Sunday, January 18, 2009

" adventure, art, and peace"--music & social conscience

As we prepare for the most significant presidential inauguration in recent memory, a fact made more resonant by the concurrent celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr Day, I find myself returning to what I call music of conscience--music that connects with historical issues, that raises awareness, that gives voice to the silenced, that remembers, that honors, that refuses to yield to the anesthetizing pull of the tides that would drown those voices. I have been working with our Young Singers Project singers on a challenging program of American Choral music called "How Can I keep from singing?" The title song of the program is a beloved Quaker hymn, and still a favorite in the Peace-church tradition (the protestant churches--Quaker, Amish, Brethren & Mennonite--that have been abolitionist and pacifist for centuries). The program also features settings of canonical American poets like Dickinson, Sandburg, and Frost, by Barber, Glass, and Thompson, respectively. In addition to other hymn settings by Alice Parker and Aaron Copland, the program's final sections are devoted to the spirituals of William Dawson and the music of our pre-eminent African-American composer, Adolphus Hailstork. One of Dolph's most beloved choral works is "A Carol for All Children." Setting an original poem, this "Carol" is a beautiful prayer resembling a lullaby, wishing love, joy, and peace for the children and the world they inhabit. We are also offering one of Hailstork's most gripping a capella works, "Crucifixion." Indebted to the traditions of the Black church, this work is a series of variations on the spiritual "He never said a mumblin' word" --a series that add up to an intense and moving, wholly original composition.

I had the pleasure and honor of hearing my colleague, Carl Haywood, director of choral activities at Norfolk State University, as guest organist at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday service at Christ and St Luke's Episcopal Church in Norfolk. Following "Lift every voice and Sing" Dr Haywood played a rousing set of variations on "We shall overcome." Following church, I listened again to Hailstork's moving elegy to Dr King, "Epitaph," watched the opening Inauguration events at the Lincoln memorial, marveled on the historic circle connecting Lincoln to King to Obama, and began to create a playlist called "Music of Conscience."

Joining the Hailstork elegy and the choral works mentioned above on my (personal, subjecive) playlist are (thus far) about 11 additional hours of challenging, engaging, sometimes difficult, always affecting music written to oppose injustice, oppression, violence and to honor the memory of martyrs like Dr King and those whose names most of us will never know.

Yesterday, the MET, a beloved cultural institution whose reputation does not rest on contemporary, consciousness-raising operas, broadcast one of the most topical new works in the classical music world, "Doctor Atomic." John Adams is one of the most important voices in music today, and this is in no small part because of his cutting-edge operas. Adams' early music was indebted to the minimalist music of composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. While traces of that concentrated, repetitive & hypnotic style remain, Adams' music is entirely his own, assimilating techniques of modernism with tradition into a style that sounds like, well, Adams. His first two operas tackled politically challenging topics, and his courage in dealing with complex, even controversial subjects hasn't dimmed. I think it is a telling symptom of our political pusillanimity where "engaged art" is concerned that his opera on the murder of a Jewish American by Palestinian terrorists, "The Death of Klinghoffer" has not received a full production in the US since its creation. It has been criticized for painting "sympathetic" portraits of terrorists. Never mind that both sides are given equal voice, nowhere more tellingly than in the respective "Chorus of Exiled Jews" and "Chorus of Exiled Palestinians." Adams, not initially a vocal composer, has found a groove for writing effective, dramatic music for both voices and chorus. Thus it is poetic justice, following the cancellation of a production of "Klinghoffer" shortly after 9/11 (political sensitivities), that he was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for a 9/11 memorial piece. "On the Transmigration of Souls" won three Grammy's and has become one of several major works by this composer to vie for the canon of great 21st century scores. "Doctor Atomic" concerns the making of THE bomb, and centers on its creator, Robert Oppenheimer. The opera works on one level as a documentary narrative on the making and testing of the bomb, on another as a character study of Oppenheimer (and his circle), and on a metaphysical level as an existentialist meditation (but isn't that the subject/purpose of all art? To give/create/question meaning?)

Adams has written a dramatic oratorio called "El Niño" which is both a traditional Christmas story and a window into Latin American culture, including memorial tributes to victims of political and military crimes. The recording of the oratorio is especially memorable because of the singing of the late mezzo soprano, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, whose distinguishing timbre, dramatic sense, and visceral engagement give a movingly human voice to the Spanish poems set in the oratorio.

Another distinct voice on the contemporary classical scene, and one even more beholden to Latin American "Liberation Theology" that connects faith to oppression and injustice (and therefore, to action and social justice) is the Scottish composer, James MacMillan. Both a personal and critical favorite, MacMillan's music combines a keen dramatic sense with elements of chant, the Anglican tradition, and indigenous music of his own country (Scottish laments: notated "cries" and "sighs" figure prominently). I have a disc that features two of his major choral scores, "The Seven Last Words" and the "Cantos Sagrados." The former is a haunting series of variations on Passion-tide texts that particularizes the drama of one of the holiest of Christian observances, Good Friday, while simultaneously universalizing the drama's subject of suffering, martyrdom, and collective grief. "Cantos Sagrados" is even more closely aligned with Liberation Theology's tenets of justice for the oppressed, and reinforces this by juxtaposing contemporary Latin American poems with the sacred liturgical texts. Both scores are challenging and demanding for listener and performer alike yet are immediate in their emotional & spiritual appeal. Like much great art, regardless of genre or subject, these works "work" on many levels, and are even more rewarding for the participant willing to invest in their worlds. The Virginia Chorale will include one of MacMillan's shorter works, "A Child's Prayer" in its Anniversary concerts April 18 & 19. This haunting, a capella communion hymn comes from the world of the Passion-tide "Seven Last Words" and is a memorial tribute to the victims of the Dunblane tragedy, one of the first instances of serial-killer gun violence in the UK (in this case, an elementary school in Scotland). Overtop a chordal foundation of steady, yet brooding harmonies, MacMillan writes a chant-like duet for two trebles, evoking the pure sound of children's voices. The choir takes up a typical MacMillan texture of imitative, Scottish-lament-inflected lines before the ethereal duet returns to close this moving elegy.

And I will close this rambling entry for now, but will return with more about the subject of this subject line, Benjamin Britten, and some of the great body of music written to commemorate "war...and the pity of war..."

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Roberto Bolaño: "dirty, poorly dressed, and filled with love"

I have just finished reading Roberto Bolaño's sprawling and concentrated, epic and contemporary novel, 2666. Over 1100 pages in the original Spanish, the new translation comes in at just under 900 pages, and is the remarkable swan-song of the Chilean poet, novelist, and provocateur who died in 2003 at age 50. Bolaño's biography and the astonishing output of fiction of his final decade have taken the English-speaking literary world by storm (6 novels, two of them epic in proportion, and a collection of short stories). An anti-establishment poet, jailed (like many of his contemporaries) after Pinochet's coup of 1973 (look it up, kids: on September 11, no less) he is just coming to our attention. The first of these epic novels, "The Savage Detectives" (1998) appeared in English in 2007 and was heralded as one of the best books of the year. It is a wild, 700-page ride chronicling the exploits of two "visceral realist" poets, autobiographical characters based on the author and his friend, comrade & co-conspirator, Mario Santiago. In real life Bolaño & Santiago called themselves "infra-realists," rejected the literary and political establishments, read avant-garde writers of all periods (from French Symbolism to Surrealism to Kafka to Sci-fi) and were the literary revolutionaries of their day, disrupting readings of writers they opposed (both for their literature and their politics). With the posthumous publication of his magnum opus, "2666" (itself one of the notable books of 2008) Bolaño has been established as THE major Latin American writer of his generation, and the most important voice to appear on that scene since the "Boom" (the generation of writers led by Gabriel Garcia Marquez--"Love in the time of Cholera" and "100 Years of Solitude" among other fables known for their "magic realism"--and one of many writers Bolaño & co. rejected).

His style is difficult to succinctly describe. He can be a fast-paced storyteller, writing a page-turner mystery or action tale. His voice is of his time, and its contemporaneousness is a distinguishing feature for so literary a writer. Indeed, the writing is a dense labyrinth of references and allusions, metaphors and allegories, and the more well-read one is, the more one gets the references to writers and artists, the artist's life, and the creative process itself. Yet one needn't be a Renaissance-type reader to get Bolaño: the writing is challenging and entertaining, provocative and ruminative, at times gritty, even raunchy (films of his novels would be rated R), and at turns utterly romantic and poetic. I can't remember having such a range of reactions to a work of fiction--Bolaño's writing spans the gamut of human emotions, responses and pursuits. It is alternatively laugh-out-loud funny, morally exacting, riveting as a thriller, and dense as graduate seminars on literary criticism or philosophy.

"The Savage Detectives" is laid out in three panoramic sections. The first and last relate the story of the two "visceral realist" poets and their exploits in Mexico: literary, political, social, sexual in a distinct Latin American voice that is beholden to the poet's own journey from Chile to Mexico to Spain in the late 20th century--a distinguishing characteristic from the voices of the Boom (more beholden to the 19th century European novel, to oversimplify to the point of insulting all the involved parties). The middle section of the novel is a dizzying collection of short stories told in first-person perspectives from an array of characters, locations and years (Mexico, France, Italy, Austria, and among others, Israel, from 1976 to 1996). The last section gives the novel its name, brings the narrative from the first section to some sort of conclusion, and eerily (if opaquely) foreshadows the "vanishing point" of his final novel, "2666."

That focal point is the Sonora Desert of Mexico, where in the real-world Cuidad Juarez, hundreds of women were murdered in still-unsolved cases (an expose of the crimes can be found on Amnesty International's site). Bolaño calls his border town Santa Teresa (there are allusions to Saints throughout the epic novel), and it is a common denominator in the 5 separate novellas that make up "2666"--a point of no return, a literal and symbolic cemetery. Another common denominator is the novel's mysterious protagonist, the reclusive German writer Benno von Archimboldi. The name itself is a cryptic allusion to the Renaissance Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo. And in that connection lies one of the seeds of Bolaño's genius. Natasha Wimmer, translator of both "The Savage Detectives" and "2666" talks of Bolaño's fascination with detectives. The intersection in these stories between the unravelling of mysteries and the life of artists (especially writers), and the author's knack for weaving between these worlds while concurrently entangling them in layers of significance is but one of Bolaño's distinguishing marks. I would like to think he'd be pleased that this reader's curiosity was piqued enough to investigate--like a cultural detective-- references from the novels' characters & settings.

The novel's first section "The Part about the Critics" introduces us to this writer, Archimboldi, who is a cult favorite among the European literary cognoscenti. The French critic, Pelletier, the Spaniard Espinoza, and the Italian Morini share an obsession with both their nobel-prize-hopeful-author, and his unlikely pre-eminent British advocate, Liz Norton. I don't know another writer who manages to weave a love rectangle around a dense tale of that most erotic of fields, literary criticism. Among the other cast of fascinating characters are a self-mutilating artist, critics from Serbia & Swabia, and a Pakistani taxi driver who figures in one of the most topical (& unsettling) episodes in this opening novella. The critics end their search for Archimboldi (so reclusive, none of his critics, biographers, or readers have ever met him) in Mexico where they meet the fascinatingly unbalanced professor Amalfitano. The second "Part about Amalfitano" chronicles this curious character, his estranged wife, their daughter, and the voice(s) inside his head. The third "Part about Fate" follows an African-American journalist as he faces his mother's untimely death, interviews a founder of the Black Panthers, and is then sent to Mexico to report on a boxing match after his Harlem magazine's sports-writer is murdered. While in Santa Teresa, among other adventures, he falls for Rosa Amalfitano, and hears more about the mysterious murders of women that have been happening around the maquiladora factories in this city on the Mexico-US border. The central section, "The Part about the Crimes" at nearly 300 pages alone, is the longest, densest and most difficult section of the novel. It chronicles, with documentary attention to detail, the murders of young women. I found myself asking, on more than one occasion, "what kind of man writes these kinds of gruesome details, page after page, of violent crimes committed against women?" The "Crimes" follow one another in pithy, biographical sketches of the victims, their families, the circumstances and details surrounding them, and the suspects (if any). These episodes are occasionally interrupted with other characters that connect us to a sense of time & place already established, even if the narrative connection is tenuous. One of the obvious answers to the question I posed about this section is the same answer to any question about dredging up the grisly details about any kind of "hate crime"--to tell the truth, to give voice to the silenced ("poetry exists so that the dead may speak" said a more poetic voice than mine), and to open eyes and ears to the ugliness many would just as soon ignore, avoid, or smooth-over. This dynamic is harrowingly paralleled in a central story from the final "Part about Archimboldi." This final novella tells the fascinating story of the making of Archimboldi. Without revealing plot details the curious reader will want to discover unassisted, Archimboldi is a soldier in the Nazi Army. While interned in an allied camp, he hears a first-hand story about one episode of atrocities that contributed to the Holocaust. The connection of the Polish town where those crimes occurred is not explicitly linked to Santa Teresa, where Archimboldi is headed as the novel ends. It doesn't have to be. Nor does it need tout itself as "historical fiction" to resonate so palpably with atrocities from the Holocaust to the "disappeared" of Latin America. This tour de force also works as a meditation on the mysterious makings of an artist, and the stories and lives--real and imagined--such an individual spins into being.

This enthralling, dizzying, disturbing, provocative, fascinating, entertaining, and allegorical tome might be the best epic novel of its time. The title of my essay on my new favorite author comes from one of his poems, titled "Dirty, Poorly Dressed." Featured in the Poetry magazine of last November, it is from his collection, "The Romantic Dogs" and ends with an autobiographical, artistic credo that applies to any and all of his works:

Only fever and poetry provoke visions.
Only love and memory.
Not these paths or these plains.
Not these labyrinths.
Until at last my soul came upon my heart.
It was sick, it's true, but it was alive.

The cryptic title of his last literary testament, 2666, is alluded to in one of Bolaño's earlier novella's "Amulet" as his executor illustrates in 2666's afterword: "more like a cemetery...not a cemetery in 1974 or 1968...but a cemetery in 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else."

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Opera at/in the movies: 2 Toscas & a Valkyrie

Movie-going opera buffs have had multiple opportunities to celebrate this season, the advent of the Met HD broadcasts notwithstanding. I waded patiently through Bryan Singers' latest film, "Valkyrie," starring Tom Cruise as the treasonous anti-Fascist Nazi officer, Colonel Stauffenberg. "Valkyrie" is named after the eponymous mythological warrior daughters of the gods, and is the name of Wagner's most famous opera, the second installment in his epic tetralogy, "The Ring of the Nibelungs." "The Ride of the Valkyries" is the most famous excerpt from the opera (and whether or not you recognize the title, you've heard the music--in films like "Apocalypse Now" and, with bemused apologies to Richard & family, cartoons like Bugs Bunny--"kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit..."). It appears in the film soundtrack as a clever plot device: Stauffenberg's children are playing a version of war while the old victrola plays the record. A bomb siren sounds, the family retreats to the basement, the record skips, and after a few unnerving explosions, the record skips to the "Ride of the Valkyries" which prompts an epiphany from Cruise's character and determines the (ultimately failed) plot to assassinate Hitler. "Valkyrie" is the name of the military plan to be implemented in the event of the Fuhrer's death or incapacitation, involving a reserve army assuming power and executing orders in the name of the regime. Stauffenberg and his circle of plotters rewrite Valkyrie surreptitiously as a crucial component to their risky & complicated plan. In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, Stauffenberg meets Hitler, hoping to obtain the Fuhrer's signature on the secretly revised plan. Hitler describes the Valkyries as the mythological warriors who mysteriously determine which soldiers deserve a noble death, and cryptically states that "one cannot understand National Socialism without understanding the Valkyries."

[Momentary digression for serendipity: As I am writing this, my local NPR station, WHRO, is playing "Ride of the Valkyries" and reminding listeners our esteemed regional orchestra, the Virginia Symphony, will be playing a program of the same name next weekend, featuring Lorin Maazel's arrangement of orchestral music from the "Ring" cycle. This is music that begs to be experienced live, so I hope Hampton Roads readers will go support the VSO and enjoy an evening of powerful music unlike any other.]

"Tosca" has played important roles in two very different films this season, "Quantum of Solace" and "Milk." The salient characteristic these two films share is how much more engaging they are than "Valkyrie." Both James Bond and Harvey Milk attend live performances of the opera, and that is where the comparison ends. The Bond film, unsurprisingly, requires no prior knowledge of the opera, though the dramatic irony inherent in the co-opted "Te Deum" scene adds a layer of meaning to the action film (the villainous baron, Scarpia, sings of his rapacious lust for the heroine in a blasphemous scene underpinned by the choir & choristers singing the most liturgical of canticles). "Tosca" serves as a foil to the movie's action, as Bond attempts to break into the plot of his arch-rival, having stolen an ear-bud the villains are using to secretly broker a deal during the opera. We half expect Daniel Craig to steal a costume and appear on stage to disrupt both opera and plot, but after some back-stage combat, Craig's deliciously smug Bond trumps the plotters and causes their abrupt exit as Act one of Tosca comes to a more eventful close than is usually the case.

"Tosca" appears throughout the excellent (if uneven) film "Milk," as the title character (brilliantly portrayed by Sean Penn, reaffirming his status as the greatest actor of his generation), listens to his favorite opera. One of the appealing aspects of Puccini's music is the immediacy of its emotional character (interestingly, this is the bane of his music's existence for his many critics...but that's another story!). Thus, one need not recognize "E lucevan le stelle," the hero's aria near the end of his life--and therefore his relationship with his lover, Tosca--to hear it as a lament. The plaintive clarinet solo which presages this most passionate of tenor scenas is obviously tragic. But to know that Cavaradossi is singing of the memory of the "sweet kisses, the languid caresses" while Scott Smith (beautifully portrayed by James Franco) leaves his lover, Harvey Milk, was enough to make this opera queen cry. I know I'm not the only opera buff who immediately recognized the plangent tone of Giuseppe di Steffano (who died in 2008), in one of opera's ultimate cult classic recordings, featuring the muse of the opera queens, Maria Callas. But I digress. I don't know Gus Van Sant's operatic pedigree, but based on this film, I am impressed.

The night before he dies, in the panoramic, multi-layered penultimate scene, Milk attends a performance of "Tosca" at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, one of the world's great opera houses. We see him take in the opera's final, shockingly violent moments, as Tosca realizes the "staged' execution of her lover was real, so rather than fleeing Rome with a safe passage to political asylum, Cavaradossi is dead, thus she flings herself from the parapet of the Castel Sant' Angelo, making her violent death the ultimate act in the opera. That "Milk" is as much political documentary as narrative film & biopic, therefore rendering suspense moot, in no way detracts from the affecting gravity of Milk's last night at the opera. This poignancy is reinforced by the final, slow-motion image from this exquisitely shot scene, where Milk's assassin, Dan White (an exceptional supporting turn by Josh Brolin) shoots him at point blank range, and the final image flashing before Milk's eyes are none other than the banners for Tosca, waving outside the Opera House, across the street from his City Hall office. I don't know if I've committed a sin in film criticism by divulging such details, but I know I would see the film again, for the above- mentioned scenes, for the relevance & importance of the film's subject, and the exceptional performances of James Franco and Sean Penn.