Friday, November 26, 2010

Third Coast Festival -- Radio features

Came across Third Coast Festival. Highly recommend this amazing package of award-winning radio features.

This feature really grabbed me.

Here's an excerpt, a poem written by a Dutchman whose self-appointed task it has become to provide dignity to those who have passed on without anyone in attendance, poor or, surprisingly, even the rich.

Goodbye stranger

Goodbye stranger.

I say “goodbye” on the road to nowhere to the final country where everyone is welcomed in. Where nothing needn’t know your origin.

Farewell, sir, without papers, without identity, what were you looking for?

How much did you lose along the way?

Who stares through the empty window, waits, nameless man? Wait, while I speak and empty my empty words into this empty room.

I am too late. You, I never knew. Not in your weakness, not in your strength, not in the final country where you are greeted without name.

I don’t know the words you spoke, not to me. Who, then, loved you? In which rooms did you sleep? Who kissed you good night, who wear out your shirt?

Who will want to stand where you once stood? Who now takes the roads you took? Who still looks for you? Who remembers whence you came?

Who heard the voice calling out for you to come on home, man, to your final haven, Amsterdam?

Monday, November 01, 2010

Classical insanity

I have listened to classical music for 56 of my 59 years, but on and off, sometimes with large gaps. I started quite by chance with Liberace at age 3, before his rhinestone and Las Vegas era, when he performed classical selections, Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, et al, on his daily television program, often with his brother, George, violin. I was such a groupie I would don a proper bow tie to watch; photographic evidence proves it. I was not an exclusive zealot at the time, however. My tastes were fairly kid-catholic and my other favorite shows at the time included Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob. Their music was, of course, more jingo than classical: “It’s Howdy Doody time, etc etc etc.”.

By age 7, my next great passion had taken Liberace’s place; it was sports, (both of them) and especially the greatest exponents of same, the Cleveland Indians and Cleveland Browns, depending on season. There was no ESPN, there were only home town teams, everyone else was opposition. I especially idolized Indian right-fielder and slugger Rocky Colavito (has there ever been a better baseball name?). He hit four home runs one fateful night and achieved baseball immortality (June 10, 1959). Back in the 1950s, there were exactly two sports in the known Western world, no more, no less. We played all day in the summer, till dark during school. Our arms were baked cocoa right to the short sleeve mark. We were alabaster underneath. We watched our heroes on TV, when they weren’t on TV, we listened on the radio. Our career aspiration was to one day take their place. It seemed to us the natural order of things. It was all we knew of life.

Musically speaking, elementary school band was the next new thing. There was not much choice or thinking that went into it. You were expected to play an instrument and so we did. Nearly all of us. It was an orderly and entirely unfair process. To begin, we queued up to borrow free school instruments. Perhaps still in the sway of swingster Benny Goodman, my parents had instructed me to request a clarinet. By the time I got to the front of the line, all the licorice sticks were taken. Somewhat crestfallen, I felt I had somehow let my parents down. A “mellophone” was shoved at me. “Try this.” I took it home. I was summarily told to take it back, I did, and somehow wound up with a “cornet.” I don’t remember how. I took it home. Neither I, nor my father, nor my mother knew how to make a sound on it. My parents decided it was “too hard” to blow. The next day I was taught something about embouchure, lips were to buzz into the mouthpiece, not around it. Aha. The ship was sailing.

School officials further instructed parents and children to take private lessons to supplement school lessons. There were two choices: the frou-frou Educators Music (expensive, classical), and down the street, Duran’s Music Shop (cheaper, $3 per lesson, pop-oriented). Mom and Dad chose the latter (“you don’t like longhair music, do you?). So every Thursday night for 30 minutes, Mr. Local Harry James Guy with his white hair slicked back with Brylcreem would teach me, between cigarettes. The room was the size of a large refrigerator box. I could hardly breathe. I hated it.

One day in junior high band, my tone rankled the music director, a crewcut ex-Marine whose name I forget but I can see his face. In front of 60 kids, he called me out. Here’s how. Man of few words, he threw a chalk-filled eraser at me and hit me in the pants. (He later would throw an eraser at a reed player and hit him in the eye. A parent complained, school officials intervened, and that ended the practice. But I digress.)

“Play a tone,” he commanded.

A shy, acne-ridden skinny nobody back chair player, maybe 13 out of 14 trumpets, a real slacker underachiever, I was mortified.

I played the tone. It was pathetic, like a tiny, muted trumpet.

Only it wasn’t. Tiny or muted.

“Come up here,” he said. “Yes, that’s right, come up here!”

The master clinician sensed the problem, and immediately took my trumpet apart, stuck his white baton into the mouthpiece, and pulled it out, now covered with glunky black indeterminate matter, holding it high aloft for the millions of kids to recoil in horror at.

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhh, ahhhhhhhh, yyyyyyuuuuuuuuukkkkkkkkkkkkk,” said my 60 bandmates, as though one.

I was now past mortified. I was wishing I was dead. My face was burning red, indicating I was still alive.

Mr. Marine Band Director Guy grabbed someone’s mouthpiece brush, marched me out to the hallway sink, and set about the operation, plunging the brush in and out about 100 times, all the while rinsing the little silver implement like a madman. He made a mouthpiece that had apparently never been scrubbed squeaky clean.

“That’s how it’s done, lad,” he sniffed. “Come on, let’s go back.”

He marched me back in, I skulked back to my chair like a wet cat, and he immediately called me out again.

“Play a note now,” he said. “That’s right, play a middle C and hold it.”

I did, and the tone was big, fat, pure and true. I had never heard myself sound that way before.

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” said the band again, but this time a good oohhhh.

I think I recovered from the episode, but my love of things musical, band or otherwise did not for a long time, not to what it was back in the days of Liberace when it was fun and interesting and entertaining, even for a three-year-old. This was the dark side of music, and I didn’t like it.

Not long after I quit the band, and took typing in its place. I never thought about the band again for years.

Meeting Beethoven

As a teen, I listened to the Rolling Stones and Beatles, like everyone else. An aspiring percussionist, I turned metal wastebaskets upside down in my bedroom and beat the hell out of them to all their tunes. Couple of us formed a garage band, it lasted approximately one session, since we couldn’t really play guitars, drums or anything else. So not being able to emulate them directly, we did the next best thing: we read about our heroes. I read something that stuck with me: Beatles lead guitarist George Harrison said his favorite musician was Segovia. So I bought an album, Segovia. I was really taken with it. Here was another world…..

Later, upon entering college, in the university welcome packet, the School of Music had a little insert suggesting Music 141 (Classical Survey) to fulfill the humanities requirement. So, made curious by Segovia, and these new sounds, I did, 9 a.m., three days a week, first quarter, freshman year. Mr. Gano was the teacher, tall, dark, and wry. I’m not sure he wanted to be there. I did, though.

I applied myself toward the goal of getting an A. That included covering the required listening. In the audio lab in my dorm, I heard for the first time in my life Herr Beethoven, the immortal Appassionata, Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, and immediately after, the Fifth Symphony. G-G-G-Eb. I was “on the edge of 17,” like the Stevie Nicks ballad. I still remember the night. The top of my head was torn off. I was shaken to the very core. My life -- changed forever.

Through four years of college, I continued to take every music history course offered for non-majors. I wrote music criticism for the school newspaper, no credit, just for the love of it. I became an inveterate concert goer, and record collector. My goal was to return to college someday, and study music history. Soon enough, I graduated. My adviser said I was leaving too soon, I was just finding my passions. He was right.

Regarding my plan, I never did make it back, by now I had joined the working world, but I kept going to concerts, kept buying records, taping off the air, and attending master classes whenever possible: Weissenberg, Pressler, Schnabel, Fleischer, Schiff, Harrell, Glennie, Preucil, Miriam Fried, Starker, and now again, most recently, me at age 59, still at it, master cellist Lynn Harrell, Wednesday, October 27, 2010, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University.

We had not seen Mr. Harrell teach since July 7, 1994, when my 11-year-old daughter and violinist (I was the Suzuki parent) attended his wonderful master class at Ravinia. We tailed him out to the parking lot after, where he graciously signed his CDs, Bach Cello Suites, and Beethoven Piano Trios (Grammy winner). He was a youthful 50, affable, down-to-earth. He gave my daughter a friendly smile as he signed. He is often smiling, kind of the antithesis of the tormented classical artist stereotype.

Fast forward 16 years. Wednesday, October 27, 2010. Lots has changed, but some things have not. My daughter has long since laid down her violin, but I continue showing up at master classes. Mr. Harrell had aged a bit, there was a bit more paunch, the red-brown hair now a mass of flying white wisps on top, the ruddy complexion seemingly a bit more pale (or was it the lights of Pick-Staiger?). His wonderful affability, and charisma, and genius and humanity? Still intact. For me, he is a kind of Schubert of cellists and teachers, sunny, but exceedingly intelligent, and with an undercurrent of understanding of darker things. (Regarding the latter assertion: listen to The Erlkoenig, or Winterreise.)

Which made Mr. Harrell’s presentation this time all the more remarkable. He was coaching a string quartet on their performance of the Schumann String Quartet, A, Op. 41, No. 3.

“Do you know how Schumann died?” Mr. Harrell asked the players out of the thin blue, very casually, and seemingly innocently enough.

“In an insane asylum,” came the matter-of-fact reply from the primo violin.

“Yes,” Mr. Harrell said. He paused a beat. “And you are aware that he suffered from schizophrenia, and manic-depression, and that he had earlier tried to commit suicide?”

“Oh, yes,” our scholarly twenty-somethings averred.

“It’s in the music,” Mr. Harrell. “Under the surface, but we have to hear that,” implying that we hadn’t been up to that point. (He is such a nice critic.)

Continuing he said: “Sometimes there is in the written music here that sense of ‘cold sweat,’ of ‘holding the dog down,’ of profound discomfiture, so to speak, and it has to come out.”

Then it hit me: all classical, all art, is insanity. Insanity, or nearly so, is discomfiture, on a scale from yearning to desperate pain. It is that desperate cold sweat. Or, as Mr. Harrell metaphorized, ‘holding the dog down.’ The teacher didn’t say it, but the contraverse screamed out: happy people don’t make art.

And so Mr. Harrell spent the rest of the two plus hours of teaching earnestly trying to get “more” discomfiture, more yearning, more insanity, if you will, out of his very calm, very clean, very well-dressed, very good-looking, very well-turned-out young upper class classical wannabes. We waited, we hoped, we sent good vibes up to the stage. But it never happened. My hair never caught fire.

I’m not sure it was possible. The kids were just too sane. Too long the post-modern world has been taught ‘cool’, not passion. The wood is very wet now. You have to care very, very much and you have to be perhaps a bit insane to make someone’s hair catch on fire.

It happens for those a bit older, a bit more wizened by life’s vagaries, a bit more insane, shall we say. From some of those ‘not from around here.’ (Sir Georg Solti used to have a phrase, “super-Hungarian.” You know intuitively what he means: crazy, insane, over the top.) Let’s take Solti, for one more minute. His CDs continue to sell many times more than other CSO conductors. Why? Because they are more out there, bolder, more plaintiff, more visceral, more shocking. And what is insanity, after all, but “perilously extreme discomfiture?” How’s that for a definition? Perhaps not so clinical as operational, but for me, for this essay, it works. It explains a lot to me, things I ‘knew’ on one level, but not quite on another.

What drove Solti? Quite simply, I think part of it was he was haunted. By something as small, he said, as a flip comment he made to his father when they were parting at the train station just as World War II was getting underway. George was being sent away for his personal safety. His father told him they would never see each other again, and became emotional. Young Georg? He was flip, dismissive. Sure enough, it was their last time together, and those few flip words, the lack of apprehension, the off-handedness, haunted him the rest of his life.

This is the existential discomfiture that moves the handful of Bachs, Beethovens, Brahms’, and Bartoks, and their interpreters, among us, to respond, research, record their thoughts in notation for performance, and then posterity. You don’t need partings at train stations to generate this feeling. There is enough insanity resident onboard the human condition all by itself. And we each one of us are touched by some of that insanity, from a little to a lot, the terror and beauty of insanity woven into the fabric of the human condition. Composers? Artists? It itches them something fierce, something violent, and they break out in not in rashes, per se, but in great torrents of sound. They take the pain to write it down, and pass it on, generation to generation, as though it were the only salve, the only balm, extant for this strange rash of insanity that is more or less resident onboard every human on the planet.

And why the discomfiture? Now we cross the line into unspeakable things, but I’ll speak them anyway: it is the injustice of the human condition. We are put here without our consent, as flawed beings, and we are condemned to death. It is manifestly unfair.

It is a crime.

It is why people don’t like God, religion, the Bible. It’s not that they’ve never heard of him, like evangelicals think, it’s that they’ve heard, and they don’t like what they’ve heard.

Most let it go at that. They choose religion like choosing a political party, I’m a Christian (fire insurance), or I’m not (maybe the light just goes out and nothing’s there at all, I’ll take my chances). But neither side much cares for God, the dirty little secret of Christianity. If you love someone, or something, you read, and study, and learn all about them. You are enraptured, you spend the time and the time flies by. But most Christians tolerate God at best, and most have never read the Bible. They are conscripts, more or less drafted, and as ignorant as an enlisted man as per the whys and wherefores of the Pentagon. They do the minimum. They look forward to being free of the service one day, though they know there’s no out. So they don’t think about it. When they do, their antipathy shines through.

Amazingly, one active Christian once asked me why would anyone want God to rule the world? He said it with incredulity, condescension and disgust. He spends his weekends telling prisoners about things spiritual. He takes them cookies.

Pulling back the curtain

At least one individual has not been so easily put off. He has been neither daunted by God’s distance, nor his imperiousness, nor by pop culture images and icons of what he’s supposed to be. Rather like a bold Judy Garland in Wizard of Oz, he pulls back the curtain to see the man behind, and get at the real truth, surely a perilous undertaking, no? You risk your life when you get close to God.

Speaking about author Jack Miles. He writes as follows in his remarkable, Pulitzer Prize winning book, God An Autobiography, about how the real God of the Bible not the fake God of our culture, and the remarkable way he changed over time in the Biblical narrative but few have noticed:

“Among these self-characterizations, the most startling comes in a soliloquy derived from The Book of Numbers. Thinking back to his origins in heaven and forward to his human death, Yahweh Incarnate recalls, of all unexpected moments, the time when he sent a plague of poisonous snakes – “fiery serpents” – upon the Israelites. Wandering in the desert, they had complained of hunger and thirst. The snakes were his reaction to their complaint. After many had died of snakebite, the survivors turned to Moses desperate for relief, more than ready to repent of their crime of complaint. Moses then prayed to the Lord, who instructed him to break one of the Sinai commandments and make a graven image of a serpent. “Set it on a pole,” he told Moses, “and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (21:4-9). Moses obeyed, the plague was lifted, and the people moved on.

“Now, alone in the night, more than a millennium later, having committed a capital offense against the religiopolitical establishment in Jerusalem, Jesus imagines himself “lifted up” on the gallows of his day and compares himself, in that condition, to the serpent that Moses “lifted up” on that pole in the desert. The serpent was lifted up so that the dying Israelites could be cured of fatal snakebite. YI will be lifted up “so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” This is the equation, but it is a deeply shocking equation, for what did the Israelites see when the looked at the bronze serpent? Antiquarians may say what they will about sympathetic magic or apotropaic (preventing or intended to prevent evil) medicine. In the story as we now have it, what the Israelites saw was a reminder that the Lord had been prepared to kill them in large numbers for no greater offense the complaining of hunger and thirst. When they looked at the bronze serpent, even though it cured them, they saw a reminder of why they had so greatly to fear him. The snakes, after all, were not the cause of their dying. The Lord Himself was the cause.

“What, then, does Jesus suggest that all mankind will see when they look upon him lifted up on the cross or, later, look upon an image of him in that condition? How can we avoid saying that they will look upon the cause as well as the cure of their distress? To the objection that this comparison is far-fetched, I would reply that it is Jesus himself who has fetched the comparison from afar. The bronze serpent is a detail from an obscure episode in Israelite history. The comparison is so arcane, so recherch√©, that it can only be fully, provocatively intended.

“Anyone who sets out to comment on the character of Jesus quickly finds himself in competition with his subject. Jesus is more provocative in characterizing himself than most commentators begin to guess. I include not just learned commentators but naughty screenwriters, satirical novelists, nihilist philosophers, everybody. The latter all intend to blaspheme, and they all succeed (blasphemy is an easy target to hit). Jesus, however, blasphemes with a resourcefulness that exceeds theirs, because he knows so much better than they do whereof he speaks. Was there no other image available to him than that of the killer snake? Could he not have compared himself, for example, to the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that led the Israelites through the desert? Why dredge up this brutal incident and this grotesque symbol? Why, if not because in this incident human crime and divine punishment are so excruciatingly ill-matched? The death penalty for a complaint about bad food? How can divine innocence not be called into question? Why conjure up the memory of the bronze serpent if not to suggest that those who will see Jesus upon the cross will look upon not just the remedy for the human condition but also its cause?”

So God changed, most remarkably. More remarkably, perhaps, than we have ever heard, or if we heard, understood.

In a way that is geometrically more powerful to rock one to the core than even mighty Beethoven’s Fifth, than his Appassionata.

Some say he didn’t change at all, that’s he’s the same individual, e.g. he killed Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit. And when he returns, he will make war with the kings of the earth, killing again.

True. He is the same person, but with this remarkable act stuck in the middle of the play, of taking responsibility for his creation, and redeeming it, and making good on the crime that makes us all, more or less, crazy, he changes, too. The same and different at the same time. It is nothing less than a mind-shattering turn of events. Any other perspective renders the self-sacrificial action functionary, pedestrian, agenda-bound --- instead of perpetually awe-inspiring, even shattering (in the common youth parlance, [I am] “wrecked” by it).

That he would do this for us, convict himself of the crime of the human condition and then pay the price to achieve justice for us……….when properly understood, can never fail to stun, amaze, awe.

Perhaps you have to be a little “insane,” to ‘get it?’ Otherwise it just goes over one’s head, no?

As another Great Musician, reggae man Bob Marley once said: “who feels it knows it mon.”

Indeed. Music is a balm. It treats the existential itch.

But this Yeshua, this Jesus, as Jack Miles so powerfully illustrates is The Balm. He alone cures the existential itch. Some composers, Bach most notably, understood. The rest were trying desperately to as well.