Thursday, December 11, 2014

Against cutesy-ness

Lying in bed last night reading Barry Mazur's When is one thing equal to some other thing?, I came across a throwaway line about the category of sets and how it is like Odette is to Swann and guffawed, and the person in bed with me, checking their Twitter feed and playing Solitaire, said "what?" and I shrugged it off, as one doesn't really want to be caught out laughing at a Proust reference late of the night, especially a Proust reference in an article on categories, since, as the children say, nothing kills a boner faster. But again I had a wistful longing for a proper Jesuit education, an education that really was an education instead of just hanging out in the library kicked out of class because it was so fucking deadly boring and hadn't I already learned it all during discussions at the synagogue and the moose lodge that the teacher took some pity on me and told me to come back later when all the rest were done for some special instructions and to earn the requisite grade of A or maybe even A+ through some extra credit hanky panky later back behind the quonset huts.

But what really irks me in this undereducated world is listening to yet another piece by a fellow composer overwhelmingly attracted to the cutesy and clever and wanting to share their cutesy cleverness with every person in dead-cat-swinging distance. Ah, even as a boy I could not understand the moments in some profound masterwork when suddenly the chicks in their shells start to prance about and one has to run, hoping to vomit one's guts out behind the cold water fountain in the lobby instead of down the neck of the patron a-fronting. And then, even worse, the composer who thinks hey I need some text so why don't I just knock something out here and there, yes, that's as dorky as it can possibly be, since why wouldn't everyone love to share some incredibly twee wordplay, forgetting that, just as the person who defends themself has a fool for a lawyer, the composer who has themself as librettist is most likely going to write a really shitty piece.

When I went on about this with my friend who we will, for the sake of argument, call "Jay", I was painfully aware that I myself have written my own texts but I said, slightly louder than maybe I should have, "who wouldn’t be interested in every little thing that happened to Erling Wold and every  thought that Erling Wold has ever had?"  And I was stewing about all that when I remembered the next piece setting some journal entries about having some coffee and cleaning one's underpants and stuff and I rolled my eyes and said to myself Jesus Lord in Heaven. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Great War


Now, at the 100th anniversary of that conflict, I find myself writing several pieces that connect to it: an opera of sorts on the sinking of the battleship Szent István for the wonderful Klagenfurter Ensemble, my favorite favorites; a longish solo piano work for the fabulously talented Slovenian pianist Davorin Mori that is a series of portraits of anti-war activists from the period; and a commissioned song for Heidi Moss as part of a multi-composer project of Lieder Alive!, in German, a setting of a war poem, Schlacht - Das Maß, a strange work which had even a stranger history after the first world war. So many people love war - absolutely love it - and that period of European and specifically German history at the beginning of the 20th century to the middle of it, seemed to be so much about that love, and it's very hard for me to understand. I'm trying to put that difficulty of understanding into the music somehow, probably too subtle but whatevs.

A series of questions on ownership


Mona Darkfeather, née Josephine Workman
Who owns a piece of a culture? If Jane and Joey played the now assuredly inappropriately named game of Indians and Cowboys when they were young, do they have any ownership of the iconography of those Cowboys or Indians? Would it matter if that iconography were historically accurate in whatever sense that is meaningful, or If that iconography came from the Hollywood mythology of the West? And which Hollywood mythology - that of Zane Grey or Little Big Man or Sam Peckinpah? If Penelope and Peter played GIs vs Nazis when they were young, do they own a piece of the symbology or culture of either of those groups: chewing gum, muddy boots, saber cuts on the cheek? Or the Saracens and the Crusaders? If not Jane nor Joey nor Penelope nor Peter, then who? Only the purest descendants of the GIs or the Nazis or the Cowboys or the Native Americans or those of Zane Grey? Or did Mr. Grey not possess the ownership to write his stories in the first place? And if anyone does have ownership, at what distance in space or in time or racial or geographical or cultural mixing is the ownership lost or even merely diluted?  Do blood and pain give ownership? Must it be your blood and pain or that of people close to you, or blood relatives, or Nth cousins removed? Does the closeness of relation affect guilt, do the sins of ones parents? 

In a world that has reduced spatial and time distances to zero, where we all experience all cultures through time and space from the moment we are born, which culture is ours? Is a distance of 200 years more or less than a distance of 2000 miles? Does sacredness or meaning or significance determine ownership? Who now can own the Liverpool sound, or punk of the 70s, or Grandmaster Flash? I heard the latter in more depth before the former, and Ligeti well before that. Which is my heritage?  And when I studied the tabla or the instruments of the gamelan, and played those better than the piano or the guitar, which do I own the most or the least? Which must I respect and how and what aspect? Am I free to use or abuse those instruments? These instruments all have their histories - not just one or two paths back through time but a thousand, a million - at least one, mostly likely more for each person who has ever touched them or even considered them - which is the proper heritage?  Which is the appropriated?  Does a colonial child in India own more or less of the music of India than an Indian child owns more or less of British mathematics?  

Do objects that are sacred to one group become untouchable by others? Does this depend on which group is which, on cultural superiority, who were the winners and losers, the matters of in-the-wrongness / in-the-rightness, power and might, economics and genocide? What is sacredness? Is a crucifix sacred? Is a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine sacred? Is it acceptable for the descendant of a Nazi to be angered by the misuse of the SS-Runen in a comedy made by the winners, or does the Nazi's absolute wrongness in all things and all ways and their miserable evilness remove for always the cultural ownership of all their artifacts, ceding it to all others for all time to be used and abused and (we hope) denigrated? And is the same true for the absolute evilness of the 13th century Mongols, or is that too far off in the haze and fog of Western-biased history for us to be so sure of good and bad? 

And does something have to be sacred, or to be serious to be owned by whomever it is that might claim ownership? Or are jokes and fun owned by all?  And what about an object or a music that had another life before that?  People have been around for a million years, so did those things ever have another meaning? Is there not another group long dead who were borrowed from or traded with or conquered or laughed at or sat with or from whom it merely blew off their head in a strong wind? 

I have my own culture, formed from my experiences. Is that mine? Can another touch it who hasn't experienced exactly my experience?  Does it depend on how important it is to me?  If I have a religious experience in my music, does that make it too sacred for others?  When I write something, how does it affect the correctness of that in the world if anyone else in all of history on this world and all others has done that before or will do it in the future? How am I to know whether it is right or wrong?  

And, almost too obvious a question, how important is privilege? Maybe I can't do it but someone whose life is worse than mine can.  Someone poorer - there are always those - or someone sadder, or sicker, or more abused, or whose group or country or race or ancestors were sadder or sicker or more abused?  I was born in the US and thus I have great power and wealth. I was not born rich for the US but absolutely rich for the world. I was shy but I was not teased, I was smart but not made fun of, but I have always been depressed.  I was lonely yet popular, happy on the surface, did well in school, but didn't see life beyond school, had serious illnesses, suffered pain, have had friends die, was an asshole.  Which and how much of these allow me what?  What can I appropriate and what can I not, or do I need to start at the beginning, to invent my own biology and from that, language and sound and sight and touch all my own? How can I guarantee that I haven't failed?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

My mother, and the coming war against men



Marge Wold, with creatures

My mother died a few weeks ago, and, since then, stories of my life with her have come bubbling up. She, like me, wanted to do everything, to create everything. She was fiercely ambitious and trained me to be the same, with the good and bad attendant: all the achievements and all the dissatisfactions.  A few weeks before she died, she wheeled herself to her neighbor's, told him she wanted to talk, and announced: "I'm 95 and I haven't accomplished anything." This from a woman who wrote ten or so books, speechified throughout the world, was the goto troubleshooter for Lutheran churches, who founded day nurseries across the country for newly single working mothers, who raised five children, and who, when the family bought a silent 8mm camera, immediately wrote a wordless story and had me and my dog at the time act it out in the sprawling parsonage in Grand Forks ND. 

But one of my oldest and most favorite stories is of the time she sat me down, when I was about ten years old, and told me that, one day - and I suppose I assumed that that day was fast approaching - women would have to take up arms against men, this to right the many wrongs of the many millennia of the many oppressions. I knew that most wars are won by attrition, and that there are more women than men, so I resigned myself to being on the losing side, and would even now be willing to surrender if asked nicely, if we could once again find those Viking soldiers buried with their sword and shield so long mis-gender-identified, but no such battle has come, no such victory, and we see that, even today, women find themselves living in a world of shit. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Audience, and Nixon in China, and the Dissonance canard

I ran into fellow composer Michael Fiday at Lisa Moore's fabulous concert a few weeks ago and buttonholed him about one of his recent Facebook posts quoting Peter Gelb to the effect that composers were finally again writing music that audiences want to listen to. Michael's point was that this has been going on for a long time, but even better was one of the comments consisting of a link to an article in the San Diego Reader discussing the difficulties of the San Diego Opera which said:

It is doing John Adams’s Nixon in China next year. But this is risky. These works may be on contemporary themes, but they feature dissonant music.

And at the Opera Conference in Vancouver in 2013, a man in the back stood up and said that it was a mistake for opera companies to try to modernize by playing pieces like Nixon in China, since, like all modern operas, there was not one memorable or singable tune in the entire piece. I looked across the room and caught Kent Devereaux mouthing the words News news news news, matching exactly what I was thinking, along with the now-part-of-the-standard-aria-repertoire piece I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung, which consists almost entirely of simple triads and the outlinings of those same triads in the melodic line. 

Next story: when I was a graduate student, I was hanging at my research advisor Al Despain's home, a brilliant man with simple musical tastes, one who listens to what he likes, and he was at that moment playing some music he liked, some light jazz, some jazz with a touch of the electric, maybe a bit of rock fusion, music I thought simple and straightforward to listen to, and I attempted to join with him in the clear enjoyment of his simple musical pleasures. Whereupon, one of his other students entered and said What is this, John Cage? 

An even earlier story: when my college roommate and I were both taking various composition classes and raiding the local record stores for music that pushed the edges of the world we had known, I picked up a copy of Pierrot Lunaire, and that first time I listened it to I found it very strange and unappealing, mostly the vocal style, but really almost everything about it, and I thought to myself, when I eventually love this music, which I somehow knew I would, I will have to remember this moment, and remember how far my tastes have traveled, how distant they are from even those of other sophisticated listeners, as I was, having for many years listened to just about everything I could get my hands on. 

But all this, and the conclusions therefrom, are obvious. When the reviewer said 'dissonant' he just meant unfamiliar. Clearly any kind of semi-scientific Helmholtzian or musico-historical Tenney-ian Dissonance Meter's needle would remain during Nixon in China on the low end of the scale, most assuredly lower than Wagner and lots of popular others. And my fellow student meant by "John Cage" the whole incomprehensible world of music that lies outside of  the ten corporate-sponsored tunes of the moment. 

Is there really music that is inherently popular or elitist?  Or is it all just about what the populace is conversant with?  If the mass public hears something a hundred times, it can become - by that process alone - likable. If not, then why does each generation seem to love the music they grew up with and find the music of the succeeding generation unapproachable?  Why do those growing up in different cultures by and large love the music of their own culture and find the music of other cultures incomprehensible?  Clearly popularity is learned. 

So, when one is asked take the audience into account, one has to respond, which audience? Not me, obviously, as my tastes have long since departed this realm.  And if I am not the audience, then how can my tastes be relied upon to judge whether other audiences who are not me might respond?  Almost surely I'll get it wrong.  There is nothing sadder than the composer who gives up her own tastes and desires to attempt to connect to the audience and who fails in this attempt.  Oh to be a composer most fortunate - financially fortunate - whose musical tastes happen to coincide with that of the largest and most well-heeled audience. 

A couple new scores

A couple of new short simple pieces here and here, two that I played at the show with Laura Bohn last week. From the notes:

As I was just telling Beth Levin a few minutes ago, there are few dynamics and few indications of tempo, but they are flexible. I personally played the first piece moving the soft pedal very slowly, and in synchronization with my own small dynamic movements, giving the feel of an organ crescendo pedal. The third piece can be even slower than indicated, and quieter, and una corda. The last should have some frenzy, wide dynamics fine, a caesura before the change to the soft part.

Kyle Gann has spoken about this on his blog - the skepticism of the new music community at music they perceive to be understated.  I thank him his clarity on the issue.  And yes, I agree with him.  I'm happy if someone tries to control every aspect.  I myself used to do tape music, and that's a highly controlled medium, except for wires and speakers and amplifiers and the room in which one listens, but I also think that performers - including myself - should be able to mangle my pieces any way they wish.  They do anyway, so why not just acknowledge it?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Our love runneth over: a summer’s eve most dearly spent

The most excellent Laura Bohn is coming to town, and we've talked for years about doing something with just the two of us so now we are: songs and scenes from my operas and solo piano, August 9th at 8pm at the Center for New Music, 55 Taylor Street in San Francisco, a lovely space at the edge of the Tenderloin, near Pianofight's about-to-open theater. Tickets only at the door: $15 general / $10 members.

Included are the flashy Veracity; the "big and gorgeous monologue of Wagnerian intensity" aka the killing scene from Certitude and Joy; Brightness, on Dan Bellm's poem; the brand new solo work The Knife Thrower, inspired by Erin Langley's poem inspired by the Steven Millhauser book of the same name; and at least the First Prayer (the bandage hour) from A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil. There will be food and drink and time to hang out, and if there is any money left over it will go toward the upcoming US premiere of УКСУС (UKSUS (vinegar)).

Saturday, May 31, 2014

There are no rules

There are no rules. Really, there are no rules. It's a hard thing to accept, but it's true, and the difficulty of accepting this simple truth is because most of us really do want there to be rules, and that maybe by following those rules we will insure that everything works out OK.

I'm sitting downstairs on the patio at the Empress's parents' home looking out over the harbor, a cool breeze blowing off the water, activated by the wind so that it sparkles in the sun, the slight tang of diesel, the planes rocketing off in their high-G noise abatement pattern while her father dies upstairs. When someone dies, there are always questions: how old is he, what did she die of, did they eat too much meat, did they drink too much, did they love the wrong person, attempts to look for answers that will give us the rules of life that will guarantee that we never ever die.  My mother believes it, that she won't really die. At 95, she believes she will see my father again, and I don't know what that would be like: an eternity where there is no hope for the future, no ambition, no pain, no fear of death.

When a beautiful piece is made, there are always questions about process, about the tools used, about how to analyze the sounds or the chords or the way the melody peaks or troughs. These questions are an attempt to understand what makes something good or bad or effective or full of longing.  We hope that knowing the answers will give us the rules that will help us create, but they don't.

The Empress says I would be a bad teacher because, being in close contact with a class full of fresh-faced and excitable young people I would surely be arrested for something. But I know I would be a bad instructor because I would stand at the front of the lecture hall and simply say "Hey, guess what, there are no rules" and then I would sit back down and wait for something to happen, and that's not what they are looking for.  They want someone to be their guide, to help them through, and I suppose I do know something: I can tell them if they want to sound exactly like someone else to study what that person does or did and to imitate it.  That works, and it's what harmony and counterpoint books assemble: simplistic and descriptivist rules developed after the creative act, that explain some small average aspect of the group behavior of a set of composers culled from a particular time and place, aspects that are actually unimportant, beside the point, at least when it comes to the Ineffable Wonder of Composition.

Really, I'm serious, there are no rules, say it to yourself 100 times each day.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The idiocy of 'finding your voice'

The delicious dogs and cakes by P. Amblard.
The Empress' friend and fellow peinture décorative Pascal Amblard and family were visiting the Palazzo Rutter-Wold née Valori in the waning days of our Firenze adventure, and at one point he said that he had listened to the works on my website and wondered at the fact that my music didn't seem to be of one style or another but rather wandered around like the doomed sinner who taunted Christ and was forced to potter about without rest or respite until the end of the world or sometime near that. I felt like I should respond, to defend myself against what I perceived as a jab of the hated ἐκλεκτός but the shock of it struck me dumb. Why, haven't all my friends ridiculed me for writing the same music again and again? And aren't we, in the modern art world, supposed to do exactly that, aren't we supposed to have a voice that is so obvious and so marketable and so succinctly expressible in a single sentence that everyone knows before they've heard the tune what it will sound like? 

But then, I thought, isn't even your voice not somehow the human voice, the voice of everyone? As many before me have said, we live in the eternal now and the everywhere, the world of fixed media where all things are available to all, and isn't it true that there are no distinct cultures anymore, and thus no cultural appropriations possible?  I think it was Henry Cowell who said - that I first noticed anyway - that there are no pure cultures and that was many years ago and now it's so much more true, as all artistic space and time is all there from the moment one appears on the Earth or at least the Internet.

But then I remembered that Donald Aird told me that we can't not write The Music of Our Time, since we are of our time, and formed and shaped by all that exists around us  Even this above-mentioned washing over us of all things is different than what has been before, and none of us now or before perceive it like any other, as even the frameworks through which we perceive and approach the universe are of our time and no other and it's hard for us to think past that. Which reminds me of the story where Wittgenstein asks why do we believe it was more natural to think that the sun went round the earth than the earth turned on its axis, whereupon his friend replies that it is because it looked as if the sun went round the earth and at this point Wittgenstein says "Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?"†

And I wonder sometimes why it is that what I listen to is not what I write: Ligeti's Lontano or his Kyrie, Chiyoko Szlavnics' Gradients of Detail, John Luther Adams' Dark Waves. I feel a deeper personal connection to that music than my own, and, as wonderful as the latter may be, the former has a perceived ineffability - I can't touch it; it is just out of reach.

† An introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Everything








Three months is hard to summarize, but if I don't try I will forget what has happened, and Firenze will fade further into a dream, a dream of Donatello's TransDavid, named by Shaunna, at the Bargello just around the corner from our palace, and the cat Lorenzo, who visited us on his rounds from roof to roof, who might also have been a girl, and so much more drinking than I do in my normal life. When we came to Florence, the Empress had a clear mission - to write her book on ornament and to photograph every square centimeter of Tuscany that had been touched by a painter's brush - but I had no plan except to drink it in and to cry for all those who had died there before me. And this I did each night, on the roof terrace, the wind and rain and sun and clouds riding over the city laid gloriously before me, the Duomo so close I would find myself reaching toward it, reaching with the hand that didn't hold the glass of honey grappa bought from the Badìa just around the corner from our palace, the same place we went for vespers, thick with incense and with the pure voices of those who, one wishes to believe, have no doubts about this world and the next.

While the empress pursued her course, I drifted about, washing ashore in Klagenfurt to record the UKSUS band, the Talltones Extended, for example the third of the Boeuf Bub interludes:



and the Divan Song:



While in Carinthia, I started on another project, a commission from the Klagenfurter Ensemble, to do a piece around the sinking of the Szent István, with Peter Truschner as the librettist. I've taken it on faith - I really have no idea how the subject will be handled, but I love the KE, and I trust that I can take whatever is given to me and turn it into something wonderful, and starting an opera in the birthplace of opera - well, isn't that a portent?

But the best part of the trip were the visits from many lovely people: my son Duncan and his girlfriend Bill, who mostly slept through the Florence days, venturing out only at night; Bunnywhiskers, with whom we and our friend Alison went to see Silvia Colasanti's beautiful opera of La metamorfosi; our more-or-less daughter and collaborator Laura, who connected us with the tenor Gregory Warren, who snuck us into a rehearsal of Tristan, and who lent his voice to the videos I was making with the beautiful dancers pictured up top, Elizebeth and Shaunna - I'm pretty sure more will be seen here about what we all are working on - with whom I went on a tremendously drunken trip to Panicale and stayed in an almost-as-ridiculously-beautiful-as-our-palace villa that overlooked everything, from the lake to Assisi and across the farms of Umbria; and meeting up with some San Francisco costume friends in Venice for Carnivale; and more and more I'm sure I'm forgetting.

Oh well. The end has come more quickly than I thought it would, and I knew before we left that the time would disappear. As always, one has only memories and hope for more to come.

Arrivederci Firenze

Goddamn you Florence, feckless lover, not able to manage even a drizzle, this morning dampened by crocodile tears you bring to your beautiful eyes while already turning away, already welcoming to your bed: the Dutch ladies; the next boatload of earbud linked tourists from China or the US or Germany following an unopened umbrella; the American students; the pilgrims and gelato eaters. You take them all, your beautiful eyes sparkling with each union, no matter how hurried, your bright light impinging on a hundred thousand silicon slabs each most sensitive to light, each made by light themselves in the hot foundries of Korea and Taiwan.

In my jealousy, while you sleep, I kiss your cheek and, pulling the covers down, expose your skin of cool marble, shot through with veins, blue and white, and take my unconsented pleasure, and then, childishly, pilfering from your nightstand into my carryon bag: a bust of Papa Francesco, two pairs of stockings, inhaled dove rocket smoke, all the truffled pizzas I could ever eat, a cake, much chocolate, an injured leg, music and - what I will miss most - the unbridled joy of our guests, who, seeing you from the terrace crowning our palace said what and what and what and laughed in your pleasure.

Oh please, bring back the hail and the rain and the lightning and the thunder, ground all the planes and let the busses and trains have a strike day where they can join us in your bed of stone and mortar and frescoes for one last love making, to smell your sweat and let my tears fall upon you my dear fickle love, la mia vita.

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.

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