Thursday, April 29, 2010

Mad Scenes: The Operatic Liberation Front

I have recently been writing about Greek myths, adaptations and parallels from Homer's day to ours. A recent post quoted Rita Dove's poem "Ludwig Van Beethoven's Return to Vienna:"

I am by nature a conflagration;
I would rather leap
than sit and be looked at.

Beethoven is likened to the titan Prometheus, a symbol of human (and artistic) ambition, creativity and desire. Such traits in excess lead to genius, madness, or both. The stanza just before the lines quoted above begins:

At first I raged. Then music raged in me,
rising so swiftly I could not write quickly enough
to ease the roiling.

A similar observation could be made about operatic heroines immortalized by the "mad scenes" which are the musical and dramatic raisons d'être of their characters. Last month I wrote about operatic adaptations like Thomas' Hamlet, whose Ophelia becomes unhinged in an extraordinary scene lasting a quarter of an hour. The alpha and omega of such mad scenes is from Donizetti's bel canto masterpiece, Lucia di Lammermoor.

I am writing from Roanoke, where my wife, Amy Cofield Williamson, is making her debut in that title role this weekend under the baton of Metropolitan Opera conductor Steven White (whose wife, Elizabeth Futral, is currently at Washington National Opera preparing her first Ophelia, under the baton of Placido Domingo).

Elizabeth's performance of Lucia at the Met several seasons ago inspired the following poem, which I have revisited for Amy's performances. The first line of my poem consists of Lucia's first words in the opera ("He has not yet come"), as she impatiently awaits the arrival of her lover, Edgardo.

‘Ancor non giunse...’
Again. This entrance
so solitary. So familiar.
My sister moon speaks
to me. Again. I am
well acquainted with
silence, the inexorable
pull of its embrace.
The shadows call
me theirs. The night
calls me out
and I wait for
it. Him. Ecstasy.
Death. Unafraid,
I face my implacable
guardians stuffed
with provinciality. They
are dwarfed by castles
that cannot contain me.
A boar’s head would
suffice mine there.
Do not protest,
ignorant companion.
Your propriety
blunts the viscera
that cages my desire. I will
consummate this wish.
In my quietus
lies your shame—
your prosaic,
pitiably tepid
existence. Do not
impose that upon me.
Again. Please.

I do not pretend to be a real poet, but as an amateur I have always been drawn to madness. A year ago I wrote a pair of essays on the peasant poet, John Clare, the "crazy crackbraind fellow" who spent the last decades of his life in an asylum. I can only imagine he would thrive if teleported into an operatic mad scene.

"I felt awkwardly situated and knew not which way to proceed.
I had a variety of minds about me and all of them unsettled."

The prodigious minds of such artists are not limited to their creative juices. Evidence of their critical faculties belies the notion such "crackbraind" poets were insane, regardless of other eccentricities:

"Wordsworth defies all art and in all the lunatic Enthuseism of nature
he negligently sets down his thoughts from the tongue of his inspirer."

The inspired tongues of characters like Lucia open up an expressive world, and like windows into the soul, allow visions of the beyond.

"DAREST thou now, O Soul,
Walk out with me toward the Unknown Region,
Where neither ground is for the feet, nor any path to follow?"

So asks the visionary American bard, Walt Whitman, another lover of grand opera, and himself singer of mad poetic scenes. Last summer I wrote about the craziest ode ever written for an animal, by another mad romantic Brit, Christopher Smart. His hymn to his cat Jeoffry has been immortalized in Benjamin Britten's mad cantata, Rejoice in the Lamb:

"For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness."

And that is the sanest part of Smart's paean. Britten wrote one of the most famous mad scenes for tenor in his first opera, Peter Grimes. I referenced that scene in my last post about Bernstein's Mass, whose Celebrant goes mad in another 15' scene of enormous range--emotionally, musically, and dramatically--before collapsing. Ever the idealist, Bernstein's "hero" is the only mad singer that comes to mind whose scena does not end in death.

In Bernstein, madness is cathartic. In Smart and Clare, it is refuge and escape. In Donizetti, Thomas and Britten, it is flight, quietus, and release, ending in death.

T.S. Eliot wrote "the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates." Donizetti could relate, as his own life ended in an asylum. In the case of the scena delirante the artist and audience experience both genius and madness, however simulated, vicarious &/or symbolic.

The lines between dream and reality, this world and the next, and the boundaries between life and death are blurred in these highly wrought scenes of ecstatic vision and tragic undoing. Is it any wonder nature itself is evoked and invoked in such art?

"Of stranger witching notes was heard
As if it was a stranger bird:
"Wew-wew wew-wew chur-chur chur-chur
Woo-it woo-it"--could this be her?
"Tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew
Chew-rit chew-rit"--and ever new--"

Clare's poem and Donizetti's music are both two centuries old, and both sound "ever new" still.

Even though just some two-dozen years old, the most affirmative "mad" poem I know is by another crazy peasant poet, Wendell Berry. "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front" unfolds in bursts of creative originality and against-the-grain truth telling, and gives this essay its title.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die...

Berry is articulating the world which perverts creativity and causes "madness." But like the Psalmist turning on a dime from complaint to prophetic imagination, he changes key:

So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it...

One of the common denominators in operatic mad scenes is the hysterical pitch reached by characters driven beyond their edges. The other side of that delirium may not be so far removed.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts...

Berry offers an energetic and regenerative alternative to the "final frontier" of death and destruction:

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade...
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

The Lucia's and Ophelia's of the artistic realm offer us windows to vicariously experience the tragic alternative so that we can "practice resurrection" every time we face the abyss of the maddening world.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"The work I have been writing all my life..."

"The work I have been writing all my life is about the struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith" (Leonard Bernstein, in 1977).

That life work culminates in Bernstein's Mass: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. And the many facets of his life's work are in there. From his three neo-romantic Symphonies, his choral tapestry Chichester Psalms to his broadway shows like West Side Story. From his role as Maestro, championing 19th and 20th century composers--from Beethoven and Mahler to Shostakovich and Britten. And along with his roles as educator, activist, and provocateur, the work features a gumbo of popular music styles: jazz, blues, the Beatles, and rock-musicals like Hair and Godspell. The song-writer Paul Simon even contributed a quatrain to the libretto Bernstein co-wrote with Stephen Schwartz (the broadway composer of Godspell and Pippin). Simon's lines are:

Half the people are stoned
and the other half are waiting for the next election.
Half the people are drowned
and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction.

How do such lines fit within the frame of the Catholic Mass?!? We shall see. But first, a bit about the performances April 23 and 24 right here in Hampton Roads.

The Virginia Arts Festival is presenting the state premiere of this sprawling masterwork this weekend at Norfolk's Chrysler Hall. Tickets are still available at (use the code MASS to get 10% off). The production features over 200 performers: the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the Virginia Children's Chorus, Todd Rosenlieb Dance, and a cast of 15 soloists from all over the country (of which I am a proud member). You don't want to miss this extraordinary presentation, which will be preceded by a talk with the composer's daughter, Jamie Bernstein, hosted by Arts Festival Director, Robert Cross, VSO conductor, JoAnn Falletta, and the production's stage director, Pam Berlin.

Mass was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy to honor the memory of JFK and commemorate the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in 1971. In homage to the Kennedy's, Bernstein used the liturgy of the Catholic Mass, led by a Celebrant (baritone or tenor), and individualized it with a "Street Chorus" of soloists who interrupt the proceedings to share their doubts, questions, and complaints. A dance troupe augments the Street Chorus, amplifying the tension that escalates into a full-blown riot during communion, resulting in the desecration of the altar by the Celebrant, driven to a nervous breakdown by his rebellious congregants.

The work has been controversial since its premiere. It is a pastiche of styles and it wears its sentiments proudly on its sleeves. It is frequently provocative and irreverent, but it is neither sacrilegious nor blasphemous. These latter epithets (frequently hurled at the composer) depend upon the intent of the alleged offender. And, as noted above and below, Bernstein's intent throughout his life was to reconcile the crises of modernity with open-minded tolerance and a wide-reaching embrace of humanity. Bernstein's answer to the crisis of faith, never definitive, was always affirmative (Bernstein was invited to guest conduct at the Vatican in 1973, and a Vatican performance took place in the Millennium celebrations of 2000, facts that should put to bed any such lingering criticisms).

Indeed, one feature of this weekend is an educational symposium, "Religious Tolerance and the Arts." Bernstein's father was a Talmudic scholar and his grandfather a Rabbi. His most popular concert work is a Hebrew setting of the Psalms for the Anglican "Three Choirs Festival" (Chichester Psalms). Each of his three Symphonies explore the crisis of faith in the 20th century and attempt to answer the impossible question of how one creates art after the Holocaust. From his progressively idealistic aims as an educator (the famous Young People's Concerts) to the momentous occasions like the "Ode to Freedom" Beethoven 9th at the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bernstein actively promoted peace, progress, and dialogue. "Bernstein's Mass qualifies as a powerful lesson in religious tolerance," the symposium publicity succinctly states. If you don't like the style, the content (and intent) seems to me unassailable.

As a piece of music theater, Mass rocks. Literally. A rock band is placed within the symphony orchestra. The soloists use a variety of techniques from rock to jazz improv to the classical training of opera. Quadrophonic "tapes" are played from speakers in the house at various points throughout the work. The tensions between these eclectic elements are the very stuff of theater (and life).

The work opens in darkness, and we hear the pre-recorded sounds of atonal modernism intone the Kyrie. The Celebrant enters, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, carrying a guitar, and resolves the musical tension with the most famous song (not aria!) from the Mass, "Simple Song." "Sing God a simple song, lauda, laude." That refrain will recur at pivotal moments throughout the evening, as a unifying motive, a musical and programmatic "theme" of unadulterated beauty and simple harmony.

The congregation of Street Choristers enters the scene--through the house--in music that sounds closer to a circus than church, and literally sets the stage for the ensuing proceedings. The Symphony Chorus and Children's Chorus sing the Latin text of the Mass proper, and the Street Chorus soloists enter the fray, commenting on the action like a modern, pop-culture influenced version of a Greek chorus. As the service continues, the Celebrant is increasingly caught in the trappings of ceremony--his vestments become more elaborate, the Altar more adorned. The Street Chorus interruptions ratchet the drama up, notch by notch.

In music (again, as in life) there is always tension between dissonance and resolution. For Bernstein, this musical struggle mirrors the aforementioned crises of modernity: those of faith, progress, and peace. The "Meditations" in the Mass--orchestral "interludes" that occur when the "congregation" is at prayer--are rife examples of this dichotomy and its processes. Echoing some of the composers Bernstein championed (ie: the 2nd meditation has a fleeting snippet of the "Joyful, Joyful" theme from Beethoven's 9th, "Ode to Joy"), the Meditations feature beautiful and engaging music for the orchestra. They are among the most frequently played of Bernstein's orchestral excerpts for their musical substance. In context, they also serve the drama by heightening it.

Where its eclecticism was criticized and the pastiche aspects of the score held up as faults, these features, 40 years later, appear as virtues. Bernstein weaves together themes from all three choral ensembles--the symphony, children's and street choruses--and quotes the brooding meditations in the Celebrant's "Fraction anthem: Things get broken." This 15 minute scene is a tour-de-force for the leading man, and is among a small handful of great "mad scenes" for male singers. One of the other such roles is from Benjamin Britten's first opera, Peter Grimes, the premiere of which the young Bernstein conducted at Tanglewood.

After failed attempts to hold it together, the Celebrant literally loses it, and leaves the stage--and leaves everyone within earshot--in befuddled disbelief.

"Having tried all other routes toward Faith and failed, the answer (a pure, diatonic trumpet motive) turns out to be in your backyard, where you least look for it..." (Bernstein on his Symphony no. 2, "The Age of Anxiety").

The same quote (substitute a vocal for the trumpet solo) equally applies to the end of Mass. The beautiful and hummable theme of "Simple Song" returns and unites the community in music and spirit, in one of the most moving and affirmative statements of the war-torn 20th century. Like many a great masterpiece, the sum total of the work is far greater than its individual elements. Over the course of its hour and 3/4's Mass has a cumulative effect that is singularly powerful and profoundly moving.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"I am by nature a conflagration..." from the Minotaur to Prometheus

[For context on this lyric essay, begin reading from the beginning of this month's posts]

How does one bridge untranslateable distances?

Benjamin Britten used the metaphor of map-reading when discussing the composition of modern opera. Technology progresses, yet the path remains roughly the same. His observations marked the distance between his own style and that of a younger, avant-garde colleague's, Harrison Birtwistle.

The waves at the opening of Birtwistle's The Minotaur are oceans away from Britten's Peter Grimes, yet traces of kinship are audible in the evocative, shimmering strings depicting the sea...

Ariadne's--and the opera's--first words: "the moon's an eye..."
(the infinite poetry of the moon and the sea--recalling Britten's most famous Sea Interlude: "Moonlight")

"The Moon's a goddess/though her name's a secret" (Birtwistle).

"All things flow in a river of meaning"
(Caputo, The Weakness of God).

Finding/forging/creating meaning in art.

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Another of Keats' most beautiful, resonant,
and maddeningly distant pronouncements, from the
"Ode on a Grecian Urn," no less.

Vida brevis. Ars Longa.

And if not lasting, at least meaning. Motivation. Promethean,
the will required. Ambition. Appetite. Unslakeable thirst.
What choice does such a one have?

"I am by nature a conflagration," Rita Dove imagines
Beethoven saying (Sonata Mulattica, Norton, 2009).

Prometheus, the titan who stole fire from the gods to bring to humankind (painted by Heinrich Füger, c. 1817), was punished by Zeus.

He was bound to a rock (Rubens, c.1611), his liver devoured by an eagle, only to regenerate and be eaten again, daily (Jordaens, c.1640).

Aeschylus wrote the most famous dramatization of the wily Titan,
Prometheus Bound. The obvious antecedent to Shelley's romantic verse
drama, Prometheus Unbound, of 1820 (the year before Keats died, aged 25. Vida brevis).

Beethoven, the Prometheus of composers, for whom music "raged...rising so swiftly I could not write quickly enough/to ease the roiling" wrote piano variations and ballet music on the subject.

Music from The Creatures of Prometheus finds its way into the first
of Beethoven's great odd-numbered Symphonies, no. 3, the so-called "Eroica."

Beethoven Hero (Scott Burnham, Princeton).

Goethe's great poem, Prometheus is heroic.

Driven by his "Holy burning heart," to create a race of beings like himself, "to suffer, to weep/to enjoy and delight themselves" ("and to mock you/as I do!" he defiantly flings in Zeus' face).

"In the beginning was the Note and the Note was with God. Whosoever can reach for that Note, reach high, and bring it back to us on earth..." (Leonard Bernstein, paraphrasing St John, channeling Prometheus).

Another great Goethe poem on Grecian characters is "An Schwager Kronos" ("To Coachmen Chronos"). "Make haste...onwards, striving and hoping" the ambitious subject commands, in a poem of dizzying energy and drive. It inspired one of Schubert's great dramatic songs. Meryl Secrest uses fragments from the poem as epigraphs at the head of each chapter in her biography on Bernstein.

Another one of Schubert's great Goethe settings--"a miniature oratorio"--is "Prometheus."

Which Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) found subpar, lacking "a truly Goethean Spirit" which could only be realized in the post-Wagnerian world he himself inhabited.

Wagner, the megalomaniacal Prometheus of the Romantic era. The fulfillment and bane of Nietzsche's prophetic imagination.

Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Thus Mahler and Strauss composed, following Wagner, following Nietzsche).

Mahler and Wolf: exact contemporaries, neither close nor distant.

Wolf did not use poetry he thought his colleagues--living or dead--had satisfactorily set. Wolf's settings of Goethe Schubert had already composed are therefore of heightened interest.

Mahler set one Nietzsche text (from Zarathustra). His entire symphonic output is one Promethean journey to find/forge/create meaning out of existence, from his heroic First (the Titan) to the chained-to-the-rock purgatory of his unfinished Tenth.

William Carlos Williams' poem (about another glowing red object)

"The figure five...

(even if about a fire truck), also reels one of Ariadne's labyrinthine threads to Liszt's 5th Symphonic poem of and Scriabin's 5th Symphony:


"I am by nature a conflagration;
I would rather leap
than sit and be looked at...

It is impossible
to care enough..."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

More Titans: The Minotaur, Achilles & Co.

Only Connect, the leitmotif of E.M. Forster's novel, Howards End, could be the theme of everything I write. My last post, on the poet Anne Carson, ended with that epigram. Carson the classicist often refers to Greek subjects, which have been in the front of my consciousness for several weeks now. And I haven't even seen the new Clash of the Titans movie.

The present arc began with a "review" of Jose Saramago's Death with Interruptions (in March), and continued with a ranging essay from Auden to Tippett (see below). Writing about Auden and his British colleagues' adaptations of Homer and the classics piqued my curiosity and renewed an interest in spending time with these fantastic tales.

Another subject to which I've returned often the past several months has been the career of the recently deceased tenor, Philip Langridge. My tribute to his artistry is below the essays just mentioned. One of the most remarkable facets of his career was the fact that he--like Placido Domingo--created new operatic roles into his late 60's (his last staged performance was this past January at the MET, after turning 70). One of the most engaging of these new creations is another modern adaptation of an ancient Greek tale.

Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur premiered at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden in 2008 (Langridge was 68). Birtwistle's music is difficult, uncompromising, and can be abrasive. He is one of those composers whose music I have wanted to like more than I actually do. I bought the DVD of the Royal Opera house production, and had to change my plans for the evening after I started watching it. I could not budge from my seat, I was so enthralled. And as with much difficult/complex/unfamiliar art, attention fosters understanding, thus my appreciation of Birtwistle's brilliant and challenging score has deepened upon repeated viewings. The production was directed by Langridge's son, Stephen, and features the stentorian bass, John Tomlinson, in the title role. One of my colleagues and friends from my last gig in the UK, Becky Bottone, was featured in the supporting role of one of the Minotaur's victims, the first "Innocent." As opera makes a belated entry into the world of modern theatre, videos like this one carry notices such as "Warning: contains scenes of violence and of a sexual nature." Suffice it to say the Minotaur, half-man, half-beast, is one messed-up creature. It is remarkable how Birtwistle humanizes this character so that we cringe when Theseus winds his way through the Labyrinth and kills him/it.

"Language born out of primitive sound" is one of the descriptions of Birtwistle's operatic style. Within a tightly argued score, a scintillating palette of color emerges. Ariadne--the sole female lead--is accompanied by a hauntingly evocative alto saxophone. The first of the Minotaur's victims is a high coloratura soprano, who's birdsong-like trills are cut short by the Minotaur's beastly grunting. In Tippett's King Priam, Achilles' has a not dissimilar "war cry:" a wordless and animalistic cadenza, as his blood-lust is aroused after the death of Patroclus.

The death of Patroclus gives Louise Glück's book of poetry, The Triumph of Achilles, (Ecco, 1985) its name. In language as crisp and delineated as Birtwistle's music, she recalls the tale:

In the story of Patroclus
no one survives, not even Achilles
who was nearly a god.

Good poetry has a knack for imparting insight. Such verse illuminates the proverbial lessons (obvious or obscure) of life in ways prosaic speech simply cannot. Glück continues with one such observation:

...though the legends
cannot be trusted--
their source is the survivor,
the one who has been abandoned.

Is the poet talking about the Greek myth, a contemporary situation, and/or a personal relationship? Though the "confessional" style of poetry that came into vogue in the 60's (with Robert Lowell as commander-in-chief, spilling the guts of his failed marriage in verse) still lingers, that voice is all but mute in the spare world of poets like Louise Glück (and the present poet laureate, Kay Ryan).

That does not mean, however, these poets are immune from that openness, that, even if for only a moment, phrase or line, allows the reader a glimpse inside. Her bittersweet tribute to the greek hero ends with that double-edged sword of hard truth and human beauty poetry evokes with perfect pitch:

In his tent, Achilles
grieved with his whole being
and the gods saw

he was a man already dead, a victim
of the part that loved,
the part that was mortal.

The Triumph of the Achilles was the National Book Critics Circle award winner for Poetry in 1985. Almost 25 years later, another uncompromising collection of work rooted in the classics was a National Book Award Finalist. Carl Phillips' Speak Low (Farrar, Straus, Griroux, 2009) is another modern take on the Greek myths. Like Anne Carson, Phillips is a classicist and scholar. Phillips' unique voice is also shaped by sexuality, race and religion. References to Homer and Virgil keep company with jazz standards, reflected through a prism of rigorous intellect and explicit sensuality.

Also like Carson, Phillips is a poet whose book jacket descriptions can be trusted. "Moving effortlessly from the body as a site of conquest to the human history of power, Speak Low weighs the human cost of ambition, desire, and risk."

I just picked up the book on a lunch break yesterday, but as with Birtwistle's opera, am enthralled by Phillips' tonal language and his original voice (this is the 9th of his 10 poetry collections in my library).

Just as Glück's Triumph of Achilles is a double-edged sword of irony, so too is Phillips reference to Achilles' grief at the death of Patroclus. "Happiness" opens with this anecdote:

The tears of Achilles were nothing compared
to the ones his horses famously wept at the death
of Patroclus, whom Achilles had loved.

Phillips humanizes the animals--but from the reverse perspective of Birtwistle's Minotaur--and in his typically rhetorical way, leaves questions unanswered. The poem continues:

and yet earthbound, hovering around their disbelief,
around their instinct not to believe--

He lingers on this image of the "hovering," disbelieving steeds, and comes to the conclusion that "they wept,/I think, not for the fact of death, not out of their inability/to make, from fact, some understanding, but because/they wept."

I enjoy Phillips most when he makes out of familiar language new shapes, inviting the reader to linger over a surface detail while a deeper meaning awaits discovery. He has a gift for finding an image that resonates on multiple levels simultaneously: like a chord that for the first time in a score brings together contrasting sections of the orchestra to create a hitherto unheard sonority.

Take the following sentence, and listen to the diction while absorbing the content and the image. It refers to another Greek myth, and is uncannily close to Birtwistle, entitled "The Centaur:"

And reason, that had once had over lust an effect
like rinsing,
now canceled it out.

Besides his individuated voice, Phillips' imaginative use of language makes his poetry a landscape of discovery. We might have expected the effect of "reason" on "lust" to be "cleansing," but "rinsing" is both stronger--it's less expected--and more evocative (it's ambiguous). The title poem refers to the Kurt Weill standard popularized by, among others, Billie Holiday. Here is another perfectly tuned stanza, in the middle of a poem ostensibly "about" the play of light on water stirred by the wind:

The light seemed
fugitive, a restiveness, the less-than-clear distance between
everything we know we should do, and all the rest--all
the rest that we do. Stirring, as the wind stirred it, the water
was water--was a form of clarity itself, a window we've
no sooner looked through than we've abandoned it for what
lies past that: a view...

Phillips, again like Carson, is gifted at shifting tone to move from historical reference to contemporary question. In another direct tribute to Homer, he refers to the famous exchange between Achilles and King Priam (so beautifully evoked in Tippett's second opera, about which I wrote earlier....only connect, only connect...).

This is from "Late Empire:"

the Greeks described fate as a thing of substance, weighable
on a set of scales, pourable into steep urns--one for happiness,

another for woe--

He describes how Zeus tipped the scales accordingly "which is only a way of/understanding fate, not a form of acceptance,/ nor a road to get there...There's a kind of fragility/that confounds appearances, where what little strength/that the body has left to it, though almost none at all, seems/inexhaustible."

Great writing like this is inexhaustible in its ability to speak, to sing, to evoke, and when necessary, provoke. I don't know whether or not Anne Carson and Carl Phillips are friends, but I'd love to listen to them riff on these themes. Another one of his poems refers to a writer close to Carson's heart, Simone Weil. "Living Together" is one of those poems where the specificity of the subject doesn't matter. As in Glück's poem above, whether the situation is personal or historical, the truth resonates. And in good poetry such as this, it causes even more of the overtones to vibrate sympathetically.

Here, an image from the natural world bends into a lesson on rhetoric, ethics, and among other applications, philosophy.

A finch settles
on a tiger lily like an intended kindness beneath
which the stem bends slightly, not so much
receiving as accommodating the new weight,

the way truth accommodates distortion, and can
still seem true.

"Not so much receiving as accommodating" is another typical Phillips-ian turn of phrase that contains much more than what appears on the surface. Unpacking a line like this reveals how much impact it has, as we sit with "the way truth accommodates distortion, and can/still seem true." This sets up the weighted reference to Simone Weil (from one of her essays on Homer's Iliad) which follows:

I keep thinking about force--its
dehumanizing effect, both on the victim
and on the one who wields it.

Theseus and the Minotaur could weigh in on the topic, as could Achilles and Priam. Auden's ironic observation that "poetry makes nothing happen" is but one curve in the spiral that will circle as long as we do.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

MINDS WIDE OPEN: Reading Anne Carson

"The real stuff going on today is women's poetry" so David Shields quotes Richard Stern, "almost famous for being not famous," a University of Chicago professor and "friend of Pound, Beckett, Bellow, Mailer, Roth."

I mentioned Shields book, Reality Hunger, in a post about Virginia's celebration of women in the arts, MINDS WIDE OPEN.

His genre-bending book--and Stern's quote--brought to mind the most engaging, original and genre-defying writer I know, the poet, classicist, librettist, scholar (I'll stop there, for the sake of expediency) Anne Carson.

I first encountered Carson's poetry in a $3.75 anthology at the Shenandoah Valley Book Fair: The Best of American Poetry: 1988-1997. I now make a point to peruse the annual publication of this volume, as it is a great "view from here" look at what is happening in the world of poetry in this country.

The anthologies are arranged alphabetically by author, which allows for a fascinating juxtaposition of voice and tone, subject and style.

Carson's entry was "The Life of Towns." It is really a series of 36 short poems, aphoristic and haiku-esque. The collection appears in a slightly different version in Carson's fourth book, Plainwater: Essays and Poetry.

Another cherished anthology is Carolyn Forché's Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. One of my essays earlier this year on the Chorale's program of women composers, Ears Wide Open, is on that very subject: "the axe to pick at the frozen regions of the heart" (after Kafka).

Carson's poetry does that and more. On opposite pages in Plainwater are "Lear Town" and "Sylvia Town" referring to the great & flawed father of Shakespeare's most human tragedy (King Lear) and the tragedy of one of poetry's most gifted daughters, Sylvia Plath (one of too many women writers to die by their own hands in the 20th century).

Both feature Carson's unique voice--at once lyrical, imaginative, and arresting:

Lear Town

Clamor the bells falling bells.
Precede silence of bells.
As madness precedes.
Winter as childhood.
Precedes father.
Into the kill-hole.

Sylvia Town

The burner and the starvers.
Came green April.
Burning and starving her.
Eyes pulled up like roots.
Lay on the desk.

(Vintage. 1995, 2000).

A classicist, Sappho and Greek myths are subjects to which Carson returns and refers throughout her multivalent work. One of her earliest books is the essayistic Eros the Bittersweet. It opens with this succinctly engaging paragraph:

"It was Sappho who first called eros "bittersweet." No one who has been in love disputes her. What does the word mean?"

Described as "a lyrical meditation...Epigrammatic, witty, ironic and endlessly interesting," this is one book where the publishers do not exaggerate its merits on the back cover (Dalkey Archive edition, 1998, 2005).

Her first book to resemble (I use the term loosely) a book of poetry is entitled Glass, Irony and God (New Directions, 1995).

The opening section is a series of referential poems on Emily Bronte called "The Glass Essay."

Carson delights in language's ability to renew and reinvent itself, and muses on Bronte's invention of the word "whacher" (replacing "whether"):

For example

in the first line of the poem 'Tell me, whether, is it winter?'
in the Shakespeare Head edition.
But whacher is what she wrote.

Whacher is what she was.
She whached God and humans and moor wind and open night.
She whached eyes, stars, inside, outside, actual weather.

She whached the bars of time, which broke.
She whached the poor core of the world,
wide open.

Carson whachs me every time I crack open one of her one-of-a-kind books.

Last week, in the thrall of Tippett, I wrote about Achilles and Greek myths, and my post prior to that was about adaptations of Shakespeare. Carson heightens my craving to keep revisiting the Greeks. The central section of Glass, Irony and God is a genre (and gender) bending series called "TV MEN." The first 'man' under consideration was Achilles' greatest victim:

"Hektor was born to be a prince of Troy not a man of TV,
hence his success."

The series ends with "TV Men: Sappho," which opens with a line that describes its authors m.o:

"No one knows what the laws are."

Carson's Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse (Vintage. 1998, 1999) is another line blurring series of variations on classical themes. Here, Geryon, the red-winged monster, is coupled with the cavalier hero, Herakles.

A typical "chapter" roams between the ancient and contemporary worlds, the erudite and mundane, the philosophical and quotidian.

IX. Space and Time

Up against another human being one's own procedures take on definition.

Geryon was amazed at himself. He saw Herakles just about every day now.
The instant of nature
forming between them drained every drop from the walls of his life
leaving behind just ghosts
rustling like an old map.

As typical with Carson, instantaneous shifts occur--voice, tone, setting--and we move to a haltering conversation between the young red-winged monster and his mother:

So Geryon what do you like about this guy this Herakles can you tell me?

Can I tell you, thought Geryon.

Thousand things he could not tell flowed over his mind. Herakles knows a lot

about art. We have good discussions.

She was looking not at him but past him as she stored the unlit cigarette

in her front shirt pocket.

"How does distance look?" is a simple direct question. It extends from a spaceless

within to the edge

of what can be loved. It depends on light. Light that for you? he said pulling

a book of matches

out of his jeans as he came towards her. No thanks dear. She was turning away.

I really should quit.

The first book of Carson's I bought was Men in the Off Hours (Vintage. 2000, 2001). Her earlier series of "TV MEN" is here continued, along with the expected layers of references from antiquity to modernity, Sappho to Catherine Deneuve: "IRONY IS NOT ENOUGH: ESSAY ON MY LIFE AS CATHERINE DENEUVE (2nd Draft)." Just before that "chapter" is an imagined dialogue: "TV Men: Thucydides in Conversation with Virginia Woolf on the Set of The Peloponnesian War."

Her most lyrical (and accessible?) book is The Beauty of the Husband (Knopf, 2001). It is

"an essay on Keats's idea that beauty is truth, and is also the story of a marriage. It is told in twenty-nine tangos.
A tango (like a marriage) is something you have to dance to the end."

You don't have to read Carson cover-to-cover to soar with her flights of fancy and groove to the colorful instrumentation of her lyrical literary scores. Her latest paperback is one book that rewards such attention and consideration. Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (Vintage. 2005, 2006) is headed by Florio's 1603 translation of Montaigne's "Essay on Some Verses of Virgil:"

"I love a poetical kinde of a march, by friskes, skips and jumps."

As do I. In addition to the poetic panorama, the libretto to an oratorio ("LOTS OF GUNS") is juxtaposed with an imaginary screenplay between Heloise and Abelard. The central essay gives the book its title. "DECREATION: How Women like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God" is a three part essay about three visionary women:

"Part One concerns Sappho, a Greek poet of the seventh century BC who lived on the island of Lesbos...Part Two concerns Marguerite Porete, who was burned alive in the public square of Paris in 1310 because she had written a book about the love of God the papal inquisitor deemed heretical. Part Three concerns Simone Weil, the twentieth-century French classicist and philosopher whom Camus called 'the only great spirit of our time.'"

This brilliant essay is followed by the opera (libretto) mentioned in the subtitle, and it is another triptych. The final third centers around Weil, and the middle section concerns Marguerite de Porete. The opening section, "Love's Forgery" is a lyrical fantasy on Greek myth. Instead of Sappho, the central characters are Aphrodite, and her husband, the forger, Hephaistos, maker of, among other fate-laden gifts, the shield of Achilles.

Only connect.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

MINDS WIDE OPEN: Virginia Celebrates Women in the Arts 2010

Southeastern Virginia (AKA: Hampton Roads, Tidewater, &/or 7 Cities) is known in the wider world for a number of things. In addition to being home to the largest Naval base on the planet, it has one of the East Coast's premiere beaches, and its natural beauty is reflected in a number of parks connected to its bodies of water, with the Great Dismal Swamp as legendary as its name implies.

Besides being home to the first European settlers (we pride ourselves in being "America's First Region") Hampton Roads is the first place to go for the fine arts in the Commonwealth of Virginia. NOVA's (Northern Virginia) proximity to DC ensures its silver medal status, and other cities like Richmond, Charlottesville, and Roanoke have much to offer their citizens and guests, but Tidewater is much more than beautiful bodies of water, aircraft carriers, fighter jets and colonial history.

Proving that point where the arts are concerned, the statewide celebration of Women in the Arts, MINDS WIDE OPEN, kicked off in earnest right here.

The Chorale--ahead of the curve and under the radar--presented one of the first programs in the series, called EARS WIDE OPEN: Celebrating Women in Music (I wrote about that program in February and March, see "Ears Wide Open," "New Works" and "The Axe to Pick..." below).

Our flagship museum--and one of the finest regional museums anywhere--the Chrysler, officially kicked off the initiative with their exceptional special exhibition "Women of the Chrysler: A 400 Year Celebration of the Arts" (visit the museum--it's free--and check them out online: You can view a slideshow of the art, take a virtual tour, and contribute to their blog).

There is much to savor in this show (which would be noteworthy without the statewide focus on the topic). Akin's and Ludwig's panorama of head shots, The Women Series, is the centerpiece of the exhibition. Some 200 prints of all kinds of women--movie stars, opera singers, activists, artists and more--are hung by the curators in an arrangement original to the exhibition.

Other highlights for me were the rooms flanking the centerpiece. The impressionist-inspired works leading to it were full of surprises--I was particularly drawn to the canvases of Susan Watkins. Equally engaging were the abstract expressionist paintings by Lee Krasner (whose work is as compelling as her more famous husband, Jackson Pollock) and Helen Frankenthaler (a happy new discovery for this amateur art lover).

One of the books I am currently reading is a new "manifesto" by David Shields called Reality Hunger. It is a series of aphorisms, quotes & paraphrases, and observations "about" art and life, the blurred line between them, and the increasingly blurred lines between genres (ie: "reality tv," fictitious memoirs, "documentary" film, etc, etc).

Section 230 is: "Photography: the prestige of art and the magic of reality."

This follows a paragraph where Shields cites modern photography as an important source of inspiration for contemporary fiction. He notes that after writing the introduction to a collection of photography, the writer Ann Beattie "produced a novel, Picturing Will, that contains unmistakable parallel's to Mann's life and work."

The Chrysler show features a number of arresting photographs. One of the most prominent and current is by Sally Mann, a native of Lexington (and a magnet of opprobrium for the subject of her provocative photos: her children). "Jessie and the Deer" features the unsettling still of her ballerina-clad daughter standing next to a deer carcass whose slit throat is hanging limp over the open bed of a pick-up truck. It is no surprise that so jarring and multi-layered an image would pique the imagination of a writer like Beattie.

The connections between genres have never been more porous nor ripe for exploration.

Last night, members of the Chorale joined me in sharing selections from our EARS WIDE OPEN program for the Center for Contemporary Art's exhibition devoted to MINDS WIDE OPEN ( In another example of inter-media collaboration, we offered live music in the galleries, in an interesting variation on the concept of "performance art."

The CAC's show featured two Virginia Beach artists, Renata Keep, and one of her successful young proteges, Elizabeth Huey. Renata--as she insisted on being called--is an artist whose beautiful and generous spirit shines through her works. Her paintings brought to mind what Georgia O'Keefe might have painted had she called the beach--rather than the desert--home. I was lucky enough to join her before the show opened in a private tour through the exhibit (at 88, she is wheelchair bound, but her bright eyes and face emanate vivacity). She offered one of the most gracious speeches I've heard to the 7 or 8 of us accompanying her. A native of Hungary, she eloquently praised the American spirit: the positive, resilient, "can do" attitude immigrants like her have embraced and affirmed, decade after decade.

The CAC is another one of the region's gems, and as the Chorale flies in under the radar of larger classical music organizations like the Opera and Symphony, so too does the exceptional home for contemporary art live in the shadow of its more famous "uncle," the Chrysler. The current show devoted to two women artists--both palpably connected to one another and the region, however individually divergent their styles--will make you wonder why you don't spend more time at the CAC, checking the vibrant pulse of contemporary art.

One of the Chrysler's (relatively) contemporary offerings is Barbara Morgan's pulse-racing "action" photo of Martha Graham, entitled "Letter to the World (Kick)."

After Renata Keep's speech at the CAC, I recalled one of my favorite artist-to-artist letters, from Graham to Agnes De Mille. I keep a copy of it with me whenever I travel for a gig or have an audition:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

Here's to keeping all those channels open:
Ears wide open. Eyes wide open. Minds wide open.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Musical Numbers (for David Markson)

Musical Numbers:
Anecdotes in the shape of a poem (or the reverse)
(for/after David Markson

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) turned 100 last month.
Elliot Carter (b. 1908) is still composing compelling works at 101.

Philip Langridge gave his final stage performance at the MET,
just after turning 70. If he was suffering from the cancer
which took his life just weeks later, it was not evident.

Most of his vast legacy of twentieth century
opera, concert and recital repertoire was recorded after he turned 50.

Two of the British composers with whom he was most closely
associated were Britten and Tippett.

(Why was the former so much more popular than his older friend?)

Both of their second operas deal with ancient tales. Britten: The Rape of Lucretia; Tippett: King Priam

(Do not ask me which I prefer.)

Both of their first operas are masterpieces of lyric musical dramas from the mid-twentieth century. Peter Grimes (Britten) and The Midsummer Marriage (Tippett).

The association of numbers and music has always been a source of fascination and inspiration.

One of the least discussed of these associations concerns numbers assigned to individual works.

Like the symphony. The 9th being one of the only numbers to merit much attention.

(I am equally interested in firsts.)

Beethoven's 1st vis-a-vis Mozart and the Viennese classical tradition he inherited and exploded.

Brahms' 1st, not finished until he was in his forties ("You have no idea what it's like to hear the footsteps of a giant like that behind you").

(The giant being Beethoven.)

Schumann and Mendelssohn (among others) avoid the question since numbering issues surround the sequence of their symphonies (4 and 5 each, respectively).

Mahler--via philosophy (Jean Paul) and the narrative & dialectical potential of the 19th century symphony--picked up where Beethoven left off, if you will.

His first was the first in a series that would culminate in two 9th's.

Prokofiev and Shostakovich: the anti-firsts.

Barber. Copland. Bernstein: paying homage to tradition with original and distinct voices in each of their firsts.

(The former two both compact and neo-romantic, neo-classical, respectively; the latter, über-romantic, mahlerian catharsis)

Why are there so few Mediterranean symphonies?

Besides Mahler, Sibelius and Copland both evoke landscapes in their symphonic essays.

Vaughan Williams' first: A Sea Symphony.

One of its composers many musical settings of Walt Whitman.

One of many symphonic works inspired by the sea.

Debussy's La Mer begat Frank Bridge's The Sea which begat Britten's Sea Interludes which begat Michael Berkeley's Seascape.

The second movement of which is "Threnody for Sad Trumpet:" an elegy for the victims of the 2004 Indonesian Tsunami.

It reminds me of the poignant trumpet solo in Tippett's 2nd symphony.

(A recent revisiting of Tippett's under-appreciated music was one of the prompts for this digression that may--or may not be--a poem, essay, and/or series of trivial anecdotes...)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

"The Shield of Achilles"...from Auden to Tippett

In an essay last month about the nobel-prize winner Jose Saramago's novel, Death With Interruptions, I mentioned Achilles. April is National Poetry Month in the U.S., and the title of this essay refers to W.H. Auden's poem of that name.

For last night's Good Friday service at First Presbyterian (Norfolk), my colleagues and I offered selections from Bryan Kelly's contemporary passion setting, Crucifixion. Kelly weaves together the gospel narrative with recitatives and choruses in the manner of the Bach passions. He adds contemporary twists, however, by setting simple (English) poems by Ann Ridler as chorales. The arias and duets are angular, edgy settings of the Auden poem.

Saramago referenced Amphitrite, one of the daughters of the protean sea nymph, Thetis, who is also mother to the Greek hero, Achilles. Those needing to brush up their mythology could spend an evening with Wolfgang Petersen's sprawling movie, Troy, and be reminded from whence the term "Achilles' heel" comes. In the overstuffed, uneven, star-studded, action-packed epic, Paris (Orlando Bloom) kills Achilles (Brad Pitt) with an arrow shot through his heel.

Back to Auden. The Shield of Achilles refers to the infamous armor Thetis had crafted by Hephaestos (the lame, expelled-from-Olympus forger, rescued by Thetis and her fellow sea nymphs). Auden alternates stanzas where Thetis looks on Hephaestos' handiwork, expecting to see scenes of beauty, prowess, and heroic accomplishment:

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.

Each of these octaves (8-line stanzas) is followed by a sonnet-like scene with ominous undertones of contemporary violence. That Auden--alternately a conscientious objector and member of the resistance--fought against Franco's fascist regime in the Spanish Civil War is but one point of entry. The second half of the first sonnet concludes with this stanza:

Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

As I prepared for last night's service, rereading Auden's verse that is as lyrically accomplished as it is substantively engaging, I thought of his younger contemporary, Christopher Logue. Logue's most famous collection of poetry is a series of modern adaptations of Homer (one of our primary sources for this mythology), called War Music. Rather than returning to the original greek, he started with the most famous English translation of Homer by Chapman (from 1611--also the inspiration for one of Keats' most famous short poems, "On first looking into Chapman's Homer," also discussed in another recent essay below, "Before the melancholy fit shall fall...").

The result is a hybrid of translation and adaptation, with allusions to everything from classicism to WWII. The first volume of his ongoing collection was taken from books 16-19 of Homer's Iliad. Logue's central section is called GBH ("Grievous Bodily Harm" is a contemporary English legal reference).

Early on in the opening chapter Achilles sounds more like Shakespeare:

If you would stay my friend or not
Then speculate which god, or whether God Himself,
Packaged these specious quibbles with my mouth
Your insolence delivers to my face.

Logue's re-workings of battle scenes remind one why literature has always been superior to the stage and screen when it comes to the vividness with which the imagination is engaged:

God blew the javelin straight; and thus
Mid-air, the cold bronze apex sank
Between his teeth and tongue, parted his brain,
Pressed on, and stapled him against the upturned hull.
His dead jaw gaped. His soul
Crawled off his tongue and vanished into sunlight.

While several of the battle scenes in Troy are incredibly well conceived and executed, how can a camera capture an image like that last one?

Elsewhere, Logue evokes some of the greatest 20th century poetry to commemorate war:

And as he reined away, he called:
'Do not forsake me, O my seven meadows,
Until I conquer Greece!'
Though all he conquered was six foot of sand.

"Do not forget me quite/O Severn Meadows" refers to a poem (and art song) by the soldier, poet and composer, Ivor Gurney, one of many such artists who memorialized--and became memorials of--the so-called "Great" war, World War I.

As I made that connection I recalled a central scene from a another recent favorite play/movie, The History Boys, by Alan Bennett. In that scene, Hector (the name of the Trojan hero slain by Achilles in Homer, which provokes the revenge of Hector's brother, Paris) teaches one of his pupils a war poem by Thomas Hardy. Drummer Hodge prompts both a lesson in history, reading poetry, and making connections. After the student refers to another WWI poet, Rupert Brooke (colleague of Gurney's), Hector unpacks the poem's significance, starting with the observation this dead soldier has a name: he is remembered.

"So, thrown into a common grave though he may be, he is still Hodge the drummer. Lost boy though he is on the other side of the world, he still has a name."

This poignant scene continues, and through Hector's exegesis of Hardy we are shown a window into the character's soul. Richard Griffiths was acclaimed for his nuanced portrayal of Hector both on the West End and Broadway runs, and in the film adaptation.

The most acclaimed scene in the movie Troy is surely when Priam confronts Achilles to reclaim the body of his son, Hector. In the movie, Brad Pitt's Achilles sulks and stares while Peter O'Toole's Priam acts circles around him without seeming to do anything at all.

A similar scene occurs near the end of Michael Tippett's second opera, King Priam, where the baritone title character confronts the brash tenor. The stark, brass- and wind-dominated score yields to a chamber music texture of touching vulnerability, as Achilles yields to Priam's plea, as if prescient of his own imminent demise.

That demise is flatly stated as Auden's poem ends with the blunt truth:

The thin-lipped armorer,
Hephaestos, hobbled away,
Thetis of the shining breasts
Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
Who would not live long.

Auden wrote elsewhere that "poetry makes nothing happen." He also wrote that all art, by its very nature, is political. In his art, as in Logue's, in Bennett's and Tippett's, there is, moreover, an ever-present affirmation. Tippett's most famous work, A Child of Our Time, is "an impassioned protest against the conditions that make persecution possible." That 1944 oratorio was a response to the rise of Fascism and the pogroms against European Jews. A lifelong pacifist, Tippett's entire output is concerned with the process of reconciliation. The central character of the oratorio sings a deceptively simple sounding wish which could well serve as its author's credo:

I would know my shadow and my light,
So shall I at last be whole.