Saturday, March 28, 2009

Henry Ford

Stephen Ambrose, in his Citizen Soldiers, tells of how upset the GIs were to see the enemy coming toward them riding Ford trucks (and Opel trucks and planes, a wholly-owned subsidiary of GM). Henry Ford has a number of troubling connections with the Nazis, many of which have been well publicized, from the inclusion of excerpts of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the glove compartments of new cars to his outspoken admiration for Hitler to his acceptance of the Grand Cross of the German Eagle in July 1938, four months after the Austrian Anschluss.

As the Washington Post points out in a detailed article, worth reading, on the deep connections between the two, when one thinks of Ford, the image is of baseball and apple pie and not that Hitler had a portrait of Henry Ford on his office wall in Munich, which he did. Company documents found when the German Ford slave-labor factories were liberated spoke of the "genius of the Führer." The final insult, most amazing to consider, came after the war, when both GM and Ford petitioned the US Government for reparations for their German facilities due to Allied bombing. And, although one might simply think to laugh off such a ludicrous proposal, GM was in fact paid $32 million, a cool $380 million inflation adjusted.

Irving Fine

A longstanding jest of mine was to answer, when asked about my career goals, that I wanted to be at least as famous as Irving Fine, he being (in my mind) a perfect example of a composer of some talent who is known by other composers but not well known among the general populace, unlike some of his fellows in the Boston Six, e.g. Lenny Bernstein and Aaron Copland and also due to the rhythmic-rhyming connection between our monikers. Unfortunately this particular goal will most likely not be achieved, but recently I found the late composer and I have some interests in common. From the bio by Phillip Ramey:

Although Irving's sisters frequently used the word "normal" to describe their brother, his first sexual experience was anything but that. He told Verna, who confided it to her daughters many years later, that at age six he had been molested by a twelve-year-old neighborhood girl who was acting as his babysitter. He was sexually active early on, and in his teens sometimes frequented whorehouses in Boston with a friend named Stanley. He also liked to write smutty limericks.

Verna recalled that Irving appreciated women with large breasts, theorizing that this might be because his mother and sisters were thus endowed. One summer in the late 1940s, while sitting on the lawn with his wife and Aaron Copland, Irving gave a quiet wolf whistle as an extremely busty female in a revealing halter passed by. Verna, who had average-sized breasts and was used to his ways, said, "Oh, Irving, act your age." Copland, puzzled, asked: "Can you explain to us why you like those ghastly things?" Irving just smiled. All his life he was a bit of a flirt, charming both sexes, although Verna insisted that he had no homosexual inclinations, even in adolescence.

I'll leave it to the reader to decide what features of the above we share.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Third Reich in Ruins

I came across a cornucopiæc website of photos then and now, comparing locations in Nazi Germany at the end of the war - the abovementioned 'in ruins' - to the same locations in our current and fully de-Nazified Germany. It reminded me of my first trip to Nürnberg in '95 at the 50th anniversary of VE day, when the city had placed billboard-sized photos of the urban landscape from early 1945, smoke still rising from the rubble, sited so as to duplicate the view I had standing in front of each: one view mere piles of debris, one the beautifully reconstructed Disneyland of the old city.

Soon after, I headed out to the Zeppelinfeld, site of many a Party rally, where my friend and sometime colleague Jon Jost had, standing near the dais, watched as an elderly German gentleman walked by, looked quickly from side to side, then made a small, furtive, but definite salute. Old habits die hard.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Richard Grayson

Discovered today to my joy that there exists on YouTube a cornucopia of videos of my first harmony teacher, whose much-more-than-a-parlor-trick is to take suggestions as to themes and composers from the audience and to then improvise a setting of the first in the style of the second. Playing examples in class, he would often wander off a bit in various directions, and was quickly able to show how, say a Bach chorale would progress through historical harmonic developments.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Vanity Press

I remember, as a wet-behind-the-ears naif, being surprised to discover how much of the art world was based on self-aggrandizement, trust funds, vanity press, self-written bios, press-releases and the like. I had so foolishly assumed that there was a way to actually succeed in the arts by doing art, that there was an arbiter in the world that chose the best, that knighted those that deserved it, and that the cream would rise to the top, that you would get the phone call or the letter that said you had made it, that you were now allowed to join the pantheon, loved and fêted by your peers as well as the adulating multitudes.

But soon I discovered the fallacious nature of this belief, that when the ballet or the opera or the symphony or the local new music promoter called you or sent you a letter, it was always merely to ask you for money, to ask you to support their own self-aggrandizement, their own vanity press and their own tenuous careers in the arts.

For example, I recently received an oleaginous letter from a record company, flattering me with silken tongue. Let's take a look-see, some details redacted and some annotations added:

Hi Erling,

The informal introduction catches me off guard.

My name is [French female name here] and I am writing from the Boston-based production company [whatever].

The pretty name opens the heart, allow the knife to enter.

I’ve familiarized myself with your music and career, very impressive. I listened to your "On the Death of David Blakely" and loved it - emotionally moving piece, full of intrigue and mystery.

But here we see already the seeds planted of the doubt to come, a glimpse of the future: the fighting, the recrimination, the tears and blood and shame and hurt.

We have a vibrant release schedule and sessions lined up through 2009 - just this November we produced music for clarinet and piano with Richard Stoltzman in our Boston Studio (I have attached a picture that was taken during the session).

I have also attached an article featuring [whatever] and the press release for our formalized agreement with Microsoft to include [whatever] music in Windows. We're in close touch with Microsoft’s Lead Music Supervisors about providing more content in the coming months. Exciting all around!

At this point it is simply embarrassing and we really need to look away. Needless to say, our ensuing conversations, although light and airy and of some social interest, lead in the direction we have foreseen: the deal offered akin to that of prostitute and john, that where she looks away at the moment of penetration, separating herself from her body to avoid feeling the revulsion that is welling inside, and he feels a vague discontent, knowing that it is not what he had hoped.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Reports have been arriving at our editor's desk here that the current Global Economic Collapse is causing a major uptick in movie theater ticket sales. Disaster seems to arrive hand-in-hand with a desire for fantastic escapism, and the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany in Stalingrad coincided with the release by Universum Film AG of the spectacular - and spectacularly expensive - fantasy Münchausen, Herr Goebbels' answer to Gone with the Wind. In the contradiction-laden Germany of 1943, the stage was filled with Afrodeutsch extras, some forcibly recruited from the concentration camps; the star of the movie, Hans Albers, was supporting his Jewish lover Hansi Burg in London; and the screenplay was written by Berthold Bürger, a pseudonym for the officially banned Jewish writer Erich Kästner, who was somehow able to give Albers the line "Nicht meine Uhr ist kaputt, die Zeit ist kaputt," a politically insensitive line to say the least. In addition, the movie is filled with sexual decadence, from a nymphomaniac Catherine the Great to topless harem girls (clipped out of the clip above), to the smolderingly hypnotic eyes of Albers, all while Hollywood labored under the Hayes code, but the end was near and none of this immoderation went far enough to salve the growing fear of the German populace.

Ruining it for everyone

The Nazis did a lot of really bad things, and tainting the swastika in the West forever and always was one of them, leading even to the current attempts in the EU to ban the symbol, although it's really unclear how one actually bans a simple figure that has been in use for at least three millennia, spans cultures, is currently seen around the world, is part of ornamental borders and floors and temple columns, included in books on tessellations and origami, the logo of charitable organizations, etc. Lynne Rutter saw the lovely example of a decorative manji at the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo a few days ago. However, even there, the Nazi stigma still is felt as, since the war, all the new Buddhist manji in Japan are of the left-handed variety, not the right-handed isomer favored by the historical evil. Below, from a Tokyo shrine near Shibuya:

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Last day in Tokyo

Ended the last night in Tokyo drinking too much and watching my performing arts colleague Fiume Suzuki and her dance partner (see both above) perform in the difficult-to-find and members-only Sound Bar+ in Roppongi, an unmarked red door just down a small street. We met at TPAM, attracted to each other's similar hairdos, i.e., our current baldness:

Once there, I was able to compare corsets with a friend of hers, whose bound waist was as thick as a normal thigh, and who showed me some lovely photos on her cell phone of corset/kimono hybrids.

But first thing, Lynne and I went to see Shun-kin at the Setagaya Public Theater and it was everything I hoped it would be from the glimpse I caught through the tech booth window. The story was clear even without the English surtitles that were provided at the Barbican, and not understanding the details of the language allowed me to get lost in the beauty of the production. Birds represented by flapping paper, mixed with projections of birds, sometimes moving in sync with kimono catching those projections. The aging of the two main characters was handled in two appealing ways: a series of cast changes for the man and the morphing of a puppet to a real actress for Shun-kin herself, a blind shamisen player who takes her servant as a lover, a sadomasochistic relationship that is resolved only when the servant blinds himself. Ah, Japanese stories seem to always veer toward the heavily fucked up, at least those that make an impact in the west, but that is something that I too find very attractive.

In between, and quite a long train ride away, we went to see Akira Ishigura at the enormous GEISAI art show. He has some craft in his oil paintings of anime crossed with the old masters.

War Crime and Punishment

On the bullet train to Hamamatsu (pictured to the left), one quickly realizes how much was built or rebuilt after the war. Most of the country in fact. So much of it looks prefabbed and hastily constructed, temporary buildings reminiscent of West Berlin before the wall came down. General Curtis LeMay's firebombing strategy, the results of which were the impetus for this rebuilding, was not in fact that different from what had already been made acceptable throughout Europe by the blitz, the vengeance weapons, the carpet bombing of cities by masses of planes that blotted out the sun, the single-minded development of superweapons capable of wiping out a city in a flash of neutrons, heat and gamma rays. But the paper and wood houses that populated Japan at the time were more susceptible than the stone buildings of Europe and the resulting conflagrations reached temperatures that boiled their victims in the rivers into which they swam to escape. LeMay once famously remarked that it was a good thing we won or he and many other of the Allied commanders would have been prosecuted for war crimes.

And that is the nut of crimes of war: it's a prerequisite to commit them in order to be guilty of them, but one also has to lose the war.

In his autobiography, Chuck Yeager tells of receiving orders to fly to some particular grid coordinates in Germany and kill every living thing within a square mile. I don't remember the exact quote, but it was something to the effect that he didn't feel good about it, but orders is orders: more or less the Nuremberg defense. The losers don't get a chance to raise the question.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

TPAM day 4

The high point was performing in Rotozaza's Etiquette with Silvia Mercuriali, one of its two progenitors, a piece where two face each other across a small table, listening to instructions on headphones, following without question these instructions, acting simultaneously as audience, performers and godlike figures manipulating two small toy characters' frightening lives. It was a physical rush, intimate in the real interaction with this real stranger, embarrassing in the pressure to perform, and difficult restraining oneself from responding to the character being played, sticking to the script as it is revealed.

I wonder if there is a place for 'composition' in this little world.

After that, my agent-cum-dominatrix flogged me through a gauntlet of meetings with art centers and presenters and theaters, a blur of Japanese that I am finding difficult to retain. I handed out a lot of CDs and DVDs and I remember from back in the Yamaha days that the Japanese take these things seriously; once I gave a CD to Kuwabara-san, a member of the Board of Directors, a major position in a company that at that time numbered 14000, and, after a late night of drinking 'in the samurai style,' he buttonholed me first thing in the morning, me in a deep and photophobic hangover, asking insightful questions supported by multitudinous scrawled notes in a mixture of Japanese and English and Music Notation in which he had analyzed and transcribed in detail the microtonal scales and harmonies, asking why and why and why to which I had no good answer. But I accepted DVDs and CDs as well, and now I feel a certain responsibility to respond in kind, to study and peruse and comment and give due attention.

And then, the closing party - unfortunately so soon - in which an Aussie gentleman embraced me in the five points of fellowship (see above), applied the apprentice handshake, and, at the moment when the master and apprentice are mouth to ear, whispered that he is an 'esoteric sex worker,' that he has a special knowledge known only to a few.

Friday, March 6, 2009

TPAM day 3

Met with the Arion-Edo Foundation who put on the Tokyo Summer Music Festival, a group that puts paid to my previously held notion that the music scene here is only conservative. Also met with the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, very interested in doing new and odd work as well as drawing in the local community. Surprised to find that both were interested in my little operas, although interest and reality are two different things, separated by the gulf of funders' bureaucracies. Also surprised to find how many people knew of the work of William Burroughs, and how much interest there was in Queer, which was not true in Europe. There is something here that resonates in a fundamental way with the beats.

Another dance showcase, this time for the JCDN, which is the Japan equivalent of the National Performance Network in the US. I'm beginning to figure out some of the dance vocabulary that seems to suffuse the work here. One piece stood out for me, a violently sexual pas de deux, appealing for obvious reasons, by j.a.m. dance theatre, Osaka.

Tokyo moment of the day: being crushed onto a JR train car to the point where I wondered if one of the passengers might actually die. As the train moved forward, a young girl leaned her head against my back, quietly sobbing from the pain.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

TPAM day 2

OK, after seeing Pappa Tarahumara's adaption of Chekov's Three Sisters in their little studio and after recently seeing Ship in a View in the City by the Bay, I've become a big fan. An incredible intensity and immediacy coupled with depth and polish and way-too-capable performers makes for a flawless piece. The sound/music score is tightly integrated into the dance. Asking Hiroshi Koike about this, he said that he gives his composers very detailed timelines - Lynne said storyboards - of the piece before they start to write, but that he also asks them to fill it in with many special sounds and gestures, which he then works into the movement language. Only once have I worked from a score given to me by a choreographer: Robert Wechsler's Modules/Loops, excerpt following, and I have to say that it was great fun. It's been noted by many people that having constraints is quite freeing, and I found that to be true:

Before this, we were treated to a series of showcase works that highlighted quite a different dance aesthetic from what I have seen in the US. A couple of the pieces were quite sparse, with some dangerous moves, e.g., climbing up a series of stacked tables and then rolling off the top to land on all fours like a cat; falling onto the top of the head from a kneeling position with an audible whack, then slowly un-scissoring to lie on the belly. The final piece was the most memorable and, even though it is quite impossible to capture in words, let me ask the reader to imagine a young woman afflicted with a mild case of St. Vitus' Dance or other neurological disorder, following the spoken instructions of a self-help meditation recording that has had a large number of silences edited in, no other music, in front of a small black wall, a very simple white spot with a diffuse edge lighting her as she slightly vibrates through the simple postures, and then, after a small adjustment of the furniture, changing her shirt from green to orange, taking her meds, then merely sitting on an ottoman-like object quietly while the tape, still filled with silences, plays again, the whole process using up the better part of 3/4 of an hour.

Besides that, more schmoozing, more meetings, lots of bits and pieces of dances too numerous to mention.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

TPAM day 1

Met with the curator at the Setagaya Public Theater, a powerful institution doing major work with strong community connections, centered in a helpfully well-off suburb of Tokyo. Saw a bit of the piece to the left through the window of the control booth as they readied it for its premiere tomorrow and it was gorgeous. Hoping to get snuck in to see it before I leave, although it's been sold out for a while.

I was told that the nature of the 'classical' music community here is very conservative (is that different anywhere else?), and that they really aren't interested in doing new work (again, is that different anywhere else?). The curator told me of her husband's CD collection, exemplified by the three complete Beethoven sets, so I gave her a Little Girl CD to improve its balance, at least a bit. There is a Japanese translation of that opera's libretto, would love to reproduce the piece here in what would be its third vulgaris, had a native Japanese opera singer (the marvelous Mariko Wakita) starring in the German production so already halfway there. But was also told a funny story about how they deliberately made the acoustics in their theater unacceptable for music so as to not compete with the real music hall in the vicinity and possibly upset its major corporate sponsors.

The first major TPAM schmoozefest happened today. Met a variety of interesting and genuinely warm and interested people. This was followed by a showcase performance of two singer songwriters, one very calm with somewhat surreal lyrics and the other quite intense, an older Mikami Kan playing electric guitar with an idiosyncratic and quite rhythmically irregular and dynamically angular style. Enjoyed both, but noticed that only one had English translation supertitles. This turned out to be by design as the electric performer's somewhat severe music style was matched by his stories: (1) we are all going to die die die (2) old woman having sex with a much younger man, both kill each other (3) 60 year old man having sex with a young woman, dies at orgasm (4) rape victim goes back to be raped again and again until she drives the rapist away (5) well, that's all I remember. But I do remember him in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence as well.

In the evening, attended a ritual Buddhist performance, a long monodic line passed between a soloist, a choir of 20 and a smaller of 8, punctuated by repetitive hand movements, perfect moments of percussion, candle-lighting. Have just been reading Anthony Burgess's biography where he tells of giving up composing for writing and how the latter is so much simpler, being a single line instead of a complex counterpoint, but interesting to see and remember how rich and powerful a single line of music can be.

TPAM day 0

I had dinner with Yutaka Kuramochi-san last night, a playwright working at the Japan National Theater, winner of the Kishida Drama award and many other accolades, but let's take a quick look at just the beginning of the scenario of his latest:

The protagonist, Ayumu Aoi, is obsessed with sending in postcards to try to win sweepstakes prizes and is so absorbed in his mania that he can hardly find time to sleep. He fills out the postcards in detail, believing that adding information not even requested he increase his chances of winning. Eventually he begins borrowing the names of people around him to increase his number of applications, spending all day in his solitary room creating false hobbies, character traits and family members to fill in his imaginary applicants’ postcards with.

Just my kind of story, and my friend and agent Kyoko Yoshida is helping bring this play, One Man Show, to Minneapolis in translation for a reading this year.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere

Here in Tokyo for a few weeks, capital of one of the signatories of the Tripartite Pact, meditating on the global nature of WWII and the support the Nazis had from a number of other militaristic and dangerously jingoist societies. Interesting to find that, even though the Japanese were similarly brutal to all their perceived-as-inferior neighbors, they didn't share the antisemitism of the Nazis, at least not in quite the same way. Although books repeating the canards of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion sold millions of copies in Japan, they had funded their earlier war with Russia with money from the prominent Jewish financier Jacob Schiff, and also allowed a number of Jewish refugees from Europe to settle in Japan for a curiously mixed-up set of reasons under the Fugu Plan. I've never quite understood how the Germans, in their search for a world dominated by perfect Aryan-ness, could settle into a marriage with the most un-Aryan Japan, a country which had even fought against Germany in the Great War that rankled Hitler so much. But it was a relationship that lasted until the end for both short-lived empires, from the outside at least warm and congenial, with none of the obvious cracks that threatened the Nazi's other marriages of convenience.
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