Friday, December 31, 2010

Last-minute poem

Inspiration arrived just in time to make
the year-end deadline. Persistent as
memory your hair lingers, hangs on;
I cannot avoid it with any more
success than one can avoid tax evasion,
death or other irrevocable givens. What
dissonance Harry makes over there!
He too is relentless. Obsessive. Even
soft clocks tick tirelessly away.
Indefatigable may have been a better word
but risks pretension. As opposed to
forced lyricism which is what I would,
at gunpoint choose. Life?
Also still ticking. T minus 9 hours
(and change) till the resolutions take
effect. Just enough time to heighten
anticipation, raise expectations to the
levels last year had little chance of meeting.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Memory, myth and holiday spirit...

In a post below ("Progress...") written in February, I quoted Rilke's short poem of the same name. It appears in the middle of his important collection The Book of Images (trans. Edward Snow. North Point, 1991). To this reader, "Progress" crowns a series of nine poems in the middle of the book centered on themes that define the poet's style. As the translator notes, they are 'the poems that tend to epitomize what it means to characterize something--a mood, a stance, a cadence, a quality of voice, a way of looking--as "Rilkean."'

The "Rilkean" style is redolent of memory and steeped in history and mythology. It is lyrical, laden with gravitas yet capable of imaginative flight and metaphysical leap. It is poetry that vibrates sympathetically with its sisters music, painting and sculpture. It is art that is psychologically penetrating: it is emotionally open and spiritually engaged (thus equally subject to criticism for being overly precious &/or affected).

I have been reading Rilke closely for 15 years and his lyrical verse has never resonated more deeply with my being than now. Anyone who has embarked on the journey of a life of meaning can identify with the opening of "Memory" (Erinnerung):

And you wait, await the one thing
that will infinitely increase your life;
the gigantic, the stupendous,
the awakening of stones,
depths turned round towards you.

As I have attempted to embrace (rather than avoid or deny) the inexorable progression into midlife, I have been drawn all year to myth and its strange (fantastic, even magical) powers. Mythology is one of several threads that connect the fabric of these posts. References from it have appeared consistently throughout this year that is almost over. Myth is one of the great sources "that will infinitely increase your life" and connecting to the timeless stories of the ancient world is like "the awakening of stones." To (re-)read these tales and hear their voices speak afresh (startling as "out of the burning bush" or gentle as "the still, small voice") is to recognize the "depths turned round towards you."

The sea has a power that is literal and figurative and elemental. To watch the waves crash against and over the rocks along the shore is endlessly fascinating. It is an even stronger experience in a blizzard. This I now know from the experience of a few moments yesterday as the snow whipped and spiraled around in the wind and the waves surged with animated tidal force. I went back inside, as animated by the cold as by the elements, and pulled down my Norton anthology of Classical Literature (ed. Bernard Knox. Norton, 1993). Inspired by nature's timeless vividness, I reread the ancient Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.E-A.D. 17).

It is a shame that we are not more widely encouraged to discover (and taught to discern) the commonalities between classical mythology and the creation stories in which the vast majority of our Judeo-Christian culture is steeped. Actually, it is a shame that we are not actually taught how to read with creative imagination and critical intelligence. Such close reading opens up worlds, and like Alice down the rabbit hole, life is simply not the same after the experience.

Here's a brief example I came upon in my reading yesterday. In Classical Literature (an excellent "one-stop-shopping" volume for mythology), Knox points out that Ovid's account of the great Flood is based on a Greek version of Noah's Flood. Ovid's Metamorphoses are tales of transformation, shape-shifting and figurative evolution; many of these 250-some stories remain unsurpassed. He is one of those ancient writers whose stories you know--even if you don't know you know.

In "The Flood" the surviving couple, Deucalion and Pyrrha are charged with propagating the human race anew. After consulting an oracle, they are instructed to throw their mother's bones behind them. Deucalion addresses "mother earth" (and I can't help but wince that she'd be in better shape now if we had retained Ovid's imagery and kept his tales as close as we have other stories of our origins...)

...The earth is our great mother,
And I suppose those bones the goddess mentions
Are the stones of earth; the order means to throw them,
The stones, behind us.

This they do, and the stones miraculously metamorphose into life. This imagery will resonate with Rilke 1900 years later as it evokes the creative act of the artist shaping clay or sculpting stone, "images half blocked out." The story parallels the miracle of creation as described in the Bible and other sacred tracts, none of which were intended to be taken literally. These were stories for reading and telling intended to convey a richer, deeper meaning through symbol and metaphor. "Of life came into being, generated/Out of the earth." Such poetry would fit into Genesis as well as it does the Metamorphoses.

I was particularly struck by the relevance of this image near the end of Ovid's creation account:

The stones the man had thrown turned into men,
The stones the woman threw turned into women,
Such being the will of God. Hence we derive
The hardness that we have, and our endurance
Gives proof of what we have come from.

In one image is contained a double mirror for humanity: the "hard-heartedness" that has plagued us throughout our existence, and the indomitable resilience that characterizes our best intentions and aspirations. I am so grateful to have a rekindled interest in these rich stories. I remember the misguided (even if well-intended) teaching I learned in Sunday school about idols and "worshipping false gods" which in effect threw the babies of these stories out with their mythological bathwater. They are but different versions of the same story. Different elements containing the same energy.

...Fire may fight with water,
But heat and moisture generate all things,
Their discord being productive.

Discord is productive. If you know what to do with it. Or are at least comfortable enough to sit with it and listen for what it might have to say. Our paralyzing (immature and ultimately futile) craving for security (control, resolution, etc) is paradoxically dangerous. We turn "God" into an idol whenever we equate certainty with truth. That goes for the exceptionalism of Country, Political Party, Church and any "right answer" to which we cling and grasp. To be possessed of something is one thing, to be possessed by it is quite another. It is the latter that leads to fundamentalism or fanaticism, which leads to ideology and is a common denominator in institutionalized evil throughout human history.

Somehow I stepped into the pulpit again. We were rediscovering (recovering?) myth and its relevance and power today. James Hollis, in whose thrall I have healthfully found myself of late connects mythology to depth psychology and illuminates its insights for consciousness and the human condition. The purpose of myth, according to Hollis, is "to link ourselves up again with the timeless zones of the soul (Tracking the Gods: The Place of Myth in Modern Life. Inner City, 1995).

He quotes the gnostic gospel of Thomas, "if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." He reminds us that the root of the word education is educe, "to lead out from within." Now why would such a gospel have been suppressed from the canon?!? That's another discussion. Anyone who has witnessed the shadows of our being--call them demons, devils, the unconscious, the "dark side," neuroses, addictions, "issues," etc--knows the gnostic proverb resonates with the force of truth. It is imagery--poetry--carrying an energy that has the power to move us.

Rilke's poems often contain direct messages. Ostensibly, the voice of the poem speaks directly to the poet. And therefore to us. Recent posts referencing his work have centered on the Duino Elegies and the prominence of Angels in those densely packed treasure chests of imagery. Hollis reminds us of more etymology where angels are concerned. The Greek word angelos means messenger. He enjoins us "to attend the better angels of our nature." No arguing with that. Nor with the "Turning Point" in Rilke's poem of the same name where he bids us "go and do heart-work/on all of the images." We must bring forth what is within us. Transformation is great, difficult and essential work. Every art requires the science of technique and the discipline of practice. And every discipline, every science needs the creative spirit of inspiration to animate it into being.

Homer prays at the beginning of the granddaddy of all tales, The Odyssey:

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story...

Of these adventures,...
tell us in our time, lift the great song again.

This musing began with Rilke's poem, "Memory." Its fulcrum is a moment of vision, a flash of insight, a sympathetic vibration that resonates and inspires. It is one of the ways we become possessed of the soulfulness that enriches life by helping us plumb its depths. The shadows can be frightening. The unknown intimidating. Mystery may not be grasped, but it can be embraced.

And then all at once you know: that was it.
You rise, and there stands before you
the fear and prayer and shape
of a vanished year.

Why let another one unconsciously slip away? Could not the "holiday spirit" catch fire with the animation of our souls?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I like Ashbery

Yesterday I wrote (for me) a brief note on lists inspired by Eco's delightful The Infinity of Lists. One of the lists included is from Roland Barthes's lists of likes. Below is a partial, in-no-particular-order list of some of mine. Followed by a draft of a poem after reading one of my likes, John Ashbery.

Scott likes: Jung, Rilke, Whitman, Brueggemann, Psalms, Earl Grey Tea, Britten, Mahler, Henze, Bach, Cézanne, Rothko, Chagall, Dark Chocolate, Miró, Manet, Bolaño, Pema, Thich, Hollis, Red Hots, Carson, Kafka, Barthelme, Homer, Virgil, Auden, Ashbery, Tippett, Jesus, Buddha, Kali, Krishna, MacMillan, Joyce, Black Beans, Beckett, Pellegrino, Puccini, Verdi, Checkhov, Goethe, Hölderlin, Novalis, Berlioz, Tarkovsky, Virginia Peanuts, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Joyce, Friedrich, Chorizo, Venice, Licorice...

Scott may or may not like: Facebook, Vivaldi, Austen, Green Peas, Hindemith, Poseidon, Disney, Lettuce, Dickens, Rossini, Chai Tea, Mondrian, Hammerschmidt, Televison

After reading Ashbery

One must have a mind for all these
things, as if observation were not simply
preliminary or the end of all exploring
only to find the peak already eclipsed.
Ah well, there are other ranges to scale,
like the hands in contrary motion
scampering across the keys as
Lilliputians in some tale told
by that crazy uncle we all wish
would desist. But they return
wearing different costumes,
sometimes borrowed (actually rented,
but isn’t that splitting hairs?)
Where were we? Yes, the blue flowers
are perfect. The hedgehogs came too
late this season to dishevel the garden;
even the fennel is unbruised and
ever fragrant. Like a Tchaikovsky
waltz, she said his pick-up line
was smooth as.
Let’s dance, everyone.


It was as if we were caught in a
maelstrom of dysfunction, like a
family drama that could either
be a tearjerker or comedy, depending
on who was directing. We were talking
about the cats and what may or may not
be termed feline sensibilities and I had to
go and get all Victorian like the rank
and foul Anglophile I parade as.
Meanwhile the casserole was browning
and the roses perfumed what others
might call the drawing room. You
were about to anoint my head with oil or
break a bottle over that shining orb
of obstinacy to which you’d said I do.
And also with you, I said. ‘Till the seas
go dry, my dear. Love you. Mean it.
Please don’t cry.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Lists & Notebooks

I am jotting down lists for a talk next month to Roanoke's Shakespeare book club on Faust: "Myth and Music."

'Tis the season for lists. Shopping lists, gift lists, wish lists and more. Umberto Eco's fascinatingly quirky monograph, The Infinity of Lists is open on the kitchen table to an excerpt from the Walpurgisnacht scene from Goethe's Faust (I am not planning on replicating Mephistopheles's bewitched recipe, for the record).

The Walpurgisnacht scene is one entry in my notebook of archetypal "journeys to the abyss." Christ's descent into hell another. Also Ulysses's and Orpheus's journeys to the underworld. And Dante's trip with Virgil in the Divine Comedy. One might add a trip to any shopping mall in the US the weekend before Christmas. And so on.

My obsession with mythology can now add James Hollis's Tracking the Gods: The Place of Myth in Modern Life to this year's top-ten list of favorite books.

He quotes Paul Tillich's observation that "the greatest sin of modernism was not evil…but rather the barren triviality that preoccupies us" (Inner City Books, 1995). Which recalls another apt quote from another list.

This one from the pragmatic critic and philosopher, John Dewey. "The enemies of the esthetic are neither the practical nor the intellectual. They are the humdrum...submission to convention" (Art as Experience, 1934. Perigree edition 2005).

I can see the mountains from my apartment in Roanoke, the sea from our bay-side home in Norfolk. Nature is the origin of the aesthetic and an antidote to humdrum convention. Selah.

My list of favorite Italian films would start with several by Michelangelo Antonioni. That list would be ordered by preference for his muse, the mysterious and unpredictable Monica Vitti. Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert) is at the top of the list. Among other concerns, it centers on the balance between technology and nature. The poetry of modernity. I'd never seen nuclear reactors as man-made volcanos but that is exactly what they resemble in the opening sequence of this visually stunning film (Antonioni's first in color).

It can be viewed as a series of modern art tableaus. Urban landscapes. Toxic beauty (the yellow smoke and sulfuric wetlands embody such oxymoronic tension). Though I don't think the film would make a great opera, it provokes thought on the tense relationship between tradition and progress. Which brings to mind the shifting landscape of classical music in the US, from concert programming to opera production.

But I digress. That tangent was inspired by a quote from Signorina Vitti as she looks dreamily out on the water (I listed it in my notebook, just above John Dewey's).

"It's never still...never, never...I can't look at the sea for long or I lose interest in what's happening on land."

One of the most interesting perspectives on what's happening on land is from an airplane window. I love sitting by the window on a partly cloudy day and glimpsing the curvilinear form of the city-scape as it comes into view upon descent. To trace the arc of a bending road that mirrors a river's curves is to marvel at the beauty of technology and the marriage of the aesthetic and pragmatic. One could expand the list of metaphors thus inspired, from the winding paths of life to the body's curves to "Spoon River" and beyond...

I don't know if that counts as an example of Dewey's aim to "restore continuity" between the experience of everyday life and the aesthetic. But living in a place where that continuity is conscious helps. The list of cities with an admirable commitment to public art might start with Chicago. Within a few blocks of one another are sprawling and fanciful sculptures by Calder, Miro and Picasso, with Chagall's panoramic mural of the Four Seasons in between.

The four seasons reminds one of the quaternity of elements, the stages of humankind, the four corners of the square and the squaring of the circle. The mythopoeic fourfold and the unity forged through diversity.

(There I go again, poeticizing lists, listing metaphors, randomly mythologizing).

One answer to the question "what does one do on one's first saturday off since the summer?" is to make such lists. To "discern the movement of soul" (Hollis) and follow Dr Jung's advice to relate to the infinite in the quest for the "authentic life" of meaning.

'Tis the season to give thanks and celebrate the mysterious beauty of life. To borrow a wonderful metaphor from my colleague, Jim Gates, let us give presence more than presents. Let us count the ways life is rich with meaning. The list is not important. It is the act itself.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Where the magic is real...

Yesterday morning, riding the A train up to 125th St to catch the M60 bus to LaGuardia, I read a jingle for the PBS documentary Circus, a behind-the-scenes look at the life of circus performers.

We live in a trailer
We work in a tent
We dance on a wire
Our dogs pay the rent
So come join the circus
And see how we feel
Where the stories are true
And the magic is real.

I chuckled to myself and noted the ironic wit contained therein and immediately moved to the depressing recognition that reality TV ruins a lot of magic.

But my spirits literally lift as soon as I return to Rilke's Duino Elegies and the Angel that inspired so much great poetry in him. The post immediately below is a short note about the Chorale's Holiday program Dec 3-5. Below that are musings about angels, dreams, visions and other magical nonsense that enriches the lives of otherwise earthbound mortals.

Rilke addresses the Angel directly in the Seventh Elegy. An excerpt from it will be one of several "readings on light" interspersed between the a cappella works on the Chorale's holiday program.

Life here is magic…we want to lift it up and show it,
even though the most visible happiness only reveals itself
when we’ve transformed it, within…

Miracles! O stand in wonder, Angel…tell the others of these things:
my breath is insufficient for such praise…O Angel, it was—
...and music rose still higher, soared beyond us…

(from The Seventh Elegy, trans. E. Snow)

Music is the medium that brings us closest to the beyond. It is the most "magical" of the art forms. Music stimulates the range of human emotions, conjures angels, evokes the heaven & earth and inspires us with the magic of harmony.

The quaternity of elements--earth, wind, water & fire--are sometimes called the "fourfold" in philosophy. They are grouped in pairs: mortals (water) and divinities (fire), earth & sky (wind). Art is one of the means by which the fourfold are united. Heidegger refers to "dwelling" as our being "at peace" (the two German words are related) in the "onefold."

Writing 60 years ago, he diagnosed a condition worsened by reality television and post-modern culture. "Our dwelling today is harassed by work, made insecure by the hunt for gain and success, bewitched by the entertainment and recreation industry."

The Museum of Modern Art in NYC recently opened a bewitching show that is bound to be one of the hot art exhibitions of the year, "Abstract Expressionist NYC." It had me at "hello." I was taken with one of the early galleries of Barnett Newman's austere, color field canvases (they resemble Rothko as Mozart does Haydn). As Rothko divided his color fields into horizontal blocks of the deepest, most vibrant monochromes imaginable, Newman marks his paintings with a vertical "zip." This stripe-like band simultaneously divides and unites the canvas in a wonderful aesthetic paradox.

Newman said "I hope my painting has the impact of giving someone as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality, and at the same time his connection to others."

I do believe that is a quaternity of elemental responses the artist wishes to evoke in a series of abstract canvases first titled "Onement." It was painted at the same time Heidegger was waxing philosophical about dwelling poetically. (Freaky. Cool. Both).

If I lost my hearing I would turn to painting to remind me what the world sounds like. Like music, color provokes an astonishing range of responses. Painting is magic, too. Rothko wrote that "pictures must be miraculous." His deep-hued color field paintings (the red/blue/browns--which always look purple) wrench my gut and touch my soul. There's something mysterious about the chromatic density of his (ostensibly monochromatic) "fields" and the responses affected by their juxtapositions.

"Toward nightfall there's a feeling of mystery, threat, frustration--all of these at once" he wrote in describing (at least one of) his intentions.

Many of the artists in the exhibition cite similar intentions and responses to Rothko's. Franz Kline's forcefully executed, rough-hewn evocations of Asian calligraphy are monochromatic yet singularly powerful (and partly inspired by John Cage's talks on Zen Buddhism, the I Ching and Asian philosophy in general). Echoing Newman, Kline painted "not what I see but the feelings aroused in me by that looking."

One of the most brilliant paintings in the MOMA show is one of two--by my count--de Koonings. This one is near the end, so don't spend all your time in the Pollock gallery gushing over those exuberant "drip" paintings. "A Tree in Naples" has some of the most out-of-this-world blue in the world. The artist described its deceptively prosaic-sounding origins: "I really got very elated by again looking, by again seeing that the sky is blue, that the grass is green."

I get very elated by again listening, by again hearing the simple purity of voices in harmony in the music the Chorale sings. And I can't wait for the magic these great singers will bring to life this weekend. The Circus jingle reminds us that performance is not magic but practice, technique, concentration, coordination and talent. It is science and art. Both are essential. The "onement" cannot be attained when any one of the elements is missing or out of balance. Really good a cappella harmony is like walking on air or dancing on a wire. I'm reminded of a favorite quote I shared below (in "Let us recount our dreams") from the playwright Tony Kushner, addressing the cast of Angels in America.

"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."

The cliché about perfection being 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration rings true where such human endeavors are concerned. We "sweat and strain" to make the magic appear at all, to call down the angels to visit us once more. The great conductor Robert Shaw often reminded his singers that "before the holy dove descends, we have to clean out the cage." Indeed.

One of the singers' favorite works on this program is Will Todd's new motet Angel Song II. It evokes a choir of heavenly angels singing "Hosannah" using only the vowels of that word to create an atmospheric impression of the original "night before Christmas." I'll be canvassing listeners to hear their impressions of our evocation.

"Poetic dwelling flies fantastically above reality" Heidegger remarks. Our listening and hearing music, our looking and seeing art bridges the span between these worlds. It makes the real fantastic and the fantastic real. It calls us to join the chorus of Rilke's closing Tenth Elegy.

Someday, at the end of the tether of hardened knowledge,
may I emerge singing praise and jubilation to assenting angels.
May I strike my heart's keys clearly, and may none fail
because of slack, uncertain or fraying strings...

Alleluia! Carols around the World: (Abridged) Notes

Alleluia! Carols around the World
Notes on the program

The title of our 27th Season, In Every Corner Sing, comes from the refrain of George Herbert’s poem, Antiphon:

Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing
My God and King!

An Anglican priest, Herbert’s poem is modeled on the Psalms, and builds on a poetic tradition with roots in the three central Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Our February program will feature a pair of settings of this exuberant poem, but its polyvalent relevance applies to each of our programs. As I noted in my introductory letter [in the program book] above, this season is built on the twin corners of our programming mission: the rich heritage of choral music dating back to medieval times, and the vitality of the tradition’s future in the music of the present.

Our Holiday program features familiar carols and beloved seasonal works from Paul Manz and Franz Biebl. Alongside popular arrangements of Deck the Halls and Silent Night are new carols by Cecilia McDowall and Will Todd. Our own John Dixon has composed a beautiful new work for us, and we are proud to present its premiere performances this weekend. We also celebrate the 75th birthday of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, whose “holy minimalist” style has captivated the imaginations of performers and listeners around the globe. Writing expressly forbidden sacred music behind the iron curtain of the Soviet Union, Pärt’s music embodies the image of light arising from darkness. Franz Biebl’s beloved, chant-based Ave Maria is performed in its original version for 7 male voices. Another new voice on the program is Vytautis Miskinis, whose appealingly simple treatment of the Ave Maria joins a distinguished list of settings of this timeless hymn to Mary.

While we have programmed a varied repertoire of music from many corners of the world, it would be impossible to do justice to such diversity in a single program. This particular musical journey will take us from the British Isles to the four corners of Europe; from Kenya across the United States. In keeping with the multiple applications of In Every Corner Sing, we also include multicultural readings that focus on light. Light is central to the Abrahamic faiths and a common denominator in many of the world’s holiday traditions. From Hanukkah to the Hindu festival Diwali, Kwanza to the Persian festival Yalda, light, life and newness are celebrated (literally) in every corner of the earth.

There is more than a hint of lightness in our closing “encore” selection by the popular British composer, Jonathan Willcocks. If we failed to include your favorite holiday carol in this program, there’s a good chance you’ll hear it in this engaging medley. We would ask you to sing along, but we think you’ll appreciate it even more by listening to the craft and wit of this winsome arrangement. With that, we leave you with the wish that your holidays be filled with light, the lightness of laughter, and the love of life itself.