Archive for June, 2007

I’m just about to start loading my car to move out to Greenwood for the next five weeks. Greenwood is a music camp in Cummington, in Western Massachusetts, mainly devoted to chamber music (although all the kids play in the orchestra and they all sing in the chorus, both of which perform every week on the Saturday night concerts along with all the chamber music groups.) It’s hard to say exactly what it is about the piece that makes it as wonderful and magical as it is, but it is. Even though it’s sort or trite to say so, people who have been there as kids (or as faculty) feel some kind of common bond, and they tend to stay in touch with each other throughout their lives. I was there first for a week in 1992, or 1991, I think… I wrote a ‘cello quintet which was played; I’m still in contact with four of the five kids who played the piece. The Chiara Quartet has been in residence since last summer; two of them are former campers.

This summer is Greenwood’s 75th anniversary, and there are various celebratory things happening, including a concert on July 6 by the Chiara and Joel Krosnick (another alum) featuring the Schubert Quintet. Peter Westergaard, also a former camper, from the 40’s, has written a flute quartet which will be played by students sometime during the summer. There’s a piece commissioned for the orchestra every year; this year the composer is Geoff Hudson. I’m not sure what else might be done. (I’ve been thinking maybe Irving Fine Quartet, maybe Shostakovich 7th, maybe Copland Sextet, but who knows…In a way it doesn’t matter.)

The concerts start a week from tomorrow. They start at 7:30 and go on for a long time. They’re pretty wonderful. The kids are incredibly good, and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced an audience anywhere else that listens so intently, with such concentration and interest. If anybody’s going to be in the neighborhood, they’re worth going to hear.

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Shostakovich–String Quartet No. 7

Irving Fine–String Quartet

Britten–Death In Venice–Act II

Music of Philip Grange–
The Kingdom of Bones
Lowry Dreamscap
Diptych for oboe and harp
Concerto for Solo Clarinet Radical and Symphonic Wind Band
(This is a Cameo disc–2061–Philip Grange is a terrific composer who teaches
a the University of Manchester and whose music should be a lot better known in the US–everywhere, actually)

Ellington–Jumpin’Pumkins, John Henry’s Wife, Blue Serge, Jump for Joy (from Classics 837)

Lister–Sleeping In Air (Sometimes you want to remember that you exist)


The Beetles–Sgt. Pepper

Peter Maxwell Davies–Piano Trio

Then I was able to find ACT–in Knoxville)

I arrived yesterday at about 5:00CST–Good thing. I’ve o.d.ed for a little while

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Every year in June I drive from Somerville, Ma. to Rainsville, Ala. to see my father, returning via Nashville to see my brother and his family. By the end of the school year, the idea of sitting in a car for two days there (and two days back) and listening to lots of music is appealing. (I also look forward to seeing my family, of course). I set out this morning early and got to Charlottesville, Virginia, one of my favorite places, after about twelve hours of driving. During most of that time I was listening to music:

Burt Bacharach–At This Time (The last time I was at the Tower Records in Harvard Square, when very little was left, all of it drastically marked down, I ran across this. I’m sort of a fan, and I was curious, and I figured that at that price I might as well see what it was like. I listened to it as well–all of it. I don’t feel that I’ll ever have to do it again. It’s no I Say Little Prayer For You or I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, or much of anything, in fact. It’s pretty bad. But now I know, and I had the time anyway. I begin to think that I was sorry I hadn’t bought a copy of the re-release on psclassics of the cast recording of Promises, Promises because I would much rather have been listening to it.)

Samamidon–But the Chicken Proved Falsehearted. (Great!)

Tschaikovsky–Serenade for Strings

The Beach Boys–Pet Sounds

Irving Fine–String Quartet

Joshua Rifkin–The Baroque Beetles Book (The person who sold me gas at the service area of the New Jersey Tunrpike liked this) (I do too)

Harold Rome–Pins and Needles (Songs from the union–meaning socialist–review put on by members of the Ladies Garment Workers for a long run sometime in the 30’s. This is a recording–a 25th anniversary recording–featuring Barbara Streisand, who’s great in the thing’s she does. It includes such wonderful songs as It’s Better With A Union Man, Sing Me a Song with Social Significance, Nobody Makes a Pass at Me, Status Quo, and One Big Union For Two.)

Benjamin Britten–Death in Venice–Act One. (I think this is Britten’s best opera. It’s so beautiful and wonderful! I especially like the way the scenes flow seamlessly one into another, the uncanny realistic effects–such as the imitation of the motor of the boat that takes Aschenbach to Venice–and the orchestration which is so beautiful, and so transparent and etherial–it just sort of hangs in the air like some kind of mirage or hallucination–and at the same time, or rather at certain times, so powerful and full, but always so colorful. I’m a little suprised that no more is made gnerally of the fact that Britten writes twelve-tone music to represent the sterility of Aschenbach’s work.)

Nico Muhly–The Only Tune.

By that time I started trying to find All Things Considered–without much luck for a long time-I always have trouble finding NPR stations in northern Virginia–so I guess I was listening to an indeterminat composition consisting mainly of white noise.

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Carolyn Brown was a dancer in Merce Cunningham’s Dance Company for twenty years from its very beginning at Black Mountain College in 1953; for a lot of those years she was also married to Earle Brown. She has recently published a memoir that time, which is called Chance and Curcumstance, and I’ve been reading it (and re-reading it) lately. At one point in the book she writes, “If one insists on putting one’s heroes on pedestals, it’s probably best never to meet them.” Even knowing the truth of that statement, she manages to write about Cunningham and Cage, who are clearly her heroes, and who are certainly the focus of the book, in a way that is at the same time clear-sighted as to their personal qualities, both attractive and less so, understanding as to the philosophical intentions of their work, and not just affectionate, but, unfailingly, downright loving about them as people.

Cage has become a sort of monumental icon, and one tends to think of him as some sort of serene celibate zen monk, with an endearing laugh, wearing denim trousers and blue work shirts, and observing a strict macrobiotic diet, without thinking that maybe he wasn’t always like that. Since I don’t think I’d ever seen any reference to their relationship in print, I was momentarily startled to read at one point early on in the book, “It was during these five days of intimate proximity that I first heard John speak about his feelings for Merce, about the sexual passion that Merce the dancer, who he likened to a Greek god, aroused in him.” One can agree with the very next sentence, “Because their public behavior was so circumspect, I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that theirs was a sexual relationship.” It is equally surprising to read about Cage as a person who cooked steaks for the Cunningham Dance Company (“America’s Best-Fed Dance Company!” as they liked to think about themselves), and religiously had his first drink of the day (bourbon, beer, or wine, at various times), or whose uniform was “sober black suits, business shirts, black shoes, and black stockings. Only his ties were a bit peculiar–short dark knit oddities that looked as though they’d been chewed off by a chipmunk.”

Brown studied philosophy in college and is very insightful and articulate about Cage’s philosophical intentions. She is also clear about the moments when there was a tension between the ideas he espoused and the realities of his life, (When, in 1954, due to the building’s being scheduled for demolition, he lost a beloved apartment, he was not at all amused to have Brown, innocently, remind him of his constantly proclaimed goal of non-attachment), and she understands the connection between his evangelical zeal for his philosophical and musical ideas and his early plan to be a Methodist minister. (I think this highlights one of Cage’s central struggles as a composer: he was SUCH a composer, but he was continually trying–for philosophical reasons–to escape his composerness.) Her observations on Cage’s influence on Cunningham and Rauschenberg, who was for many years the company’s resident designer, lighting director, and, later, artistic adviser, and theirs on him, as well as the differences, due to the inherent differences of the different media, in their individual artistic realizations of their common aesthetic goals, are, to say the least, interesting. More substantively, the story that Brown tells makes one realize that Cage’s early work and musical developments were as tied to dance, as were those of Stravinsky. For the years that the book covers and beyond Cage was the music director of the Cunningham Company, and performed and toured with them consistently.

I’m always interested when performers talk about technique–how they work at obtaining and maintaining control of the instrument so they can do whatever it is they’re trying to do expressively (There’s an Auden poem that starts: “You need not see what someone is doing/to know if it is his vocation,/you have only to watch his eyes…”). I’m particularly impressed when singers talk about it, since their instrument is their body. But if it’s a dancer….whose instrument is all of her body, and she’s continually fighting to maintain control of it, but also continually fighting the body itself, which is continually deteriorating, and continually THINKING about it, it’s especially fascinating. Especially if the person who’s talking/writing about it is so smart and so adept at expressing what’s on her mind. There’s a place in the book which has stayed with me strongly: after the end of first complete season, at the Theatre de Lys in 1954, she saw Cunningham sitting, “dispirited and hollowed-eyed” in his dressing room, saying, “My jump is gone. I’ll never be able to jump again as I used to.” (Cunningham was 35 at the time.)

The most appealing thing about the book is that it points out that all those people–Cage, Cunningham, both of the Browns, Rauschenberg, Johns, Remy Charlip, David Tutor, and all the rest–as opposed to the way we (I, anyway) had come to think of them as ageless, but old, were young and were completely delighted with the idea that they were doing new things (this is something that separates the Americans from their contemporary Europeans, incidentally–they were not so concerned with the zero hour sense of having to start all over again to salvage a world that had been ruined by a failed civilization–they were just getting off on the fun and excitement of it) and completely in love with what they were doing and with each other, and the fact that, at least for a time, their art and their lives were inseparable. Of course, as they got older, and more successful–in a worldly sense, anyway—, and better off financially, all that changed.

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