Archive for June, 2006
A Late Fourth
Firecrackers sounding like shots of handguns rattle
The afternoon of early July at a late time
For celebrations and it is an inglorious
Fourth we have come to, like the birthday of a very
Sick man: no simple affirmations will do today.
In the dying wind the nation’s stars and stripes slacken;
I guess this must be the flag of its disposition
Not to save itself. Only now, much later, all flags
Down for the night, we watch some bunting–no more a flag
Than the flag is our old glory–as it fitfully
Gleams in the streetlamp’s conditional light, like a truth
Which the sad, difficult telling of half con-ceals, half-
Discloses, through our few tears ungleaming in the dark.
An Old Song
What she and I had between us once, America
And its hope had; and just as I grieve alternately
For what I know myself to have lost of what had been,
And for all that loss I was suffering all that while
I was doing, I thought, so well, so goes the nation,
Grieving for her hope, either lost, or from the very
Start, a lost cause. All our states and I are one in this.
O my America, my long-lost land lady of
The hardening ground, the house neither ancient nor in
Good repair, the brackish stream, the half-abandoned mill,
The red plastic bucket that hung in the place we kept
By the beach where, I remember, August evenings
Rang with hilarity until we trembled with cold.
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Tomorrow I head off to Cummington in Western Mass., where I teach at Greenwood. Greenwood is an amazing and wonderful place. (Actually Cummington is pretty interesting. William Cullen Bryant, early American poet, author of Thanantopsis and To a Waterfowl, lived there. Richard Wilbur lives there now. Copland wrote music for a film called The Cummington Story, which was about resettling German refugees into the community there during the Second World War. The music survives in a late little piano piece called In Evening Air.) This year will be Greenwood’s 74th. It has a number of famous alums, including Joel Krosnick, Gilbert Kalish, Peter Westergaard, Lucy Shelton, Michael Webster, Anton Kuerti, Pamela Frank, Alan Gilbert, and two members of the Ciara Quartet, which are going to be in residence there this summer for the first time. Greenwood was started by a remarkable woman named Bunny Little, who was basically a good amateur violinist and educator, and who ran the place for 50 years. It was organized around 30’s progressive educational ideas, and is pretty much run as Bunny organized it, except the kids play a lot better than they did seventy years ago. In fact the level is pretty amazing. The kids are dedicated and excited in a very sincere and ingenuous way about music. It feels as though it works as the world ought to be. Being there is nothing short of inspirational. I’ve been teaching there for about a dozen years. It’s really what keeps me going through the rest of the year.
Last year I coached performances of the Schoenberg 4th quartet first movement, the slow movement of the Tippett 3rd quartet, the Shostakovitch Octet (which gets done every year, but it was the first time I’d coached it), a piece of mine, and the first movement of the Copland Quartet, along with some Mozart and Mendelssohn and I can’t remember what else. The Schoenberg, I have to say, was a really extraordinary performance. For a bunch of years now I’ve written a piece each summer for the chorus (all the kids sing in the chorus). So far I’ve done six Wallace Stevens settings, three Gertrude Steins, and some Shakespeare. I’m just about to finish a setting of a Wilbur poem called Green. Last year the camp commissioned a piece from Luna Woolf the the orchestra played at the end of camp; this year they’ve commissioned Julia Carey, a former student of mine who’s currently in the Harvard/NEC program and studying with Lee Hyla.
The concerts start a week from Saturday–they start at 7:30 and go on for ever–until about 11:00. They’re always amazing. Among other things just about no audience listens as intently as they do at Greenwood. If anybody’s in the neighborhood any Saturday night between then and August 6, drop by. Cummington’s about a half hour out of Northampton on Rt. 9.
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Sick Puppy is the sort of acronyn that Steve Drury gets from his Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice at the New England Conservatory Summer School. I got back from a trip to southern regions in time to catch the last half of this year’s installment, which featured Michael Finnissy. Wednesday night’s concert included Unknown Ground, a piece for baritone with violin, ‘cello, and piano. The work was written in 1990 for a concert which intended to be a part of the Brighton Festival of that year as a fundraiser for a center for AIDS treatment in Russia. As it turned out, due to Section 28, the Thatcher government law that forbade the use of government funds for the promotion of homosexuality, it had to be presented as a fringe event which was not officially part of the festival. The texts for the cycle are excerpts from interviews with English AIDS sufferers, both prosaic and full of psycho-babble, alternating with seriously literary poems by gay Russian poets. I’m always impressed by Finnissy’s success at setting the texts–I would find the flatness of the interview excerpts a probably defeating difficulty. The use of the instruments is modeled on that of the Shostakovitch Blok songs; every song having a different instrumentation. The music reflects various concerns of Finnissy’s. Two examples: the first song, for baritone and ‘cello, in an imaginary folk style, evocting the pribroch of scottish piping; the last two songs are reminiscent of the style of the String Trio. The performance was strong, but maybe not as completely dramatic as one might have wished. The concert also included a performance by faculty member Jeffrey Gilliam of a piece by Isang Yun and the first piano sonata of Gorecki, neither of which of much particularly interest, at least for me.
I was not able to be at the Thursday concert which I would very much like to have heard. It included a the premier of a Finnissy piece for clarinet and piano (played by Finnissy and Michael Norsworthy) and a performance of In C by Drury’s Callithumpian Consort, along with performances of the Boulez Sonatine and pieces for soprano and ‘cello by Finnissy and Birtwistle. Friday’s concert included a rivetting performance of Finnissy’s Hinomi, for percussionist, by Scott Deal, as well as Finnissy’s Strauss Waltzes for piano played by Shannon Wettstein, and concluded with a performance of Bartok’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion. I’ve never quite got this piece, and I still didn’t then.
The program ended on Saturday with a marathon concert performed by fellows and faculty of the program. It started at 5:30 and when I left a little before 11:00 there seemed to be about two hours more to go. There were lots of Finnissy pieces, including another–it seemed to me more poetic, certainly different, but no less masterly–performance of Hinomi by Matthew Jenkins, Ulpirra for solo bass flute, played by Christine, two of the Verdi Transciptions, played fabulously by Steve Olsen, Tango #4, played by Corbin Calloway, WAM played by Finnissy and Norsworth with William Fedkenheuer, and Post Christian Survival Kit, an open form sort of theater piece whose sense pretty much completely alluded me. I also heard performances of Stomp by Pamela Marshall, Composed Improvisation for Snare Drum by Cage, and Songbirdsongs by John Luther Adams, which I enjoyed, and a chunk of Makrokosmos III by Crumb which I would have just as soon missed, although it was played about as well as one could imagine.
I like Finnissy’s music a lot, and I’m always happy to hear any of it that I can. It doesn’t seem either as well known or as often performed in this country as it should be.
For anybody who’s curious about it and inclined to look out for it, I’d recommend the String Trio (there’s a recording on Et Cetera which also includes Cantaena and Contradanze and which is very hard to find, Multiple Forms of Constraint for string quartet, which is on a Metier disc of string quartet piece by Finnissy, played by the Kreutzer Quartet, This Church, also on Metier, and Red Earth for orchestra (including two didjeridus) on NMC. There are also recordings of piano music by Nicolas Hodges (including two chunks of the five hour long History of Photography in Sound) on Metronome, by Ian Pace, and by Finnissy himself, both on Metier.
I also particularly like Banimbir, Plain Harmony, and Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets (another section of the History of Photography in Sound), but I don’t think there are commercial recordings of them available.
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