Thursday, November 25, 2010

To awaken to wonder...

In the index of Benjamin Britten's Poets: An anthology of the poems he set to music (Carcanet, 1996), a quick tally lists nearly 100 authors. Given the various origins of those popular names, "Anonymous" and "Traditional" the number of poetic sources that inspired Britten's creative springs is much higher.

Britten was born on November 22, the day honoring the patron saint of music, Cecilia. Today is Thanksgiving and Britten is on my annual top ten list of composers (which includes--in no particular order, as the list and its "ranking" change with the seasons--Mahler, Debussy, Bach, Brahms, Verdi, Barber, Henze, Beethoven & Sibelius).

One poet who does not make Britten's list is Rainer Maria Rilke. But Friedrich Hölderlin does (Britten's Hölderlin Fragments are one of his great but under-appreciated song cycles). I have been thinking in fragments, using them like putty to try and connect varying strands of poetry, music, art and life.

We left off musing on visions via Britten (A Midsummer Night's Dream), Kushner (Angels in America) and co. Rilke's ten Duino Elegies (along with the Sonnets to Orpheus) are his greatest poems. They call down/forth/upon Angels regularly. Among other associations, angels symbolize the innocence and purity of childhood. Tinkerbell could as easily be an angel as a fairy, no?

The morning of St Cecilia's day, I dreamt I was living in Chicago and still having the Virginian-Pilot delivered to my high-rise, sparsely furnished apartment. One of Shostakovich's wonderfully playful symphonic movements resounded in my ear. After waking, I read Luke's account of "Let the children come to me:"

Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.

Shostakovich and Britten were friends who performed together and dedicated works to one another in the late 60's. Both composers revered the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. Both retained a childlike wonder that is reflected in the music they wrote throughout their prodigious careers. Such forthright clarity and appealing directness does not always appeal to the critics or cognoscenti. "Suffer the little children," indeed.

Thanks to McGilchrist's trenchant The Master and his Emissary, I have been musing on the word anaesthetic. The absence of sensation. Numbness. What an apt diagnosis for one of the ailments that plagues our species. Both the "illusions of reason" that anaesthetize us to feeling and the materialism (in all its guises) that opposes the aesthetic.

Our an-aesthetic modern world must "attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods" according to Martin Heidegger's Poetry, Language, Thought (Harper, 1971). McGilchrist's book on "The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World" (cited below) traces a brief history of philosophy from Zeno's paradoxes to Heidegger and beyond.

In reflecting below about humor's ability to awaken the senses (laughter therapy, anyone?!?) I am reminded of the dichotomy & duality--particularly pronounced in the US--between the accepted and the taboo (sacred & profane, spirit & flesh, polite & rude, et al). Nowhere is this more apparent (or complicated) than where the body is concerned. Yet it is only in and through our bodies that we experience the world. One of my favorite "classic" movies is "about" this very thing. Powell and Pressberger's visually stunning Black Narcissus charts how "secular matters consume five missionary nuns who head to the Himalayas to establish an Anglican school" (it's available to watch instantly on Netflix, but deserves the big screen).

Deborah Kerr's "Sister Superior" would reluctantly concur with McGilchrist's statement that "truth is arrived at through engagement with the world." Yet how many obstacles come between the "bending toward of spirit and intellect and ear" that attempts to form the "dynamic reciprocity" that constitutes authentic engagement with the world?

I am grateful to McGilchrist for reminding me of Heidegger's essays collected in Poetry, Language, Thought. The answer(s) to the question posed in its central entry, "What are Poets For?" is mediated through Hölderlin and Rilke.

"The poet in the time of the world's night utters the holy" according to Heidegger's reading of Hölderlin. "To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing," and this calls forth a wholly other version of "O holy night!"

Rilke picks up the other-worldly song of connectivity in the Duino Elegies, echoing (Heidegger's contemporary) Wittgenstein's injunction "to awaken to wonder." The "other" (which is really the "real," that which signifies the truly significant) is encountered in the "Open." This is the proverbial "road less traveled" of the Soul that poetry has always plotted. Rilke's language in the Eighth Elegy also resonates with sacred poetry and proverbs.

...for almost from the first we take a child
and twist him round and force him to gaze
backwards and take in structure, not the Open...

(translated by Edward Snow. North Point, 2001).

Matthew's account of the metaphor of the children reads (in the English Standard Version of the Bible) "unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." The poet rightly interprets the parable as a call to re-turn to the prelapsarian state of childlike innocence. Rilke--along with his contemporary Carl Jung--treats this paradox as a metaphor to re-awaken to wonder.

William Blake's great cycles of Songs of Innocence and Experience chart two sides of that coin of the realm. From childlike open-ness to adult self-consciousness, innocence and corruption are themes that also inspired (among others) Mahler, Britten & Shostakovich.

Further on in the same Elegy, Rilke echoes the timeless wisdom of the "Sermon on the Mount" in diagnosing what we have lost.

...not for a single day, do we
have that pure space ahead of us into which flowers
endlessly open...

"Consider the lilies..." And consider the word secure. "Securus, sine cura means: without care" (Heidegger). Rilke often speaks of parting, leave-taking and the German word Abschied figures prominently in his poetic thought and thinking poetry. Our opposition (by our very nature as "corrupt" human beings) to the natural world of the "Open" manifests in our relationship to the same world as a "functionary of technology." How timely these dead poets are! Heidegger goes on, parsing Rilke,

"The man of the age of technology, by this parting, opposes himself to the Open. This parting is not a parting from, it is a parting against."

And in those prepositions are contained a world of difference. Or Différance, as Derrida would say. But that's another essay.

Heidegger--though offensively reactionary in aspects of his life--is not advocating regression away from technology. He returns to Hölderlin:

But where there is danger, there grows
also what saves.

Rilke's Elegy plays with the dynamic between the "creature" world and us. Lacking the signifying consciousness of human beings, plants and animals are both in and of the world. But the very humanity which places us outside the world of the "Open" opens up new possibility for "Being" in relation to it.

For Heidegger, poetry is the purest form of (linguistic) thought, which makes reading his "philosophy" an adventure:

"Man is at times more venturesome than the venture,
more fully (abundantly) being than the Being of beings...
The more venturesome daring does not produce a defense...
the more venturesome daring accomplishes, but it does not produce."

And in that non- or im-material production of which we are capable comes our "outside all caring" secureness. Today's Pilot contained an irritating abundance of ads for the so-called "black friday" sales. The front page, however, featured a beautiful aerial view of surf and shore, giving water pride of place in the list of things for which to be thankful.

While Andrei Tarkovsky's great (sci-fi) film Solaris winds down, the protagonist muses philosophically while looking out of the titular space station at the swirling "ocean" of light and clouds that represent both a parallel universe and an alternate, "other" consciousness.

And Tolstoy...his suffering over the impossibility of loving all of mankind...
Love is a feeling we can experience
But can never explain...
One can explain the concept.
You love that which you can lose:
Yourself, a woman, a homeland...
There are so few of us here,
A billion altogether. A handful!
...Maybe we're here in order to experience people
As a reason for love

Heidegger notes the concurrence of Pascal's discovery of "the logic of the heart as over against the logic of [Cartesian] calculating reason." Descartes' cogito ergo sum is but one of many wonders.

I don't know if Tarkovsky read Rilke or Heidegger. But poetic thinking like the "presence of of such boundaries, can overflow into the unbounded whole of the open" could pour out of the mouths of one of his characters.

Rilke could be foreshadowing the Russian director's great film (remade in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney; do see the original) when he writes about his Elegies in a letter:

To me it seems more and more as though our customary consciousness lives on the tip of a pyramid whose base within us...widens out so fully that the farther we find ourselves able to descend into it, the more generally we appear to be merged into those things that, independent of time and space, are given in our earthly, in the widest sense worldly, existence.

"The Latin word verum (true) is cognate with the Sanskrit word meaning to choose or believe" notes McGilchrist, before observing that "we create the world by attending to it in a particular way."

I wonder as I wander through these books and films and scores in the beaches of consciousness and islands of soul how life will loop and circle while we pay varying degrees of attention to it and ourselves...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Let us recount our dreams...

The third act of Britten's opera A Midsummer Night's Dream embodies the cliché "from the sublime to the ridiculous." The act opens in a fairy-land evoked by shimmering violins in three-part divisi playing in their upper register. It is among the most beautiful music its composer wrote.

The Fairy King, Oberon undoes the spell he cast on the Fairy Queen, Tytania. She awakens to a recapitulation of the violins' theme that swells in sensual crescendo with the entire orchestra, complemented by cascading harp glissandi. It's a wonderful moment in an act of musical theater that is full of felicities and surprises.

Upon waking her first lines are:

My Oberon! what visions have I seen!
Methought I was enamor'd of an ass.

By my troth, thou wast! For Oberon hath played a trick on the fair Fairy Queen (with the timeless theatrical device of the love potion) which made Tytania fall for the first thing she laid eyes upon. To her shame and the audience's delight, she espied the lovably boorish weaver, Bottom. They would qualify for opera's most unlikely couple were Bottom NOT turned by fairy-magic into the form of a donkey. But an ass he is. Or was.

Britten has been rightly praised for the ingenious ways he evokes the differing worlds of Shakespeare's fairy tale (for kids of all ages). The Fairy land is differentiated from the lyrical but earth-bound music for the pairs of Athenian lovers (themselves victims of love potions and spells). The human realm of the Athenian nobles is marked from the world of the simple "mechanicals," the rustic men who form a rankly amateur theater troupe in their off hours. It is appropriate that Shakespeare's prototypes for the dry, slapstick brand of British humour (en vogue through Monty Python) should be given music that parodies parallel operatic stereotypes.

But when I saw the engaging and thoroughly entertaining production of Britten's opera recently in Chicago, I was surrounded by opera loving philistines who neither responded to the double entendre of puns like Tytania's or the ridiculousness of the rustics "play within the play." There were a small handful of subscribers in the upper balcony who laughed out loud--a good production of the play AND the opera IS laugh-out-loud funny. But more people either walked out or audibly voiced their incomprehension at the slapstick antics and raw wit.

To cite one ridiculously funny instance among many, the play "Pyramus and Thisby" features the classical amateur "ham" actor (Bottom) as the hero Pyramus. His beloved Thisby is played by the awkward young man, Flute in drag. They meet on either side of a wall (which is played to hilarious effect by a fellow rustic, Snout) and try to kiss through a chink in said wall. The kiss does not go well and "Thisby" cries in "her" strained tenor "I kiss the wall's hole/not your lips at all!" That's funny. And funnier in a good production. Which this was.

The humorlessness of hardened, "serious" music lovers did not diminish my enjoyment. But it is a reminder of how difficult communication can be and how vital it is for the human channels to stay open. As others have corroborated, a culture that loses its sense of wonder, mystery OR its sense of humor is in trouble.

I think we are even more uncomfortable with raw, in-your-face emotion than we are with bawdy humor. "We" being polite, educated, middle class (mostly white) "culture." Consumers of "serious" music and "high" art.

In one of Alex Ross's recent New Yorker reviews he writes penetratingly about the reception of Leonard Bernstein's "serious" music. He quotes Bernstein's description of Britten's music as "gears that are grinding and not quite meshing." Ross says Bernstein "might better have been describing his own work."

I think both men--who had an interesting, episodic relationship from Bernstein's conducting of Britten's first opera, Peter Grimes in 1946 through Britten's death in 1976--have been misunderstood. Ross goes on to describe the musical language of Bernstein's opera, A Quiet Place. Before noting that at its premiere it was "criticized as a hodgepodge--nearly every Bernstein score was criticized as a hodgepodge," Ross makes one of those observations that reminds me why he's one of my favorite critics.

"It's as if he [Bernstein] were healing the twentieth century's stylistic divides, with Romanticism as the meeting ground; at several crucial points, the orchestra enters a beautifully ominous space that might be described as Cold War Mahler."

That "hodgepodge" style and the bridging of stylistic distances was something Lenny and Benjie both did quite well, even if they were much criticized for it. Their music is unfashionably conservative from the avant-garde's perspective. The "grinding gears" (which now amount to very mild dissonance--film scores can be much more grating) have been wrongly associated with "ugly" modernism. This still puts off many listeners (those for whom "I know what I like" usually translates to "I like what I know"). I think both factors contribute to the checkered reception history of both composers' works. But I think something else is in play. Their music is emotional and romantic and direct. And such openness makes all kinds of (western) people uncomfortable.

I couldn't choose which evocative world of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream I like best. The metaphysical realm of the fairies is wonderful (and has more of Britten's infectiously charming music for children). I love the bel canto opera parodies in the finale's play within the play (they were a wink in the direction of La Stupenda, Joan Sutherland, who'd recently sung Britten's Gloriana to great acclaim). And the music the Athenian lovers sing upon waking from their dream (which gives this rambling ditty its title) is ravishingly beautiful.

In a recent dream I had I looked up at the night sky and the stars lit up like night-lights, like bright white dots in a pointillistic Seurat canvas, shown in relief against a background of pitch. I have no idea what that image represents, but it was cool.

I'm reading a wonderful book of art criticism, Caspar David Friedrich: And the Subject of Landscape (Joseph Leo Kerner. Reaktion, 1990, 2009). Kerner takes some time to connect the threads of early 19th- century German culture, the birthplace of the "Romantic." I was reminded of a recent post below on "fragments and hedgehogs" (which may well become the title of the book I want to turn this all into) as I read quotes from the visionary romantic poet, Novalis:

"The world must become Romanticized. That way one finds again the original meaning. Romanticizing is nothing but a qualitative potentializing."

Jawohl! Restoring some of the balance our rational, goal-oriented, technology-driven western world has misplaced would involve realizing more of our affective (and metaphysical) potential and might just restore some of the lost "original meaning."

Kerner hasn't referred (yet) to Jung or John Dewey, and his book predates Iain McGilchrist's efforts to give the right brain its due (all referenced in posts below) but the "meaningful coincidence" of synchronicity is there when we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

And like beholding more of the stars, even this reception requires effort. Just a couple of pages after the Bernstein review in the same (Nov 15) New Yorker, John Lahr reviews a new production of Tony Kushner's groundbreaking epic, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on American Themes. He quotes a note Kushner had written the cast of the opening night run in LA in 1992:

"And how else should an angel land on earth but with utmost difficulty? If we are to be visited by angels we will have to call them down with sweat and strain...and the efforts we expend to draw the heavens to an earthly place may well leave us too exhausted to appreciate the fruits of our labors: an angel, even with torn robes, and ruffled feathers, is in our midst."

Yes it is, baby. I love Tony Kushner. I love his bold, audacious vision, his passion and the range of raw emotions his characters evoke and the all-too-human states they embody. He is a modern-day prophet and poet and the scope of his imagination lives up to such titles. In another supreme example of critical excellence, Lahr writes about "one of the most thrilling of Kushner's verbal arabesques--[in which] Harper has a vision of repair for the ozone layer, whose hole has obsessed her doom-filled days:"

Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles, and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired.

What souls! "What visions have I seen!" I feel like Walt Whitman yawping an open-throated affirmation of life itself. Or like brother Lenny: "And it was good, brother, and it was goddam good!"**

As the Athenian lovers wake up from their disturbed visions, they sing in chorus,

Why then we are awake; let's go,
And by the way let us recount our dreams.

Let us wake up and connect the dots of our lives into lyrical canvasses that mend the tears by recounting dreams. Why shouldn't we?

(**The quotation comes from Bernstein's Mass, another theater work involving parody & satire, not to be confused with blasphemy &/or gratuitous profanity)