Sunday, March 2, 2014

Beauty and light

Half my life is gone, and I have let the years slip from me and have not fulfilled the aspiration of my youth, to build some tower of song with lofty parapet.
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret of restless passions that would not be stilled, but sorrow, and a care that almost killed, kept me from what I may accomplish yet;

Though, half-way up the hill, I see the Past lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,-- a city in the twilight dim and vast, 
With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights,-- and hear above me on the autumnal blast the cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Black Mass

In this picture, we see an effigy of the late Adolf Hitler about to be decapitated, or maybe just before the nails were driven into his heart, all in the dark days of January 22, 1941, just a few days before my negative 17th birthday, a picture sent to me by way of a link to a Life magazine article written contemporaneously to the event, a black mass against the well-known embodiment of evil, by one of my foreign correspondents, the regal Bunnywhiskers, AcA, ABe, TEP, DDC, ordine dell'anatra d'oro, and too many other honors to mention.

Unfortunately Satan, or whoever they were calling to action, wasn't as receptive as s/he was hoped to have been, and the war dragged on, Adolf very much alive for the next few years, leaving those at the end of the conflict to wonder what the fuck that was all about. Maybe if the Germans had just gotten all those occult magic weapons built in those secret mountain redoubts under Peenemünde.

But back when I wrote the Missa Beati Notkeri Balbuli Sancti Galli Monachi, I thought I should write a black mass to somehow counterbalance the white one, to keep in the universe in order, and to hedge my bets in the afterlife. The thought  process went something like so:

"Hey Erling, weren't you into all that Aleister Crowley and OTO and Psychic TV and Re/Search stuff?" "No, I think that was Mark Dippé, even though I would look over his shoulder and sometimes we would dress the same and then there was that ritual branding stuff." "But I'm sure I saw all those books on your bookshelf the last time I was over at your house." "Well, I've always believed in being well-rounded."

But my favorite of the Black Mass stories was that which came to light during the trial for the Affair of the Poisons, held for the mistress of Louis the XIV, where she, as the testimony went, laid down on the altar in a space made up as a simulacrum of a regular old Catholic church, but usually seen without the naked mistress of the king as the focal point, in this particular instance balancing the chalice on her naked belly. When my Mass toured to Jona (Switzerland), I remember being tempted to pick up a few consecrated hosts, wondering if they would ever come in useful-like, although I don't really know whether Timmy the Customs Wonder Pup would actually have allowed them back into the USA, and then finding the cabinet behind the altar locked tight, and thinking that, oh yes, right, they probably do that so really awful people like yours truly aren't tempted to do something really so awfully bad as stealing some consecrated hosts and possibly putting their immortal soul in mortal danger, like super 9th circle of hell danger, where the demons have really big cocks and don't think twice about using them. Anyway, so the mistress of the king, Madame de Montespan, talked her friend Catherine Monvoisin and the local not-totally-against-the-black-mass padre Guibourg into doing this thing, something they both came later to regret, he tortured and dying in prison and she burned to death in the place formerly known as Place de Grève, a pretty spot on the river, but a place to be watchful of your wallet and not to get too distracted by the young girls who need help translating a letter.

But in her naked perfection, stretched out on a long piece of black velvet over the altar, she, as the story goes, listened while the padre, dressed in a pretty fancy outfit with magical silver characters embroidered in, chanted some blasphemously altered version of the Latin Mass, and, as was mentioned above, set the paten and chalice on her naked belly and, in the hope of keeping the King's love - ok, this is where one might wonder exactly why this particular ritual was deemed the proper ritual for stoking the possibly fading embers of the King's love, but - a woman assistant to the priest held out an infant whose throat was then slit, dripping blood into the chalice and onto the aforementioned naked and most likely quite fetching body of the mistress of the King.

You know, this is so like scenes from those really cheeseball English dubbed but probably made in Italy or Spain horror movies I used to see as a child, when as son of the local Lutheran pastor I was able to get into the theater for free to get pretty titillated at the naked breasts with theatrical blood washing across them from the vampire bites or knife slashes or other general mayhem, but, according to Catherine Monvoisin's daughter, who testified at trial, "The corpse was handed to la Voisin, who flung it callously into an oven fashioned for that purpose which glowed white-hot in its fierceness" which sounds a little like it was written for her, the whole mess being political in the best sense of the word, meaning who knows what really happened.

But I never did write the other mass, and the texts that I could find were pretty stupid anyway, and I doubt it would have worked for much except maybe remembering those heady days with the branding ceremonies and public piercings. Which wouldn't have been all that bad.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Easy Life


I'm sitting in our apartment in Firenze in the former Palazzo Baccio Valori looking out the window at the Duomo. The lights on the monuments have just come on as the sun has set, the last of the bells are dying out, and the mosquitos are now let loose in the city.  In the days of the Medici, the mosquitos were fierce and malarial, but in the modern age they move slowly, engorged on drunken tourists.  We sometimes find the opportunity to dissect them, not with scalpel but with shoe or paperback or oven mitt, and this is ok, the way of things, and with some touch-up paint we can remove their little lives from history, much as we ourselves will disappear one day, when our great-great or great-great-great grandchildren, cleaning the urns on the mantel, no longer remember which urn is which and whether this one is great granduncle Teddy and maybe they need to make some room for more hyper-photos of people they do remember, at which point one hopes that enough life force has endured in those remains to give them just the slightest jolt as they toss you out into the mulched hyper-roses causing them to trip and fall into the pond.

Like so many of those who wish not to be tossed into the hyper-roses, I have vainly attempted to leave a mark on the world. My CV goes on a bit, and although we are constantly reminded of those who have accomplished so very much more, I do take it out of the old box of clippings and read it from time to time, along with all the fading notices of my time on the stage, the limelight and the girls on shoulders of boys and the applause. I was doing this just the other day in fact, and came across Joshua Kosman's article on me from a few years back and found this bit:
At 50, he has the amiable demeanor of a practiced collaborator and the buzzing nervous energy of someone with a long history of getting twice as much done in a day as the rest of us.
Is that true?  I've always thought of myself as fundamentally lazy and fundamentally not so bright. When I was an underage boy at Caltech, freshly deflowered and still wet behind the ears, I met people whose brains seemed to be running at a speed I could not imagine, and I spent most of my time drinking and sleeping all day and skipping class, but I remember that my friend Billy B. was envious about how much I got done even with all the drinking and sleeping through class, so maybe he felt the same. And in my later years - in graduate school and in the working world - I've been pretty sure that I am in fact a fraud, just clever enough to hide my inadequacies and hoodwink everyone around me, the snake oil salesman in their midst, somehow able to knock something together that works, and as long as no one looks too closely for the shoddiness (and don't even talk to me about my doctoral thesis) one might miss it, but luckily I've been able to find jobs where such slipshod work is enough to get by, and fortunately I'm not building airplanes or pacemakers or nuclear bombs.

Of course I know of the inverse Dunning-Kruger effect, but just knowing that that effect doesn't help you - you yourself can't tell if you are an actually competent person who downplays their abilities or if you are simply mediocre.

But there is the other side, the looming shadow-side of the self-thought-to-be-incompetent Wold boy, the one who secretly thinks that he is smarter than everyone else, who wants everyone to know, who carries intellectual books about with covers displayed so that others can see, who does look through the aforementioned box and remembers that he did fight long and hard for those Scholar of the Year awards, printed on fake parchment, remembering too that when he was called up to the podium to receive the first one, his name was proceeded by "and now for the Freshman girls" and although he wasn't quite yet the cross dresser he would later become, his hair was well down his back and that did earn him some cheek-reddening catcalls from construction workers on his way to school. And then there are those moments when, expecting that well of course everyone knows this or understands that, he discovers with mind-splitting incredulity that people he assumed were as competent as he is actually don't understand some bit of mathematics so totally obvious and straightforward, or find Ulysses "too hard," or haven't read the vi or emacs manual and learned all the arcane details, or whatever else he can hold over everyone's head, even though some of accomplishments actually were kind of hard back when he faced them himself but seem so easy now in retrospect.  And all of this happens in both aspects of his life, the science-y math-y engineering-y bits and the art-y music-y literature-y bits.

But even writing this now brings the fear on for the Wold boy, the fear that he is one of those people to whom Dunning-Kruger really does apply, who worries above everything, even that maybe he is worse than stupid, maybe he is actually delusional, as in delusions-of-grandeur delusional. So we'll set that aside for a time when the room isn't so dark and the candles aren't guttering.

What I really wanted to talk about here - and the reason for the photo of the totally gorgeous telescopes in the Galileo Museum above - is the epiphany I had the other day while walking through this beautiful city, which is that, even though I've come out in some ways, although in the article above there is this bit:
Wold is a little reticent about his sexual autobiography, despite the fact that his Web site identifies him as a composer, producer of operas, and "libertine." He volunteers only that after his divorce, he moved across the bay in part out of an attraction to San Francisco's gay scene - despite the fact that he is, by his own description, "queer but not gay."
and finding this bit the other day made me wonder if I'd ever actually read the whole interview, as I didn't remember it at all, but as I was saying, even though I've come out in some ways, I tend to avoid coming out as an engineer/math guy to the art world and as an art/lit guy to the engineering world, thinking that somehow there is a stigma of un-seriousness about being one to the other, but my epiphany the other day was that there is of course no stigma, not the slightest at all. The Galileo Museum is filled with objects that are both gorgeously scientific and gorgeously artistic, and being here in goddamned Firenze makes one remember that we intellectual types used to gather to make decisions about all aspects of the world and that article one on the agendum list that afternoon might be do mathematical objects exist in a Platonic reality of their own and article two might be be shouldn't we create a whole new art form? Leonardo was given a commission one day to paint the adoration of the magi or whatever and then the next day hired to figure out better methods to slaughter the good citizens of Pisa and it didn't seem to matter to either commissioner about the other. So where did that change? Or is this perceived stigma just my own problem? Hey, that reminds me that I did in fact work on a weapons system once, a parallel-pipeline FFT processor inside the F-16 or maybe it was the -15 radar, being built by Westinghouse Electric Corp, and I had published a paper on fast parallel-pipeline FFT construction, so was the go to guy, and I needed some money because I was a poor graduate student and like everyone else whose hands are bloodied for some bit of money, I just had to wash them with a little bit stiffer brush when I got home in the evenings, and I wonder now if they still would have hired me if I had told them about the other stuff, the settings of the Antonin Artaud poems and the readings of the Kathy Acker books and suchlike.

Oh wait, that reminds me of the other bit that gnaws at me - the piece of paper that says whether you are capable of doing a job - a notion that is so obviously crazy that one wonders how it even got started. I remember years ago reading some nonsense by Charles Wuorinen (note I may be misremembering this and maybe it was someone else but whatever, it's my memory so there) about how Charles Ives couldn't be that good a composer because he didn't really have that much schooling.  Hey, I have a PhD but the only reason I have it is because 1) one of my first girlfriends basically dared me to do it and 2) I didn't really like having a real job. Smart people can do smart things regardless of the particulars, and having the piece of paper doesn't even say that much anyway. I'll tell you the simple way to figure out whether someone is capable of doing something - ready? - have them actually do it. The best engineering/math work I did in graduate school wasn't even for my thesis, and almost none of what I do now was what I studied then - in art or the other.

And finally there is the last part of the engineering/art equation or should I say minuet, and the basis of the title of this essay: money. It's the weird and strange specter of the art world, a world in which no one has enough unless they inherited it from someone or they happened to be one of the lucky few that connected with the mass market, or they have a day job. Engineering gives me the easy life, and pays for this trip to Firenze, and gives me the support to do my art, and asks only that I work all the fucking time, day and night, never to see the beauty of summer, never knowing the joy of a day wasted without care.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

walking along the embarcadero past pier 7 and the flowers (II)

ZOFO duet, photo by Lynne Rutter
I've been mixing down the recording of the Certitude and Joy opera, soon to be released in some digital form, and I realized that there were sections of the piano that were played just so beautifully by the ZOFO duet that they really should be heard on their own, and it makes sense, really, as much of the piano was written before the opera even existed, and thus I mixed down a version which is really similar to the original piano duet score, but not quite exactly the same, and have uploaded it to soundcloud. For your listening pleasure, then, so please enjoy. Oh my, they are just so delightful.




Friday, February 7, 2014

trenta sei vedute del duomo

Recently garlands of roses
adorned this temple of magnificent structure
sweet parent, and daughter of your Son, virgin, flower of virgins,
your devoted people of Florence
will deserve to receive the merits of your Son in the flesh


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Viaggio a Firenze

The Empress and her consort are about to travel to Florence, the Beloved Jeweled Clasp on the Laces of the Boot of Italy, for a few months, with the simple goal to revolutionize several moribund artistic industries, including Drama, Music and Painting, whose terminal decline has long been discussed. Our headquarters is situated on the via dei Pandolfini, a stone's throw from where another such revolution was launched under our forebear, the late Count Giovanni de' Bardi. Here, together, we shall guide, with a firm but gentle hand on the reins, the way forward into a successful and prosperous future for all, at least for all those who agree to be led by us to this artist's paradise. The others, those too foolish or ignorant, those poor who disagree, who refuse to give us dominion, will be ignored or, if need be, exterminated.

Although bringing shape to the above-mentioned revolution is our prime objective, it is very thirsty work - as we used to say in the heady days of the OSS. After all, we are only human, and humans, like all living beings, from the lowly computer virus to the All-Encompassing Universal Gaia-Form of All Creation, do have human needs: to consume, to consummate, to respire, to eliminate, to reproduce, to float in the air, to achieve congress, which, as I think of Italy, brings to mind those calendars full of cute and kind of homoerotic priest photos they sell down the road from the Vatican, or that very attractive woman who made me a hot chocolate and who laughed and looked into my eyes and who, happening to run into me in the luggage store just a few minutes later, helped me so very very much in buying a new strap, the perfect strap, one that is tight and just long enough and from which it would be very difficult to escape.



Saturday, January 25, 2014

Notes on Prototype / New Works Forum: New York 2014


I came to the New Works Forum conference as a composer, as a producer of my own works, and as someone who is just beginning to help others get their works done. I didn’t know what to expect, but was very pleasantly surprised. I suppose it makes sense that those that come to a New Works Forum are those who are interested in new works, but the level of excitement, the feeling that this is the future, the search for new solutions to funding and production and presentation and development of new opera was striking, as well as everyone’s interest in the wide range of what is going on.

The conference was held at the same time as the Prototype festival, which was great.  I had time to see a few things: Paul's Case, which was quite delicate and sublime, Thumbprint, which captured the culture in which it took place and had some very nice chamber writing, and my favorite piece of the festival, Angel's Bone, which is one of those few pieces where the text is so strong that it can stand on its own but where the text and the intensely gorgeous music combined with it to produce something incredible. Let me quote a bit from Royce Vavrek's libretto:

Brick J. can't get enough;
Mounts me, holding me
by my empty wings.
Sucks every drop
Of my inner-most marrow
Moans as he rolls
My tissue on his tongue:
A carnivorous act. 

I was somewhat aware of the pain felt by the larger opera companies, but it was illuminating to hear it directly from them. One can see how they worked themselves into a situation that is very difficult to get out of – a funding structure that is based on very large productions of traditional repertoire – where it is hard to make a move in any direction without losing something. When David Devan talked about the costs of producing, even in his small hall, it’s clear that nimbleness for him is difficult to achieve. 

I did see that some of the aesthetic choices of the big companies (although not all) were towards more conservative works. And maybe saying they are “conservative” is a lazy choice of words – more that some of the works presented in the forum were very play-like, or even musical-theater-like, with lots of dialog, with even a certain cuteness of the dialog. I wondered if this was because it is believed that this is what will align with the tastes of their current audience. I shared a long taxi ride with Ben Krywosz (Nautilus Music Theater) and he stated my concern very succinctly: why are we singing?  It’s a really good question and worth looking at for new works. I do think opera is a very different medium than plays or musical theater, that there’s a certain depth that is possible because of the richness and development of the music over a single work – that it can be an equal partner in the drama, adding another line of emotion and character and narrative development, not just as underscoring or underlining the text. I liked when someone at the conference said that singing is unnatural, so why try to be natural? Yes, right.

There were also some very good discussions about a growing awareness of the audience’s tastes and about developing pieces that do make a connection, and statements that younger composers seemed aware that we have to do things that connect to an audience for the art form to survive. But I do worry that this seems to be taken by some to imply a retrenchment or a – dare I say it again – conservatism.  I believe that there do have to be some uncompromising artists that push the form forward. Those don’t necessarily have to have 1.8 million dollar productions, but a piece that was mentioned a few times at the conference – Einstein on the Beach – is way outside of the style – or even the meta-style – the approach – of pieces people were talking about producing. It’s a perfect example of something I talked about above – a piece that could not be a play or a movie – a piece that relied on the power of its music. I know many composers and artists and directors who were inspired and brought into the then dusty world of opera because of that work, which was so striking and so different and so compelling. I’m one of those people. We tend to forget that Opera itself was a product of the Florentine renaissance, that the concept of a richly sung line over an rich accompaniment was an artistic revolution that displaced the sung monody of the church. It’s good to be reminded that one should not be afraid.

Related Posts with Thumbnails