Monday, December 15, 2008

Art isn't easy...

Last week Elliott Carter turned 100 (b. Dec 11, 1908), and had a birthday celebration most mortals would metaphorically die for: a premiere of a new major work with world-class musicians. In this case, the conductor (and pianist, and pioneer) James Levine, the pianist (and conductor, and pioneer) Daniel Barenboim, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra convened at Carnegie Hall to premiere "Interventions" the latest work from this composer of autumnal masterworks. I can think of no artist in history--that is, NO ARTIST IN HISTORY-- who has been as fecund as Carter has since his 8th decade. Verdi composed Falstaff as an octogenarian, and is one of many artists who have had late creative bursts. No artist has had the flourish Carter has had, though, and the catalogue of works added to his c.v. in the past two decades (ie: his 80's and 90's!$%@!) is staggering. Among others, my personal library contains the momentous Symphonia ( a 45' minute canvas of Brucknerian proportions, depth, and scope), some half dozen major concerti, several chamber works, and an opera (the witty, piquant, timely "What Next?").

Last week I also attended Sondheim's most recent addition to his extraordinary canon of musicals. "Road Show" is the latest version of a musical previously known as "Bounce" and "Gold" and is his first new work since "Passion" appeared in 1994 (if memory serves me correctly). I enjoyed "Road Show" the way one might enjoy a new Carter score. Both composers have fierce partisan advocates. Both composers are more admired than loved. Both among audiences and critics. Both deserve more attention, more discerning criticism, and more airtime for their modern, timely, ascerbic, "difficult" scores to be appreciated, understood, and absorbed. In response to criticism about the "tunefulness" of his songs, Sondheim has quipped that any tune is hummable if one has heard it enough. I think both composers speak to the present time's need for substance. In a world of sound-bites, slogans, catch-phrases, tags, fads, and the ephemera of fashion and pop "culture" Carter and Sondheim represent pole-stars of substance and significance for their respective fields of symphony and musical. As such, they illuminate the unexamined reaches of the self, as Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo" searingly states: "For there is no place that does not see you/You must change your life."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows...On reading Robert Frost

The title is from Frost's early poem about work & the creative process called "Mowing" and is a great link to my current obsession with this most fascinating of our great American poets (and like many of his works, can be read a la double entendre). See below for more on Frost's multivalent meanings. First a digression on one of his early trips south (thanks to the Parini biography I mentioned in another post). Consider this entry my take on how one reads a poem...

20 year-old Rob Frost sojourned down from New England to Norfolk to visit the Dismal Swamp (an awesome natural wonder in our own backyard here in Tidewater, VA). He trekked on foot towards Deep Creek and blindly explored the swamp. This visit made a lasting impression, and images of solitary wanderers, loners, tramps, and pilgrims would people his poetry for the rest of his long life. As would the existential nature of the elements and, for that matter, nature itself. A survey of some titles of his individual books of poetry confirms this indebtedness: Mountain Interval, West-Running Brook, A Further Range, A Witness Tree, to his final collection, In the Clearing. And as always with Frost, layers of meaning are implicit in titles, phrases, stanzas, poems and entire collections. Multiple readings, like perspectives, can be fetched from line to line, poem to poem. Like a subject under a microscope, they lend themselves to being dissected, examined and re-examined, held up to the light and known in new ways.

Here's a little piece to wrap your head around. Its a modern version of an Elizabethan sonnet (an octave--that is, an 8-line stanza, and a musical one at that!--answered by a sextet, with the requisite iambic pentameter and rhyme scheme). At once an exquisitely crafted scena from the animal planet (a spider with its latest catch, a moth, on a flower, in the morning), it is a lesson in attention to details of the natural world, and a densely packed collection of metaphors (the religious/sacramental tone in line 3 juxtaposed with the Shakespearean evocation of Macbeth's witches in line 6, for starters).

That would be enough to qualify this little ditty as memorable, but Frost goes further, turning the Elizabethan model on its head (the closing sextet is supposed to "answer" or resolve the question or issue posed in the opening octave, with the closing rhyming couplet the climactic cadence to the exercise). Frost composes a sextet which is a series of (unanswerable) questions of existential dimension that anticipate the culture war on evolution v. "Intelligent design" by decades (Frost, in life and death, resists pigeon-holing. He is a bundle of contraries: independent, iconoclastic, progressive, conservative, reader of Darwin & Santayana, Emerson & Thoreau, Homer & the Old Testament; botanist, farmer, anti-establishment professor, and the list goes on...). The title of the poem doesn't appear until the closing couplet, and thus highlights the tightly controlled diction which packs a punch that shows this blazingly intelligent (self-taught-college-drop-out-with-2-dozen-honorary-doctorates) lyric poet in his best form.


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth--
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth--
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern a thing so small.

(Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays.
The Library of America)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

...A momentary stay against confusion: a few thoughts by and about Robert Frost

I have been reading and re-reading Robert Frost recently, from Jay Parini's excellent biography to the chestnut lyrics upon which his reputation rests to the dramatic poems that reveal penetrating insight into human nature, relationships, and existence. I have also been enjoying his idiosyncratic prose--letters and essays and lectures--all of which display the independence of thought and the fierce intelligence, the droll wit, and an uncanny gift for diction & metaphor. Below are a few examples from that prose, as found in the highly recommended Library of America edition of the Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays.

(On the poetry of Amy Lowell):

...permanence in poetry as in love is perceived instantly...
the proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten it,
but that we know at sight that we could never forget it.

(Advice to writers & readers,
also worthy of the attention of actors, singers, performers, et al):

It is all right to repeat, if there is something for the voice to do.
The vital the ACTION of the voice...
Get the stuff of life into the technique of your writing [singing/playing/acting]

(More advice, to the same audience(s)...):

A poem begins with a a lump in the throat...
It is a reaching-out toward expression;
an effort to find fulfillment...A complete poem is one where
an emotion has found its thought
and the thought has found the words.

(Ostensibly on belief in/about the creative process,
but also an illustration of the distinction
between "true" art and "mere" entertainment...)

Every time a poem is written...
it is written not by cunning, but by belief...
The beauty, the more felt than known...
No one who has ever come close to the arts
has failed to see the difference between things written
that way with cunning and device,
and the kind that are believed into existence.