Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Memorial Day Communion

The lines below are references to titles and quotations from the following sources (in no particular order):

Federico Garcia Lorca: In Search of Duende (New Directions, 2010);
Alberto Manguel: The Library at Night (Yale, 2006)
The Saga of Egil, from The Sagas of the Icelanders (Penguin, 2001)
Gustav Holst: The Planets
Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes; War Requiem;
Letters from a Life, Volume Five: 1958-1965 (Boydell Press, 2010)
Walter Benjamin: The Origin of German Tragic Drama (Verso, 1998)
Kaija Saariaho: du cristal ... a la fumée

"...each of my books has escaped to tell me its story."

I: Dawn

Euthymia: well-being of the soul; tranquillitas.

"Memory without distraction, the intimacy of a reading time -
a secret period in the communal day."

There is a Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find
Nor can his Watch Fiends find it, but the Industrious find
This Moment & it multiply, & when it once is found
It renovates every Moment of the Day if rightly placed.

(William Blake, from Milton)

Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity

"the language of silence..."

II: Sunday Morning

"The essence of those great moments in life is the experience of pure selfhood."

Candle, lamp,
lantern and firefly
The constellation
of the dart.

"A mysterious power that everyone senses and no philosopher explains."
(Lorca on the duende, quoting Goethe on Paganini)

Uranus, the Magician

"...the real purpose of drama was to communicate knowledge of the life of the soul."

I carve runes on this horn,
Redden words with my blood.

"...the duende loves the rim of the wound...he draws near places where forms fuse together into a yearning superior to their visible expression."

Sorrow wanes in sea-fire's fortress

"...not forms but the marrow of forms, pure music."

It is not the wind but the sad moon
in the Courtyard of the Dead

III: Moonlight


"Now the great bear and pleiades..."

"from crystal... into smoke..."

Neptune, the Mystic

"Tom Stoppard has one of his characters explain in his play The Invention of Love, 'in the last guttering light from classical antiquity, a man copied out bits from old books for his young son...so we have one sentence from The Loves of Achilles. 'Love, said Sophocles, feels like the ice held in the hand by children.' I trust that book-burners' dreams are haunted by such modest proof of the book's survival."

IV: Storm

"...hell takes on different shapes for its different inhabitants:
for Cain it has the face of Abel, for Nero that of Agrippina."

My subject is war, and the pity of war.
The poetry is in the pity.

"These magnificent poems, full of the hate of destruction..."

"Ardent struggle, endless vigil, like all art."

The scribes on all the people shove
And bawl allegiance to the state
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life, they do not hate.

"...the stories that ultimately reach us are but the reports of the survivors."

Friday, May 20, 2011

Remembering Gustav Mahler: 18 May

18 May 2011: Remembering Gustav Mahler
on the 100th Anniversary of his death

(for SCW: O ewigen Liebens – Lebens – trunk’ne Welt!)

“The world has lost its greatest artist. Gustav Mahler is dead.”
(Die Musik, May 1911)

“An artist is like an archer in the night. He shoots his arrows into the darkness not knowing if they will hit anything, but they do hit the mark.” Mahler himself said to Ernst Decsey, quoted in Norman Lebrecht’s Mahler Remembered (Norton, 1988).

Decsey’s memoir of Mahler is “one of the most candid and least known portraits” we have, according to Lebrecht. Observations like the following prove that point:

A fire glowed constantly within him; one never spent an hour with Gustav Mahler in which it did not burst forth, in which one did not gain something from him.

(Ein Lämplein verlosch in meinem Zelt!)

Hugo von Hofmannsthal observed, “where a creative mind is at work, there is drama.”

His 50th birthday tribute (the last Mahler celebrated) continued:

Wherever such a mind operates, it clashes with matter; it is confronted with inertia, miscomprehension and incomprehension. As it wrestles with them, the atmosphere around the conflict becomes the point of interest…A rhythmic process begins…A chaotic and truly heterogeneous entity takes shape, while hostile or indifferent elements band improbably together in opposition. And to the delight of lovers of Art, and the reluctant astonishment of philistines, it becomes apparent that out of many dead elements a living whole can emerge, thanks solely to the miracle of a creative mind.

One of opera’s greatest poets could have been talking about the generative process of artistic creation. He was describing Mahler’s work as an opera administrator in Vienna.

Mahler was fond of quoting Goethe: “a man who seeks to develop will never come to the end of the road.”

(O du, des Vaters Zelle, ach, zu schnelle, zu schnell erlosch’ner Freudenschein!)

Mahler spent the last four years of his life conducting in New York City, at the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

Lebrecht subtitles the remembrances from these years (1907-1911), “I am lost to the world” (from Mahler’s transcendental Rückert song, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen).

(Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel, in meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied.

Decsey recalls Mahler waxing poetic, indeed sermonizing like a preacher of the Arts:

How beautiful the world is! How can any fool say: I am indifferent to it all…To be happy is a gift…

He relates how

a musician told us about a concert where they had booed Mendelssohn… This musician said ‘they can abuse Mendelssohn, it doesn’t concern me.’ When “Mahler burst out angrily.” ‘But of course it concerns you. That’s the trouble…everyone says: it doesn’t concern me. The whole world concerns me…’

Mahler observed that Americans “did not have enough temperament, enough feeling for Art.”

Or have not uncovered enough. Connected enough to the proverbial "source." Tapped into enough potential. Let us discuss.

Erwin Stein noted “a single mind could prove right against a crowd of detractors” in an assessment of Mahler’s life & (his inseparable) career.

In that collection of essays (On Mahler and Britten, Boydell Press), Colin Matthews notes a familiar refrain in the negative critical reception history of Mahler. One of Britten’s primary amanuenses chides “those whose dislike has always stemmed from antipathy towards the intensely personal nature of his music.”

Factors, both professional and private, compelled the Mahlers to seek a complete change of environment. In public [Vienna], Mahler was the subject of regular anti-Semitic attacks in the press…[he] had experienced the death of his parents and ten of his thirteen siblings; he supported the surviving three financially…and in July 1907, two painful blows occurred almost simultaneously: the death of one of his two children and the discovery that his heart was failing (from Mahler’s Last Years, exhibit at the Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall in the early 1990’s).

Stefan Zweig met Mahler on what would be the master’s final voyage (from America to Europe). He saw the ailing artist’s “silhouette – unforgettable, unforgettable – set against the grey infinity of sky and sea.” With poetic diction that would inform his literary career, Zweig continued:

For the first time I saw him, the pillar of fire, in his frailty…There was boundless sorrow in this sight, but also something transfigured by greatness, something resounding into the sublime, like music.

Zweig could be describing the last chapters of Mahler’s oeuvre, “transfigured…
resounding into the sublime.” That IS Das Lied von der Erde. And the Ninth Symphony. And the unfinished Tenth.

Such transcendence is presaged in the early works. It is palpably present in both sets of Rückert poetry. The slow movements of his middle symphonies are the sublime far side of a moon whose apotheoses (the 2nd! the 8th!) are as cataclysmic as any eclipse.

(Die liebe Erde allüberall blüht auf…)

In his life. In his love. In his music.



Monday, May 2, 2011

Transfiguring the everyday: Part II

on Thich Nhat Hanh’s You are Here and Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne

The Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master and poet Thich Nhat Hanh’s latest book is You Are Here (Shambhala, 2010). It is full of simple-sounding profundities like “concentration is the practice of happiness.”

He uses an example called “orange meditation” with characteristic lightness of touch. “An orange is nothing less than a miracle.” He goes on to describe, with the imagination of an artist, how the orange, revealing its orange-ness by simply being present, offers “deep insight” into the nature of presence.

Rilke found such presence, such “suchness” (another TNH term) in the still lifes of Cézanne. His Letters on Cézanne (Fromm, 1985) is essential as Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings. Both defy the limitations of labels imposed by our systems of categorization. Rilke touches on our reductive tendencies when he writes

how deeply we are placed on the ground of transformation, we most changeable ones who walk about with the urge to comprehend everything (because we’re unable to grasp it)

I think Rilke must be smiling (through whatever incarnation his current manifestation may be), knowing his Letters could be filed under “biography” or “criticism” or “art” or “poetry.” He concludes his observations on our all-too-human tendencies “to grasp” with words his Zen master great-nephew echoes today.

We reduce immensity to the action of our heart, for fear that it might destroy us.

(Thich Nhat Hanh was born in 1926, 10 weeks before Rilke died).

Returning to the Zen slogan “concentration is the practice of happiness,” we can touch both the artist’s single-minded devotion to her work and the challenges inherent in such focus. Rilke called the painter’s concentration a “conflagration of clarity.” The white-hot intensity of artistic passion is both source of the creative impulse and “burn factor” risk to anyone in that smoldering orbit.

The Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation (akin to listening for the “still small voice” in the Judeo-Christian traditions) “invites us to look deeply at reality.” It is an invitation “to discover,” and to “embark on a journey” towards “joy and happiness” through mindfulness of the present moment. Concentration. Attention. Presence.

Rilke speaks for all humanity with refreshing candor when he says

one lives so badly, because one always comes into the present unfinished, unable, distracted…

Such a one might miss the miracle the orange is, might not see “the cloud floating in [a] piece of paper.” Thich offers more insight: the “true nature of this piece of paper is inter-being. Before taking the form of paper, it already existed in the form of sun, cloud, rain and trees.”

“You do not have to be a poet to see it,” he gently reminds the literal-minded.

Rilke communes with Mother Nature by praising the animals, “more real than anything.” He is again candid about our species’ tragic / comic habit of “missing the point.”

How blindly they misuse what has never been looked at, never experienced, distract themselves by displacing all that has been immeasurably gathered together…

“To see the world in a grain of sand,” as the visionary poet William Blake saw it, is another way to perceive all of nature’s elements in a single sheet of paper. Rilke relates the ecstatic energy that comes from such newness, when an object “revisited with increased excitement” is seen as if for the first time.

Rilke goes on to describe the essential qualities of Cézanne’s oranges, and his insight is as relevant to the artist as it is to any amateur, student or pilgrim.

This labor which no longer knew any preferences or biases or fastidious predilections, whose minutest component had been tested on the scales of an infinitely responsive conscience, and which so incorruptibly reduced a reality to its color content that it resumed a new existence in a beyond of color…It is this limitless objectivity…purely by means of color…

Rilke’s description echoes Michelangelo’s evocation of sculpture’s origin. It is parallel to the process of listening, testing and discerning mentioned by composers. Chipping away at the stone to reveal the form hidden beneath the surface parallels sifting through the internal voices to hear the music. Practicing mindfulness meditation or listening for the “still, small voice” connects the spiritual path to the artist’s work.

Once this process of listening and discernment has been given time to ripen, to season and blossom, essence is revealed. Presence. Suchness. “Muchness,” as the Mad Hatter puts it in one of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Another one of TNH’s recurring themes is naming: calling things “by their true names.” This applies to emotions, beliefs, concepts and people. Naming plays a central role in Alice’s adventures. The nursery rhymes and “tall tales” are but one side of the looking- glass. Before Humpty Dumpty recites poetry (“The Little Fishes”) to Alice, he asks what her name means. “Must a name mean something?” Humpty’s reply, “of course it must!” is another clue to help Alice realize her own muchness.

“Everything is simplified…nothing is insignificant and superfluous,” Rilke says of Cézanne’s still lifes. The “simple” apples and oranges are recognized by their suchness and called by name.