Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Apollonian Clockwork

Kyle Gann has discussed this book previously, but I finally got around to buying a copy, and, even though I'm only about a third of an inch in (plus a bit of skipping about), I have found in the book all the delights he and his commenters promised. I am an unrepentant disciple of Stravinsky, and I have always felt a kinship with the Dutch minimalists, but the book is loaded with insights, aphorisms and stories which should thrill anyone from any corner of the contentious N-gon which is the new music arena. The two authors are wonderful writers as well. In a section on the improvisational nature of Stravinsky's music, they liken it to a series of anecdotes linked together by a quick-witted speaker, and they in fact make an aside to tell an anecdote, parenthetically expounded:
In 1921 Diaghilev decided to make his contribution to the socializing of the arts. He rented the Gaieté Lyrique, a small theatre in the workers' district of Paris and managed - through publicity in the neighborhood - to attract the local residents into a theatre which put on mostly operettas. That succeeded nicely. After a few performances, the hall was filled with an entirely different audience from the mundane, chic people who usually attended the Ballets Russes. One evening the wealthy Misia Sert came to a performance. When she arrived at her box, she directed her binoculars into the crowded hall, saw no one well known - only unshaven faces - and said, surprised: `There's nobody here!'
But of more interest to us composers are the composerly essays, for the book is really a collection of such, which bring us to desire that more books about composers be written by more composers. Yes, Kyle, your new book is on my to-be-read shelf, unfortunately a linear foot or two in, so be patient.  It is such a joy to  see the compositional and life knowledge the two authors have accumulated brought to bear on the subject, and the fact that they themselves have had to deal with so many of the same issues, and were influenced in their own compositions and the way they perceive the music that preceded them by the choices that Igor made, adds so much to the cross-generational discussion between composers living and dead.

An example is their brilliant clarification of the prescient nature of the Stravinsky's work, the change-without-change that presages minimalism, the form that follows from the music, the collage cutting back and forth. I've always been aware of the things in some way, ever since hearing Petrushka as a teen, and it's clear that it has informed everything I do, but why was not until this that I really got it?
A thirteen-year-old is capable, while lying in bed ready for sleep, of playing the Schumann Piano Concerto (in A minor) on the record-player of his memory. During the second movement, he will probably fall asleep. If, ten years later, in another bedroom, he tries the same thing with the Stravinsky Concerto for Piano and Wind (`in A minor'), he will, at the very most, if he even gets that far, get stuck at the cadenza of the first movement; or worse, get trapped in a vicious circle of dove-tailing rhythms and snake-like motifs biting at their own tails.
This is in fact what I love in the music that I love. I now see that the piece I'm currently tidying up, my Walking along the Embarcadero past pier 7 and the flowers, owes much to my youthful inoculation with Stravinsky's music, which I didn't see so clearly before. And more revelations lie ahead.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

More on Chosen

A 23-year-old woman who said she was hearing voices stripped her three small children naked Wednesday and threw them off a San Francisco fishing pier into the bay, authorities said.  - San Francisco Chronicle, October 20, 2005
I grew up in a religious family and, in my youth, longed for the kind of religious experience that would give me the certainty of faith that held my parents. They told me stories: once, when my sister was very ill and a blizzard raged outside, and they were sitting late at night in the living room, not knowing whether to brave the dangerous storm to drive to a doctor and risk all their lives in the process, the room was suffused with a warm and reassuring light, a presence that informed them clearly that all would be well, that they didn't have to worry. They both saw it, they both felt it, they both were sure that their daughter was safe and, as the morning came, my sister's fever broke and all was well. My mother, otherwise a very learned woman who knew Hebrew and Greek, who wrote books and plays, and who would talk to me of philosophy and her passion for feminism, also spoke in tongues, a charismatic babbling of nonsense syllables, an ecstatic experience, one of the gifts given to the apostles in Acts. As a young boy interested in mathematics, a world which I was beginning to look for certitude and intellectual comfort, I also knew of the work of Pascal who, even though a proponent of the Age of Reason, had sewn into his coat a detailed, irrational description of a moment in his life when he was absolutely certain of the truth of the Christian Faith. I couldn't shake the idea that this might be something necessary to survive in this world, an otherwise frightening place of chaos, illness, genocide, war, death, hunger and pain. But at the same time that I lusted after such an episode, I began also to fear it, seeing it as madness, a profound loss of my rational mind which was becoming more and more important to me. My friends in high school, who all sought their own quasi-religious experiences in hallucinogens and the attendant loss of identity, offered them to me, but by then, I could not let go. I felt I was already on the razor's edge between the bright light of sanity and the dark night of lunacy. Neither the faith of my parents or the home-grown sacred rites of my friends were able to convince me to take such a risk and I remained on the side of lucidity and reason, of sound and careful thinking. 

In 2005, a young woman in San Francisco was told by God to throw her three children into the Bay, which she did, undressing them and killing them all in a brief ritual after a day spent in San Francisco, sightseeing and eating hot dogs. I had seen the story in the paper, but had forgotten it among all the other news equally shocking. A few days after, I was riding my bicycle on the Embarcadero and came across an enormous pile of flowers and stuffed animals and notes and candles, damp from a soft evening mist off the water. I stopped and looked at it, not remembering why it was there until I looked up and saw the lamplights of pier 7 receding from where I stood into the dusk over the bay, a corridor of light to another world, and I remembered that this is where she sent her children through that corridor to the other world. I remembered that she had told the police that the children were with their Father, meaning not her boyfriend, their earthly father, but with their Father in Heaven. Later, as I read more about the case, I discovered her clear and childlike faith, e.g, her poignant request to the police psychologist that he take a letter up in a plane to her children in Heaven. Of course she was schizophrenic, with all the clinical signs of the disease appearing in her young adulthood, a typical time of onset. But, when someone reminded me of the story just last year during a discussion of Medea, the images of the pier and the lights and the unspeakable terror of the three young boys being killed by the mother came back to me and I began to wonder. How could she be so certain of God's voice? I had wanted that certainty of faith, I had been afraid of the consequences, like these. I knew of the Abraham and Isaac story too of course, which Christians happily accept as a instructive tale, how we should blindly accept the commandments of God, following His voice without question. We all know that we now live in a world where we focus daily on the terrible actions inspired by religious certitude. 

In writing the libretto, I have mixed her story and mine, accepting that she was in communication with God, that he told her to kill her children, that there is something compelling about her certainty. The piece is an opera, but not in any way a traditional one. The main characters are played by two dancers who dominate the action on stage. A singer is present who mostly takes her place in the orchestra, an ensemble centered around two pianos, who thunder out a music that ranges from dark and dense to the beautiful and serene. There is one actor as well, who moves through the dancers and presents much of the story plainly to the audience. There is no technology in this piece unlike many of my others. It is presented starkly and without adornment, a series of choices made and their consequences, great faith surrounded by our doubt.
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