Monday, December 14, 2009

More on space in music

Music needs space to live and breathe. Last night, I was singing Messiah in the choir loft at First Church in Oberlin. This historic meeting house is a big rectangle; the choir is at one end, about two thirds of the way up to the ceiling. A lecture I heard cornettist Bruce Dickey give last week talked about his experience playing in Italian churches, often from the organ loft: the sound makes sense when it's played from up there, he said.

This seemed true at First Church, too: the church gave back to us from that wonderfully mostly empty space in which the sound does its wonderful movements.

Too many concerts put the performers in only one place, I think. Last week I was in Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland for the Apollo's Fire Christmas concert -- they were performing a mostly Praetorius concert. Great variety, energy, and color in the music: but disappointingly, very little use of the space. I know it's hard to keep space-separated groups in sync, and precision is what you gain by keeping the performers on one stage. But for one final number, they spread out around this mid-size Gothic hall, and the music started to expand.

When the choir and instruments are together in one space, I as a listener am focused right there, intent on where they are and what they are doing together (at least, I try to be). When they use the space differently -- an offstage brass choir in Mahler; trumpets at the rear of the cathedral; cornetti in the organ loft -- I too have to open up as a listener, darting with ears and mind around the hall. The myth of focus -- which is of course an illusion, as you can't pay attention to all things at once, even when the performers are close together -- the myth is shattered, and for good effect.

I was playing Bach's Magnificat last week, too. The text comes from the gospel account of Mary's response to the incredible shattering of her life in the angel's announcement of her pregnancy. The hymn she sings is all about the changing of space that the birth meant for her and the world. "My soul doth magnify the Lord" -- magnificat:  her soul and body have together become a space that "magnifies" -- resonates -- with God. Through this birth, the hierarchical spaces of power are going to be overthrown, since, in her prophecy, "He hath cast down the mighty from their thrones" -- Deposuit potentes. And again the spaces of the body itself: the womb, the stomach: "He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away." Bach sets that radical emptiness -- the Latin word is inanes -- by ending that part of the piece with a single, low pluck in the cellos; a pluck that resounds through the hall.

To end with, here's a link to an incredible example of music in space: horn player Willie Ruff playing Gregorian chant alone in St. Mark's in Venice.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Time in Arcadia

In the never-never land of Arcadian pastoral, a shepherd loves a sea-nymph. She returns his love, but a one-eyed giant, a cyclops even, also wants her. Annoyed by the giant's attention to the nymph, the shepherd gets angry, and challenges him to a duel. It's not going to be an even match, obviously.

Another, wiser, shepherd warns him against the duel:
Consider, fond shepherd,
How fleeting's the pleasure
That flatters our hope
In pursuit of the fair.

The joys that attend it,
By moments we measure.
But life is too little
To measure our care.
This is an aria in Handel's delightful opera Acis and Galatea, which we heard this weekend in Boston.The aria warns about how strangely time works when we are in love. There are two schemes for time, one that we can measure and that gives us pleasure (notice the rhymes); the other that is sorrowful, and that is completely unmeasured. He implies that if the lover pursues his rival in anger, time will become unmeasured, chaotic. Something will happen that will take him from a sequence of happy moments to an eternity of care.

Of course, he's right. The giant heaves a big rock and kills the shepherd. Happy moments are now an eternity of nothingness for Acis. Just before he dies, the others simply acknowledge, "Gentle Acis is no more."

In a genre like baroque opera, which is itself so measured, to be "no more" is to be completely extinguished. How deeply opera depends, and especially this older eighteenth-century opera, on holding on to a measured, sequential existence. Arias famously extend themselves by the "da capo": the return to the beginning. Arias were written with an A section, a contrasting B section, and at the end of the B section, the singer reprises A, usually with more decoration. When we are bored the "da capo" can be a dreadful moment: more singing, no chance for action, when will we get home? But when we're engaged -- as we were Saturday night in Jordan Hall -- these are chances to extend that measured life, the pleasure of love and music that the shepherd warns is "so fleeting."

This moment before Acis dies is so excruciatingly beautiful. It makes me think that art, too -- opera, poetry, photography, architecture, and all -- is an attempt to extend the pleasure of moving IN time, against the threat of the chaos of unmeasured movement. Dante's Paolo and Francesca, murdered in their love, are blown endlessly in the winds of passion in Inferno.

The Boston production made reference to the great, strange painting by Poussin of shepherds deciphering the inscription on a tomb (at the top of this post). "Et in Arcadia ego," it says. It may mean, "Also, I, Death, am in Arcadia," though it is not so explicit: that is, even as you think all continues in measured pace to the last syllable of recorded time, it does not; I cut it off.

Is art the suspending of that dreadful cutting off?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Symmetry and comedy

We went last night to Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at Oberlin! What a great opera! And what a great job these students did!

Here's one of the many wonderful things. To figure this out, I have to do a little of the plot. Two sisters are in love with a couple of guys. They (the guys) are persuaded by a slightly nasty friend, Don Alfonso, to test their lovers' fidelity by leaving and then coming back in disguise as Albanians to court the girls. One guy succeeds, and we watch him courting and the girl responds, pretty joyfully. Then, obviously, we have second guy.

Classical music is so formally constructed that of course what we expect is another scene where guy #2 courts girl #2 and succeeds. It doesn't happen that way: he pleads, and she not only resists, she completely changes the kind of opera we are watching. She (and, yes, she does have a name: Fiordiligi) sings an aria that should be in a tragic/heroic opera, full of immense leaps of the voice, intense phrases, and self-recrimination that doesn't belong in comedy. This is a woman, and an opera, for which decisions have consequences.

Here's a YouTube video of Liah Persson singing the aria. 

And of course that's completely averse to comedy, where there are (almost) no consequences. The opera ends that way: the guys in disguise have won over the girls. Everyone has pretty much been a jerk, testing their lovers (no one should do that!), falling for some clowns that appear unannounced and unnamed (not a good idea)...  But at the end the music just takes over. The opera's ending, so of course we need to resolve things. There's really no time to make the resolution come out of their characters, or histories, so it's just imposed.

Why not? A memo to myself (who tends to believe in symmetry and consequences): Does everything  have to work predictably?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Blake's power

William Blake was so many creators: poet, engraver, painter, mystic, prophet. You probably know the great poem "Tyger, tyger, burning bright" from Songs of Experience. Here you can see the poem not just in its printed version, as we probably learned it in high school, but in one of its original magnificently colored and intricately lettered forms. I just saw this at the J. P. Morgan Library and Museum in New York, where there's a wonderful exhibit of Blake's original prints and paintings, images that are amazing in the original.

What a strange poem this "Tyger" is: contemplating creation as the work of a blacksmith at his anvil, hammering iron to create the sinews of a great tiger. That tiger is surely the French Revolution, striking terror and hope into Europe as Blake was creating these poems. It is also the poem/print itself, etched into copper with acid as biting as the rhetoric of Revolution and Terror. And yet -- how doubly strange -- this tiger is depicted as no fiercer than my cat. It is easy to forget how these poems of "Experience" -- bitterness, struggle, sometimes despair -- were paired by Blake with his lovely, pastoral "Songs of Innocence": "Little Lamb, who made thee?" The tiger and lamb may be, as he said, "contraries," but they are inextricably bound to each other.

This image is "Job Rebuked by his Friends." For Blake, the bible was a series of poems, texts he read not for fundamentalist truths, but as windows into the strange workings of the spirit. Here is Job, covered in boils, having lost his wealth and family, in misery, all because of Satan's dare to God: let me test your righteous servant, he proposes, and God agrees.

Here Job is visited by his "friends," who assert that he must be a sinner: God only punishes those who break His commandments. These friends are hateful figures of accusation, terrible, and terribly wrong: Job is righteous.

And yet these rebukers are beautiful, powerfully expressive (look at those hands!), and in some ways they are right. Job's righteousness has blinded him in some way; it has in itself been his failure. As Blake read the book, Job worships a God he has essentially created out of his own soul: a God who is like him, righteous, exacting, strict to the law. He needs to be awakened to a different divinity (a lamb?), and these horrible accusers (these tigers?) are doing just that. It's a revolutionary reading of that great book of the bible. There are 22 prints in all in the Job series, each a miniature masterpiece.

For a wonderful novel about Blake in his London and revolutionary contexts, I recommend Tracy Chevalier's Burning Bright.  The exhibition is William Blake's World: "A New Heaven Is Begun" and it is on until Jan. 3.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Wild Things?

Where the Wild Things Are is, as most have said, haunting and beautiful. But the final return home is not necessary (Max eating a late dinner with his mother wordlessly gazing at him).

It's hard to end a story, and the demands of the journey motif -- home; leaving; island; return; home -- must have been too hard to resist; but the film would have been better if we had been left with the anguishing Carol howling on the beach as Max sails away (not quite this image, but it's the closest I could find).

The story's about growing up, yes; and so the ending brings Max home to indicate that he's learned about civilized life from his venture into the wilderness (that is, grown up). But I think it would have been better to let us stay in the realm of the imagination. For me, the film was about the imagination: about how a child -- a human -- uses storytelling, fort-building, games (even violent ones) to understand life.

Keats' Nightingale ode is a place I go back to, to remind myself of the imagination. It begins, like Max's story, in melancholy -- "Here, where men sit and hear each other groan." This grieving poet -- his brother recently dead, his own life deeply uncertain -- "runs away" from home to join the singing of the nightingale, the imaginative power that cuts across time, limitations, categories. He revels in its joyful abandon: "Already with thee! tender is the night. . ." But, as with Max, escape into imagination is no simple walk in the woods; it takes the melancholy and intensifies it until the dark woods become almost a grave:
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
  Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess . . .
"Darkling" -- in the dark -- he listens, "and for many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death." All vision gone -- that most rational of senses -- the imagination "guesses" at truths that the conscious mind doesn't find. Time ceases to mean anything, the seasons blend together, the generations meld with each other, until windows open on another, strange land:
. . . magic casements, opening on the foam
  Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
This could be Max's island with its "perilous seas" and its deeply forlorn creatures.

Keats wrote in a letter once about how Milton put the imagination to reality in Paradise Lost: "The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream--he awoke and found it truth." But at the end of the nightingale, Keats is far less sure of that truth: he wakes, not to truth, but to doubt, back from the bird's song "to my sole self," to that rational curse of consciousness and identity. "Fled is that music." Maybe in all romance narratives, we have to return from the quest, come home, wake up; but hopefully we can remember the journey, the island, the bird's song, that deep "ecstasy" -- or "wild rumpus" -- that reminds us of the transforming power of the imagination.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A medieval house

The heron pulls slowly off the corner of this still moat, flying over the chestnut and sycamore trees in a nearbly copse. I watch as she flaps slowly past the tall Elizabethan windows of the hall, its Cotswold stone glowing in the shallow late-October sunshine. The flowers in the garden are mostly past, leaving it looking as old and weathered as the house itself.

This place is new to me, old to itself. In itself it holds the memories of the early medieval hall, but they are hard to find because on it has come the layers of changes, many of them Elizabethan (the windows, some panelling, some attempts to make the house lighter and warmer), some Jacobean (a room carved out for King James to stay in), some Georgian (a flamboyant plaster ceiling for the hall), some contemporary (a striking modern bed; new curtains incorporating, strangely, the hair of the family dog).

I have never been here, but it seems familiar as well as new. I have studied it in a big volume on Greater Medieval Houses of England, volume 3. I have pored over the house's website. And I have read an evocative book by a young man who grew up there, about his growing up and about his difficult older brother, a severe epileptic. This is William Fiennes' The Music Room. Read it if you have an interest in old homes, in the way the brain works, and in how writers pull on their memories and make them interesting to people who don't actually know them.

The house is called Broughton Castle, in Oxfordshire, England. Go there. I want to go back. My picture of it is just a teaser, mostly because my camera battery ran out while I was there.

(Coincidentally, Joseph Fiennes, William's cousin, danced here as "Will Shakespeare" in Shakespeare in Love.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009


The layering of history in England is neither more nor less than the layering of history anywhere in the world, I know. But in England, I'm more acutely aware of it.

By layering, I mean the way one can sense the years and centuries underlying the surface of life: the way the road very occasionally gives up its manic curves and straightens out for a few miles, and you realize that it's following one of the roads cut efficiently and uncaringly across the landscape by the ancient Romans.

Or, going even deeper, the way the crags here in the Peak district show those long-past sedimentations, heaved up in the incline from southwest to northeast in geological time; that happens all over the US, too, but here an extra layering brings them to consciousness, for they are the evidence by which Lyell and the other 19th-century geologists propelled the world from biblical theo-history to geological evolution theory.

(I hope soon to read Tracy Chevalier's new book about the English fossil hunter Mary Anning -- not yet released in the US, I think).

I walked in Dovedale yesterday. It's a famous place in England, a Yosemite on a tiny scale, only 3 miles long. I came  because I love walking with my cousin Elizabeth and her husband John, and because I wanted to see a place where the geology tells so much about the layering, and where poets and artists that I'm trying to know more about have come in the past.

Here was Wordsworth, a kid walking (yes, walking) home from his freshman year at college, stopping by to see the valley. He wrote a little "blog" entry about it, too, storing up his impressions for some future use.

Here was Joseph Wright, the painter of Derby, who loved light so much. He must have walked this valley late at night, and he painted this beautiful picture that now hangs in Oberlin's museum and that I take my students to see.

Here was Miss La Roche, in the 18th century, who picnicked by the river Dove, and then climbed on a horse with the elderly Dean (cathedral Dean, not academic) to climb out of the valley. Near the top, the path became too steep, the horse slipped, the Dean fell to his death, and the young lady survived to write to her mother about the event.

And here was I, at one moment in time, a fold in the strata of history, gratefully balancing on the stepping stones planted two hundred years ago across a river that still flows today.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Northeast Ohio in fall

It's been a gorgeous day, half sunny and half not, the ground wet from days of rain, the sky half full of clouds that stretch the eye past the horizon. The soybeans have lost their green; when the sun's not out they are a wonderful dull brown matte; when the sun shines on them, they are golden like the dry hills of California. The sky is an intense, light-filled, watery blue; I don't know how to make pigments, but I'd want to grind up all the lapis lazuli I could find to paint it. The blue of that sky is channeled into the tiny, unobtrusive, glowing flowers of the Michaelmas daisies.

Keats again in my head: "To Autumn," that rich poem about patience and ripening --
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue...
Or maybe John Clare, with his great eye for details and his strange moves into transcendence, is an even better poet for this. One of his autumn poems evokes the way light changes how we see and reminds us that seeing is a relationship, not a fact.
The fallow fields glitter like water indeed,
And gossamers twitter, flung from weed unto weed.

Hill tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun,
And the rivers we're eying burn to gold as they run;
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.
The pictures I took today with a new camera! What a treat to be able to do so.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Bach and space

Last weekend we heard Apollo's Fire (Cleveland's vibrant baroque orchestra) perform a couple of well-known works, Vivaldi's Gloria and the first half of Bach's B Minor Mass. (The picture is Jeannette Sorrell, conducting from the keyboard, from Apollo's Fire's website).

The Vivaldi was exciting and varied: quick-paced at times, at other times lingering as in the gorgeous second movement, Et in terra pax, where the multiple, cascading suspensions seemed to evoke the  longing for peace that the text denotes. But despite that almost timeless movement, the whole experience was contained, bounded, a series of movements with clearly defined beginnings, endings, contrasts. (There's a clip on YouTube of the group doing Vivaldi's Spring last year). It reminded me of those wonderful colored stone inlay tables from 18th century Florence: crisp, exciting, but not something you'd stake your soul on.

The Bach was something else: grand, spacious. It did not hurry, though the notes were sometimes fast; it seemed hardly to have beginnings and endings; the music and the silences before, between, and after, were like one. It seemed to absorb time into the counterpoint, first one voice and then another, till all five were in on the theme; and yet when that happened, some were on a countertheme that we hadn't noticed at first. If one tune left our ears for a while, there were others just coming up out of the inside textures. Though I've sung this piece several times, the opening Kyrie always surprises me: the choir, without any orchestral introduction, in a b minor chord singing "Kyrie" (Lord). Three great chordal cries of "kyrie" are interwoven with moving lines of "eleison" (have mercy): four bars of complex, rich material. As if it were almost too rich, Bach startlingly drops the choir after those four bars, giving the orchestra 24 bars at Largo -- almost a lifetime -- to lay out a fugue, which the choir will rejoin. The lines are long, liquid, intertwining, as if they were outlining some vast architecture.

Where did Bach find that sense of space? From the Bible, certainly: "O God of our salvation, who art the confidence of all the ends of the earth, and of them that are afar off upon the sea" (Psalm 65). From Milton, perhaps (did Bach know his work in translation?):
                                              Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant. . . [Paradise Lost, Book I]
Or from the architecture of the Baroque, the soaring domes and intricate patterns of a Bernini? 

Or from the new science, the Galileos, Keplers, and Newtons who had expanded the scale of the heavens?

When I listen to Bach, I hear how Newton had seen the relationships of time, motion, mass, and space, and given to his age -- an age in intellectual crisis, like ours -- a new sense of order and understanding.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Fanny Brawne recreated

Jane Campion's new film, Bright Star, is a gutsy and wonderful film. Among many courageous and beautiful things she does for the story (the love of John Keats and Fanny Brawne), here are three:
  1. She trusts the poetry. As the credits roll at the end, Ben Whishaw (as John Keats) speaks "Ode to a Nightingale" in a quiet voiceover. When it began, I doubted whether the film would dare to give us the whole 80 lines of the poem, but I was wrong to doubt. For those who stay for the credits (admittedly, those who, like me, love film and poetry), the poem is given voice. We need that kind of immersion to remember why Keats is great and why we still read these poems. (Unfortunately, the poem is also underlaid by a wordless choral melody that distracts from its power.)
  2. She trusts the details. For me, biopic is a genre often marred by a grandiose historicity, constantly waiting for the big, known moments in the life of the central figure --  despondency, love, breakthrough, maybe success, certainly death. In so many biopics, fatality drags the picture down into tedium punctuated by those cameo historical appearances of famous people whom we recognize. Here, the film embraces the small sounds and sights of life in a London house in the 1820s more than it brings out the big organ tones of Keats' impending death. Nobody famous (besides Keats) makes an appearance. The textures of everyday life -- cloth, wood, paper, rain -- carry us along into seeing the story as happening now.
  3. She trusts the "bright star." Fanny Brawne here is far from the standard flirt of Keats biography, teasing him and distracting him from his real pursuits. She is passionate, smart, creative enough to be the love of this young poet. She is a craftswoman, a designer of beautiful clothes that become the visual counterpoint to Keats' intricately sewn stanzas. Though ignorant of poetry as the affair begins, she sets out to learn how to read and appreciate it; and by the end, she has internalized Keats' poems. Not the flirt, she is also not the Muse, silently inspiring him. She becomes instead the instrument by which these poems carry themselves into history and into our own appreciative ears. She survives him, and after his death we see her walk out into the heath, grieving by speaking aloud the title poem, "Bright Star." In that poem, Keats hopes "Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath." He cannot -- "to that high requiem become a sod" incapable of hearing -- but we, the world, history, the future, hear her, a real woman, voicing them. The fantasy of an "ideal reader" of poems sometimes dominates our thoughts of how they mean and live in the world; this Fanny Brawne, instead, is a real reader, as we ought to be.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Gauguin's waves

Having just plunged into this blog by creating my metaphor about the world as museum, I'll make that metaphor literal with last week's experience in an actual, non-metaphorical museum. At the Cleveland Museum of Art, a show just opened called Paul Gauguin: Paris 1889. It explores, and virtually recreates the exhibit that Gauguin and his friends created at the Café des Arts in Paris, as a resistance and alternative to the establishment paintings shown at the official exposition.

Collaboration amongst these then-unknown artists, in the interests of self-promotion, created a nexus of images that circulate among them, motifs that appear and reappear as one and then another tries his (yes, they are all men) hand at a motif. It reminds me of Keats and his friends' sonnet contests ("write a sonnet on the River Nile"), this time with French motifs, such as the fierce waves of the Breton coast.

The central work in the exhibition is In the Waves (the picture's from the CMA website).

I grew up with this picture. My grandfather, Frank Hadley Ginn, bought it, probably in the 1920s, and hung it in his house in Gates Mills, Ohio, outside Cleveland (my parents gave it to the museum in 1978). The exhibition helped me see that my grandfather, a corporate lawyer who built a beautiful but quite conservative stockbroker-Tudor home, had a radical taste in art. This image even now sears the eye with its powerful colors, its strange surreal flatness, its oscillation of focus (the articulated back of the nude bather; the Japanese-stylized waves; the strange and haunting green of the sea; the fascinating outline of the intense red hair). I would like to know more about what he saw in it, but since most of his personal papers are gone, I can't.

Museums at their best take images that you've lived with (perhaps not as literally as for me in this case) and make you look as if you've never seen them before.