MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

At the Frye: Noguchi in China

Isamu Noguchi. Peking Drawing (man reclining), 1930. Ink on paper. The Noguchi Museum.

Isamu Noguchi. Peking Drawing (man reclining), 1930. Ink on paper. The Noguchi Museum.

Variations on the East-meets-West meme are certainly familiar in art history, but the details really do matter. Take the case of Los Angeles-born Isamu Noguchi, the son of an “East weds West” union.

Noguchi’s hugely influential career as a sculptor, landscape architect, and furniture designer is usually examined with reference to the inspiration he found in Japan during his initial sojourn there in 1931. But the exhibition Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930, which just opened at Seattle’s Frye Museum, brings us fascinating insights about the impact of a very different Asian source: the fruit of Noguchi’s six-month-long visit to Beijing (then known as Peking) from July 1930 to January 1931.

Having spent some time in Paris thanks to a Guggenheim grant — where he worked as Brâncuși’s assistant — Noguchi was already developing a reputation with his abstract sculptures (and celebrity portrait busts to bring in cash). After returning to Paris for a show, he headed East but decided to make a lengthy detour from his intended destination of Japan and stopped in Beijing.

It was during this period of intense personal introspection that Noguchi was introduced to the master ink painter Qi Baishi (1864–1957). As had been the case with Brâncuși, they shared no mutual language in the conventional sense — Noguchi spoke no Mandarin, Qi no English — yet the young artist, in search of a father figure, discovered a remarkable affinity for Qi’s work. (During his deferred trip to Japan, he hoped to make a connection with his estranged real father, the writer Yone Noguchi.) They became friends, and Qi mentored Noguchi in the medium of brush ink paintings.

Qi Baishi. Lotus and Dragonfly, 20th century. Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper. Michael Gallis  Collection. Photo: Dennis Nodine

Qi Baishi. Lotus and Dragonfly, 20th century. Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper. Michael Gallis Collection. Photo: Dennis Nodine

The result was more than 100 ink paintings known as the Peking Drawings. This exhibit, curated by Natsu Oyobe, is the first time a substantial number of these have been displayed alongside the work of Qi Baishi. “I did figure drawings, because that was what I knew how to do,” wrote Noguchi. “How ashamed I was of my limitations when I visited the painter Qi Baishi, whom I adopted as a teacher.” A selection of drawings created just before this life-changing trip is also on view, allowing us to assess the impact of Qi and other Chinese artists.

Especially striking is the difference in subject matter Noguchi chose, in contrast to the traditional themes of nature in Qi’s exquisite paintings: the human body, frequently nude, and mothers nursing or cradling babies in particular. In terms of scale, with their elongated dimensions, we can already see Noguchi’s later aesthetic foreshadowed.

In an essay in the fine accompanying catalogue, Lang Shaojun observes that “the basis of Noguchi’s painting remained essentially Western… His sketches are free and uninhibited, not subject to the constraints of a plastic realism associated with fine lines. Heavy ink sketching is superimposed on precise, delicate, realistic images. A layer of abstraction deconstructs and destroys the original sketch. The conscious intertwining of these two different methods creates a form-like body and its shadow, a shapeless non-shadow, an isomorph of a tangled national identity.”

Isamu Noguchi. Mother and Child, 1930. Ink on paper. Collection Samuel and Alexandra May.

Isamu Noguchi. Mother and Child, 1930. Ink on paper. Collection Samuel and Alexandra May.

Museum director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker pointed out during the press preview that Chinese scholars and art historians are keenly interested in this topic at present — and in the similar cultural cross-connections explored in the Frye’s adjoining new exhibit, Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai (to be discussed in a separate post).

“When you come upon your own culture mirrored in art through these sorts of connections, from another culture, it makes you see things you didn’t realize were there,” she remarked. Because of the disruptions of history and political developments over the last century, “what we are learning about these relationships now is on the cutting edge of scholarship.”

Birnie Danzker’s own essay in the catalogue, “Grabbism: 1930s,” underlines the larger implications of the young Noguchi’s confident borrowings and the productive line of questioning these open up:

The debate about the true nature of Noguchi’s drawings and sculpture from the 1930s and whether his work is closer in spirit to that of his teacher Qi Baishi or to that of the Chinese modernist Lin Fengmian is a fascinating study in how, after a century of cultural exchange between modern China and the West, the phenomenon of mutual “misreadings” of Western and Western art…now constitutes an integral part of the history of art.

–Thomas May

Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition, art history, Frye Museum

Jenny Lin Plays Solo Stravinsky


What a refreshing listen: I’m getting quickly addicted to the Taiwan-born pianist Jenny Lin’s new release, which is the latest to come out on Arkiv Music’s Steinway & Sons label. It’s devoted to Stravinsky’s music for solo piano — along with a delightful mini-Firebird suite of three movements arranged by Guido Agosti for keyboard.

Yes, over the past year my ears have been oversated and oversaturated with Stravinsky’s orchestral music, especially the three big Russian ballets. But Lin has put together a nifty program that brings a fresh focus to the Russian’s musical thinking and evolution.

Lin’s crisply incisive attacks and sheer sense of fun are all part of a style shaped by musical intelligence and determination. And her playing shines light on Stravinsky’s concept of counterpoint as well as the ingenuity of his rhythmic inventions.

In his excellent booklet essay, Ben Finane quotes Stravinsky on his first forays into the jazz idiom, as manifested in the delirious Ragtime for 11 Instruments (1918), included here in a version transcribed by the composer:

My knowledge of jazz was derived exclusively from copies of sheet music, and as I had never actually heard any of the music performed, I borrowed its rhythmic style not as played, but as written. [so much for oral versus literary tradition.] I could imagine jazz sound, however, or so I like to think. Jazz meant, in any case, a wholly new sound in my music, and ‘L’Histoire’ marks my final break with the Russian orchestral school in which I had been fostered.

Pieces like the Piano Sonata of 1924 offer a fascinating glimpse into Stravinsky’s rethinking of Baroque and Classical elements — not just by way of cheeky “allusion,” but as knowingly perverse swervings from the paradigm. So, too, with his quasi-Bachian counterpoint and ornamentation that, to borrow Finane’s apt phrase, are “tempered with a saboteur’s delight.”

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: CD review, piano

Thought To Ponder


What is peculiar, even a little bitter, about living for so many years away from the country of my birth, is the slow revelation that I made a large choice a long time ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life – is indeed how life is lived. Freud has a wonderful word, ‘afterwardness’, which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it from its very different context. To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of ‘afterwardness’: it is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done. And that may be all right.

–the critic James Wood reflecting on exile, homelessness, and “homelooseness” in the latest London Review of Books

Filed under: thought to ponder

The Cruelty of Strangers

Menotti's The Consul at Seattle Opera; photo by Elise Bakketun

Menotti’s The Consul at Seattle Opera; photo by Elise Bakketun

Here’s my City Arts preview of the production of Gin Carlo Menotti’s The Consul, opening this weekend at Seattle Opera:

It may seem odd for an opera company to be cagey about revealing the ending of a work written more than a half-century ago. But Seattle Opera is holding the cards very tight to its chest when it comes to The Consul by Gian Carlo Menotti. Seattle Opera’s production, which opens this weekend, marks the company’s first staging of the work and will certainly be the first live experience of it for many in the audience. Premiered in March 1950, The Consul enjoyed a flash of glory when it transferred to a Broadway theatre that year, playing for some 286 performances.

Set in a grey, unidentified totalitarian state in the middle of the 20th century, The Consul revolves around the plight of Magda Sorel and her husband John, a dissident who is forced, shortly after the opera begins, to go into hiding as an enemy of the state. Magda desperately attempts to negotiate the dehumanizing bureaucracy of the state Consulate to arrange for legal emigration.

There are obvious tinges of Kafka and other poets of modern alienation as Magda repeatedly tries to satisfy the baffling documentation requirements demanded by the Consul’s office. The secret police stalk her, closing in on her husband’s whereabouts. In the final scene, after they arrest John at the Consul’s office, “it comes down to whether the secretary will break the rules and do the right thing…” Or at least that’s how the cliffhanger synopsis on Seattle Opera’s website describes the ending.

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Filed under: directors, opera, Seattle Opera

Seattle Chamber Players and Their Ice-Breaking Festival of New Music

Seattle Chamber Players

Seattle Chamber Players

Seattle Chamber Players (SCP) just concluded Icebreaker, its biennial two-day festival of new music. This year’s edition, the seventh in their history, was titled open source, with a focus on high-tech music-making.

Artistic director Elena Dubinets — a key figure responsible for the Seattle Symphony’s smart programming — organized a stimulating and provocative program of five compositions spread over two evenings at Seattle’s terrific On the Boards space. SCP’s core members consist of Laura DeLuca (clarinet), David Sabee (cello), Mikhail Shmidt (violin) — all members of the Seattle Symphony — and Paul Taub (flute).

Their ranks were supplemented by a chamber orchestra of fine colleagues, with Alastair Willis conducting for the majority of the two concerts. (The requirements for some of these pieces should count as training for a certification in air traffic control — that’s how nerve-wrackingly intricate they are.)

open source ranged far and wide in terms of ambition, scope, and attitude. There was room for pieces featuring cheeky allusions and playful “rewiring” of musical codes as well as epic-scale updatings of the Gesamtkunstwerk meme and its goal of a total-immersion experience.

Pieces like Spam! by the Portuguese composer Luís Tinoco (on hand as this year’s guest composer) offered a sardonically comic take on the flotsam and jetsam of spam email in our procrastination-information culture. Another type of saturation provided the impetus for a music-and-video piece by the German composer Michael Beil, the title of which did double duty as the name for the festival itself.

The ideal of “open source” culture touches on utopian attitudes of sharing and pooled creativity. In Beil’s retooling of the hypnotic barcarolle from Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, it also suggested a new angle on Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “aura” for this era of hyper-reproducible artifacts. In practice, though, open source turned out to be rather less fascinating than in the abstract, on paper.

The Greek composer Yannis Kyriakides also started with a promising concept in his recent Karaoke Etudes, to which this observation by Douglas Coupland serves as an epigraph: “21st-century life is karaoke — a never-ending attempt to maintain dignity while a jumble of data uncontrollably blips across a screen.” And this time, in practice, the interplay of pop-culture artifact, memory, improvisation, and oblique visual cues — with its mix of beguiling innocence and bemusement — cast a charming spell.

The two highlights of open source — a concerto-with-film by Michel van der Aa and a psychedelically tinged “video-opera” by Fausto Romitell — were substantial, visionary pieces featuring extremely complex and sophisticated media synchronizations. (The once-ubiquitous “multi-media” really has started to sound like a quaintly old-fashioned term — something like “mimeograph” or “xerox.”)

And both of these therefore represent one-of-a-kind works. It was a real coup for Elena Dubinets and SCP to score the Northwest premiere of the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa’s Up-close, which had its West Coast premiere in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series just last month. I’ve recently written about Up-close — scored for solo cello, string ensemble, and electronic soundtrack — and its radical reimagining of the concerto format as a hybrid of film and live theater.

Simply put, it was thrilling to experience this significant new composition in live performance. As the solo cellist, Julie Albers also had to perform a scripted part in tandem with the images from van der Aa’s filmic counterpoint — a mysteriously never-explained narrative involving an older woman and her traumatic memories (having to do with coded messages, communication, and an implicit backdrop of the Dutch Resistance in the Second World War).

I found Albers’s stern, grainy, edgy sound extremely effective and dramatically compelling. Her phrasing captured the desperation of her “character” with a deeply felt immediacy. I also admired how alert she was to the amazing spectrum of nuances van der Aa has written into the part.

To be able to present a contemporary composition as significant, as cutting edge, and as emotionally engaging as van der Aa’s Up-close underscores the value of SCP’s Icebreaker festivals. Seattle audiences would benefit from more of this kind of boldly planned and executed new work — an undeniable peak of this edition of the festival.

So, too, was the big work on the first night: An Index of Metals by the Italian composer Fausto Romitelli, who died a decade ago (only in his early 40s). Romitelli’s video-opera for soprano and ensemble turned out to be case in which what’s “on paper” pales by comparison to the live experience in real time.

Fausto Romitelli in 2001

Fausto Romitelli in 2001

Dubinets neatly summarizes Romitelli’s part-sculptural, part-industrial preoccupation with sound, which he thought of as “material to be forged”:

Anything but a formalist composer, Romitelli did not shy away from hybridization, breaking down the barrier between art music and popular music. Distortion, saturation, psychedelic rock-inspired compositions and “dirty” harmonies were part of his musical universe…”

Romitelli’s final work, An Index of Metals, has been characterized as an artistic final testament that synthesizes everything he had developed in his process of treating sound as malleable matter. Remarking on the starting point for his compositions in general, Romitelli wrote: “The grain, thickness, porosity, density, brilliance, and elasticity are the main aspects of these sound sculptures resulting from amplification and electroacoustic treatment as well as simple instrumental writing.” He explained the guiding idea behind An Index of Metals as follows:

The aim … is to turn the secular form of opera into an experience of total perception, plunging the spectator into an incandescent matter that is both luminous and sonorous, a magma of flowing sounds, shapes, and colors, with no narrative but that of hypnosis, possession, and trance. It is a lay ritual, rather like the light shows of the the 1960s or today’s [i.e., at the millennium] rave parties in which space, having assumed a solid form through the volume of sound and visual saturation, appears to twist into a thousand anamorphoses. Rather than calling on our analytical ability, like most contemporary music, “An Index of Metals” aims to take possession of the body with its over-exposition of senses and pleasure.

Granted, that could merely amount to a lot of gobbledegook signifying nothing. But the incredibly meticulous planning that went into this realization paid off: the SCP and their collaborators succeeded in conveying the re-enchanted performance dynamic that has to be there for Romitelli’s magic to work.

In one sense, you could say Romitelli’s rejection of the “analytical” in favor of Dionysian immersion and sensory overload — what the composer calls “the fusion of perception” and “the henceforth limitless body in the furnace of a ritual mass of sound” –makes for a contemporary reincarnation of Romanticism.

Certainly Index recalls the psychedelic Romanticism of groups like Pink Floyd (whose “Welcome to the Machine” from their 1975 album Wish You Were Here gets sampled at the start), but aspects of early-20th-century modernist fusions enter the mix as well. On top of all that, Romitelli uses high tech to fuse sound, image, and spatial perception into a delirious feedback loop of continual “translation.”

The video elements comprise three separate films (created by Paolo Pacchini and Leonardo Romoli), while a solo soprano, accompanied by 11 amplified instruments, sings a text by the Solvenian writer Kenka Lekovich (translated into English).

As the soloist, the Polish soprano Agata Zubel was mesmerizing and indeed “elemental.” (Zubel and SCP have recorded an album together — Cascando — which took a prize in the Polish equivalent of the Grammies in 2011.)

And what an assignment the soprano is given — to project musical-emotional sense from the foggy, twilit timbres of Romitelli’s soundscape. To the fluid stream of video images she sings Lekovich’s texts of “Hellucination.” It all induced a state of awe — an awe both majestically terrifying and ecstatic.

As Romitelli writes, he wanted Index to present “a violent, abstract narrative, denuded of all operatic artifice, providing an intiaiton rite of immersion and a trance of light and sound.”

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: acoustics, aesthetics, new music

Taste the Whip: Seattle Rep’s Venus in Fur

Michael Tisdale and Gillian Williams in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Venus in Fur; photo by Chris Bennion.

Michael Tisdale and Gillian Williams in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Venus in Fur; photo by Chris Bennion.

It’s not just the topic of sexual power dynamics combined with S&M role play that makes it seem as if David Ives has taken on something risqué in his Tony-nominated Venus in Fur, which premiered in 2010. He dares a lot formally by writing an evening-length, two-character play set in a drab rehearsal room.

In terms of ambition, he dares even more in his obvious desire to probe the personal politics and psychological complexity of our “theatrical” selves: the rotating, evolving, ever-variable selves we present in our daily encounters.

Seattle Repertory Theatre’s staging — a co-production with Arizona Theatre Company — offers a smart, riveting, often unsettling take on Ives’s much-hyped play. It makes for a largely persuasive theater experience, though without managing to overcome all the dramaturgical stumbling blocks in the script — most of all, the unconvincing swerve that marks the drama’s culmination.

Ives is, to start with, a masterful writer of dialogue, attuned to the ways actors manipulate their subtexts as they monitor and mirror the variabilities of their stage partners. In the ongoing, intermissionless duologue that is the basic structure of Venus in Fur, his two characters assume and cast off multiple identities that continually keep the audience guessing about what the real stakes are.

Venus in Fur starts in quasi-sitcom mode: a frustrated playwright/director, Thomas Novachek, rails against the limitations of the women he’s seen audition for the lead in his new stage adaptation of Venus in Furs, the once-scandalous novella published in 1870 by the Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (part of the first volume of a large-scale fictional cycle he had planned under the overall title Legacy of Cain).

In blusters Vanda Jordan in a scenery-chewing entrance. She’s an actress who presents herself as desperate for the part — so desperate, she ends up convincing the reluctant Thomas to stay on and see her audition, even though she’s hours late and all the others have already left.

But Ives cleverly uses the familiar patterns of lightweight humor to disarm his audience, to set up expectations that repeatedly trip us up — exactly mirroring the dance of role-playing and sudden change of tack Vanda stage manages vis-a-vis Thomas.

Sibyl Wickersheimer has designed an imposingly affectless rehearsal loft — we’re told it’s been converted from a former sweatshop (its identity around the time Sacher-Masoch’s novella was written) — and tilts it to an angle, adding yet another layer of obliquity. Geoff Korf’s lighting starts with unfriendly late afternoon light and descends into terrifying darkness

Thomas wants to be appreciated for having written what he believes to be an important play — his Fur is a gloss on the “furs” of Sacher-Masoch and the mirror of Titian. He loathes being misunderstood for tackling the trendy “issues” of the day. Vanda pretends to be clueless about his artistic aspirations, describing the novella that’s the basis for his play as “S&M porn” and hastily showing off the up-to-date dominatrix outfit (Harmony Arnold’s witty costume design) that she picked out for her audition.

Titian, Venujs with Mirror, c. 1555 (National Gallery of Art)

Titian, Venus with Mirror, c. 1555 (National Gallery of Art)

Director Shana Cooper sustains the slow burn of tension that underlies the rapidly shifting scenario as Thomas starts to realize Vanda has been dissembling and is intimately familiar with the nuances of Sacher-Masoch. Like a staged Droste effect, ironies begin to proliferate within the play-within-a-play setup. Vanda the over-emoting, stressed-out New Yawk actress suddenly seems to be more authentic when she casts her “real” self aside to play the fictional role of the nineteenth-century, velvet-gown-clad Wanda von Dunajew.

Ives’s play is completely dependent on the effectiveness of his lead actress. Gillian Williams gives an untrammeled and multifaceted performance, toggling back and forth between “acting” and — to the evident unease yet fascination of Thomas — taking over his role as the playwright and director. It’s also an intensely physically aware performance, her shifts in tone mirrored by a virtuosic range of gestures and physical expression.

As Thomas, Michael Tisdale (like Gilliam Williams, making his Seattle Rep debut) doesn’t project the sheer arrogance needed at the beginning to give substance to Vanda’s fury — he’s too fussy — but grows more convincing in the transformation into Sacher-Masoch’s alter ego Severin von Kusiemski, which he willingly undergoes.

(l to r) Gillian Williams and Michael Tisdale; photo by Chris Bennion.

Gillian Williams and Michael Tisdale; photo by Chris Bennion.

The real interest of the dramatic arc lies in its unpredictability: shocks of recognition intensify and begin to align Thomas’s script with the power play developing between him and Vanda, but Ives counterpoints this with a movement away from the realism at the start of the play toward an ambivalent surrealism.

And there the chief difficulty lies. As Vanda’s rage gathers righteous feminist force and we’re led to expect a straightforward revenge plot, Ives changes the fundamental tone again — and makes her an archetype, an avatar of the pagan classical world.

But it ends up evoking a bit of old-fashioned stagecraft: a dea ex machina come to deliver a moral lesson for our times. The rattling thunder of a storm raging outside (Robertson Witmer’s atmospheric sound design) isn’t enough to pull off the transformation.

Venus in Fur runs through Sunday, March 9, at Seattle Rep at Seattle Center.

(c) 2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

Filed under: review, theater

Morlot, Seattle Symphony, and Berlioz: An Explosive Match

High school students discovering the world of Berlioz at a Seattle Symphony rehearsal

High school students discovering the world of Berlioz at a Seattle Symphony rehearsal

Ludovic Morlot is now back from his winter duties as chief conductor at La Monnaie in Brussels (where he just led performances of Janáček’s Jenůfa). And in its most incandescent moments, last night’s program — his first with the Seattle Symphony following the hiatus — blazed with the impatient passion of lovers meeting after an enforced absence.

The players were champing at the bit to whip up the energy of the brief concert opener, Emmanuel Chabrier’s Bourrée fantasque. Despite the nice thematic tie-in of the title, Chabrier’s piano piece felt like a mere diversion from the heart of the matter. The orchestration by the famous fin-de-siècle Wagnerian Felix Mottl layered lavish, high-calorie toppings over Chabrier’s zesty piano piece – frankly, at times, threatening to smother it.

Morlot has a genuine affinity for the music of the Romantics, so there’s a fascinating opportunity in this program to compare his approaches to the subjectivity of Robert Schumann versus Hector Berlioz. The issue of Schumann’s mental illness is by now such a cliche that it was refreshing to encounter a performance so alert to the astonishing mindfulness of his poetic reveries. In other words, what came across in the Cello Concerto wasn’t so much a sequence of “moody,” unsettled and changeable emotions as one lengthily sustained poetic fantasy.

The three chords in the orchestra that launch and unify the piece were shaped with an appropriately evanescent dreaminess, setting the tone for the Concerto’s primarily meditative as opposed to show-offy quality. The soloist, the French cellist Xavier Phillips, was especially memorable in the slow middle section of the three interlocking movements, when his orchestral “doppelgänger” (SSO principal cellist Efe Baltacıgil) engages him in a duet.

Phillips played with an inviting warmth and intimacy well-suited to Schumann’s elaborate lyricism, but the moment when the cello “rouses” the orchestra from the fantasy at the very end of the Concerto sounded underwhelming. Acoustic imbalances with the orchestra — a particular peril of cello concertos, and one reason composers avoided them for so long — were a persistent distraction. Still, there was breathtaking beauty to be enjoyed in Phillips’ sensitive and musically intelligent phrasing.

A good concert then became great in the program’s second half: Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, that blockbuster of Romanticism that flips the bird to the conventional polarities of French/German, Classical/Romantic, fact/fiction.

Too often we hear the Symphonie as a manifesto of its moment in time, a “textbook” of Romanticism with the usual checklist — and the result is a performance that sounds like the epitome of a museum piece (in the bad old sense of museums, before the smart ones started updating themselves).

Young Berlioz in 1832, around the time of the Symphonie fantastique ; painting by Émile Signol

Young Berlioz in 1832, around the time of the Symphonie fantastique ; painting by Émile Signol

Last night it suddenly occurred to me that Morlot’s understanding of Berlioz is of the same category as Leonard Bernstein’s identification with Mahler: apart from all the technical knowledge and even sensibility he brings to Berlioz, it’s as if Morlot internally identifies with this music and so is able to give his interpretations a uniquely compelling stamp.

That’s the only way I could make sense of the 3-D vividness of last night’s performance: colors and textures I’ve never noticed before, for sure, but most of all a sense of what’s at stake with the emotions and obsessions of Berlioz’s score. I found myself grinning with near disbelief at how shocking and still over-the-top parts of it can still sound.

Morlot got the SSO musicians to tap into that sense of conviction. There were memorable achievements from every single section of the orchestra. None of this would have worked without the artistry of Michael Crusoe (timpani), Valerie Muzzolini Gordon (harp), Stefan Farkas (English horn), Christie Reside (flute), Ben Haussman (oboe), Seth Krimsky (bassoon), for example, not to mention the thrilling playing by the strings and brass, particularly in the witches’ “orgy” of the last movement.

This wasn’t the usual colorful story of young Hector going all wild after seeing the actress Harriet Smithson and getting tangled in an insanely obsessive/possessive love attachment – the whole business is really a MacGuffin, anyway — just as it wasn’t the corny 1960s-flavored rethink of an orchestra on an LSD/mushroom/opium-fueled trip.

Morlot understands that Berlioz’s “protagonist” in the Symphonie fantastique is an artist above all else — that the Eros, the drive, the alienation, the hallucinations, all of it, are all components of a universe he imagines into being, not mere triggers of emotions that require expression. And that the entire epic he lays out for us in this score is an “instrumental drama” (the composer’s own phrase) that expertly transforms his musical material to give voice to a radical subjectivity.

I especially like how Morlot refuses to settle for one overall approach — stressing Berlioz’s Classical underpinnings, say, or staying focused on his novel orchestration. He understands the multidimensional character of this score and allows its widely varying facets to come out when they make sense in the dramatic context.

There was a particularly persuasive hint of Beethoven of the Pastoral in the beautifully played woodwind writing of the third movement. (Beethoven cast an enormous shadow over Berlioz at this point in his career.) Some of the “spatial” effects of offstage timpani and shepherd’s pipe anticipate Mahler.

The March to the Scaffold, sardonic as hell, actually helped set the scene for what usually seems an abrupt shift of tone in the Witches’ Sabbath/nightmare finale. And in that fantastic musical phantasmagoria, despite all the humiliations and horrors the protagonist endures, it’s the image of the cocky young artist Berlioz who emerges, dominating and enthralling his audience.

So what is it with Berlioz and obnoxiously intrusive noise in Benaroya? Two years ago, smack in the middle of one of my favorite Morlot performances to date — Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust — a patron’s alarm actually forced the music to a halt for several minutes. Last night someone spoiled the carefully built-up atmosphere by ringing heedlessly away, audible at a good distance. Now that should be a damnable offence.

There’s one more chance to hear this program: Saturday night at 8:00 pm at Benaroya Hall.

(c) 2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

Filed under: Berlioz, review, Seattle Symphony

Another One Bites the Dust?

Pages from Emily Dickinson's small poetry booklet "fascicles"

Pages from one of Emily Dickinson’s small poetry booklet “fascicles”

So just how many of the dear, withering Muses are supposed to be on death row? Of course the meme of The Death of Classical Music (TM) gets periodic play.

Then there’s the familiar hair-pulling question: “Is theater a dying art form?” Even Hollywood is said to be in its death throes.

And poetry? The art that is inseparable from language itself, the very signature of our humanity? There’s no lack of doomsayers claiming with a straight face — and hoping to boost hits in the process — that poetry “is about as useful as the clavichord.”

One common denominator in this litany of obits: the relentlessly short-sighted, quick-fix worldview of contemporary capitalism.

“Poetry is dead by capitalism’s standards – it is not an obvious moneymaking venture, despite traceable employment and readings’ payoffs via the academy – and that emboldens some folks limited by capitalist blinders to herald poetry’s last breath,” writes Amy King, co-editor of the PEN Poetry Series, in a worthwhile new essay for the Boston Review: “Threat Level: Poetry.”

And talk about blinders: “The naysayers of poetry’s vastness seem to be primarily fueled by declaring poetry’s defeat or impotence instead of engaging in the more difficult work of creating beyond what they know.” King continues:

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world” is not Wittgenstein’s defeatist end; it is his challenge to set out boldly and with curiosity to expand and explore through the language we think through. He didn’t stop with the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” where that statement appeared; it was his first of many books, such as the “Philosophical Investigations,”that explicated his theory of “language-games” and complexly broadened his considerations of language use overall.

What a lazy, pretentious approach to think we’ve located our limits and can now only recycle and shuffle what’s been said before as cut-and-paste, as the Conceptual poets would have it, or by squeezing words into forms without any sense of language’s expansiveness or trust in the person using it, as traditional formalists would claim.


Further, the writers of poetry’s obituaries are aligning themselves with a capitalism that is patriarchal by default: it is more beneficial to divide and conquer or imperialistically claim, in sound-byte fashion, than to identify and envision beyond perceived limitations or some institutionalized formulaic trend.

I especially admire Amy King’s eloquent manifesto for what poetry can do:

Poetry is as large as language. Just as language pushes its limits, poets can make connections where connections are frowned upon. We might engage with our intuition or emotion or even that mysterious and popularly denounced “spiritual” part of ourselves. We can juxtapose the arbitrary with the arbitrary and invoke a maddening sense of the reality we’ve inherited. We can move from our depression or fleece a corrupt order with a vision of existence that incites responses varying from the call to question to the responsive insurrectionary. We can also highlight the beautiful-ugly among us that everyday language would insist is either one or the other.

Filed under: aesthetics, poetry

Through the Eyes of Another Animal

“We, as human beings, have not seen ourselves until we have been seen through the eyes of another animal,” says the film director Godfrey Reggio, quoting (or perhaps paraphrasing) the anthropologist Loren Eiseley. Last night brought the local opening of Reggio’s latest collaboration with Philip Glass Visitors, shown on the magnificent Cinerama screen in Seattle (one of only three such remaining screens in the world).

The Eiseley quote was Reggio’s reference for discussing the powerful images of the Bronz Zoo gorilla named Triska whose deep, straight-on gaze haunts this meditation on the contemporary situation of the technology-crazed human species. “Visitors” deliberately plays off the etymology of its title – as in one who goes to see something.

Glass’s partnership with Reggio has resulted in some of my favorite work by this composer. I’ve heard stories of Koyannisqatsi changing people’s lives the way we sometimes hear about Einstein on the Beach (one of my big artistic adventures in 2012).

Each time Glass and Reggio work together, they rethink the very foundations of how image and music can interface and together generate powerful emotional responses that are at the same time thought provoking. As Reggio aptly put it, the music doesn’t illustrate a narrative. Conventional film narrative is jettisoned, there are no words, and the linear, plotted “foreground” we expect from a film experience is stripped away so that the background becomes foreground. Music and image are co-equal partners.

And what’s especially striking on first viewing/hearing of Visitors is the often-somber tone of Glass’s score – played with exquisite care and conviction by the Bruckner Orchestra Linz and Glass authority Dennis Russell Davies.

I may have been influenced by the silver-intensified dark palette of Reggio’s black-and-white filming, but the music often seems elegiac, certainly more meditative and slower paced in general than the Qatsi trilogy scores and without their exuberant explosions of manic energy. Glass’s orchestration continues to fascinate: especially his percussive touches and simple but mysterious blends.

Jay Michaelson eloquently describes the focus on temporality in Visitors in his recent article “Philip Glass Is Getting Older — for Better or Worse”:

We don’t know anything about these people visiting planet Earth – only that their time is short, especially measured by the geological time of the moon, but even according to our own reckoning and the lines in their faces.

“Visitors” is a film about the evanescence of life, its mystery and its frailty. It is about how we make meaning out of meaninglessness, and how ultimately we are brought to the blinding light of oblivion. It is a late work by a 73-year-old filmmaker and a 76-year-old composer, reflecting as much on their own oeuvre as on the essential questions of mortality and meaning.

Image from Visitors

Image from Visitors

In the post-viewing discussion with Reggio, the director was asked whether he thought we were better or worse off than in 1982, when Koyannisqatsi came out. Are humans even more out of balance? Unsurprisingly, Reggio said he thought so, that we’ve reached a point where our imbalances are “the price we have to pay for our technological happiness.”

And something to the effect that it takes “courage to have the hopelessness” we need to be able to recover a sense of hope. Visitors represents another attempt “to see that which is most vital but which is hidden by virtue of its presence” — a process of defamiliarization through art, in other words.

Here’s Philip Glass in a recent interview with Sam Adams for The Dissolve:

We began talking about a film about humor. And [Reggio] focused it on people, that it would be people who would represent that. And from that, very slowly over those years, it shifted to the idea of the gorilla. And once the gorilla was there, the whole thing changed, because of the reciprocal gaze…

And then we got into a very interesting idea that the film is really about looking at the film….

Then the role of the music takes on a completely different role. So the question is, how does music function in this?

Filed under: film, film music, Philip Glass

Fraudulent Composers

Add another one to the list: Mamoru Samuragochi, hyped as the “Japanese Beethoven,” is apparently neither deaf nor the composer of the works that were praised as creations of a “digital-age Beethoven.” The story of his scam broke this week. According to Martin Fackler in The New York Times:

It was unclear exactly how Mr. Samuragochi duped the world since asserting he went deaf in the late 1990s. No one, it seemed, suspected the onetime child music prodigy had not composed his own work. But in past interviews with the news media, Mr. Samuragochi gave an explanation that might explain why no one ever doubted his hearing loss: He said he was completely deaf in one ear, but had some hearing in the other that was assisted by a hearing aid…. Much of Mr. Samuragochi’s appeal seemed to lie in his inspiring life story, especially for a country so fascinated by classical music.

Probably the most-famous example of ghost-writing in music is Mozart’s Requiem, paid for in advance by Count Franz Walsegg-Stuppach, a nobleman and dilettante who wanted to pass off the score as his own creation, written in memory of his wife.

There’s also a famous anecdote (which of course has its skeptics) that Mozart did his Salzburg buddy Michael Haydn (a younger brother of Joseph) a favor by pitching in to complete a project. The story goes that he dashed off the Duos for Violin and Viola (K. 423-24) to help the ailing Michael complete a set of six requested by Wolfgang’s hated former boss (the Archbishop of Salzburg).

But Michael Haydn was a bona fide composer himself — his own Requiem in C minor from 1771 left a deep impression on his younger colleague, which you can easily trace by comparing it with the Requiem Mozart undertook two decades later.

The film music industry is said to be rife with mis- or non-attributed composers. And in the world of literature we have the harrowing Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann, whose protagonist, the tormented composer Adrian Leverkühn, “sells his soul” to write works of genius. But merely paying off a ghost-writer to con the public certainly belongs to a less-extravagant category.

What other composer-frauds do you know of?

Filed under: composers, music news

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