composers since Wagner - here's just a quick list on which I'm no doubt forgetting many: Brahms, Janacek, Mahler, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, Britten, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams, Bruckner, Nielsen, Sibelius, and to a lesser extent, modernists and pre-modernists like Ives, Ravel, Stravinsky, Copland, Bartok, Berg, Debussy, Messiaen - have all, in their ways, been voices of conservatism; near-obsessives in their focus upon recapturing the embers of a tonal framework to which Wagner lit a match, because the miracle that is harmonic rhythm is only within the tonal sphere. Harmonic rhythm is the entire reason classical music exists - without it, we might as well never listen to it again.

When music abandoned tonality, it abandoned eternity. The most cutting edge music was not a means of contemplation, it was a drug, meant to accentuate the present moment without worry for the past or future. Once Tristan premiered, it was only a matter of time before free-floating tonality was judged an insufficient drug, and the public abandoned music in its more traditional forms for a kind of music that uses music's far more primal force - rhythm - rather than harmony as its structural backbone. We have never recaptured that audience ever since.


"Schönberg is dead, Ellington is dead, but the guitar is eternal. Sterotyped harmonies, hackneyed melodies, and a beat that gets stronger as it gets duller - that is what's left of music, the eternity of music. Everyone can come together on the basis of those simple combinations of notes. They are life itself proclaiming its jubilant "Here I am!" No sense of communion is more resonant, more unanimous, than the simple sense of communion with life. It can bring Arab and Jew together, Czech and Russian. Bodies pulsing to a common beat, drunk with the consciousness that they exist. No work of Beethoven's has ever elicited greater collective passion than the constant repetitive throb of the guitar."

- Milan Kundera

I'm a huge Kundera fan, though never moreso than I was in college. I have, so often, thought along the lines which Kundera articulated here that when I first read this paragraph in college (though I can't remember which book of his for the life of me), that it was as though Kundera played a musical note within me that I was struggling to know was there.

And yet, as I get older, and approach an age when a writer ought to start thinking about making something more permanent than a blogpost, I find myself thinking that Kundera is, to say the least, more than a little hard on rock music.

It's not that Rock can't be eternal art: anybody who's ever heard Imagine, or What's Goin' On, or Let It Be, or A Change is Gonna Come, or Blowin' in the Wind, or In My Life, or Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, or or God Only Knows, or Sympathy for the Devil, or One, or Tangled Up in Blue, or Dancing in the Street, or Bridge Over Troubled Water, or Redemption Song, or The Times They Are a-Changin', or A Day in the Life, or Eleanor Rigby, or Born to Be Wild, or Stand by Me, or I'm So Lonseome I Could Cry, or You Can't Always Get What You Want, or Knockin' on Heaven's Door, or Desolation Row, or Both Sides Now, or Folsom Prison Blues, or Baby What'd I Say, or Moment of Surrender, or The Sounds of Silence, or Georgia on My Mind, or Only the Lonely, or Fire and Rain, or I'll Take You There, or Sloop John B, or Bloody Sunday, or Sail Away, or Hallelujah, or The Harder They Come, or Maybe I'm Amazed, or Beautiful Day, or The End, or Fight the Power, or Cortez the Killer, or Chimes of Freedom and I Shall Be Released, or Jungleland and Thunder Road, or She's Leaving Home and Hey Jude, or so so so so many others, knows that these might be songs that can be played, sung, heard, and loved, by anyone who hears them. You would have to be deaf to the wonders of music to not here the greatness that glows from them with all the inner luminosity of the world's greatest music. This is not just the usual silly tosh about romantic love made by silly musicians for silly people, this is music that touches, through a mixture of music and lyrics, a place completely similar, and yet totally different.

It is so very different from what once was music that it almost requires a different name. This emotional combination derives from music that would be stupid without words, and words that would be stupid without music. It is only in the combination of the two that this music reveals a purpose - in some ways, a pretty extraordinary one. It is similar to variations on both music and poetry, but different all the same. It is the spiritual child of the Musical, and therefore the spiritual grandchild of opera and art-song. If you subtracted one artform from all the various arts which it synthesizes, it would be terrible. But together, it becomes something so much more than what Milan Kundera says it is.

Perhaps when we take this artform truly seriously, we will give it a different name. But so far, we don't really take it seriously. I often think to myself that, like the Troubadours of the Late Middle Ages who wrote their own songs and traveled from town to town, having to produce their own shows, we have created an amalgam of music and poetry that is perfect for an era that requires the maximum utility from its musicians. The best of them were probably very good indeed, and touched upon eternal greatness, nevertheless, nobody remembers the music of Jaufre Rudel de Blaia or Bernart de Ventadorn or Piere Vidal, because the circumstances under which they wrote their songs - just a voice with rhyming lyrics and a guitar - are so easily duplicable. We can hear music almost exactly like the Troubadours in our own era, but hear it in our own language, about people and problems and sentiments we more readily understand. Nevertheless, this is the best aesthetic we're ever going to get under circumstances of a democratic world in which everybody cares about their rights and nobody cares about their responsibilities. Anything is possible, but nobody should be too surprised if, a few centuries hence, there is barely a note of 20th century music which anybody listens to. 

I don't doubt that once upon a time, there were many people who found elements of Mozart and Beethoven stupid, perhaps there still are, but when you view the reduced complexity of the harmonic rhythm in comparison to Mozart and Beethoven, and the reduced capacity of the vocabulary in comparison to the poetry of Shakespeare and John Donne, you see that both are significantly reduced. Perhaps its reduced because its teleology seems (to me at least) to articulate sentiments that are at bottom a little more simplistic - would anyone say that even great songs like Imagine or The Times They Are a'-Changin can even climb to foothills of Beethoven's 3rd's and Don Giovanni's eternal summits unless they're trying to avoid being called elitist or snobbish?

The difference between the classical music of Old Europe and the various classical musics of America is that the greatest music of Old Europe has survived the transition to cultures completely unlike the ones in which they were birthed, and even if people don't know Mozart and Beethoven and Bach, they still know who they are and are in awe of their genius. Will a similar awe carry over the next two-hundred years for Bob Dylan and John Lennon and Paul McCartney?


Perhaps it's the best we were ever going to do in our era when the possibility of so many technical means are at our disposal, and none of us yet knows how to properly use any of them. The best work of this electronic era is in artforms that are still completely new: cinema and television, perhaps radio and now podcasts too. Musical literacy's declined precipitantly since World War I, and in many ways, literacy itself seem to have been declining since the 1960's. In its place is a completely new visual language - Cinema, a combination of drama, music, and visual art - the latter being the most basic of all artforms. When you place cinema into the long-form views of television, you throw literature into the mix as well. What separates cinema from what came before is that it is literally visual art that moves and emits sounds and uses music to color its own mood. It is an entire new dimension of artistic possibility, one that will take literally centuries to exhaust. The novel as we know it seemed to come into shape just as Shakespeare seemed to exhaust the possibilities of the stage. By the time of Moliere, the novel was clearly ascendant. By the time of Ibsen, the novel was so dominant that nobody thought a playwright could ever write plays as powerful as the greatest novelists. Just as Don Quixote seemed to magically appear in Shakespeare's wake, Birth of a Nation and Intolerance seemed to magically appear just as the literary novel was reaching its apex. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Eliot, and Dickens were all merely a generation before, Tolstoy had only been dead for five years; James, Twain, Cather, Chekhov, Gorky, Hardy, Kafka, Joyce, Proust, Mann, Hamson, and Conrad, were all at work or quite recently deceased - it was an epoch, three-hundred years later, when all the complex psychological and metaphysical problems first laid out in Shakespeare were being demonstrated to their fullest plumage. But just as these energies reached their summit, they began to exhaust themselves. So great was the intellectual energy of the world that a new world, a much more technological world couldn't help but be born from it that would (will) vastly expand the possibilities of what it means to be human.

But so great is the onus of mastering this technology that no person could ever master it alone. A novelist can plot out every word of his novel, and these inanimate objects and concepts cannot help but conform to what a novelist wills with only the limits of his imagination to stop him. A composer may not control his performances, but only a composer has ultimate authority over the notes. The artist has his raw materials, the poet his rhymes and metrics. But a film can no more have a single author than can a Medieval Cathedral. So vast is the undertaking of film that it generally requires hundreds or thousands of people to present their faces and bodies to the camera, and hundreds or thousands of people behind the camera to render those on camera to the correct aesthetic effect. Every movie, even the worst pre-packaged crap, is a miracle of invention with more authors responsible for its success and failure than ever we know.

What can today's music, still basking in the afterglow of the Composer's Era, possibly be next to these monumental achievements? If the greatest of Troubadors had to compete in splendor with new Eglisses (Cathedrals) like those Chartres and Amiens and Reims and Rouen and Notre Dame de Paris, how could they possibly compare? So how can even the songs I mentioned above compare in their splendor to Citizen Kane or The Rules of the Game or Children of Paradise or Tokyo Story or The Dekalog or Apocalypse Now or Fanny and Alexander or Mullholland Dr. or Shoah or The Godfather Movies or The 400 Blows or The Apu Trilogy or Ugetsu Mongatori or Raging Bull or Touch of Evil or Sansho the Bailiff or Persona or Blue Velvet or Wild Strawberries or Nashville or Chinatown or A Day in the Country or Aguirre: The Wrath of God or The Seventh Seal or Do The Right Thing or Wild Strawberries or Jules et Jim or Three Colors or To Be or Not To Be and so so so so many others?

Film is the one art form in today's world that is perhaps more miraculous than music. Music allows us to imagine alternate dimensions, but film literally opens up a porthole to the physical properties of an alternate dimension that exists directly in front of us. Nothing in music can compare to that, but since music so little physical substance (does it technically have any at all?), it has nothing but the personality of its creators to animate it. It requires overwhelming personality for a composer or performer to give audiences any kind of great musical experience. Film, on the other hand, is almost the literal opposite of music. Its physical properties are so manifest that it requires almost imperceptible subtleties - one blink of an eye from an actor in the wrong place (or the right one...) can change the entire meaning of a movie. One scene with improper backlighting obscures necessary details to the movie's comprehension. Music works because the individual expression of the performer is compelling in a manner that the audience finds receptive. Cinema works because the audience perceives things that its practitioners only suggest.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

800 Words: The Sardonic Catharsis of Shostakovich Part 2


From now until music ceases to be played, the years '56 and '06 will have dual anniversaries in which Mozart and Shostakovich fight for concert hall eminence - Mozart having been born in 1756, Shostakovich in 1906. But in 2006, audiences will still bloated from the last glut of Mozart performances that inevitably accompany every year with a '41 and '91 affixed, Mozart having been died in 1791. 1991 came at the tail end of the 'period instrument revolution,' and audiences emerged from the newly minted 'historically informed' conceptions of musicians like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and John Eliot Gardiner and Charles Mackerras and Arnold Ostman with a so profoundly changed conception of Mozart's music that many music lovers spontaneously decided that all the Mozart they'd heard until then was mere Mozartkugel. The previous Mozart celebrations taking place within 1956's suburban/domestic idyll did an enormous amount to show that Mozart should be taken as seriously as a composer of more intimate music - chamber music, piano sonatas, concertos for nearly every orchestral instrument - as any composer who ever lived. But the celebrations of 1991 showed that in the 'grand forms': symphonies, operas, choral works, Mozart should never have been a lightweight to be shoved aside by later composers who got less adrenaline through more instruments. Mozart was no longer merely charming and poetic, he was Beethoven's companion in arms to - a happy warrior for the post-Cold War world of 1991, a far happier world than the world of 2006.

In 2006, Shostakovich experienced his first centenary celebration - no longer was Shostakovich a contemporary still to be evaluated, he was a titan with an unassailable niche in the Pantheon, coming down to bestow us with an eternal message. 2006, with a new American imperium seemingly set to dominate the world, belonged to Shostakovich. The world turned on its dark side: major terrorist attacks in every major capital of the West either occurred or imminent, and an American superpower responding to them in manners that more and more seemed to resemble the Soviets they'd so recently defeated. Everything which the Soviets used to do during the Cold War: blatant invasions of hostile nations without even a proxy cover, wiretapping citizens without warrant, renditions of residents without trial, trials with foregone conclusions even when defendants were permitted one, propaganda and paranoia on every television channel, and every person suspected an abetter of the enemy who did not shout their support for this militarism from the rooftops. No, despotism in modern America on its worst day never got even close to tyranny of the Soviet Union on its finest... not yet at least... but how could the Land of the Free have come so close to tyranny?... Yet again?...

Hopefully, the Bush Administration, and so much that was authoritarian and incompetent about it, will remain the distant memory it now seems after seven years of Barack Obama (though I wouldn't bank on it...). Nevertheless, the atmosphere of those years, no matter what side you took, felt very much like the mid-century. The internet seemed like a sleeping beast - as undefined in 2006 as television was in 1966. Terrorism did not merely seem like a problem of law enforcement, it was an existential threat - an explosion that kills three could be a harbinger of explosions that could kill three million. We were not facing a few rogue cells, we were facing an implacable monolithic enemy. All there was to disagree about was whether the enemy was the terrorists, or whether it was us.

We've reaped the whirlwind of the 2000's ever since, and yet, as often happens, the whirlwind is so much less of a threat than we'd made it out to be. America may not be the "Greatest Country in the World", or even the 35th from the best, but a place that can go in a few years from Bush to Obama, from the precipice of a super-depression to lowest unemployment since the 80's, is truly resilient. The world has changed as much from 2006 to 2015 as it did from 1991 to 2006, and nowhere has it changed more than in Vladimir Putin's Russia.


(People still call it a piece of trash...)

In 2006, every major world city had a Russian maestro to lead the Shostakovich celebrations - Jansons, Temirkanov, Barshai, Rozhdestvensky, Bychkov, Kreizberg, Pletnev, Ashkenazy, Rostropovich, Kitayenko, Lazarev, Sinaisky, Spivakov, Simonov, Fedoseyev, Gorenstein, Shostakovich's son Maxim Shostakovich, and Valery Gergiev seemingly in every world city all at once - all of them had met Shostakovich as young men, and all were trained by Ilya Musin, the Soviet conducting guru, to give concerts chocked with more primal music-making than just about any Westerner. By the 1970's, classical music was a specialized interest for virtually everywhere but the Soviet Union. In London or New York, the concert hall might be a place where older generations gathered to hear their classics, or where intelligent people gathered to hear interesting aural speculations on what music might be, but was there anywhere except for behind the Iron Curtain where the orchestra, the piano, the string quartet, was a way of life? Was there anywhere else where classical music was still demanded to express the plight of a person's soul? A nation's soul?

Two great Russians had an annus mirabilis that year: Shostakovich, and the man who suddenly took on the mantle of his high priest - Valery Gergiev.

Every generation has one conductor who creates true miracles: Priests and Rabbis claim to show us miracles on earth, but conductors genuinely can. Occasionally, perhaps once in a generation, a conductor arises whose very purpose seems to be to show us those miracles. Every concert is an attempt to reach out to the miraculous - they will either show us something extraordinary, or risk spectacular failure in the attempt. There is no routine at their concerts - with no advance warning, this miracle worker can completely change the tempo, or alter the dynamics, or bend the rhythm to the breaking point and then past it. It doesn't always succeed - a risk is a risk because it might fail - but every concert under their auspice is an attempt to give us the most extraordinary possible experience of music from the orchestra, which is still the most extraordinary of musical instruments. In this generation, that conductor is Valery Gergiev. Before Gergiev, there was Leonard Bernstein. Before Bernstein, there was Wilhelm Furtwangler. Before Furtwangler, perhaps there was Gustav Mahler....

What Wilhelm Furtwangler was to German music seventy years ago, Valery Gergiev is to Russian music today. In neither case has any conductor in recorded history or living memory ever given performances of their preferred music that are so intense, so searing, so searching. Some conductors come close: surely Yuri Temirkanov and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and Mariss Jansons give us tastes of the extraordinary with regularity, but not even Temirkanov has made so many music lovers exit the concert hall in so complete a daze as Gergiev has.

For the first half of his career, Gergiev seemed to avoid the mantle that was so obviously his. He made his name throughout the world as a guest conductor with endless performances with every major orchestra of Prokofiev, of Tchaikovsky, of Mussorgsky, of Scriabin and Rachmaninov, even of Stravinsky, but the latest and greatest of those masters, was rarely featured. There was something about Shostakovich that was clearly too discomforting to feature internationally - too recent... too close to home... too close in soundworld to the more challenging master Soviet composers of more recent generations... too uncomfortable... too.... politicized...

It was a bit surprising. There is little in Shostakovich's musical soundworld that is as challenging as Stravinsky, or as even Prokofiev and Scriabin. In so many parts of the West, Shostakovich is a byword for the comfortable romanticism in which Gergiev's Western concerts seemed to specialize. Nevertheless, there was clearly something about Shostakovich Gergiev wanted to avoid - perhaps because he knew that Shostakovich, the real Shostakovich, is a hundred times more challenging and explosive than both his most fervent Western admirers and detractors choose to see. He was even quoted in the nineties as saying that he stopped conducting Shostakovich's 5th because every Russian conductor is always asked to do it, and every performance seems to paint a larger mustache on Stalin.

It's a good line - Gergiev always had a decent sense of humor - but it didn't just illustrate discomfort with being pigeonholed as a Russian conductor, it also illustrated an extreme discomfort with the West's view of Russia as a place crawling with barbarians. In the genteel world of classical music, Eastern Europeans like Gergiev are still viewed with more than a touch of Asiatic 'otherness.' To a generation of orchestral subscribers who grew up in concert halls dominated by the starchy imperiousness of maestros like Bernard Haitink or Claudio Abbado, the raw visceral excitement of a Gergiev concert seems a touch vulgar or dangerous, perhaps even forbidden.

Like Americans, Russians will always be viewed by "Europe" with a bit of suspicion. The very refinement of Europe becomes an impediment to the very things Europeans claim they prize - their view of high culture has become so refined that their culture long since desiccated. The robust, healthy culture of drawing rooms where families were expected to master Brahms and Mendelssohn quartets together is now the artificial culture where their most musical great-grandchildren are expected by their professors to learn the inconsequential atonal note-spinning of another professor so that they can justify massive government subsidies with no strings attached. The glories of music in Central Europe have so long since given way to decadence that much of the new music of Central Europe would be self-parodying to anyone but its most fervent adherents.

20th Century America began an entirely new musical tradition, as different from what came before as the notated polyphony of Leonin and Perotin was from those who preceded them. It is only in Eastern Europe, Russia and its environs, that new classical music seems to reproduce itself in a state resembling health.


Art is not a science, nor is it a feat of engineering, nor is it a drug, and therefore, originality is no guarantor of artistic value. Art which we value today for its originality today may be more prized by future generations for its psychiatric value than its aesthetic value.

Even in the hands of Bach and Mozart, music is by no means a perfect art-form. Classical Music may not hold any antidote to the agonies of our time, but it is a well-built boat that can carry those who love it from the shores of one era to the shores of the next with their spiritual sanity intact. It is a place of soul where we can experience eternal and ecstatic truths, unchanging from one generation to the next. If the Ionian Mode, Polyphony, and Sonata-Allegro Form, resound in the ears of one generation, they will resound equally in the ears of the next, even if - and perhaps particularly because - each concept means something completely different from grandfather to father to son to grandson.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

800 Words: The Sardonic Catharsis of Shostakovich Part 1


High school musicians all love Shostakovich. The music is surly and ironic, yet horrifyingly sincere. He speaks directly to the deepest recesses of gloom, but still manages to conceal its gloom in just enough insouciance to glamorize it. Shostakovich, perhaps more even than Mahler or Tchaikovsky, is everything in music that is perfect for adolescents. And just as he's perfect for adolescents, Shostakovich is perfect for advanced music students as well. Like Beethoven, Shostakovich stretches a musician's technique to the absolute breaking point, and gives him every bit of the same abundance of emotional reward for their efforts.

College musicians hate Shostakovich, college composers anyway. They inevitably come upon a few professors who rant to them that the music is shit. Even if they don't believe anything else their professors tell them, there still remain the obvious nagging questions that yank through their new musical education and social security when they experience their former passion: Why all that gloom? Why all that bombast? Why all that structural padding and long-windedness? Why all the hostility to modernism? Surely, many progressive young musicians hear in his music a reactionary older relative lecturing them on the dangers of the slippery slope to socialism.


Personally, I don't think I understood truly Shostakovich, like Tchaikovsky, until I began reading Russian literature. When you read Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, and particularly Dostoevsky, you read passage after passage of characters talking so frankly about the state of their souls that you begin to wonder if suppression of free speech was the only way Russians would ever get out of their own navels. Russia is known as having the most powerful novelistic and short story tradition for a very specific reason - the stakes are simply so much higher. These characters are confessing their deepest agonies, and you never doubt that the agonies are agonies that, if we are fully human, we absolutely share. Like human beings, their suffering is leavened by humor and absurdity, but never enough to forget that suffering is the most important component of their lives. It therefore follows that there's nothing truly philosophical about this manner of engaging with literature - because the needs of these characters are so much more viscral than any philosophical concept. Suffering, true suffering, is too primal to be dominated by any intellectual abstraction. Philosophy of course makes enormous appearnces in the texts of many Russian novelists, but for all the philosophical depth, the philosophy exists to animate the characters and story, not the characters and story existing to animate the philosophy.

German literature was once something light and witty - when you read Heine and Hoffmann and the Brothers Grimm and Lichtenberg and Simplicius Simplissimus, you see that Germany was once a very different place: not a place with its head in the clouds but much closer to the Earth - humbler, less ambitious, less devoted to mastery of the world and its contents. Once you start with Goethe and writers he clearly influenced - writers like Mann, Hesse, Rilke, Joseph Roth, and no doubt so many other writers I have yet to read a word by - seem so bogged down by the heavy philosophical tradition which all the practitioners have to contend with, that creating a reality or characters that live off the page seems to be a secondary concern to translating philosophical ideas into stories. Only in music could did the German creators truly get away from philosophy, and Wagner did everything he could to stuff philosophy into music too.

English novels are just one facet of their long and glorious literary tradition, and hardly the most important - compared to the weight and urgency of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, George Eliot, for all her glories, seems like she's more interested in the trivial concerns and ethics of trivial people, and compared with Shakespeare, even the drama of Dickens is a bit weak. Given the weight and import of Shakespeare and the King James Bible and the metaphysical poets, it shouldn't be too surprising that England's best music also probably comes from the High Renaissance.

It should be obvious (but sadly, it isn't to many), even the best of our written literature here in America is a pale and weak brew next to our movies and TV shows. Past 1970, you can count the high literary fiction that broke into America's public consciousness on your fingers: Ragtime, The Color Purple, Beloved, Infinite Jest, The Corrections, Kite Runner.... As for our music, well... you probably know how I feel...

And let's not even get started on the French...

No one in their right mind would mention Tchaikovsky in the same breath as Mozart, or Shostakovich in the same breath as Beethoven. I also doubt that anyone with equal expertise in music and literature (which, in spite of the sweeping generalizations above, I should in no way claim...) would ever try to say Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich are equal to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in quality and influence. But it is astonishing how close they both get, because what was once true about German music from Bach until Wagner became true about Russian literature from Pushkin until... well,... maybe the death of Solzhenitsyn? What is most important is the emotional bond between creator and audience, everything else is masturbation.

What was the Russian difference? Why did the arts mean more over there than ever it does over here in our lifetime? Did they simply suffer more? Perhaps over a longer period of time they did, but it's hard to claim that they suffered more than Germans or the Chinese, particularly when Russia was responsible for inflicting so much of their suffering. Were their artistic creators more ambitious than in other countries? Hardly - there are relatively taxonomic creations after the manner of German and French thinkers who are more interested in theory than practice.

This is shameful pop psychology stereotyping on my part, but perhaps the difference between Western Europe and Eastern Europe is that Russia is a relatively new modern civilization, emerging from the back woods of history only in the late 18th century. But unlike America, who emerged at a similar moment from a new continent in which they could evolve completely separately, Russia was fused by geography to Europe - to compete with England and France, they had to develop their own tradition, and develop it at a severely accelerated rate. America, so the myth goes at least, is relatively free to be frivolous, a vast expanse of arable land where you can be free to do whatever you like. Russia was, perhaps is, an even vaster expanse of un-farmable land in which society has to be ruled with an iron fist lest everybody freeze to death in the winter. To survive in Russia, you had to trust your neighbors with everything about you. To make the bleak mid-winters worth trudging through, you needed entertainment that was especially luminous and meaningful.

It's the same feeling you get from earlier German music, or earlier British verse, or Renaissance Italian art, classic American movies, or perhaps even Medieval French iconography. It's the feeling you get from documents that show a society, a people, truly grappling with themselves - the feeling that history is not something to study but something being written right now. You have finally learned how to paint, but the canvas is still blank, and you're painting not only for you, but for everyone you know, and every ancestor who worked and suffered so that you can finally make a mark on the world and be remembered in a way they never could. Here is what Carlos Fuentes had to say about it:

"Let me tell you about a curious experience I had this summer. I was writing a novella about the adventures of Ambrose Bierce in Mexico. Bierce went to Mexico during the Revolution, in 1914, to join up with Pancho Villa's army. I had the problem that the voice had to be Bierce's, and it was extremely difficult to render in Spanish. I had to make Bierce speak with his voice, which is available to me in his stories, so I wrote the novella in English. It was an absolutely terrifying experience. I would be writing along in English when suddenly from under the table Mr. Faulkner would appear and say aah, aah, can't do that, and from behind the door Mr. Melville would appear and say, can't do it, can't do it. All these ghosts appeared; the narrative tradition in English asserted itself so forcefully that it hamstrung me. I felt very sorry for my North American colleagues who have to write with all these people hanging from the chandeliers and rattling the dishes. You see, in Spanish we have to fill in the great void that exists between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries. Writing is more of an adventure, more of a challenge. There is only a great desert between Cervantes and ourselves, if you except two nineteenth-century novelists, Clarin and Galdos.
..I remember ten years ago I was talking to an American writer, Donald Barthelme, and he said, “How do you do it in Latin America? How do you manage to write these immense novels? Come up with all these subjects, these very, very long novels? Is there no paper shortage in Latin America? How do you do these things? We find we have great difficulty in the United States as American writers to find subjects. We write slim books, slimmer and slimmer books.” But what I answered on that occasion is that our problem is that we feel we have everything to write about. That we have to fill four centuries of silence. That we have to give voice to all that has been silenced by history.
If you had asked me today where the novel is alive and kicking, I would say it's basically in Latin America and in so-called Eastern Europe, which the Czechoslovaks insist on calling Central Europe. They think of Eastern Europe as Russia. In any case, there you have two cultural zones where people feel that things have to be said, and if the writer does not say them, nobody will say them. This creates a tremendous responsibility; it puts a tremendous weight on the writer, and also creates a certain confusion, because one could say, Oh, the mission is important, the theme is important, therefore the book has to be good, and that is not always the case. How many novels have you read in Latin America that are full of good intentions—denouncing the plight of the Bolivian miner, of the Ecuadorian banana picker—and turn out to be terrible novels which do nothing for the Bolivian tin miner or the Ecuadorian banana picker, or anything for literature either . . . failing on all fronts because they have nothing but good intentions.
But still, we had a whole past to talk about. A past that was silent, that was dead, and that you had to bring alive through language. And so for me writing was basically this need to establish an identity, to establish a link to my country and to a language which I—along with many other writers of my generation—felt we in some way had to slap around, and wake up, as if we were playing the game of Sleeping Beauty."


Just earlier today, I sat down and tried to start a violin sonata. I gave up after ten bars: some Shostakovich here, some Bloch there, some Beethoven everywhere in between. I have very little original to say as a composer, and my best written music is almost always either in arrangments or in borrowing other composers' source material. As a creative musician, I don't have an original bone in my body. But as an improvisor, I can go for hours on the violin, secure in the fact that I can do things no one has done on the page.

I'm going to 'humble-brag' for a moment, dear reader, and tell you that I've consistently heard myself called, by people in a position to know, the 'best violin improvisor in Baltimore.' I don't have anywhere near the traditional technique of people who other people who do similar improvisation and get much more prestigious gigs, but I can say with some degree of certainty that what I do on the violin is more creative than they, in large part because my lack of technique necessitates it. Their invincible techniques, and it's just as true for many guitarists in town, make them sound more anonymous, and the blandness of what they do on the violin blends their stage presence into ensembles far better than I ever could. They have technique that was churned out in a conservatory factory, their playing is virtually interchangeable with one another. They can get through a thirty-two bar solo secure in the knowledge that their technique will never fault them, and it shows - they don't have to live the music they play. I don't have that option onstage. My technique is just good enough for what I do, and not a scintilla better. The minute I start relaxing onttag and phoning it in, is the minute my playing goes out of tune or my bow goes flying onto the fingerboard.

And yet, I guarantee you, I feel freer onstage than they ever do. To do what they do, they have to be slaves to their instrument. Whereas until recently, I picked up my violin only at the few gigs I had every week. They're probably well-adjusted and functional people in their personal lives, but they  have no idea what to do onstage once the violin stops playing. I still get stagefright in the wrong situation, but compared to my personal life, the stage is inevitably an oasis of calm for me, and I instinctually know what to do to keep people interested at almost every moment.

Why is this? Because, relatively speaking, there is so much less history to be burdened by in violin improvisation - the very term 'improvisational violin' is so unfamiliar that to most people that it sounds comical. Even if you borrow a snippet of Beethoven or Shostakovich here and there, the context is so unique that it can't help but be slightly original. Other violinists who switch from classical to bluegrass or jazz have a perfectly tried and true path, they've probably memorized all the same concertos, they probably know the same few licks from their preferred masters of the genre instrumentalists they play, they probably know bluegrass and gypsy jazz better than I do, and they probably know the same rock and pop songs we all know by heart (or at least everybody but me...), but they do not have on instant neurological availability the entire classical canon from Bach and so many before him to Shostakovich and so many after him. They have not committed to heart (not to brain, but to heart, the expression is vital) hundreds of years of accumulated musical wisdom as to what works and what doesn't. They play their instruments better than I do, but they do not play music as well as I do, and I play music better than they play their instruments.

Nevertheless, being called 'the best violin improvisor in Baltimore' has about as much practical use as being called the #1 expert on tropical climates in Greenland. Even so, it gives me enormous pleasure to do, and seems to give audiences some pleasure too. Sitting in front of staff paper, I often feel terrified. But with the violin, with no music in front of me and an audience to whip up to frenzy (and  hopefully catharsis on occasion), I feel free.

Monday, October 26, 2015

800 Words: The Holy Fool

"You get away with saying all those things nobody else would ever dare to say."

- Schmuck's drummer.

I really, really, really don't. It's true that I have very little tact and inner monologue, and I never have. I wouldn't know how to turn off this gaffe-diarrhea without horrendous pain from the effort of holding it in. One can either be ashamed of such an eminent facet of your character, which I often secretly am, or you can try to wear it as a badge of honor, and plow through the fear and guilt to the other side.

To anyone who doesn't know me particularly well, this may seem completely untrue, but I seem to have paid in blood for every taboo I've ever broken. Hundreds and hundreds of friends, and seemingly always feuding with half of them. The life of the dinner party in my 30's as I was the life of the keg party in my 20's, but just as ten years ago, no one who can stand my company past the point that the party ends. Dreams and ambition to the ends of the earth, and nothing to show for them. Just an emotional pain of a depression so great that it becomes a physical hurt, and a slow-burning terror during all those moments it vanishes, knowing that any moment could be the catalyst to bring forth its next appearance.

The Holy Fool is the traditional Christian character who is never punished for saying all the things that would be death to anyone else, but the reason he's spared is because his punishment is obvious to all around him. The tradition is perhaps most valued in Russia, where such a character is known as a Yurodivye.

"By day he laughed at the world, but he wept for it by night." He has surrendered all worldly concerns, devoting his life to acting the severe and self-humiliating eccentric (or being one, it doesn't really matter which). He is utterly at the mercy of the world, he has no means of supporting himself and must live entirely at the charity of his community - alone, penniless, self-abasing, defenseless against those in the community who would do him ill, and so misunderstood that there is no point to trying to make people understand his condition. A figure at best of pity, and all too often of fun.

All he has at his disposal is the ability to say what others never would or could because they have no way of hurting him more than his condition has already hurt himself. The circumstances of his life are punishment enough. He would often be beaten, occasionally even killed, and yet it was considered a terrible sin to offend a Yurodivy, because his position enabled him to see things nobody else could. Some ascribed clairvoyant or prophetic properties to him, but there was no need to ascribe something so grandiose - perhaps he was schizophrenic, perhaps he was 'only' psychotically depressed, perhaps he was mentally deficient in hundreds of ways, or perhaps he just had too much flair for the dramatic, but his difference made him see the world in a different way than others, a different way that others may hate with their guts, but seemed to know in their bones that they need.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

800 Words: What To Do When You're Having A Nervous Breakdown...

I emotionally snapped today, completely and utterly, and reached the point of no return as I never have since I first began keeping this 800 Words posts. In these posts, I have tried to remain reasonable, but reason seems to have completely deserted me. But I must keep going, now and forever, and keep some sense of purpose to my life, because the horrible feeling that comes with deciding that your life has no purpose at all is simply too much horror to entertain. In such a state, I don't think I would even have the mental presence to entertain the idea of self-harm.

It is time to call so many spades by their name. Any life that would allow me to linger in a state of major depression, do so much to keep me there, and solicit so little assistance, is a terrible sham that needs to be smashed apart immediately, regardless of consequence. It is a lie in which I have allowed myself to pursue connections with people that are as fake as any people I've experienced in my life.

In music, I surrounded myself with musicians who, frankly, weren't very good, but I thought that by surrendering any idea of musical quality, I could buy myself friendships and fun, but when they saw that I had organizational flaws, they simply left me to rot. There hasn't even been so much as a checkin from any of them to see how I'm doing. Now, the mediocre musical sub-scene that I worked so hard to help build is "flourishing" without me - concerts every week, everywhere - and they clearly find it more convenient to not have me around and they clearly don't give a shit about what's happened to me, long as the party I helped them throw keeps going. The one thing I can hold over them is that I know exactly what great music sounds like, and it doesn't sound like anything we made. Perhaps some of them have delusions about the musical quality of their work, our work, but I'm not going to contribute to those delusions any longer.

Like an Alzheimer's Patient, I have allowed myself to fall in love, again and again, with women who could not possibly love me (what women, though, could?). One, when she realized it, dropped me from her social life like a hot potato. She plays the loving earth-mother, but she's really just another social climber who would appear to have ditched me when I could not maintain control of my emotions. She might as well live in DC with the ethics with which she conducted, and seems to have ended, our friendship. I don't blame her or any other woman for ending a friendship over this issue, I blame her for presenting herself as a better, more ethical, more understanding, type of person than she now seems to be.

Another, when she realized it, has simply played a year-long game where she's continually used me for the kind of sexual teasing that gratifies her ego without taking responsibility for how much she might hurt the person she's using - and like the self-loather that I am, I've utterly let her. She's either immature and dense beyond any hope or a horrible manipulator. But what does it say about me that I keep coming back for more?

Earlier this year, I allowed myself into a relationship, my first ever at thirty-two fucking years old, with a woman for whom the term 'emotional abuse' has no meaning at all if what she did was not exactly that. Continual anger over every last organizational mistake I ever made, which she never ceased to take a kind of angry delight in pointing out. This was coupled with what would appear to have been an absolutely pathological need to think she should be able to 'fix' everything about the broken men she always pursues, and then using the fact that she inevitably can't fix us as an excuse to destroy them emotionally, and holding the most unbelievably narcissistic double standards in her behavior. She was not without her redeeming qualities, and could be quite caring at the right moment - all the better to use the intimacy of a few minutes previously for her to claim what a monster I was a few minutes later. I blame no one but myself for ever having allowed myself to be in this relationship. I did it because I was, and remain, lonely beyond anything, and I allowed a woman I knew was utterly wrong for me to be the most important thing in my life. After it was done, I began an attempt to pursue a friendship with her and invited her to a party, only to hear her talking shit about me in my kitchen. I spent the rest of the party trying to disguise the fact that I was experiencing a terrible panic attack. As ever, I have never had a sexual relationship about which I did not come to feel overwhelming regret.

I don't have much social life these days, and many friends have completely disappeared without a trace. To take the most obvious and pronounced example, my alleged 'closest friend' in Baltimore, whom I've known since I was 19, who is the only person in Baltimore I knew before three years ago. was going to use my band for the music at his wedding, and he didn't check in about it for months. When he heard two weeks before the wedding about the fight with the musicians, he, also, dropped my band like a hot-potato and further ruined my credibility with my fellow musicians because he clearly didn't like the band I run. Disliking my band is of course his right, and I'm not particularly offended. I don't think I particularly like my band either. But he had no interest in me, and for three years he's barely seen me, he was just interested in having the band I used to be part of, and disguised it in sweet words about friendship.

I live in an apartment building in which my scarily imbalanced landlord lives directly upstairs from me. He is a right-wing conspiracy theorist who once tried to evict me over a twenty-five dollar dispute, and he's now moved directly upstairs with his five sons and wife. The gun I found just lying around our basement may or may not have been a toy.

Even if I wanted to find work or even compose or work on the play I was working on, I am unable to hold any kind of work for the last while except to write about how terrible I feel, and have to sit in my apartment while the banging from his children's hyperactivity makes head-splitting noise against my ceiling at night, and workers continually use power tools on their apartment during the day; both continually, inexorably, boring into whatever sanity I worked so hard to retain since moving to Baltimore. My lease is up in a month, but how can I possibly sustain the mental presence of mind for a move? I worry that moving back into my parents' house is imminent, and with it all the agonies of the same old fights with my father as ever before.

I'm sure a less difficult, less quick to be depressed, person would have nothing like this trouble - which is utterly self-fulfilling, but what can I possibly do about it?  We all rely on our social safety net to shield us from the worst, but when your own weaknesses remove the safety net, there is nothing at all to prevent a free fall into agony, agony which will continually be my family's burden to shoulder.

Life was so seemingly tolerable three months ago. I woke up this summer and realized that all my dreams had turned to dust, and that's ok - incredibly relieving even - because for once, my life is tolerable, and and I have no right to ask for anything more. And yet, even tolerability has proven far too much to ask of life. There is depression, and only depression, only mental suffering, only inner horror, all the days of my life. The moment you let your guard down and think things will finally get better is the moment that everything in your life comes crashing down without you being able to do a thing about it. Events completely beyond your control give you nothing but mental torture.

No one has any reason to worry about the continual deterioration of my mental state - living on to complain loudly about my misery is my way, not self-harm. And even if they did, it's too late for me to solicit their approval. I do not approve of the values of such people that would let me fall through the cracks like this - anyone who would allow an alleged friend to fall to such an ignominious state is no friend at all. It is time to smash everything in my life up, and even if things get worse in the meantime, it is unacceptable to maintain the status quo.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Power of Music: Playlist (now 129 composers... will be at least twice or three times this...)

I was watching Simon Schama's Power of Art documentaries last night. It occurred to me, if there were a similar series of Power of Music docs, in which, as Schama puts it:

"In the end, there's only one test that matters. You come into the room, you fix it in your sights. Does it, or does it not attack you in the guts, it does. Does your heart jump? Do your eyes widen? Does your pulse race? Do your feet get a bad attack of lead boots you're so struck down by it? They do..."

Schama chose eight so... let's give a good couple hundred or so suggestions for what might be on this list. Two at most per composer. We're not going for favorites or best or most enjoyable, just music with sheer, searing, Biblical, sublime power, with a focus squarely on eternity. Music that speaks to the deepest parts of us with ecstatic truth:

I'm going mostly forward through music history, though I may go back for 'early (pre-Bach) music. ll add plenty to this as the next few days go on, especially in the non-classical musicians. But I frankly am getting tired of doing this after a good five hours of hunting down links...

All rated 1 to 5 on pure, elemental, inspirational power. To judge a musical work by its musical language or structure is ultimately a superficial reading of music. What is important is the simple human and inhuman power of the music.

Machaut: Messe de Nostre Dame ****

Gesualdo: Tenebrae Factae Sunt ***

Gesualdo: Miserere ****

Palestrina: Missa Hodie Christus **

Palestrina: Improperia ***

Victoria: Tenebrae Responses ****

Victoria: Requiem ****

Lassus: Prophitae Sybillarum ***

Tallis: Spem in Allium ****

Tallis: In Ieiunio et Fletu *****

Byrd: Vigilate ***

Byrd: Firste Pavane and Galliard **

Gibbons: Lord of Salisbury *

Striggio: Mass for 40 and 60 Voices ****

Monteverdi: Solemn Vespers ***

Monteverdi: Lamento d'Arianna ****

Rossi: Adon Olam ***

Rossi: Elohim Hashivenu **

Schutz: History of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ **

Schutz: Psalms of David *

Tartini: Devil's Trill ***

Purcell: Funeral Music of Queen Mary ****

Purcell: Hail Bright Cecilia ***

Bach: St John Passion *****

Bach: Chaconne for Violin *****

Handel: Coronation Anthems ****

Handel Royal Fireworks (admit it, you're sick of Messiah too...) *****

Vivaldi: Four Seasons (long as it's not the usual boring English performance...) ****

Haydn: The Creation *****

Haydn: The Seasons ****

Mozart: Don Giovanni *****

Mozart: Requiem ***

Beethoven: Eroica Symphony *****

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis (everybody knows the 5th and the 9th...) *****

Weber: The Free Shooter ****

Schubert: Unfinished Symphony ****

Schubert: Winterreise *****

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique *****

Berlioz: Requiem ****

Mendelssohn: Octet ****

Mendelssohn: Elijah ***

Schumann: Carnaval **

Schumann: Dichterliebe (Poet's Love) ****

Liszt: Dance of Death ****

Liszt: Mephisto Waltz ****

Chopin: Heroic Polonaise *****

Chopin: Revolutionary Etude ***

Wagner: Tristan and Isolde ***

Wagner: Twilight of the Gods ****

Verdi: Don Carlo ****

Verdi: Otello *****

Gounod: Faust ****

Franck: The Accursed Huntsman *****

Franck: Symphony ****

Bruckner: Symphony no. 9 *****

Bruckner: Os Justi ****

Brahms: Piano Concerto no. 1 *****

Brahms: German Requiem ****

Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov *****

Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina ***** (everybody knows Pictures at an Exhibition and Night on Bald Mountain, so let's just go for the two completed operas - as great as any two ever written)

Tchaikovsky Sleeping Beauty ****

Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 6 *****

Dvorak: Symphony no. 9 **** (everybody knows the slow movement, listen to the rest)

Dvorak: Cello Concerto *****

Sullivan: Yeoman of the Guard ****

Sullivan: Irish Symphony ***

Faure: Caligula ***

Janacek: Jenufa *****

Janacek: Cunning Little Vixen *****

Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius ***

Elgar: The Apostles **

Puccini: Tosca ***

Puccini: Turandot ****

Mahler: Resurrection Symphony *****

Mahler: Symphony no. 9 *****

Debussy: The Sunken Cathedral *****

Debussy: The Sea ***

Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra **** (You know the first minute, you might as well learn the rest)

Strauss: Elektra ****

Sibelius: Kullervo *****

Sibelius: Tapiola *****

Nielsen: Symphony no. 4 *****

Nielsen: Symphony no. 5 *****

Satie: Socrate **

Holst: The Mystic Trumpeter ***

Holst: Hymn of Jesus **** (You know The Planets, I know The fucking Planets, yes it's a great piece of music, particularly the five movements everybody skips, listen to something else by this otherwise underrated composer)

Vaughan Williams: Symphony no. 4 ****

Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem **** (these ought to shake off the image of RVW as a composer of 'cowpat music')

Respighi: Fountains **** and Pines **** of Rome

Ives: Symphony no. 4 *****

Ives: General William Booth Enters Heaven *****

Rachmaninov: The Bells ****

Rachmaninov: Isle of the Dead ****

Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy *****

Schoenberg: Moses and Aaron ***

Schoenberg: A Survivor from Warsaw ****

Falla: El Amor Brujo  *****

Falla: El Retablo de Maese Pedro ****

Suk: Asrael ***

Ravel: The Waltz *****

Ravel: Bolero ****

Ruggles: Sun Treader *****

Ruggles: Of Men and Mountains *****

Bloch: Sacred Service ****

Bloch: Baal Shem Tov *****

Bartok: Miraculous Mandarian ***

Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta ****

Stravinsky: Rite of Spring (duh)  *****

Stravinsky: Les Noces *****

Grainger: The Warriors ****

Grainger: Lincolnshere Posy ***

Szymanowski: Krol Roger ****

Szymanowski: Stabat Mater ****

Varese: Ameriques ***

Varese: Arcana **

Berg: Wozzeck ***

Berg: Violin Concerto ****

Kern: Showboat **

Martinu: Double Concerto **** for two pianos, timpani, and strings

Martinu: Greek Passion ***

Prokofiev: Scythian Suite ***

Prokofiev: Ivan the Terrible ***

Honegger: Symphonies No's. 2 and 3 *****

Martin: Mass for Double Choir ****

Martin: Golgotha **

Hindemith: Requiem *

Hindemith: Noble Vision ***

Hanson: Lament for Beowulf ****

Hanson: Symphony no. 2 ***

Revueltas: Night of the Mayans *****

Cowell: ...If He Please ***

Cowell: Symphony no. 4 **

Korngold: The Sea Hawk ***

Korngold: The Dead State **

Gershwin: Porgy and Bess ****

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue **** (in the much better 'jazz band' version rather than the usual orchestra)

Poulenc: Organ Concerto ****

Poulenc: Human Figure **

Ellington: Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue *****

Ellington/Jackson: Come Sunday *****

Copland: In The Beginning ***

Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man ****

Armstrong: West End Blues ***

Armstrong: St. James Infirmary *****

Finzi: Intimations of Immortality ****

Finzi: Dies Natalis ***

Rodgers: Carousel ****

Rodgers: South Pacific ****

Walton: Belshazzar's Feast *****

Walton: Symphony no. 1 ****

Tippett: A Child of Our Time *****

Tippett: Triple Concerto ***

Arlen: Somewhere Over The Rainbow ****

Stein: Gypsy *****

Shostakovich Symphony no. 13 ***** (something other than the 5th should get a doc made about it...)

Shostakovich String Quartet no. 8  ****

Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time ****

Messiaen: Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum *****

Barber: Adagio for Strings ****

Barber: Symphony no. 1 ***

Goodman/Prima: Sing, Sing, Sing ****

Hovhaness: Symphony no. 50 'Mount St. Helens" ***

Hovhaness: Saint Vartan Symphony ***

Harrison: Symphony no. 3 ***

Harrison: Gending Pak Chokro ***

Guthrie: This Land Is Your Land ***

Guthrie: Jesus Christ ****

Britten: Peter Grimes ****

Britten: War Requiem **

Lutoslawski: Concerto for Orchestra ***

Lutoslawski: Funeral Music ***

Fine: Toccata Concertante **

Fine: Serious Song **

Ginastera: Estancia ***

Ginastera: Popol Vuh **

Bernstein: Jeremiah Symphony ****

Bernstein: West Side Story *****

Seeger: We Shall Overcome *****

Seeger: If I Had a Hammer *****

Foss: Song of Songs ****

Foss: Baroque Variations ****

Ligeti: Clocks and Clouds *****

Ligeti: Lux Aeterna ****

Boulez: Notations *

Boulez: Repons (I feel sick...) *

Kurtag: Jatekok ***

Kurtag: Stele **

Stockhausen: Song of the Young Ones ***

Stockhausen: Stimmung **

Bock: Fiddler on the Roof ****

Berio: Sinfonia *****

Berio: Folk Songs ****

Crumb: Black Angels ****

Crumb: Star-Child ***

Charles: Hallelujah I Love Her So *****

Charles: What'd I Say *****

Sondheim: Sweeney Todd ****

Sondheim: Into The Woods *****

Rautavaara: The Journey ***

Rautavaara: Vespers ****

Takemitsu: A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden ***

Takemitsu: Orion  ***

Schchedrin: Naughty Limericks ****

Schchedrin: Dead Souls ****

Gubaidulina: St. John Passion **

Gubaidulina: Offertorium *

Cash: Man in Black ***

Cash: The Man Comes Around *****

Gorecki: Symphony no. 3 ***

Williams: Star Wars ****

Williams: ET *****

Penderecki: St. Luke Passion ***

Penderecki: Utrenja **

Schnittke: Symphony no. 1 ****

Schnittke: Cello Concerto *****

Birtwistle: Earth Dances **

Birtwistle: Punch and Judy **

Gulda: Variations on Light My Fire ****

Part: Berliner Messe ***

Part: Miserere ***

Riley: In C ****

Riley: A Rainbow in Curved Air ***

Reich: Daniel Variations *****

Reich: Different Trains ****

Glass: Powaqqatsi ****

Glass: Koyaanisqatsi ***

Silvestrov: Silent Songs ****

Andriessen: M is Man, Music, Mozart ****

Andriessen: The State *

Lennon/McCartney: A Day in the Life ***

McCartney: Let It Be *****

Richards: Sympathy for the Devil ****

Morrison: The End ***

Morrison: Break On Through to the Other Side ****

Hendrix: Star Spangled Banner *****

Tavener: Funeral Canticle **

Tavener: The Veil of the Temple **

Vasks: The Message **

Vasks: Distant Light *

Adams: The Death of Klinghoffer **

 Adams: Doctor Atomic ****

Springsteen: Thunder Road *****

Springsteen: Jungleland *****

Saariaho: The Passion of Simone **

Saariaho: Orion **

Knussen: Higglety Pigglety Pop and Where The Wild Things Are **

Tan Dun: The Map ****

Tan Dun: Ghost Opera ****

Golijov: The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind *****

Golijov: The Passion According to St. Mark *****

MacMillan: Seven Last Words on the Cross ***

MacMillan: Quickening ****

Lindberg: Power ***

Lindburg: Primal ****

Ades: Asyla ****

Ades: Tevot ***

Auerbach: Russian Requiem ***

Stevens: The Last 18 Minutes of Illinoise *****

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Note About These Posts

This series of posts has officially become too personal and painful to continue work upon them. To my regret, I am officially putting these down, yet another project shelved before fruition....

Monday, October 19, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 4 - The Bolton Street Synagogue - Part 5 - Part 5

I first spoke to Miranda Brunelli in early November, I believe it was in the lounge of Warren Hall, or perhaps it was in the Dining Hall, or maybe anywhere else. All I'm certain I remember was that I was on a hyperactive kick that night - roughly a month to six weeks away from a metamorphosis into a schizotypal personality who would see messages in movies and television he watched and the books he read and the music he listened to and the every facet of daily life he experienced.

I was feeling inspired to embrace life more than usual. The reason was that I'd just seen, of all things, Patch Adams, on the bus back from a wrestling trip to stare at the ceiling of a Prep School gym in Everywasp, New England. It was either that night, or the next afternoon, and I knew that there was this attractively eccentric girl who was friends with my friends, though we had not yet said more than two words to one another. I decided to talk to this girl to whom I'd never had occasion to speak before. I had no idea what to say to her, so I said the first thing that popped into my head:

"Your boyfriend's weird." And we were off...

He certainly was. I knew her boyfriend better than she ever did, Dave Wiseman and I had been in the same 'Discovery Group' at Hyde during my first year. A 'Discovery Group' was the semi-weekly required meetup into which our school of 200 or so kids would divide into sixteen or so smaller groups. The purpose of it was somewhere between group therapy and intelligence gathering - though, of course, Hyde saw no difference between those two concepts.

Dave was a good guy. He'd seen me at far more humiliating moments than I'd ever seen him, and while other kids in our 'Discovery Group' were animals toward me and the other nerds of the group, he stayed friendly to me when he could have easily joined in. Dave was a tallish, good looking, and reasonably athletic Jewish kid who clearly was clearly born with a little too much adrenaline. A few times, when no faculty was around the computer lab, he would shout out 'MOTHER FUCKEEEERRRRR!' at the top of his lungs. By Hyde standards, he was quite smart. If memory serves correctly, he was a very good sketch artist, and was enamored, like many Hyde nerds, of Beat Poetry, which he tried his hand at writing. He was clearly born to become a hipster.

Dave and Miranda were clearly just another waystation for each other in the sexual cut they made through the Hyde's not particularly large nerdcool swath. Not that there was much sex that you could have at Hyde - Hyde had prohibited not only sex but oral sex as well. They relied on a concept they called 'Brother's Keeper' to make sure that if you were discovered to have information on the rulebreaking of others and not to share it with the school authorities, you would be held as accountable as the person who broke the rule. Inevitably, this ethic led to a culture in which not only the school knew and punished every humiliating action of the students, but the other students as well. So when one girl took four jocks into the woods and blew all four of them, everyone knew about it only five minutes after the school did, and she had to live with the fact that everyone was free to humiliate the girl for it whenever they liked until she graduated.

After Dave Wiseman, there was also Rob Rees, there was Jacob Meir, there might even have been Kyle McKenzie and Rick Fuhrmann, and there were certainly other proto-hipster girls along the way like Amber Jager and Leah Klausner. Before I'd even said two words to Miranda, I'd had a thing for the hyperactive tomboy Leah Klausner, and Miranda assured me that her enormous tits felt so amazing that she wished she could put them in her pocket for whenever she needed to squeeze a comfort object.

I 'lived through' all these events, and told myself that I didn't mind all that much. Ultimately, I could probably live with it all until what turned out to be her last night at Hyde, when I actively tried to stop her getting with Jacob Meir (and failed). Wasn't one nerdy grandson of Holocaust Survivors enough for her?

I suppose the thought of Jacob Meir was too much for me. He was Hyde's cooler version of me - Jewish son of Yiddish speakers, with a similarly deep voice, dryly funny, an intellectual bent, both looking and sounding ten years past his age. Unlike me though, he didn't have a face like a pepperoni pizza, and he was genuinely athletic. He was neither prone to outbursts of psychotic anger nor random explosions of tears. Our gay friend Aaron Steinmetz would marvel at the package plainly visible beneath Jake's running pants. Clearly, on her last night, she wanted someone like me, but she wanted a better version. I was barely more nerdcool than I ever was actual cool. At Hyde, I was just barely on the cusp of social outcast at my best, and many more times than I'd like to admit, I was not even that.


Miranda and I also shared one other crucial thing: a mentor. He is the one man in this section whom I shall mention by his Christian name, because I've certainly mentioned him in this blog before, so there's no sense in concealing him: Mr. Spaeth. Mr. Spaeth would practically scour the school for smart kids and collect them the way some boarding school teachers collect the richest, best connected ones. No doubt he found it gratifying in making sure smart but rebellious kids found something worthwhile in their lives - perhaps he saw himself in them, or perhaps he held a slightly elitest (though perhaps true) notion that the smartest kids were truly the ones most worth saving. But it's most likely that Mr. Spaeth saw what the smart kids at Hyde knew in their bones but often dare not admit, even to themselves: that the rusty, blunt, apparatus with which Hyde corrected bad behavior was a formula to destroy everything about certain kids that was worth preserving. While other teachers at Hyde wanted a formula, Spaeth made sure that we preserved through the other side of the 'Hyde Process' with our individuality intact.

The now late, lamented, Donald Spaeth was the greatest, and most consequential, teacher I've ever had. And like all great teachers, he was all the better an educator because of his pronounced personal flaws. Flawed mentors was Hyde's specialty, and I was lucky that my mentors had personal flaws perfectly matched to guide this irredeemably lost kid to stumble into an adulthood that probably should never have been his to experience.    

Don Spaeth was truly a child of The Sixties. He went to the Canterbury School for Prep School, then to Williams College, then to Vietnam. Somewhere before Vietnam, at least according to an interview Miranda did with him for the Literary Magazine, he acquired a death wish, and that is why he enlisted. He then went to Wall Street, did lots of cocaine, and made millions. Sometime in the eighties, he lost 12 million dollars of some investor's money and his reputation as an investor was finished. Then came a terrible midlife crisis, and the resolve to become a teacher. When his oldest daughter began to act up, no doubt similarly to ways he did at that age, she was sent to Hyde. Mr. Spaeth became a teacher at Hyde, realized that he loved teaching in a way he never loved Wall Street, and became a maestro of the classroom.

He was, among many other things, a fantastic folk guitarist, and a Dylanologist. I remember that he once, to prove a point about how important it is to share with others what you love, stood in front of the Hyde Summer School, and performed all seven verses of a Dylan song. I have no idea if it was Tangled Up in Blue or Shelter from the Storm or Chimes of Freedom, all I remember was that it was an extremely boring tour de force.

Spaeth, as was his talent, saw the potential in me as perhaps no other person ever has, and provided a soft landing to end this incredibly ignominious childhood and begin me, hobbling though I might be, to the still not yet paved path to true adulthood.

In January 2000, the worst month of my life, after Spaeth heard that I would be at Hyde for yet another year, he resolved to make my time there a better one, and took me on as his sole pupil for a period during which we would work on Literature together. We would go through Dante's Inferno (truly, the perfect work for a kid in crisis), and then we did the Canterbury Tales. I would bring him some of the literally hundreds of poems I wrote during this period, and he'd critique them, with a healthy dose of life coaching and psychologizing in the meantime. Like a true English teacher of a New England Boarding School, his encyclopedic knowledge by no means stopped at Dylan but also included Frost and Cummings and Whitman and Eliot and Blake and Melville and no doubt so many others I don't even remember. Music had not saved me, but literature and language did, and it's all thanks to Don Spaeth. He began me on the path to reading and writing, which has done more for me, my sanity, my sense of self, my sense of the world's largeness, than all those failures in music ever could defeat me.

He was a second draft of my father. They even looked a bit alike - but Spaeth was of course more handsome. He was a year younger than Dad: greyer, but slightly taller, slightly thinner, they even wore the same kind of aviator glasses. Spaeth was the goyisher version of Dad, assimilated by the world into something palatable, that I dreamed of having.

At that time, my relationship with my father was, of course, horribly strained - as it's often, though hardly always thank God, been since then. I've often said that my life is the result of a family that gave me all the love in the world and not a scintilla of approval. Jack Tucker is not a man to willingly give comfort or approval on his most generous days, and in the same way that many women who don't get romantic approval from their fathers flit romantically from guy to guy, looking for, and usually not getting, the approval they needed from the person who would never give it to them, I would flit intellectually from older authority figure to authority figure - pathologically seeking the approval of an older generation who will never, and perhaps can never, give it to me; every criticism weighing upon me like yet another accursed rejection from Dad.

In many ways, my closest relationships at Hyde were to my dozen-or-so Dad substitutes: Mr. Winters, Mr. Knight, Mr. Deichmann, Mr. Andrews, Mr. Dicks, Mr. Magnus, Mr. Pepper, even Mr. Faure. In all of these intellectually charged men, I needed what Dad clearly found impossible to give me. Who, perhaps, could blame Dad? I have no idea how he would have reacted toward me were I a better son, but a good son I clearly was not.


For a week after Miranda left, I had no idea where she'd gone, and nobody would tell me. Finally, it was Mr. Spaeth, with his gloriously big mouth, who told me the truth. I was mortified I hadn't figured it out on my own. I had no idea what to do for her or what to do about it. I only began to realize what he I'm sure had known long before I did, that I was completely in love.

Like so much in the Chaucer we were reading together, it was courtly love of the most unconsumable type. I don't know what Mr. Spaeth thought would happen, but the nature of my relationship with Miranda was often much like a Knight of Medieval Romance and the Lady whose banner he champions. If ever these two precociously literary and preternaturally dramatic archetypes of adolescent angst got together in real life, the illusion of love would immediately lift.

But Spaeth, far more than I, was clearly a Romantic at heart. The Institute for Living was in Hartford, so Miranda could come up fairly easily to Hyde's campus in Woodstock Connecticut for a night or two so she could be Christopher Hoedenborg's date for the Senior Prom. During that night, realizing that she and I may never see one another again, and thinking that perhaps there was one last chance for us to tell one another how we really felt, he let her know in no uncertain terms that Evan Tucker was madly in love with her. I doubt he honestly thought she might also be in love with me, but he probably thought that I'd be better for her than whatever ur-hipster du jour she might end up with, so perhaps something so over the top could at least nudge her in my direction. Later that night, I gave her 'the poem.' The rest, as they say, was history, and so ultimately was our unconsummated ersatz relationship.

When I think back on Miranda Brunelli, what amazes me more than all else was the short amount of time in which it all took place. I don't remember the exact chronology, but in my memory, we became friends in November. By Thanksgiving Break we were inseparable. By the time of Winter Break, we had already had our first fight or two - no doubt, she wanted to be more separable than I did, but we probably spoke on the phone over Winter Break at length a few times a week. By the time we came back to school, I was already on the verge of a terrible nervous breakdown, a breakdown which was compounded by stress from four significant and separate directions by the end of January 2000, a period we were not speaking to each other at all. At some point in February, our friendship resumed at a somewhat cooled temperature that still recaptured the 'old flame' at times. By the beginning of April, she was gone, only to come back for Senior Prom and the week of Graduation.

We were both due to work Hyde's 'Summer Challenge', where Hyde used an especially heavy hand to 'break in' the new meat. But Miranda was still at the Institute. She came two weeks into the program, and during those two weeks, I had already found a Miranda substitute among the new kids: Margaret Benson, a frizzy-haired, very funny and smart girl from Michigan with an estranged father who was Executive Vice President at one of America's preeminent financial firms. My trajectory with Margaret was even more compressed than with Miranda.

The day Miranda came back was a day or two after I had to tell Margaret, with whom I spent most of my free moments, that we had to stop hanging out with each other so much, because I was developing feelings for her. By even telling her this, I was risking getting fired, but I valued our friendship too much. Margaret did not respond except to say "I need to leave," and left the table. The next day, she was dating Mike Cohen, the temperamental Jewish theater kid from Westchester in her discovery group. I was crushed.

Two days later, Margaret and I sat down together to have a kind of 'Come to Jesus' moment. This is the moment Miranda comes in. She sees what's happening, and says to her over my shoulder 'Don't tell me he has a thing for you...' She was probably half-joking, or perhaps she knew more than I thought I'd told her, but oh my god, it was absolutely true. And I was mortified - the girl even had the same 'MB' initials - and we haven't even told the story Mia Babcock, the daughter of a failed Brooklyn playwright who was my great unrequited love from my first year at Hyde, about whom I said to my first Hyde roommate "I've never felt this much for a woman before."


I saw Miranda on my very first day of class at AU. But after a year, she was almost unrecognizable. She was just as anorexic looking as ever, and just as beautiful, but her shoulder length plain orange hair became a frosted white crewcut with her stretch pants turned into ostentatious white leather pants. Near to her lip, but not on it, were two cheek piercings with studs to fill them. This was Miranda not as she was at Hyde with her wings clipped, where a girl that electric could seem approachable, but with her full plumage stretched to its wingspan. At AU, we saw each other only seldom, and never for more than just a run in with one another that occasionally turned into hanging out. Inevitably, Miranda seemed to be with a different guy every time I saw her. They all looked alike in their way - lots of piercings and tattoos, all tall, all thin, all a little glassy-eyed and slack-jawed.

When we were near to wrapping up Sophomore Year, I saw her with a guy who must have had at least five piercings in each ear. It was in TDR, AU's 'famed' mediocre dining hall. I asked if I could sit with them, and they of course they said yes.

Miranda and I hadn't seen each other in a while. She explained to me that she'd no longer been on campus nearly as much, perhaps that was code for she was ditching classes, and perhaps she was thinking about trying to make a go of college somewhere else. From there, talk between us, inevitably given all the history, got very heavy very quickly. She began to start talking about how sorry she was by how much she'd broken my heart.

Neither her boyfriend or I wanted to hear about this. I conspiratorially looked at the boyfriend as though to solicit some kind of sympathy and help to change the subject. He clearly understood that I didn't want to hear this either, so he chortled slightly.

Not noticing my beseeching look to him, she turned around and yelled at him "Stop laughing! Not all of us can be so good with women that we've slept with seventy-five of them!"

Somehow, even coming from Hyde, I was shocked that a twenty-year-old was capable of racking up such a tally, and without thinking I loudly blurted out: "YOU'VE HAD SEX WITH SEVENTY-FIVE WOMEN?!?"

The room suddenly went a bit quieter...

I don't remember how, but at some point later that afternoon, Miranda and I ended up back in my room. Not for sex, obviously, but to simply keep hanging out and talking like old times. I don't know whether or not I realized that this would be the last time I saw Miranda, but I have to imagine that I knew it was possible. I told her I wanted her to have something of mine, and I gave her my copy of Dante's Inferno, which I studied with Mr. Spaeth, marked up with his insights. I hope she still has it.

We all have that one person in our memories who catches us in our youths when we were, or at least felt, the most alive we will ever feel. For most people, it's a lover. For me it is, inevitably, a friend who wouldn't have touched me with a ten foot pole. But no matter what the nature of the relationship, its duration is inevitably short, because if the person evolved alongside you into someone more mature, the intensity would subside. The tempo of the relationship is fast because it uses up all its energy so quickly, and evolves through all the stags of relationships and friendships at a severely accelerated pace.

In my memory, Miranda Brunelli is youth itself - when we were so young that everything in the world was possible. We were two people too unique to ever be contained by any environment, or by each other. We could neither be assimilated to the world nor could we stay our pure, unassimilated selves for very long. All friendships, were they to operate as they should, would perpetually exist in that blinding light with which Miranda and I began our friendship. But no one can ever exist in that uncompromised state of pure being for any longer than we did. Once the vitality begins to subside, adulthood can begin. Life, as ever, has to assimilate us.