Thursday, September 9, 2010

Arts Education: Against Ignorance

The following arrived in my inbox today from Opera America:

National Arts in Education Week, September 12-18, 2010
On July 26, the House of Representatives passed a resolution designating the second week of September National Arts in Education Week. Introduced by Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA), the Congressional Resolution declares, "Arts education, comprising a rich array of disciplines including dance, music, theater, media arts, literature, design and visual arts, is a core academic subject and an essential element of a complete and balanced education for all students."

How telling that so essential a topic as arts education has been completely ignored as the nation focuses on a prospective act of base ignorance, the so-called "International Burn-a-Koran Day" scheduled for September 11 by an ignorant pastor and his misguided flock of 50 in Gainesville, FL.

One article I saw earlier today had the best advice I've seen yet:

"The best way to respond to Quran burnings is Quran readings, recitations, teaching, learning, sharing, living the best of the principles found therein," said Zaheer Ali, a New York Muslim leader and doctoral student at Columbia University. The pastor in question, Terry Jones, would make an excellent candidate for Ali's assignment, since he admitted having "no experience with it [The Quran] whatsoever."

One month ago I posted an essay called "An Ideal of International Harmony" and it referenced conductors like Georg Solti's and Daniel Barenboim's efforts to bring together ensembles of international personnel to embody just such an ideal.

Consciousness and conscience have been much on mind and in my heart this summer. While I try never to use this platform as a political forum, nor even veer towards the polemic, I do think we--as artists and fundamentally, human beings--should be more bold in affirming our common humanity and speaking, singing, playing & acting against ignorance.

I have also been referencing disparate voices that have been on my reading list this summer, and as is my wont, trying my best to weave them together with common threads. I believe one of my primary roles as an artistic director is to be an educator. And not just to middle, high school, and university students. The E.M. Foster epigram, "only connect" motivates me to fill in gaps in my own education. Gaps in our heads lead to holes in our hearts. Ignorance is the enemy of empathy. When coupled with fear & fueled by prejudice, ignorance leads to atrocities like the Inquisition and the Holocaust. The multi-layered textures of art are an antidote to ignorance. They are a rich source of tradition & learning, inspiration & innovation, and are a great place to start filling in those gaps of consciousness and conscience.

One of the compliments I treasure most is when someone remarks on the thoughtfulness of my programming. One of the Chorale's critics wrote last fall "if any area organization takes its education mission seriously, it is the Virginia Chorale." He was not referring to our Young Singers Project. He was referencing an eclectic program that combined familiar and unfamiliar repertoire, and juxtaposed Renaissance madrigals with a modern Shakespeare setting by Dominick Argento dedicated to the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

Another recent addition to my summer reading list is a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Its subtitle is "Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy." Bonhoeffer was executed for his role in the Stauffenberg "Die Walküre" plot to assassinate Hitler (the story was made into a recent film starring Tom Cruise, Valkyrie).

The book's chapters feature epigrams from Bonhoeffer's incisive writings and quotes worth remembering:

"When books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people, too."

That quote by the German, Jewish-born poet Heinrich Heine mirrors Sigmund Freud's chilling observation (following a 1933 "cleansing" of "un-German" books): "Only our books? In earlier times they would have burned us with them."

One of the most famous poems of conscience is quoted in Eric Metaxas' biography. It comes from a colleague of Bonhoeffer's, who made the tragic mistake of giving Hitler an early benefit of the doubt.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me--
and there was no one left to speak for me.

--Martin Niemöller

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan has just ended, and the Jewish High Holy Days have just begun. I listened to my favorite Chanticleer recording earlier in honor of the interconnectedness of the three central Abrahamic faiths (that would be Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in order of seniority). And on Earth, Peace features movements representing all three. The Turkish-American composer Kamran Ince contributed "Gloria (Everywhere)" which opens with a wonderfully fragrant image from the 13th century Sufist poet Rumi (who lived in what is now Afghanistan):

the aroma of God
begins to arrive

The heart of the 12' movement sings an interfaith message of international harmony:

Moslems and Christians and Jews
raising their hands to the sky
their chanting voice in unison
begin to arrive

Later on the poet offers an antidote to ignorance all sides of today's bitterly divided world should heed:

if your eyes are marred
with petty visions
wash them with tears
your teardrops are healers
as they begin to arrive

(from Fountain of Fire, Rumitrans. by Nader Khalili,
Burning Gate Press, 1994, and CalEarth, 1996)

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Wittgenstein's most famous aphorism creates a wide berth of application. Those who have not read the Quran and have not had conversations with Muslims have no business speaking about the subject, whether it be a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan or Islam itself.

"Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it," said the founder of modern political conservatism, Edmund Burke. One of the best op-ed pieces I've read during this xenophobic summer comes from The Philadelphia Inquirer's Dick Polman. "Where has all the love gone?" was reprinted in Sunday's Virginian-Pilot. He quotes at length comments "in the best American tradition" of considerable insight & intelligence, from a source that might surprise quite a few readers. They come from a 2007 ceremony at the Islamic Center in Washington:

"We come to express our appreciation for a faith that has enriched civilization for centuries. We come in celebration of America's diversity of faith and our unity as free people. And we hold in our hearts the ancient wisdom of the great Muslim poet Rumi: 'The lamps are different, but the light is the same.'" (George W. Bush)

The Chorale and Opera Roanoke are preparing to open their 2010-2011 seasons in October. The Chorale is performing music written by another victim of Hitler's Third Reich, the Lutheran composer, Hugo Distler. Opera Roanoke is opening with a gala-style concert based on three different versions of Goethe's Faust legend. Goethe is to German literature what Shakespeare is to English. A paradigm of the lifelong learner, Goethe began studying Arabic in his 60's, to learn more about Islamic art and culture. Daniel Barenboim's orchestra of middle-eastern musicians is named after Goethe's cross-cultural collection of poetry, The West-Eastern Divan.

Neither program is built or centered on interfaith dialogue, consciousness or tolerance. But music has a special power. It won't stop violence nor cure ignorance. But it shines a light into the hearts of those who open to it. A light lit, to borrow from the Quran, "within a crystal of star-like brilliance."

The ancient Chinese proverb, "it is better to light one candle than curse the darkness" is eminently good advice, for activists, artists and human beings of all parties, creeds, and affiliations.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Fragments & Hedgehogs...

In Guy Maddin's quirky 2003 film, The Saddest Music in the World, Isabella Rossellini holds a contest (to award the movie's title) in order to save her struggling Winnipeg brewery. I recently received a review copy of a book that anoints Barber's Adagio for Strings for the crown, entitled, The Saddest Music Ever Written.

The saddest music written in the western world is found in the death-haunted song cycles of Franz Schubert, and in his two Wilhelm Müller cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, in particular. If there is music more painfully hollow than the close of the latter set, than I can't wait to be so devastated by it.

Schubert's great cycles affected every song writer who followed him, and that influence continues to be felt--not only in classical music but in the worlds of jazz, pop, dance & theater. The composer most obviously in Schubert's debt was Robert Schumann. Even when finished, the miniature form of the art-song leans toward the fragmentary, and Schumann relished this fact in his great song-cycle, Dichterliebe. The opening song famously begins in the middle of a phrase, and ends with an unresolved cadence echoing its ambiguous beginning.

What is it about the romantic fragment? Charles Rosen's book, The Romantic Generation (based on his Norton lectures at Harvard) devotes nearly a third of its 700 pages to two chapters: "Fragments" and "Mountains and Song Cycles." Musicians know his more famous The Classical Style, which is rightly one of the ur-texts on the period of Haydn, Mozart & Beethoven.

Slowly sip the following sentence (about Schubert's Schöne Müllerin) to understand why I love this book so:

"The time of this song cycle is that of Romantic landscape: not the successive events of narrative but a succession of images, of lyrical reflections which reveal the traces of the past and future within the present."

Speaking of images, he simply lists the resonances of one of the cycle's primary symbols, the color green: "green is the color of hope, the color of the fading ribbon with which the poet hangs his lute upon the wall, the traditional color of the huntsman's [rival of the poet/composer] costume, the color of cypress, of rosemary, the color of the grass that will grow upon the poet's grave. Fluctuations of meaning replace narrative: they stand duty for action."

"Fluctuations of meaning" describe one aspect of the open-endedness of fragments, symbols and images. Fragments, aphorisms & epigrams, memory & dreams, relics & ruins--each and every one may be independent, sufficient unto itself.

Like water's inexorable need to stream--its restless coursing for a path in & through which to flow--is our human desire for space, room to breathe, and literal and figurative openness.

Rosen quotes the Romantic poet (under-appreciated in the English speaking world) Friedrich Schlegel on our subject:

"A fragment should be like a little work of art, complete in itself and separate from the universe like a hedgehog."

As I imply above, the fragment satisfies one of our needs for openness: to not have everything explained, every punchline spelled out. But if the hedgehog reference is opaque:

"The hedgehog (unlike the porcupine, which shoots its quills) is an amiable creature which rolls itself into a ball when alarmed. Its form is well defined and yet blurred at the edges. This spherical shape, organic and ideally geometrical, suited Romantic thought: above all, the image projects beyond itself in a provocative way."

And isn't that what we want from any "image" (or work of art)--to project "beyond itself" and provoke/evoke/invoke thought, feeling, response, release &/or relief?

We are stimulated when the familiar is made strange and the strange made familiar (to borrow from another under-appreciated romantic, Novalis).

Barber's Adagio is itself fragmentary in that it is the central movement of a three-movement string quartet. Many fans of this piece are unaware of both its origin and the vivacious music Barber wrote to encapsulate it. That it can be taken out of context and so beloved is but one sign of its value.

Another fragmentary torso (see Rilke's great sonnet, "The Archaic Torso of Apollo," referenced often in my essays and program notes) is Mahler's unfinished 10th Symphony. The visionary Adagio he left behind would have been the opening movement of another epic symphonic canvas. The last of his own works he heard performed was his 8th Symphony. His song-cycle symphony, Das Lied von der Erde (his 9th entry in the symphonic genre) his 9th symphony and his unfinished 10th form a valedictory--if fragmented--triptych of posthumously received masterpieces.

In the literary world, a similar phenomenon is still occurring with the posthumous publications (in English, especially) of the Chilean writer, Roberto Bolaño.

I am a promiscuous reader. One version of purgatory would limit me to only one book at a time (not being able to read would be hell). In addition to a half-dozen or so open books at any given time are a number of magazines and journals I look forward to receiving regularly. My favorite section of Harper's magazine is the "Readings" section near the front. I finally opened August's issue to find an excerpt from a Bolaño "story," "Literature + Illness = Illness" from yet another posthumously published collection (he died in 2003 from liver failure at age 50).

Bolaño's fame in the English-speaking world materialized like a brilliant star in the sky we hadn't noticed. Never mind that the source of its light was extinguished. The Savage Detectives, 2666, and Nazi Literature in the Americas (novels of 700, 1,200, and 200 pages, respectively) form the triptych on which this wildly ambitious writer's fame took shape in the US beginning in 2007.

Bolaño's output during the last years of his short life is astonishing. He only began writing fiction (poetry preceded it) in his last decade. As a result, each new volume that appears is eagerly anticipated by nerdy bibliophiles like myself. Bolaño was a bibliophile himself who also lived pretty hard during his fifty years. His work, like that of many an artist, has the patina of autobiography. He lived hard and worked feverishly. The line between working one's self to death and partying one's self to death must be as gray as his diseased liver was before it--and life--failed him. Equally gray is the line between autobiography and invention in his stories.

In the recent Harper's excerpt, "The Writer is Gravely Ill," death haunts the paragraphs as it does Schubert's syphilis-tinged songs. The narrator is in hospital and is suffering from liver disease. His "story" leaps from a thin narrative thread to references ranging from French poetry to German philosophy to sexual appetite and travel, ending with the narrator's--and author's--favorite modernist, Kafka. Bolaño's wit is as unpredictable and various as the Borgesian (and Kafka-esque) layers of reference that fill his tales with a deliciously dense polyphony.

Novalis said "fragments of this kind are literary seeds...if only a few were to sprout!" In tales like Bolaño's, they have--and whether or not helped by the tragic irony of posthumous "fame"--they continue to.

Who knows if Bolaño's life may be the stuff of great theater or opera (his passionate voice certainly sings with verismo fervor). His brief life's work is sprouting with meanings, beautifully provocative as a hedgehog.