MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Pick-Up Poetry

"Back from the cordial grave I drag thee"

“Back from the cordial grave I drag thee”

Poetry’s ties with romance are ageless, but nowadays the connection tends to evoke sappy clichés and, at worst, Hallmark card-style confections. So why not add some panache by filling your quiver with lines from the great poets?

Or maybe not… Over at The Hairpin, Lizzy Straus recently compiled a list of first lines from Emily Dickinson poems not likely to be very useful as pickup lines. These especially should probably be excluded from your speed-dating repertoire:

144 – I never hear the word “Escape”
260 – I’m nobody! Who are you?
303 – Alone I cannot be
332 – Doubt me! My dim companion!
336 – Before I got my eye put out
339 – I like a look of agony
407 – One need not be a chamber to be haunted
456 – A prison gets to be a friend
591 – I heard a fly buzz when I died
1050 – I am afraid to own a body
1649 – Back from the cordial grave I drag thee

See Lizzy’s complete list here.

But then, what about that epitome of the love poem, the Shakespearean sonnet? Would these lines from the Bard do any better than Emily Dickinson’s?

As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow’st
Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear
I grant thou wert not married to my Muse
Whilst I thy babe chase thee afar behind
Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye
In faith I do not love thee with mine eyes

Filed under: poetry

Preserving America’s Sonic History

Edison home phonograph, c. 1899

Edison home phonograph, c. 1899

William Hochberg takes a look at a new initiative to preserve important American musical documents that have fallen between the cracks as recording technology continues to evolve:

In this era where cultural products seem to live forever digitally, the fear of music becoming lost to time may seem distinctly outdated. But efforts to preserve America’s audio history have never been more active than they are right now. Jack White has become the public face of these efforts, recently donating $200,000 to the National Recording Preservation Foundation, affiliated with the Library of Congress. He sits on the board with producer T. Bone Burnett, Sub Pop label founder Jonathan Poneman, legendary engineer George Massenburg and other music luminaries. What, exactly, are they trying to save? Turns out, a lot: Their ambitions are nothing smaller than protecting the entirety of America’s sonic history.

…Untold tons of original recordings have fallen into the dumpster of history since Thomas Edison perfected the phonograph 125 years ago. “There are stories of early phonograph companies taking apart the masters used to press wax discs so they could be sold as roofing shingles,” White says. “They didn’t think a recording was a document of anything cultural. It was just a way to sell phonographs.”

…As Voyager 1 speeds away from our solar system carrying a gold-plated disc with music of Mozart and Blind Willie Johnson among others, the NRPF goes about its mission back on Earth. “We are charged with looking over the entire nation’s recorded history, and not only music, but interviews, radio news broadcasts, anything that’s ever been committed to a recordable media,” says NRPF executive director Gerald Seligman.

Filed under: recording industry, technology

Will Get Fooled Again: Verdi’s Humanist Farewell

Giuseppe Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi

At least we know Giuseppe Verdi was a Libra. But no one knows for sure whether his actual birthday 200 years ago was October 9 or 10 — and why shouldn’t he get two birthdays in this year celebrating his legacy?

For my own little tribute, here’s an essay I just wrote for Los Angeles Opera’s upcoming production of Falstaff:

Whoever laughs last, laughs best—or, in the more elegant formulation by Arrigo Boito, author of Falstaff’s libretto: Ma ride ben chi ride / La risata finale. And in more than half a century of writing for the stage, Verdi has the last laugh with the ultimate joke: a fugue, that emblem of a fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned, academic, Teutonic sensibility, a virtual non-sequitur vis-à-vis the Italian operatic tradition he had inherited.

Yet the fugal capstone to Falstaff is a perfect and ingenious choice, theatrically and musically. After Sir John has been punked and had his drubbings, he’s the one who leads off the fugal chain reaction, as the entire ensemble joins to celebrate our shared humanity. Itamar Moses’ 2005 play Bach at Leipzig attempted to dramatize the fugue’s inherent theatricality—the way it wrests reconciliation from entanglement—but Verdi’s merry pranksters buoyantly sail free of any regrets, proving the power of his art to set the world right (at least for the illusory moments until the house lights come back on). Jester and jest become one. The rigorous form morphs into a bubbly champagne, ending with the orchestra’s zippy final chords. If Verdi alludes to the choral setting-things-straight culmination of Don Giovanni, he also seems to hint at the clear blue skies of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony—albeit his is a punch-drunk Jove.

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Filed under: opera, Verdi

Alan Ayckbourn in Seattle with Sugar Daddies

Ayckbourn_copyright_Tony_Bartholomew

My recent interview with Alan Ayckbourn for Crosscut.com is up. Here’s a fuller version with some extra material that got cut in editing:

Since 1976, ACT Theatre has produced ten plays by Alan Ayckbourn – and that’s just a fraction of the 74-year-old English playwright’s catalogue. But this fall’s production of Sugar Daddies (2003) brings Seattle not only the honor of a North American premiere, but the presence of Sir Alan himself in his West Coast debut as a director. (He was knighted in 1997.)

Like most of his work, “Sugar Daddies” premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough (on the coast in North Yorkshire). Ayckbourn has maintained close ties there since early in his career, writing for its theatre-in-the-round configuration – a staging style he prefers. He stepped down as artistic director at the end of 2008 but lately appears to be busier than ever at the SJT with his projects as visiting director.

Ayckbourn’s breakthrough hit came with the London production in 1967 with Relatively Speaking, a fresh, hilariously constructed twist on the well-worn gag of lovers caught in a web of mistaken identity. (“The critics were shocked to see French windows instead of the kitchen sink – it seemed slightly reactionary,” he jokes.) Here already was the characteristic Ayckbournian touch, with its preoccupation with role playing and marital discontent. Some claim him to be one of “the world’s most-performed living playwrights,” though Ayckbourn’s own website points out “there is actually no plausible way to prove this statement.”

But what sets him apart is that his undeniably widespread – and sustained – popularity goes hand in hand with his untiring experimentation with theatricality and stagecraft.

And while he is usually thought of first and foremost as a comic master, Ayckbourn’s plays have become significantly more complex over time. Sugar Daddies in particular mingles satire and clever dialogue, taking a dark slant on a youth and beauty meets age and power scenario.

Emily Chisholm; photo by Nate Watters

Emily Chisholm; photo by Nate Watters

Set in the contemporary London flat shared by half-sisters Sasha and Chloé, the play explores how they are affected when the younger, naïve Sasha is befriended by the elderly Val (old enough to be her grandfather). His extravagant gifts and nights out to the opera distract her from asking too much about Val’s sinister background – even when she’s warned by Ashley, their one-eyed neighbor and a former cop whose own past connection to Val is veiled in mystery. Ayckbourn’s absurd yet meticulously crafted symmetries resemble a cautionary retooling of Cinderella, where sudden shifts in fortune prove too good to be true.

I met up with Sir Alan during a break from rehearsal to talk about Sugar Daddies, his remarkable career and the future of theatre.

TM: How were you persuaded to come to Seattle – and what made you choose Sugar Daddies in particular to show audiences here the director side of your career?

AA: It has been brewing for some years. When [ACT artistic director] Kurt Beattie came over to visit me in England, he slid me a schematic of the Allen Theatre, which is not so far removed from our own theatre in the round in Scarborough. [The 404-seat Stephen Joseph Theatre.]

The ethos [of ACT] is very close to it. Both are interested in new writing, but are also very egalitarian – not like the old style, where the stage management were below stairs, the actors upstairs. And much more friendly. I’ve gotten asked dozens of times in England, “Why are you going to Seattle?” And I said, “Because they asked me!”

I chose “Sugar Daddies” as a play that hasn’t been done here and that I would like to revisit. From my knowledge of working in the States, it’s the sort of play American actors could embrace. Some of my plays are so English you’d spend most of the rehearsal period explaining the class system. We are doing [Sugar Daddies] as set in England, but nonetheless it’s fairly universal in its concerns.

TM: It’s probably a bit of a surprise to many who love your plays that you actually spend much more of your time on directing than writing. Yet somehow you’ve managed to remain a wildly popular and prolific writer (77 full-length plays and counting).

AA: I’ve had three careers in theatre: I started as an actor and then took, as I call it, the “poison chalice” of directing. Once you feel you’re in control as a director, it’s harder to go back to acting. The directing career developed quite independently from my writing career at first. Then the two almost inevitably merged, but quite later on.

The rehearsal room can be quite a hostile place … if the actors suspect you don’t know what you’re doing. It takes quite a lot of experience before you can confidently handle a whole room of actors – particularly because they are often rather eccentric and extraordinary individuals. I do spend more time in the rehearsal room than at my computer these days.

Over the last few years I’ve tended to direct a minimum of two plays a year, one of which is always a revival from my back catalogue. And I’ll use the revival as a pro forma for the new play. Last year I did a revival of Absurd Person Singular, and on the back of that I wrote a new six-handed play, Surprises [both plays call for 3 men and 3 women].

TM: In a sense, Sugar Daddies is about the art of theatre itself, the way we’re constantly playing roles, whether we are aware or want to or not.

AA: I was fascinated at the way we pretend, we select. It’s best summed up by when you’re very young and you meet a girl and the inevitable moment comes when you want to take her back to meet the parents. And then you’re thinking, “How am I going to look against the backdrop of my parents, who still look at me as 8 years old?” And she’s thinking the same thing: “My whole illusion of myself is going to be shattered.”

People like Sasha respond to other people she senses have an expectation of her. She in turn has an image of old people as being friendly. “Uncle” Val is trying to put a very dark past behind him, and Sasha presents him with an edited version of herself. It’s not a deliberately deceitful thing – though I think, in Uncle Val’s case, it may be. For most of us, it’s a presentation of ourselves, which we sense the other is expecting.

For example: as a director, actors don’t want to meet you socially if you’re rolling drunk. Not that they actually think you are infallible, but they like to assume a state of infallibility. If you go out of your way to encourage that, with a confident manner, it helps.

TM: So no drunk Tweeting once rehearsals have started! But what you describe sounds almost like the same dynamic you show Sasha experiencing. She’s looking for some kind of approval and validation from her Sugar Daddy Val.

AA: It touches on the old Faust legend of selling your soul to the devil. A lot of the play is set up so you’re asking, is she going to go down the path of eternal damnation with Uncle Val or is she going to find a way out? Fortunately, there is a turning point and a momentary glimpse of the monster. It’s not that Sasha doesn’t know about that [part of him], but she chooses not to know about it. The pleas of ignorance – we do a lot of that; it’s a considerable human characteristic.

TM: One recurring idea in critiques of Sugar Daddies is the issue of the play’s tonality. Critics have seemed confused by its mixture and want to have it both ways: a dark, confectionless, yet somehow entertaining play. For the ACT production, you’ve even decided to rewrite the final scene between Sasha and her half-sister Chloé.

AA: Rereading the play, I thought Sasha goes through this experience pretty well unscathed. She escapes with just a singe. I wanted those last few moments to show that there’s part of Uncle Val that’s been left with her. If you’ve supped with the devil, you’ve probably burnt your tongue.

John Patrick Lowrie as ex-cop Ashley; photo by LaRae Lobdell

John Patrick Lowrie as ex-cop Ashley; photo by LaRae Lobdell


Val is probably the most evil character I’ve written. For some reason all my evil characters seem to begin with V: Uncle Val, Vic [Man of the Moment], Vince [Way Upstream]. It’s a strange little motif. The man playing it in Scarborough said, “This must be the most evil man I’ve ever played.” He comes from that old-style East End gangster mode; he’s a capo, a don.

There is a sense that Sasha is refreshingly clear-eyed at the beginning, the “country mouse” who has come into the city, while Chloé is an exaggerated “town mouse” — probably one of those people in the media who are always competing furiously. But she has a sort of mistrust of human nature by the end – something you see in children growing up. Sasha’s not quite the girl she was at the beginning; there is a sort of ruthlessness about her.

TM: Among other modern playwrights, who would you single out as the great “bards” who will last?

AA: I’m a great admirer of David Hare and Alan Bennett. One of the writers that had the most profound effect on me, when I was directing other people’s plays, was Arthur Miller. The great thing about being a writer directing other people’s work is that as a director, you’re more or less compelled to take the play apart in order to put it together again with the actors. You see the mainspring here, the cogs there. Miller was a terrific craftsman and had a brain on him the size of Britain.

I was very lucky I grew up at the crossroads for English drama. So I absorbed a lot of the old-fashioned, well-made plays, and then came [John] Osborne and [Harold] Pinter, who was an enormous influence of me. I even acted in an early production of The Birthday Party, which he directed. He was an extraordinarily unique voice. So I’m influenced by the Chekhovs through to the Pinters really. I was blessed with a double upbringing.

TM: You’ve remained remarkably loyal to theatre as an art form, while so many of your colleagues – not to mention younger writers – have gone over to the commercial payoff of TV, Cable, film. What does the future of theatre look like to you?

AA: There’s a bright curve of new dramatists coming up in England. I do think, because of the non-encouragement of new writers, there’s a danger in our theatres now of [these writers] not addressing the challenges of theatre, but of trying to adapt television and film ideas. I used to sit at my desk and read 3 or 4 plays a week. My heart used to sink if there was a play with 26 scenes: Where’s the conciseness of theatre?

And there is a veering towards monologue, which is quite popular now — not just as a dictate of economics, but a preference of dramatists. When I was teaching, I used to try to point out all the colors of the theatre palette. My mentor Stephen Joseph told me, “Yeah, break the rules, but first of all you’ve got to know what they are!” So he sat me down and made me write a well-made play. At least I’d been through the process, and I’ve been breaking the rules ever since.

Filed under: playwrights, theater

A Little Piece of Mexico

Plaza con la Catedral

Plaza con la Catedral

At the main Civic Center location of the San Francisco Public Library the other day, I chanced upon this exhibit:
A Little Piece of Mexico: The Postcards of Guillermo Kahlo and His Contemporaries. On display is an intriguing range of images from the private collection of San Francisco’s poet laureate Alejandro Murguia. They make it clear why Mexico proved so attractive to photographers and other artists seeking a fresh perspective around the turn of 19th/20th century — like German immigrant Guillermo Kahlo (father of the artist Frida Kahlo).

The enormous new market for postcards left a de facto visual record of Mexico right before the upheaval of the revolution in 1910. These postcards were sold at the tourist sites, of course, but they were also easily obtained at cafes, bookstores, even bus stops. The exhibit’s introduction explains what makes them unique:

Mexico in the early 1900s was practically unknown territory, rich in a diversity of people, customs, and ethnic dresses and a place of conflicts and wars, generals and traitors, beautiful women and dangerous men, stunning landscapes, volcanoes, rivers, baroque architecture and thousand year old pyramids. All of it engaging to the eye and the camera.

As old-fashioned written letters and postcards become increasingly obsolete, these tokens of the past acquire an additional aura that would have seemed so odd when they were just everyday, mass-produced objects.

Tehuana in Full Dress

Tehuana in Full Dress

Filed under: art exhibition

Peter Lieberson’s Final Word: Shing Kham

Peter Lieberson

Peter Lieberson

I can’t believe it’s been over two years since the passing of Peter Lieberson, a truly wonderful human being and a highly gifted artist. He had so much still to say when he left us.

For the posthumous Los Angeles Philhamonic premiere of Peter’s percussion concerto, Shing Kham, I had the unique privilege of being able to write about his final — but unfinished — word as a composer. I’m so grateful to Peter’s widow Rinchen Lhamo and the marvelous percussionist Pedro Carneiro for sharing their memories and insights regarding what Peter was thinking about when he worked on the score up until his untimely death in Tel Aviv on 23 April 2011.

Here’s the note I wrote for the LA Phil’s concerts:

For Peter Lieberson, working on what would be his final composition “was a life-sustaining and joyful activity,” according to the writer Rinchen Lhamo. She adds that it’s likely Pedro Carneiro’s “unique capacities as a percussionist had something to do with this: something brand new for Peter to wrap his mind around.” Lhamo was Lieberson’s wife when he died from complications of lymphoma in April 2011. Although he had been in treatment for some years, she recalls that her husband anticipated being able to complete Shing Kham up until his last bout of illness, which arrived suddenly and unexpectedly. Several other projects on the horizon – including an orchestral song cycle he planned to compose to poems by Lhamo – additionally indicate the resurgence of creative energy that accompanied work on the percussion concerto.

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Filed under: music news, new music, spirituality

Thomas Dausgaard Joins Seattle Symphony

Thomas Dausgaard (photo: Morten Abrahamsen)

Thomas Dausgaard (photo: Morten Abrahamsen)

Let’s face it: this has been a dreadful week in classical music news. “Not single spies, but in battalions” indeed: the abysmal mismanagement leading to the fiasco in Minnesota, ditto for NYC Opera, now Carnegie Hall on strike. So it’s especially cheering to get this piece of good news. The Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard has just been named principal guest conductor of Seattle Symphony and will officially take over that post next season. From the press release:

Music Director Ludovic Morlot said, “I’m thrilled to welcome Thomas Dausgaard to the Seattle Symphony family. He is a truly great musician and I know that he will be an asset in further developing our orchestra as a world-class ensemble. I am greatly looking forward to this new artistic partnership.”

“Making music with the Seattle Symphony is an inspirational experience,” commented Thomas Dausgaard. “I feel honoured and thrilled about joining this eminent team, where music’s passion and joy is the language spoken. Thank you Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot and the wonderful audience here for making me feel so welcome.”

Dausgaard’s appointment also marks the first time this post — typically found with many prestigious orchestras – has been created at Seattle Symphony. I have a feeling Dausgaard, 50, will make a powerful creative team with his younger colleague, the 39-year-old Morlot. Dausgaard will be in town for next this week’s concerts. (That was wishful thinking on my part, since I have to miss the concerts this week. Drat. Dausgaard will be conducting a program of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony — seriously hate to have to miss this.)

Filed under: music news, Seattle Symphony

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