Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mt. Rushmore on Tuesday

I've always been fascinated by Abraham Lincoln's face. The historical figure we know has been the subject of countless dramatizations, elegies, studies and biographies. Had he not been assassinated, it's likely that he would have gone on to produce literary artifacts that would have enlarged our understanding of his character, as well as the motivation behind some of the decisions he made while in office. Lincoln was our only "civil war President": and as such, his prosecution of the conflict always had the additional ambiguity (and remorse) of knowing that the "enemy" were his own countrymen.

Look at these eyes--

Lincoln is often seen as having an heroic visage, but it's just as obviously an homely one as well. It's a country face, not a city face. It's a face that's comfortable in farmland, or in the woods, a serious face, but a working face, a face that seems to have seen a great deal. We tend to impute deeper implications than perhaps is justified without our knowledge of his career. What would you think if you met someone with a face like this on the street today? Those huge ears. That great big mole. Those weary, wrinkled cheeks and forehead.

What do those eyes tell us? Looking at them dispassionately, you might even think they suggested malice, or evil. It's not a face you'd want to face in a debate. A confident, powerful look.

Do we see in it the reluctant determination to prosecute The War Between the States with all the necessary conviction and even anger we know he expressed when the going was difficult, when men on both sides were dying in unprecedented numbers on the battlefield? Are these eyes which have seen and felt suffering, and long frustration?

Or are these the eyes of illness, of some endocrinological disorder which brought on excess fatigue or nervous distress? Are these eyes robbed of regular sleep, eyes which have read far into the night (in bad light), or worried and fretted about dilemmas and crises in which there was no better choice?

The central fact of Lincoln's Presidency was the internecine division of national character, a fragmentation of the kind that is certainly the most harmful and bitter that men experience. Brother against brother, native against native, friend against friend. As President, Lincoln resolved that the best outcome was the preservation of the Union, not simply a peaceful bifurcation. But in order to achieve that, the Union would have to prevail over the South militarily, it would have to defeat it thoroughly. In retrospect, it appears that the Confederacy really had no chance in the long run, to prevail. But in order to bring that end about, the Union would have decisively to conquer the South, with no ambiguity. The South had to be utterly thwarted. This process was probably the most painful period in our national history, one half of the nation laying waste to the other, without remorse, almost without conscience.

There is a temptation to see or find all this emotional vicissitude inside Lincoln's face, in those dark, sunken, despairing eyes. But this is undoubtedly an overlay of impression upon what was simply a very craggy, "purgatorial," even sadly grotesque face. Lincoln's face is one of the great ghastly faces of all time, like a sort of freak, like the Hunchback or the Phantom or Mr. Hyde or the Elephant Man. He's the magnificent stuff of our heroic common soil raised into dignity and honor through the opportunity afforded by intelligence and democratic institutions.

It is not a beautiful face, not charming, not happy, not easy. It wears its skepticism and suspicion and resignation loosely, but with interest. Underneath all that seriousness there is curiosity, and a confirming affection. It is patient, but sad. Consternated. Conflicted. Pained. Resolved.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

American Anthem - Norah Jones

Like most people, I think, I have mixed feelings about Ken Burns's documentary projects. At times, he can seem like the fulfillment of the social consciousness of the 1930's, shining a light on the best aspects of America's history, while at other times his work seems tiresomely politically correct and predictable. His early efforts like Brooklyn Bridge [1981], The Shakers [1984], and The Civil War [1990] were better than anything ever done in the video medium on those subjects. Thomas Jefferson [1997] and Jazz [2001] were less successful. The National Parks: America's Best Idea [2009] and Baseball [2010], were better, but Prohibition [2011] gave what to my mind was a partial view of almost every aspect of the subject. Selectivity, of course, is a severe necessity in sifting through the wealth of material, written, filmed, recounted about major historical events, lest one be overwhelmed by information.

In some ways, the ambitious seven-part The War [2007--about World War II] presented fewer production and editing problems than The Civil War, even though the limitless "theaters" made telling anything like a complete story virtually impossible. One of Burns's narrative concepts is the "personalization" of history through the presentation of individual real life stories, using specificity of character, plight and setting (place) as concrete dramatic actions against the backdrop of huge movements of men and battles. This allowed real participants to narrate their own story--something that was literally impossible with the Civil War, a conflict now so remote from us in time that there are no living witnesses. In The Civil War, Burns was stuck with readers quoting from letters and diaries, or historians (like Shelby Foote) providing "human interest" anecdotes about notable Confederate generals.

One aspect of The War that resonated for me was the theme music, "American Anthem," a work originally composed by Gene Scheer in 1998, and performed at several notable national venues, prior to its being picked by Burns for his mini-series. Great music can turn a very good movie (or documentary) into a great one. The canny decision to have it sung by Norah Jones, whose fragile sweet singing style might seem totally unsuited to the piece (at least on an intuitive level), was sheer counter-intuitive genius. "American Anthem" can be sung solo or by chorus, and there's a temptation to treat it as a pedestrian martial performance piece, with stirring or gushing emphasis (as in this alternate approach). But Scheer's piece works more like a soft ballad than a traditional "anthem" for band.

Jones, by the way, in case you didn't know it, is the daughter of Ravi Shankar, and has built a career with a voice that is a fusion of jazz, pop, and country--a perfect combination of qualities to draw upon, one might think, to interpret a patriotic-cum-elegy ballad.

Norah Jones

Our National Anthem has never inspired much admiration as music. Its putative replacement, "America," though musically a more attractive song, is rather soft in its effect. I don't know how many other efforts over the years have been promoted to replace our current official anthem, but Scheer's would certainly work. Listening to Norah's version, it doesn't hurt either, knowing that the singer looks like Scheherazade!

The Fourteen Words

The 14 words
for the
kinds of
on the other
side of the

have been lost.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mapplethorpe's Flowers


Robert Mapplethorpe [1946-1989] was a well-known and controversial American photographer, working within the fashion and fine art metiers in New York from the late 1960's until his death. His work became the focus of censorship disputes, for his depiction of nude male imagery, and certain sado-masochistic fetish pictures, yet the broad scope of his work, usually challenging in the traditional sense, was not particularly offensive. It was almost always, however, suggestive, and it explored areas of interest usually avoided by earlier generations of photographers and artists.

His work is frankly homosexual, even provocatively in your face about it. The belligerence and outrage implied in his pictures pushes the envelope of the permissible in the fine art/gallery context. But the power of his vision is undeniable, especially when what you are seeing may seem pernicious or naughty.

For my own part, I was never much preoccupied with the "pornographic" material in Mapplethorpe's oeuvre, though it seemed to me, in keeping with my growing skepticism regarding government funding of the arts, that to argue in favor of such support, particularly when publicly perceived "offensive" content was at issue (as with Mapplethorpe), was a proof of the ethically questionable nature of public philanthropy itself. In any event, it seems quite naive to insist that any art which finds its audience (and its market) through deliberate shock and provocation needs the public's official approval, much less its financial support. Like much successfully "naughty" art, Mapplethorpe's was destined to achieve notoriously rich valuations and collectibility. Whether it deserved that encomium or not, is not the public's business.

Of course, his defenders will always argue that it's most beautiful when at its most "prurient"--a position which foregrounds definitions of art as propaganda, or liberated/persecuted difference. All of which has a grain of truth. There is no doubt that offering the public his most private and "suppressed" sexual fantasies constituted a sort of personal liberation for Mapplethorpe, though why it should ever have been taken as a revolutionary aesthetic is as much a tribute to his ability and calculation, as to any exoticism of point of view. If showing a picture of yourself pulling a braided leather whip out of your asshole is a meaningful statement of anything but distasteful provocation, perhaps it is to flesh out the full range of your aesthetic message. But you get the feeling, looking at Mapplethorpe's work, that its camp strategy has several ironic angles to it, not the least being mischievous humor.

But in his "straight" photographic work--the portraits, the still lifes, the abstract framed studies--the disruptive or transgressive qualities are more subtle, or at least less peremptory. Mapplethorpe's flower studies are superficially not unlike those of, for instance, Irving Penn, say, or Imogen Cunningham. Penn's images in particular, which are roughly contemporary to Mapplethorpe's, seem no less flamboyant and obtrusive, though in the older artist's hands the style is more obviously fashionable and fawning; whereas in Mapplethorpe's, something else entirely is happening.


Whereas in Penn's flower images, the compositions are passionate and declarative, in Mapplethorpe's there's a calm, deliberate concentration, a poised turning inward which is insistently at odds with emotional swish. They're monomaniacal in their intensity, which is part of what makes them so riveting. When you look at one of Mapplethorpe's flowers, you think "this is pretty straightforward, no fuss, no distraction, just steady focus on a single aspect." But the more you look, the more puzzling this apparent simplicity seems.


In Penn's studies, there is no visual context or orientation, no stage-props or "nature" lurking in the background. They're as much about the structure of plants as they are about wild natural beauty--all white background, nothing to distract. In Mapplethorpe's flower compositions, there's always a backdrop, or a surface, or some countervailing line of reference. Gravity and context works the same way in this world as it does in the real one we're in. Penn is drawn to his flowers, wants to get as close as necessary to savor the tinted fibrous cellulose and powdery pollen dust spread across the anthers. It's a sensual enrichment.


In Mapplethorpe, it isn't intimacy he's after, but an alignment, a certain quiet poise, like the feeling you get looking deeply into another person's eyes. There's an unwavering hold on your consciousness that is like an electric current, a sparkler's pixilating grains sticking to your forearm, evoking tiny pin-pricks of sensation. But such sensual impressions aren't really what I'm after here. Clearly, there's a difference, a distance maintained and demarcated between ourselves and a Mapplethorpe composition, a purity of conception that cannot be disturbed.


We know that flowers cannot be said to "pose"--since they have no self-consciousness. And yet, flowers have been selected over eons of practice and testing to in fact be seen as posed objects, attracting their pollinators, or (in the rare case of carnivorous plants) their prey. Unable to move across the landscape through locomotion, plants can only migrate through the deposition of their seed, or by root travel, or by being moved physically by another force (transplantation).

Yet flora have been domesticated for centuries, and new hybrids are being developed as we speak. It's a fairly rapid process. But the essential nature of reproduction in the plant kingdom is ancient. What we see when we look at a flower is a kind of natural aesthetic, which occurred without any conscious intervention by a higher power. Plants developed their flowers on their own, through trial and error. This "unself-conscious" beauty of flowers is the very quality which makes them so fascinating. But how humankind responds to flowers is very different from how birds and moths and bees do. With our higher brains, we can assign imaginative values and qualities which go well beyond the pragmatic purpose which flowers are intended to fulfill. Our imaginative appreciation of the beauty of the natural world is an imposition upon a system whose primary volition is endurance and replication. We have learned how to influence and manipulate some of those systems through cultivation and hybridization, but we have unconsciously (or accidentally) influenced all life on the planet through our unwise overexploitation or through secondary effects (primarily pollution).

In a purely philosophical sense, there is no right and wrong about any of this. As life forms jostle and co-opt each other for position and supremacy, the resulting balance or imbalance becomes a new phenomenon. Flowers may be symbols for nature's beauty, or for our own reproductive sensations. Love, as a concept, is a relatively late invention in civilized culture. Not friendship, not eroticism, not cupidity, but a higher affection comprised of all the other kinds of attraction with an additional element of loyal devotion. Poets have been using flowers as short-hand references for millennia--so much so, that the cliché has now overshadowed the original effect. Gertrude Stein thought that her little line "a rose is a rose is a rose" was so innovative that it made the rose red "for the first time in 500 years." How jaded can our language have become if the mere repetition of a simple noun can be more evocative than Shakespeare?


But when we look at a flower, a strange kind of hypnotic aesthetic symbiosis occurs. For most people, that is probably as true now as it has ever been. But seeing a flower in the context of the plant itself is different from the manipulated setting of a still-life photograph made in a studio under controlled conditions. There is something almost clinical (or scientific) about how we may regard the details of a flower's structure, its color, its contours, its overall shape, its "character." When a skilled photographer sets up a flower shot, fineness of perception and response become the measure of creative expression. Successful studio work is built out of deliberate, crucial arrangements.


Mapplethorpe's homoerotic preoccupations seem ultimately to find a parallel analogue in his flower studies, just as they do in his portraits of nude black men, for instance. One of his more innovative approaches is exploiting the horizontal or pendulous aspect of stems seen in recline, or drooping. The symbolic implications of the "drooping" sexual organ seem almost gratuitously obvious, but such implications were uncommon in the "language" of still life before Mapplethorpe. What he "sees" in flowers is a more decadent aspect, the vicarious remove from sexual fulfillment, overflowing with suspended fecundity. It's a studied appreciation, a sensuality at a remove. Rather than a penetration of desire, there's a long, pensive prolongation which feels hypnotic. How this is achieved, through centering, unresolved tension, isolation, contrast, stillness, suspension, etc., is the business of technical analysis.



What I feel when I look at a Mapplethorpe study like the one below is a perception of the weight and interlocking of forces held in perfect tension, like leaning over the edge of a precipice. The drama is heightened by the subtle gradation of increasing light towards the bottom of the frame. The bud and the flower both are pointing towards something which we cannot see. Flora typically orient towards sunlight (or light), but the point here seems less about inherent tendencies than about the bendings or muscular expressions in organic structure.


Mapplethorpe seems above all to be a designer of preference, for whom each vision is an idealized version of an extemporaneous principle, a gratuitous take. He may begin in perception and intuition, but he moves naturally into a kind of graphic determinism to arrive at a constructed stasis. The tension created by these kinds of locked dualities (below) are highly artificial, or staged. But unlike traditional still lifes, the setting is so tightly controlled that there is no historical or social context to refer to. They are all about design and shape.



Is this an attempt to "tame" nature, or to fix it into a structure that heightens our awareness of its unconscious yearning or helpless code-driven unfolding? Aesthetic arrangements may be a metaphorical analogue of our desire to shape nature in actual ways (as with genetic engineering). Framing the sexual organs (flowers) of natural forms into idealized visual icons may be an expedient vicariousness, but Mapplethorpe's power in conveying the intensity of his regard through technical apparati is a kind of victory over chance and the expected.


The use of the blue and gold tinted vase, here--as with the clear (blue) one above--turns the spray of individual blooms into a dialectic with available space, with the fallen branch below as the casualty of dying fall, now slightly darker (and more elegantly golden in their demise).


If Mapplethorpe is a decadent artist, he is also an honest one, seeing in different situations and contexts the same kind of pregnant (or priapic) richness, which in visual terms suggests an aesthetic climax. His preference for strongly suggestive dark purples, blues, blacks, burgundies etc., primarily as backdrops, queues this as a ritualized symbology. They're decorative provocations, pristine and inviolable. Having once experienced them, you will return again and again to sample their unique and intense flavor.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Ted Greenwald's Common Sense

In 1975, I published Ted Greenwald's Common Sense [Kensington, L Publications], effectively a selected poems covering all his previous work. Ted had published a series of short mimeo pamphlets during the 1960's and 1970's, establishing a clear independent voice. Though inevitably "associated" with the New York poetry scene of the 1960's, it was pretty obvious that Ted's work was neither imitative nor derivative of any pre-existing styles of composition. Poets in their youth nearly always begin by writing poems that emulate either the effects or the subject-matter (or both) of those writers they admire, but Greenwald's poems, from the start, were so much their own method and approach, that he seemed to have sprouted like some hybrid from the grey dense concrete of Manhattan streets.

"Eccentric" is a word signifying a kind of radical difference, usually applied to patterns or characters that seem unique. In poetry, we may propose eccentricity as formally unlike anything else, even when (or if) it seems superficially traditional. The work of Hopkins, for instance, is eccentrically different, even when it wears a familiar outfit, like a sonnet. This is a result of its rhythmic jaggedness, as well as its odd take on phenomena. There's a sensuality, a "clotted" quality to the vocabulary which makes it rich, and even a bit overdone. Ashbery's Tennis Court Oath is another kind of eccentricity, whose keen sensitivity to language is thrown into a weird light by surrealistic disjunction and cut-up techniques. The point I'm making here is that originality of form, or of language or of lyrical thematic, may seem so reflexive, self-referential, that it's regarded as revolutionary, or just plain strange.


Airy rushes punch my shirt
Through a window of sunset dirt
And send me reeling like a lure
Through the water nerves of America
Once on the other side of somewhere
I relax and become someone else
Not that I behave different
Just behave less often
The sky offers me solace and office space
And stars I keep in drawers
Wear nothing
But a little mist and halo
I will imagine myself
A sympathetic headlight
Knocking on the door of the night
To borrow a cup of sugar
From a beautiful neighbor
Who's moved in
Without even the clothes on her back
"Would it be possible
To borrow a cup of sugar"
"Sure Sit down, honey
Make yourself comfortable"
I ease down in the big dipper

This is working-class wit at its purest. But there are other ways of being different, and Greenwald's difference is a fascinating example of how one mind organizes and explores experience in and through language. Greenwald's point of entry into active writing parallels the period of the appearance of Clark Coolidge, Michael Palmer, Jackson Mac Low, Bernadette Mayer and others during the mid- to late 1960's, and his work properly belongs to a tradition that begins with Stein, rather than with any of the other major Modernist figures such as Eliot, Pound, Williams, Moore, Stevens et al. Like Stein, he explores self-generating, fractal nodes, usually at the level of the phrase, and then all0ws these to propagate into larger forms through lyrical formulae or eccentric ordering.

You could begin by imagining how many different ways you could get into a poem, then explore as many consequent techniques for getting out of one. For Ted is a strategist in a straightforward sense. Each poem begins innocently, then confronts the dilemma of possible strategies deriving from the implications contained in the first move, like a gambit in chess. But Greenwald is a lyricist, and in his early poems (especially), you can appreciate the lilt of specific phrases and sentence-rhythms, as traditional tropes of aesthetic regard. So building a poem involves providing just enough confirmation to keep you guessing about the course of the journey, and its ultimate destination. Endings may be like stepping down hard on a bug, or parachuting out the escape hatch.


stop for
a minute
wait up
for this
friend to
tick off
its catching
breath and
draw parallel
like two
lines with
two el's
the train
of thought
reaches the
station in
the Bronx
or Queens
the friends
get off
at and
walk out
of below
onto the
french tablecloth
of sun
in a
black and
white movie
in one
of those
theaters with
a sky

A poem like this typically begins in narrative simplicity, then veers off into distraction, which then becomes a part of the unfolding complexity of the moment. The imagination is like a magnetic force which pulls the proximal vector of the poem's direction off course, forcing the voice to accommodate a second, distracting reality of event. There are two possible threads intertwining here, drawing competing possible eventualities from the seemingly disparate intentions. Meeting a friend or friends, then going out to lunch and then maybe to a movie where the old "emporium"/"palace" ceiling is both the literal and the real sky. The poem's narrow focus tracks a linear demarcation which is like a meandering pathway through the urban matrix; and that's what Ted's poems often seem to be--complex mappings-out of the cultural grid in terms of the short-hand of a necessary efficiency--the expedient slang that greases the circus of commerce and desire that drives the motor of capital on its daily route.



The dislocation implied by the jettisoning of initial impulse, out of the poem, out of the context of the poetic expectation, is typically Greenwald. These flips or sleights-of-hand are acknowledgments of the impossibility of maintaining mastery over the materials of perception and language, and in any of Ted's poems they feel like discoveries, rather than victories over possibility. We want any poem to go somewhere, to take us somewhere--maybe out of ourselves, maybe all the way out of the galaxy--and Ted's poems both aim for, and facilitate that transportation, juggling levels of perception and address, going on his nerve, prepared for the unexpected, facing the music, declaring his independence.


The long and the short
Of it is
I have to keep pushing
I feel myself
Pushing against the
Lead-in to beauty
And take a hunch through
With me
Into the halls
Where the everyday
Seems like eternity
There’s no fooling around
About something
As serious
As it is beautiful
There’s no match
For the feeling
That gets there
When I get there
And absolutely no sense
Of duration
And no telling
How everything turns out

The chance that something might happen that you couldn't have predicted, would mean you'd be ready to improvise, not with the sweet sweat of thought-out measured enunciation, but the ad hoc extemporaneity of the quick side-step--watch out for that aromatic enchilada, the workman's power cord, the lady's glance--interruptions just the order of the day.


An evening
Spent talking
Spent thinking
About what my life would be
If I’d stayed
With a particular girl or woman
I went with
What would be
If I’d’ve been accepted to and gone
Where I applied
To a different school
Than the one I did
Where I’d learned
Different social graces
Then the ones I have
Where some of the material
Values of the American dream
Had rubbed off
Enough to make me
Live it out
In the good-works sense
If I’d settled down
And settled
For the foundation
On a house
For future generations
Instead of assuming
Immediately past generations
My foundation to mine
If I’d been
A little quicker to learn
What was expected of me
And wanting to please pleased
Going on that way
Through all eternity
I’ve probably been saved
From mere routines
By a streak of stubbornness
By a slow mind
And tendency to drift
By an emotional development
That requires
My personal understanding
Before happening
Feeling out the implications
An emotion has in
Form of expectation
Before trying out and
After awareness
I sense a willingness
To tell someone
I know and like
And sense the same from
Anything they’d like to know
About me
And, at the same time, have
A vast sense of privacy
Which means
There’s no way
I’ll wear out my personality
And its sense of continuity
Although sometimes
I feel empty
But talking to
Someone I like
And trust
And sense the same from
I feel way up
And after a long evening
Of talk about this and that
Feel wide awake
And feel the world
Wide and awake around me
And have a visual intensity
In memory
That, in near memory, dulls
And throbs
And grows vivid as hell
When I bring it to mind
Some time from then
What my life
Would’ve been like
Under different circumstances
Would’ve been different
With its own
Attendant ifs
And its own what-might’ve-been
But this way
I’ve elected to follow
And cast my vote
Each waking day in
I avoid
The possibility
Of taking the past too seriously
Or feeling any bitterness
Or sadness
This way
When my ship comes in
I’ll’ve passed out of mind
Beyond the sight of land
And won’t hesitate
For a second
To look back on all this
With fondness or remiss
The air’ll be clear
The moon’ll be there
And you, whoever
You are and hope to be,
Will be here with my love

In publishing, the gist of what you imagine as the material realization of text always bears the seeds of the unexpected. When Ted and I began work on editing the work for Common Sense, I don't think either one of us had a clear idea of how it would pan out. There were perhaps a dozen short pamphlets of work, but it was obvious that it all hung together, if we could cobble a sequence that gave it form as a single run. Blocking out poems into a specific order is strange. Pure chronology seemed not to present any compelling structure, so we measured kinds of poems and thought about how to shuffle them into constituent hierarchies. I thought the long poem "The Life" (26 pages in length) ought to come somewhere near the end of the book, maybe even as the last poem, but decided that might seem a bit over-bearing, like Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or something. The selection and ordering we did choose made a beautiful collection, a verdict I stand behind to this day. The raw design of the cover, by Bob Kushner, was fine-tuned by putting it into the beautiful dark brown tint. Fifty hardcovers, 950 paperbacks. All folded signatures sewn and gathered. I didn't know it at the time, but Ted's other major collection, Licorice Chronicles [New York: Kulchur Foundation], would be published the very next year. When Ted told me he wanted the title to be common sense, I offered the observation "common is not ordinary." "Right," Ted replied. We both knew what that meant, not just in the simplest sense of an extraordinary literary occasion, but in the deeper sense of the commonality of application to a cross-section of readership.

I have called Greenwald an "urban primitive" because his work seems to spring from the base materiality of New York streets, the immediacy of enunciation, abrupt demand, tough neighborhoods, shifting milieus, grit and exhaust, flux and flurry. I see him as a genuine original whose method is a unique exploration of common language, utterly without academic pretense.


The book I toss is Boss
It bangs against the walls
And gets me working
I watch its thin green
Recede into a reed
And think the time right
To set the Boss right
We argue
Cops suddenly appear
I throw them and Boss
Out the window
And unscrew my ankles
I be my own boss
I be my own police

Considering "the Boss" as a metaphor for all formal conditions suggests very smart convergencies: law, tradition, anxiety, license, resistance, gamesmanship, play. All of which apply, but without any uptightness. Ultimately, it's about freedom and the permission all experimentation implies.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Craft Witch - Glenn Gould

It's difficult to talk about Glenn Gould without sounding like a rube. I have no doubt whatsoever that Gould was a genius--perhaps a genius of a certain sort, not the kind who invents something important, or creates a magnificent edifice in an aesthetic form, but who perhaps because of his early training and persuasion, becomes the master and magician of interpretation, whose versions of other peoples' works raises them far above their common potential, and brings them into empyrean heights of sublime beauty, and profound insight into the human condition--and our understanding of the universe.

I've played piano most of my life, and in the last 30 years have spent a good deal of time composing on the keyboard. The amateur's self-delusion, no doubt. Like 99.999% of all who essay the piano, I have little measurable talent in execution, and can only sit by in astonished regard when I hear truly gifted musicians play good music with accuracy and subtlety.

Glenn Gould [1932-1982] was a very gifted, but eccentric classical piano prodigy and virtuoso, Canadian born, whose great technical ability was matched by his profound interpretive gifts. His well-known idiosyncrasies--the humming during performance, the peculiar low-backed chair he used, the extreme sensitivity to cold, his peculiar diet and life-style, the early abandonment of live concertizing--all fed into a singular reputation as a mad genius. After giving up a successful career as a performer, in large part because he believed that achieving musical perfection could best be accomplished through electronic recording, he devoted most of his time to studio work, both recording and composing, as well as writing and lecturing about his theories about music, particularly the value of controlled recording as against the false spontaneity of live performance and interaction. His ideas about how we tend to appreciate music from different periods mirrors some post-modern philosophical notions about the contextualization of meaning and the illusion of historical progressions.

Gould's strongly held positions regarding the purity of the finished recording notwithstanding, his distressing noise-making would seem to be at odds with a concept of "pure sound." The proof of his genius is to be found, nevertheless, in the recordings he made, principally of Bach, upon which his reputation rests.

His interpretations of the Goldberg Variations, as well as the Partitas, the Suites, and the Well-Tempered Clavier, established a modern standard against which all others are measured. Determinedly masculine in quality, his confidently neutral attack seems perfectly suited to Bach's cerebral flights of contrapuntal complexity. The individual voices are always rendered with clarity and fervor. In the realm of pure intellectual meditation, his superb delivery of the Goldberg Variations [I, II, III, IV,V, VI] is about as good as it gets. Gould's abilities are so perfect that you never have the feeling--as with so many other keyboard players--of being at the dangerous edge of competence. Not only does he not miss notes, every single note seems separately to have been considered and made whole and emphatic. Gould is distinctly classicist in his approach--not for him the shimmering diaphanous outlines; every note, every phrase carries full responsibility for its own realization.

Ever since the 19th Century Romantic revolution in the arts, emotion and feeling as the dominant components of form have held an unquestioned sway over musical taste. A music which explores intellectual realms--as opposed to sentiment--has tended to be regarded with distaste, even suspicion. Of all the great composers, Bach is clearly the most cerebral, exploiting fugue, and the incremental development of variation(s), with profound insight. Some have even suggested mathematical bases for his methodology, but it has never been proven, though it often seems as if the sequential augmentations in his work have an exactitude and perfection which are like equations or numerical propositions. It is this quality which Gould seems most adept at bringing out in his renditions of Bach's keyboard works. The kind of joy one senses in Bach at his best seems to rise out of the joy of the structure of sound itself, and this divine playfulness is precisely the spirit of art which Bach's baroque nature embodies. If an art which is primarily intellectual in its nature is seen as a religious aspiration--to attain to a higher consciousness of the structural organization of the universe, then the feeling of that effort must, by definition, be as intense a sensation, as love or despair or any of the other profane, human-centered preoccupations which drive the Romantic view of art.

Playing Bach on the keyboard requires a discipline, which if followed diligently will build ability and an appreciation of the virtues it contains: a sense of religious devotion and care which is ultimately religious in character. But of course there is nothing at all "religious" in pure music. Music written for the church, or for religious service, may employ sacred texts or settings. Bach, of course, wrote both kinds of music--religious and profane (secular)--and in his mind they had distinct uses. But from our vantage, the elements which make his music fine are not so easily divisible. If you believe in a god-head of all-encompassing implication, anything which seems beautiful, or ugly, or inspiring, or tempting towards evil, belongs to god, is indeed simply a part of the larger plan.

One's tendency to talk about the religious quality of Bach seems to follow inevitably from a consideration of Gould's interpretation. Gould must have been drawn to Bach's music because of its intellectual penetration. What one hears in his Bach is the precision and determinacy of confident assertion, a confidence which at all points is proven by its lyrical daring and force. The ability to master the means of that through the feat of performance is almost like the attainment of a state of grace--the transport of the human consciousness through art.

The sources of Gould's mastery were somewhat mysterious. Unlike the perennial dogma of "curled finger" attack, Gould was encouraged to "pull" on the keys, sitting in a much lower position with respect to the height of the keyboard, so that his elbows were well below the level of his hands. Rather than use his arms and wrists to facilitate movement and spread over the keys, he trained his fingers to move independently to strike (or depress) the individual keys. His other eccentric habits--the use of a favorite family chair, the rug under the piano, the open-fingered gloves, the insistence upon very warm temperatures when playing--seem designed to enhance his concentration and focus upon the instrument. His obsessive, painstakingly methodical rituals seemed intended to preserve his attention and limit distractions. People who work under various kinds of pressure often develop little habitual protocols, both to set the nervous system into coordinated rhythm, as well as to maintain control over stressful anxiety. These eccentricities of Gould tended to be linked to his musical genius, as if they were an integral component of his playing. But it's just as possible that they were simply other aspects of his personality, neither crucial to his success nor a meaningful part of his musical genius. The romantic profile of the over-emotional performer--the Liszt syndrome--possessed by demonic or supernatural powers is not the personification we see in Gould.

Gould believed in technology, in our ability to manipulate means to achieve desired ends--the de-emphasis of the unique, live performance, for a preferred augmented construction of a fully corrected result. The mechnanical metaphor in music is an apt one: the piano is a machine; even the human voice is a sort of bagpipe, with the lungs and the throat acting in much the same way as a generator of tones. It's a post-Modern trope in art, to think of the artificiality of musical sound as somehow less human-centered. Gould rejected the human-centered implication of pure live performance as being less perfectible than sophisticated sound engineering. A piece of music doesn't "need" a live performance to generate a perfected version--and can even be a hindrance.

Unlike jazz, classical music isn't based on the inspired augmentation of the moment, of the synergy of live audience and the "conversation" between players and between player(s) and audience. Attempts to build in chance or extemporaneous variability--such as experiments by John Cage and other innovators--have not had much affect. Interest in music occurs at the level of intentional choice, not mechanical programming. It's a little like free will in the philosophical sense.

Each performer, even when playing the same music, will inevitably sound different. It's impossible to play a piece the way a machine would, because our nervous systems and musculature--not to speak of our mental make-ups, are not identical. Music is difference, despite how we like to think of styles and traditions and versions. A "performer" such as Gould will play Bach differently than anyone else, in spite of himself. The degree of intentionality which each such interpreter can wrest from the raw material of the written score is a measure of the control over self and materials (means). Before musical notation was invented, variability of interpretation was open-ended; with the advent of fixed scores, the issue of perfectibility was born. Written music thus appears as a step on the progression of musical thinking, leading first to "correct/incorrect" versions, and then to mechanically "perfected" versions of the kind that Gould, a man clearly of, if not ahead of, his time, saw as the ultimate, underlying purpose of musical achievement. The score contains the seeds of its ultimate expression, and each expressed interpretation is a separate instance of our response to the "raw" notes. In his writings, Stravinsky complained about conductors who played his orchestral works with too much arbitration: "Just play the notes as they are written!" he said over and over again.

One hears the same sentiment in Gould's interpretation of Bach. The playing is unfailingly accurate to the score, but he seems to be "finding" the correct spirit of the composer. This may only be a special affinity (of player to composer), or it may be our (or my) prejudice about how we think of Bach's musical mind. How does one version confirm our feeling about the rightness of a particular interpretation? It's a question of overlapping contexts: Our historical sense, our prior musical experience, our dogmas and preconceptions. With each plateau of understanding, we may become closer to the source, or drift--deliberately or accidentally--away from it. Music is, after all, the realization of its performance, and not some ideal around which we dance. The performance is not separable from the abstraction we think of the score as embodying. It doesn't live apart from sound. Music is sound, and not only an idea. What we think to say about a piece of music forever is exterior to the performance. In that sense, all music is "pure" without any programmatic narrative application, other than our/its contextual associations.

When I listen to Gould's Goldberg Variations (that's an odd way of putting it, of course), I sense that the apparent affinity between composer, text and performance seems to be a unification of effect, linking original inspiration to total appreciation of intent--which would suggest that the kernel of meaning inside the score can be apprehended to yield up its essence. The power of Gould's insight is like the assumption of one human spirit inside another, playing inside the body of the composer's soul. It may seem a spiritual description, but it's the best way I can put it. How much sacrifice of self is required to subsume oneself sufficiently inside the personality of the maker, to achieve a total grasp and realization of the work? When a performer attains to the highest level(s) of expressive synthesis, does he "disappear" into the work? Or does he over-master it, overshadowing the hidden subtleties which others might better understand? Some critics say that each player presents a different version, and none is the only correct one. But with Gould, we may be hearing the best one. Just listen to his Goldberg, and compare it to any other. The proof is in the hearing.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

From the Gallery of Heroes - Gore Vidal dead at 86

It's difficult to imagine anyone of my generation not being familiar with the name Gore Vidal. Beginning in the 1960's, his books seemed perpetually to be on the best-seller lists, and the man himself became an iconoclastic public figure, in debates and interviews and muckraking articles, and even political speeches. The facts of his life are well-documented (he wrote and spoke a good deal about his ancestors, his friends, and his interesting life), so I won't go into the an exhaustive rendition here.

From an early age, he understood the human character, its fragility and corruptibility, and this became the ultimate guiding principle in his fiction, dramatic works, as well as his non-fictional essays.

A promiscuous bi-sexual in his youth, he became a staunch advocate of homosexual rights, and several of his novels address the issue of sexual difference.

Despite a strong naughty and comic streak, he was a dead serious political critic who took his queue from ancient history and philosophy. He felt that the "American empire" as he called it, was probably on its last legs, and he took it as his personal obligation to campaign for its resuscitation, mostly in the essays, though his fictionalized accounts of American history present a picture of our national memory distinctly different from the official version(s).

My favorite book of his was Julian [1964], an epistolary novel that is constructed around the exchanges of a group of Roman philosophers. Its evident purpose is to criticize the installation of Christianity as the official religion by the Roman empire, setting into motion centuries of backward thinking and public policy. It's a better book, of its kind, than anything else I've ever read, including those historical novels of Robert Graves.

Vidal was a hedonist, and not just in the physical sense. He lived for most of the latter part of his life in a beautiful mansion--called La Rondinaia [The Swallow's Nest])--high atop the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast in Italy, returning periodically to his homeland for visits.

Aside from his voluminous fictions, his brilliant essays form the core of his literary importance. His collection--United States [Random House, 1993] won the National Book Award.

About ten years ago, I heard him speak in Marin County. He was as always, charming, amusing and self-absorbed. Like many conspiracy theorists, he tended to think in terms of how events related directly to him. This was his way of "personalizing" history, of making it concrete and palpable, rather than something remote which you read about in the newspapers.

As a fiction writer, he disdained formal innovation, and liked to imagine that all stories should be told straightforwardly, without pretense or abstract methodologies. Though he had never attended college, it was clear that he was better educated than most academics.

Like H.L. Mencken, he enjoyed puncturing sacred dummies, and liked nothing better than stirring up controversy. He feuded with and argued and blustered against his enemies, but took great amusement in doing so. He liked a good fight.

Despite this combativeness, he was usually cordial in private, and stood by his beliefs. Over the last decade and a half, he wrote a good deal of autobiographical reminiscence, nearly all of which I read. It was like the deep gossip you were greedy to be privy to, and he didn't disappoint.

Like Mailer, and Capote, Vidal understood the importance and meaning of the public media world of the 20th Century, and like them, he manipulated it effectively for his own ends--both for his own reputation, and to promote his public agenda. They were a new breed of artist, devoted to their craft, but also cognizant of the wider parallel world of current events and media flux. Vidal made himself into one of these new kinds of media heroes, while not abandoning the quiet values of study, contemplation and artistic endeavor.

I will miss him.