Saturday, November 28, 2015

DRIFT


Drift

 

The moving calligraphy of snow
snatched by the wind and swept in little scrawls
snakes across the black asphalt plaza.
For now, it is a gift of space,
empty of apple crates,
and unwashed girlfriends
with bad teeth, selling books.
No smell of pickpockets in the market.
No spilled hot cider or frozen fish.
Crowds of steamy-breathed shoppers,
bundled up, squeezed between pavilions
are now only shadowed thoughts, only
sliding astral shifts trailing passing cars.
The nannies pushing
white babies in carriages are gone.
Flower stalls are only a memorial smudge.
The fields are picked over and frost hardened,
and well beyond an easy day-trip drive.

 
Now the cold snap explodes, renewed,
the tip of a wet towel iced up, howling,
hurling welts on the municipality.
It drives snow into the doorways,
under the cardboard walls of bums
whose shaking hands hold tea and spread popcorn
beneath the torn furniture blankets
where the sparrows scavenge.
Cubist thought processes bubble:
Real Life Drama, fractured among personalities.
Displayed collages of torn and multicolored
Bits of easy-art psyche.
Blind hawks under drawn hoods
making collective sense only on
the other side of economic independence;
to those with hats, gloves and mufflers,
and on their way to work:
the heated cubicle,
the sightless fluorescent light
warm, yet sterile, staring down
from the hung ceiling.
Cold in the mind’s eye
and still no escape.
On the outside, perfection in
multiples of billions flashes cold
around the corner stone,
it’s frozen heart the tomb
of fossils, the remains of
an earlier, warmer age.

 
To walk in deep snow,
a traveler in the night blizzard;
to bear witness to the blowing crystals
as they curtain the way
concealing my meandering progress:
There is a sort of safety among the shifting drifts,
a serenity amidst the appearance of expanding space:
security beneath hood and overcoat,
economy in the blank blowing white.
Vision is obscured and background obliterated.
Only clean smooth line remain.
Sound is muffled, subdued;
muted, discrete units of sonority’
dimly broadcast and distant
sift through the falling snow.
Those others encountered in the landscape
are draped in virgin white, are children,
shoulders layered in laced frost’
picking their way among their first steps
along the unsalted side of the street,
its sins not yet manipulated, their feet dry,
the contents of their stomachs
held tight and comfortable,
solid and warming, fuel for the walk.
Protected, we all plow the frigid softness
only to have our trails quickly covered.
We are blind to what lays buried and unseen,
absolved, for the moment, of obligations.
With a renewed wonder of What It Is
the journey extends beyond the present,
beyond dimension and ending,
counting the cold sting of each flake and
vindicating the voyage of the sailor through
storm and sea, as the ship is moored
fast to the dock on a wintry night.
Journeying past the unprobed,
through gas and solid in suspension,
taking comfort in knowing
I will arrive quietly, unannounced.

 
The young are unaffected.
Stationary, they burn away the hours
like idling, freshly primed engines
immune in a elsewhere existence.
Few have yet learned to become invisible
and pass, enfolded, from tree to tree
a Lover in the embrace of the icebound park.
They still wish for summer.  They still burn,
beacons at the cliff’s edge while the cold sea
churns among the rocks around them.
They are well mortared, vigilant,
searching for the strange ship,
the cold too new to be of use,
their few memories aching for repetition.
They are consumed in the violence of growth,
the taut snapping of expectation,
and warmed with stretching experience.
the stillness of the glazed matrix between
jutting trunks holds no fascination for them.
 

Blowing night pulls covers
on sleeping bodies, back to back,
fetal, sucking at life with each frigid breath,
on cardboard pads and soaked moving blankets
in box houses shuddering in the
fluttering roar, camouflaged
along the walls, tucked between pillars
in the derelict side entrance between avenues.
Belongings stored in plastic garbage bags
serve as windbreaks instead of ilex.
A restless night of sleep cut with
counting winds and constant tucking.
Checking.  A wait, primarily.
A conservation of energy until
in its turn, as is its nature,
dawn illuminates the knife of the blizzard
in blue-gray monochrome.
Juncoes forage beneath the shrubs.
Feathers puffed, safe on the lea side of a drift,
they find the hidden seeds.
The slicing cold plumbs human pores;
it freezes forehead taught and stiff.
Cheek and larynx tingle.
Stone structures emerge and pass
making all that was solid, fluid.
The séance of blowing snow
calls shadowed images, one after another
faded, fading, ephemeral, and finally
gone again into the grayness and quickly forgotten:
the propelled flickering of the solid,
the transience of nuclei,
the space between flakes.

 
Vibration condensed.
It takes the wiping out of snow
to swallow all and reduce it
to steam at the river’s edge,
where the effluence from the power plant
mixes with the salt tide and warms the fish.
The heavy metals in the mud below
gain activation; the creosote log
rolls against the concrete bulkhead.
Pintails and Scaups bob in the current,
sweeping them out to sea with snow on their backs.
Their mating colors are yet months away,
stowed safe in treeless tundra
where mice burrow under the crusty snow
unseen by the fox or gyrfalcon.
A section of sidewalk blown bare
connects two steaming sewers,
catch basins choked with accumulations of slush.
Briefly, there is a naked exposure,
a pornography of squashed bodies hurrying
to certain dissolution in the grey swirl
past glowing storefronts, windows opaque.
The slick danger of the lurking cellar door
goes unnoticed until it’s too late.
The Slip.  The Fall.  The Hospital.
There is the manufactured warmth of the
adrenaline rush, then the return
of steadiness and Reason.  Thought is lost;
it is the last of the coins
fallen beneath the snow.

 
In the stillness of the wooded ravine
the partridge lies buried, insulated
beneath a small mound of snow
wintering the frigid days unseen.
A pair of deer push through the drifts
in the blowing sun on the side of a hill,
across the submerged pasture,
making for the cover of naked shrubbery
on the far side, again hidden, jewelry safe.
Precious visions, briefly witnessed.
Satyr and Nymph seen through the scratched
plexiglass of a face mask and muffled
under the foam helmet liner;
coarse whine surrounding,
tread and runner slicing.
The pervasive smell of gasoline precludes
any perception that the trees are empty.
The rabbit’s silence has been shattered.

 
Briefly, there is dread in the coming of March:
in late February the frozen crust,
softened by the sun far too soon
reveals an archaeology of waste:
broken bottles and the slop of feces,
flaccid strips of soggy cardboard.
The corpse of a dead pigeon.
Big Toms in matted winter coats
pick their way along the curb,
sneezing and hacking,
contemplating assassinations.
The low afternoon sun
cannot cancel the long nights.
Cold weather viruses accumulate.
Intestinal parasites drain the body,
wielding dysentery and hunger.
How easily the smooth labels
slip off the cold wet bottles
leaving only a sticky vacancy.

 
Again comes the muzzle of a cold front
and all is put in suspended animation;
all is meat for the freezer and cold containers.
A blizzard rolls a new layer of fresh snow
over the flats along Wyalusing Creek.
There is serenity of form, fluffed over
with a myriad sifting of crystals:
the perfection of fractals speaks,
intuited only through the language of advanced calculus,
or the scratching of turkey and crows
for the fallen cobs along the corn rows.
The tales the tracks tell are only hinted at,
static radio programs left to the imagination,
to be guessed at through a cloud of frozen breath
the fear of snow blindness tucked away
behind the memories of a slitted bone mask
worn by the Inuit seal hunter crouching at the blow hole.
The predator’s stalk along the horizon
facilitates the clear suspension of time, eliminates
all projections at the moment of the kill;
and the prey, once taken, leaves only angels’ wings
pressed into the thin crust, lit in gold by the low sun.
The solvency of Innocence in Virgin blue,
are treasures, intricate transparencies,
a clean laser, cut of crystal and unobstructed
in its circuit of the continuum.

 
The plain purity of snow is ultimately,
inevitably,
superseded by the new Spring.
All the dead rise, stiff corpses made pliant,
veins pumping with renewed ambition
with the Druids’ juice of a new equinox
in a mad scramble for the sun.
For now, though, there is the solitude between the hills,
the clear echoes of the woodpecker hammering,
hammering for the cool soft fatted grubs beneath the bark.
Having reached the end of the flats behind the houses,
a doe leaps and flies across the corn stubble,
kicks up sprays of snow as she heads for the
hill across the road, risking all at the pavement.
She hesitates at the double yellow line
then is down over the other side
safely, in a cradling cushion of snow
passing into the shadows in the dimming light;
leaving, once again, a silent landscape of rolling winter.
I let the skis push of the track and into the deep drift,
into the deeper part of the woods at dusk,
out of sight of the road, the traffic.
I plow its crust for secrets and dare its twisting trails
deep in the tight ravines, through the snow covered Hemlocks.
I the last light, with the wind from behind,
I stride straight north across the open evening.
Home is at the other end of the smooth fields.
White, softened to blue, smoothes the slide,
the kick and glide over the cut cornstalks buried.
Across the creek and the danger of ice
is the warm kitchen, the safety of the vestibule
with its lines of wet shoes and gloves.
The husk of snow plastered to the back of my legs
can be shed and the pink calves rubbed warm.
there is the security of the hot shower,
the insulation of immediate family,
the narcosis of domestic life.
Outside, still the anti-freeze lies preserved under ice,
the dead opossum lies buried and unseen at the side of the road
and the pigeon falls silent and stiff in the stillness of
the subzero night and the wind blows across the plaza
in the empty early hours, awaiting morning’s dim illumination.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

ON PERFECTION

All artists are chasing after perfection, in whatever medium their version of perfection exists.  Be it the visual artist, the novelist or poet, or the musician, in the back of their mind they’re hoping that their next creation will be the clear, unobstructed expression of the artistic vision they hold locked deep in their Heart of Hearts.  It’s not easy to come by.  Somehow, it always seems one more step removed from what you’ve accomplished.  We come close, sometimes close enough to experience some of the ecstasy of true perfection; it is this experience that drives us to try harder, spending long lonely hours honing our craft that we may become the vehicle: the open conduit through which our Muse may speak.  Perfection, however, is a concept.  When you get down to it, although it may start with an idea, in the end art is really about doing (this is something I brought up in the post on improvisation and composition).  It is experiential; consequently, conceptual hang-ups only get in the way of the creative process.  Strange as it may seem, it has been my experience that only by forgetting about perfection do I come closer to attaining it.  Indeed, this is truly art: the intuitive application of craft.  Intuition is pure experience. Conception plays only a small part in it; one doesn’t think about what one is going to do intuitively.  One just does it.  The conduit is open.  The vision is clear.

Agnes Martin had some interesting ideas about art and perfection.  In Writings/Schriften (Hatje Cantz, 2005), she writes that art is not perfection, it is about perfection.  Art is the product of Humanity and, as such, can only be as perfect as people are perfect. She also says that, if you’re serious about making art, you’d better be prepared to spend a lot of time alone working at it.  This brings us back to the old Francesco da Milano story about the nature of musical performance, in which he states that there are three things essential to its make up: first, you study technique and learn to play you instrument; second, you practice, refining your technique until you are able to say something with your music.  The third is something beyond your control.  He called it the “Gift”.  It is what separates great art from all the rest.  All you can do is work on the first two aspects to the best of your ability, in the hope that you will leave yourself open to receiving the third, the Gift.  This brings us back to doing it; art is all about doing it.  It takes a lot of doing.  The last I heard, Yo Yo Ma still practices six hours a day.  I would suspect that, at his level, he’s given up hoping for perfection; he is what he is (which seems to be perfect enough on listening to him).  One last eloquent musical voice:  Pat Metheny.  In his most recent Downbeat interview (Dec.2013) he said he wishes he could play better, write better and be a better musician.  This is Pat Metheny we’re talking about: twenty-time Grammy winner, Downbeat Hall of Famer, has made more recordings than any one person could remember, let alone name.  What’s implicit in his statement is that he doesn’t say that he wants to be the “best” of these things; he is just working to improve them.  Being the best would imply perfection and Mr. Metheny knows better than that.  He’s still on the journey.  Though he still feels he has a way to go he feels blessed just to be able to travel that road; that he has never reached a stage of “Perfection” and that he never will.  And (the best part) wanting to say you have reached it is irrelevant.


While the popular idea of the performance of composed music as an expression of perfection is elusive at best, the concept of the perfect in improvised music is even more ephemeral.  It is a constant seeking, testing and exploring; it is a quest for that perfect phrase that is, most amazingly, spontaneously expressed and a pure product of intuitive direction.  It is the ultimate expression of Milano’s principles.  The improvised performance is probably the most thrilling way of seeking the unattainably perfect in music.  Conceptual thought operates on the sidelines while the bulk of the expressive work is accomplished simply in the doing. The very spontaneity of the act raises the level of excitement to ecstatic heights, and it seems that the closer one gets to perfection, the greater the ecstasy.  Each new phrase comes as a surprise and serves as an instant jumping off place for the next line.  Indeed, while mistakes in performance are perceived as compromising the perfection of a composed work, mistakes in improvised performance can push the music in a new direction and actually contribute to the perfection of the whole.  As such they take on new meaning and aren’t necessarily viewed as mistakes, they are considered more like opportunities when approached properly. The proper attitude and reaction are of the utmost importance when responding to a mistake, and will determine what direction an improvisation will take and the degree of success one will have traveling that new road.  Considering this, I find a “mistake” may be more constructively viewed, within the context of improvised performance, as a “surprise”.  Ultimately, the performer is, in effect, manipulating the concept of what perfection is and spontaneously giving it a new definition to fit the circumstance.  He or she may even be manipulating circumstance.  It all blends together to produce the ecstasy of the quest; and in the final analysis, though actual perfection may never be attained, the perfect pursuit of perfection may actually be its closest manifestation…which, really, is just plain wonderful.  

Sunday, March 9, 2014

FROZEN LAKE MICHIGAN




The last post is from last year.
No water on the horizon this year, just snow and ice all the way out.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

WINTER ON LAKE MICHIGAN

Looking west out onto Lake Michigan in February.  The double line of ridges behind the figure walking the dog on the beach is actually an ice shelf created by wave action...the waves don't break there anymore, though, because the lake is frozen for quite a ways out.  The thin blue line on the horizon is where the ice ends. 
A rare bit of winter sun to light up the beach (and a better view of the ice shelf).

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A QUICK LOOK AT THE NATURE OF IMPROVISATION/COMPOSTION

I recently had the pleasure of spending a fantastic week at the end of June attending the Lute Society of America’s biannual seminar in Cleveland. The performances were drop-dead beautiful and the lectures, workshops and classes where fascinating. What was particularly dear to my heart, though, was the general trend of much of the discussion, among students and faculty alike, which was focused on the nature of improvisation and strategies for approaching it, and its relationship with the compositional process. Of course, this was as applied to music in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. To my delight, though, we found that there is basically no difference between how improvisation was approached in the past and how it is approached today in jazz, blues and popular music. Sitting among some superb musicians and some of the leading scholars in Early Music, I found that many of the issues under discussion were exactly the same as what we used to hash out decades ago, as improvising blues musicians, over bottles of cheap wine in a basement studio in Brooklyn; indeed, we found the answers to some burning questions back then and I was able to take many of the conclusions we had come to and offer them as constructive contributions to our discussions in Cleveland. There were a number of surprised nods of agreement among some very learned heads on the observations and solutions I offered. We discovered that as musicians, regardless of academic background, we all face the same challenges when improvising and composing and are all equally creative in dealing with the concepts associated with the two, and their application. Where can the fine line between composition and improvisation be found? Can it even be found anywhere at all? It’s a fuzzy line, seemingly more of a messy smudge that obliterates the end of the one word and the beginning of the other (and vice versa). I’m not sure if they are as much two distinct forms of expression as they are just dual aspects of one primary creative process. The answers to questions like this are never easy to sort out and more often than not, if not being impossible to answer, turn out to be a complex mess. I don’t expect to find all the answers here, but I do hope to explore some avenues of inquiry (...and to add to the confusion it pays to remember that things are not always as they seem, nor are they otherwise).
There are "compositions" that, as documents, may very well be no more than a record, a snapshot, so to speak, of an ongoing creative process of improvisation. This is a view shared in the visual arts by abstract expressionist painter Wilhelm deKooning. DeKooning felt that his paintings were never really finished, and that those canvases taken from his studio and exhibited publicly were only documenting a stage, a thin slice, of what was going on from day to day in his creative process. He felt that his life—spent in a constantly evolving act of painting—was his true artistic statement. The paintings, as documents, were incidental. It’s almost as if he viewed the whole concept of "the work of art" more as a verb than a noun. Ornette Coleman seems to share the same point of view: in the liner notes of his 1959 recording, Change of the Century, he states that, "In a certain sense there really is no start or finish to any of my compositions. There is a continuity of expression, certain continually evolving strands of thought that link all my compositions together. Maybe it’s something like the paintings of Jackson Pollock". It’s interesting to note that Coleman, the consummate improviser whose recorded works are largely improvised, refers to his works as "compositions". Apparently the line was pretty fuzzy for him, too. This begs to question as to when does one stop calling the process of creating "improvising" and call it "composition"?
As far as the documentation of an improvised performance, Derek Bailey—that arch-improviser—in his book, Improvisation: It’s Nature and Practice in Music, adds this to the discussion: "Essentially, music is fleeting; its reality is its moment of performance. There might be documents that relate to that moment—score, recording, echo, memory—but only to anticipate or recall it." On the basis of this statement we can conclude that music, by necessity, has no choice but to be experienced as an ongoing endeavor, in the flux of time, from performance to performance; it, puts the real experience of music in the forefront and squarely in the "Now". This is fertile ground for the performance of improvised music. Bailey also says that improvised music is best heard live and then forgotten as soon as possible, the implication being that the more you listen to a recording of an improvised performance, the less you’ll get out of it. While I don’t deny that there are real benefits (and real pleasure) to be derived from listening to the recording of a hot solo by your favorite performer, over and over, it’s also true that the overall artistic value of recording such performances can indeed be a hit-and-miss thing (eg. "Emergency", by Tony Williams & co.). Often it is most valuable solely as a reference document of or for the performer.
Be that as it may, the practice of documenting improvisation is not a new concept and goes back a surprisingly long way. We can catch a glimpse of it with the recercar. Recercars are written records of improvised performances that occur most commonly in the lute repertoire of the 16th century. In 1508, Joan Ambrosio Dalza, published a number of abstract, free form recercars that play primarily as improvisations. By mid century, Francesco da Milano was publishing recercars that, while still retaining a loose feel, come across as being much more organized. As time progressed the form of the recercar became formalized to the point where it morphed into the fugue. It, in effect, became an established compositional form and virtually unrecognizable from it progenitor.
I believe there is a direct correlation between the recercar, as it appears on the printed page, and, say, an ECM recording of Ralph Towner playing a live concert of improvisations. They didn’t have audio recording equipment in the 1500s and couldn’t catch everything, but what they did was write down is what they remembered of an improvised performance. They wrote down their best licks. To take it a step further, they may have strung some of their best licks together, in a pleasing way (and in a satisfying way, possessing a greater measure of internal rhetorical coherency), to form a composition. In my own experience, blues solos that began as improvisations in performance eventually, after playing them literally over a thousand times, were edited to the extent that they became composed solos. I could very well have written them down and called them recercars. There is a clear connection here that spans centuries. Examining the evolution of the recercar throughout the 16th century nicely illuminates the close symbiotic relationship that improvisation and composition share; it serves as an archetype of what goes on within the mind of the individual musician. The process of thoughtful organization of spontaneous musical ideas, as illustrated in these works, is probably the clearest link I can find in the fuzz between the two disciplines.
Crawford Young, being the genius that he is, approaches the issue from the opposite direction, saying, " Improvisation is really only memorized composition". Seab Meador once told me that he learned how to play guitar by listening to as many records as he could and stealing as many riffs off them as he was able. In this fashion he eventually built an aural library, a lexicon of licks that he could draw from when improvising. I believe every improvising musician can relate to this as we have all done the same thing. The really fun and creative part is when the moment comes, usually in performance, where you morph those riffs into something else: something all your own. These are the moments that you eventually find and develop your own voice, where you find ideas that you want to preserve, where you may have the urge to compose a vehicle with which to preserve them. Thus we have moved from composition to improvisation and back to composition; we’ve come full circle, and the process will renew itself when someone hears our riffs and adds them to their own improvisational vocabulary.
I’ve also heard improvisation referred to as "spontaneous composition", but I believe this may be stretching it a bit too far. Composition implies intent; it implies a desire to preserve a specific musical idea for duplication in future performances. A purely improvised performance expresses no such intention, it functions completely in the "now". True, ideas born of improvisation–truly inspired ideas–that make a deep impression remain to become parts of possible forthcoming composed works. But in this capacity they are not spontaneous, they are willfully manipulated. Anyone who has improvised an inspired solo knows that doing it is not a conceptual thing, it’s an experiential thing. The thinking is peripheral; it’s really a matter of doing. It’s spontaneous. Is it composition? I don’t think so. It’s a matter of expressing something else, and what hat that something else is, is a matter for an essay all by itself.
This little excursion has the potential to quickly turn into a book–or at the very least a series of posts. I’m just getting started. Every time I put down an idea it generates three more. As far as I can tell, improvisation and composition are intertwined in the ultimate symbiotic relationship. Although it often appears that one cannot exist without the other, I won’t go so far as to say that all composition is the product of improvised ideas; there are always exceptions. I’m not yet satisfied as to whether they exist as two independent entities, or as two aspects of the same creative principle, or both. There are too many factors to consider to come to any immediate conclusion. So, for now, I’ll leave it at this.

FANA



I


Cool dark waftings, just slightly moist,
slow movements of air hovering
in the clear black spaces
between the upper rafters inside the cathedral.
Serenity of the tomb; the dead.
Cold stone buttresses.
Limestone arches hidden behind
the heads of pillars in the wings.


At the heart of the cross,
at its very center, its altar,
the atmosphere is pierced
by the breath of angels.
Celestial glow.
Stone floor made radiant
by sunlight filtering through
the stained glass cupola above
and floating down slowly,
                     slowly,
slowly on the backs of sifting dust,
the minutae kicked here and there
by Brownian movement, randomly,
settling, ashen.  Shed moth wing scales.
Finally to illuminate the polished marble floor
in a circle of sacred light,
edges fuzzy and fading
to silent shadow along the stone molding
in the corners.


But the circle,
the light,
has cracked the roof of the sepulcher in spring,
laid open the vault door,
and let in the scent of lilacs,
and the rustling of new leaves
fresh in the warming breeze.
It is a smile.
A beat of the Divine Heart.
Mind and Hope.


II


Behind, from below comes the sound of a horn
reverberating along the tiled walls,
a cacophony of shuffles,
foot falls, following after
my steady trudge after
all the others have faded away
down the corridor.
I am alone with the whispering ghosts of melody,
the thoughts of a man playing a horn
alone.
                                           Saxophone,
baby's wail, child's singsong,
lovers' moans and orgasms,
souls of urban men and women.
Soul of a black Heart.
Sound disembodied
as if the man had grasped
the spark of divinity and swallowed it,
inhaled it deep into his gut
and, with chakras swollen and blazing,
until his whole body and
soul were charged with its energy
and he could contain it no longer,
put horn to mouth and blew,
exhaled this power,
this transcendent smell of hallway piss,
taxis home at dawn,
spare change and turnstyles clicking,
muffled in the heated blast of
air-conditioner exhaust,
and suit after suit after suit
are stuffed in as doors slide closed.
Exhaled and gave all
for free.


I know him:
his thin, angular black face,
buffed, black leather skull cap,
small grey goatee
and horn perched like a brass bird
springing from his mouth.
Singing.
Tail grasped berween white teeth and
black lips.  Serene stance.  Singing reed.
The spirit of Africa hidden
in the simple mystery of what lies
behind his sunglasses, in his eyes.
He plays in the old style
with a quick, shallow vibrato.
But he really doesn't care much about style.
He doesn't have to.
He plays the tender standards,
the old standbys, the naturals.
But he plays them fresh,
he plays them new.


III


Stopping, bathed in sound,
I close my eyes
and still see the holy geometry
etched in the crimson light on the
insides of my eyelids, in a
stained glass mosaic of capillaries.
Corpuscles.  Small flashes of royal blue.
White and yellow.  Forest green.
The figures come to me:
kneeling in a garden by a rock
with lambs, robes and children,
a throng of illuminated faces looking over shoulders.
Translucent.  Radiant,
the low morning light fresh behind them,
shining, silent.
In silence, so swiftly dissipated like
the echo of a cough
or the grate of a shoe on concrete.
Decrescendo; diminuendo.
And finally, the dull click of the turnstyle
or the redundancy of the exit gate clacking closed.
Sterile sounds.
Alone with their echoes.
Only alone and no more.


Sometimes in the rush between stations
on the express,
in the pumping, urgent rhythms of the
shaman wheels, I can hear an
harmonica wailing.
Wailing the blur of steel I beams,
the rushing wall of forced air
at the tunnel's mouth.
The thin reed sound.  The Pan sound,
most fitting for this place
at this speed, stopping at this station.
I get off the train and as the roar recedes
the bare walled catacombs
are left in peace.
The Saints, beggared and in tatters,
plead quietly along the gutters.
The rest continue their pilgrimage,
heads bowed, humble, obedient.
And, eyes closed for a moment,
the light comes back;
the shield is buffed in the sun
on the steppes, where the wheat grows
golden and rippling.
The breeze cools my forehead
and tickles my eyelashes
while my own feeble steps
bring me higher and higher
closer to the open, to cloud,
to sky.


IV


The trains roar below
one after another, a
numbing rumble of mass.
Steel on steel.
Steel disks of wheels
screeching on the rails around
the turns.  Screaming.  Bellowing.
Twenty Third Street and Ely.  Union Square.
Howard Beach.  One Hundred and Twenty Fifth Street.
Watches, shirtsleeves, tense hands and
newspapers.
Minds wiped clean among the broken glass,
skulls crammed with the shifting light of a
television on the livingroom wall.
Mashed potatoes, roast chicken.
Boiled vegetables.
Uneasy pupae hurtling through
the blackness of the tunnel.
Taught cocoons.  Sensitive.


The dead are fallen on the platform,
the dying wander absently among the ruins,
the conductor mouths, the horn
blows three short blasts.
Bedford Avenue.  Smith and Ninth Streets.
Fourth Avenue.
Archways and rafters shatter,
splinter and fly apart.
Lofty spaces collapse,
fading with the whistle blasts
on the periphery, past my temples.
Cromwell's armored citizen army has
smashed the stained glass windows
of all the old churches,
and they have been replaced with plain clear glass.
Only dim fading memories remain.
Only visions vainly glimpsed at.


And finally, all alone again
with the sound of the horn,
the click of the turnstyles in the dim light,
in the corridor under the stained mosaic of cracked tiles:
False place names.  Tag.  Sign.
And me, alone,
one among the wiggling mass,
to worm my way out,
up into the fetid air
to where the wheat no longer grows
on the remains of where once
a cathedral had been;
and where once angels, wings folded down silken backs,
sang in tier upon tier,
and light touched and turned all to gold
there remains only a circle, sacred,
glowing on the station floor.

Friday, May 25, 2012

IN PRAISE OF SMALL VENUES

I remember once reading that Segovia had taken the guitar and its music out of the salon and brought it to the concert hall, and having done so, restored it to legitimacy. I always had a problem with this.
It seems to me that there are many these days who make the mistake of assuming that size of venue is a measure of the quality of music presented there. The appearance of the guitar in solo performance on the great large stages of the world has, for example, in a sense legitimized it for many pundits as a "serious" instrument on which is performed "serious" music. This is taking the whole thing about size completely out of context, for no good reason. This is not to challenge the artistic validity of highly amplified rock concerts with elaborate stage shows, where small groups of musicians play to mega-audiences; they are a different animal and there is a different aesthetic at work there. What I am addressing is the issue of performance by small acoustic or lightly amplified ensembles (classical. jazz or otherwise) and solo performers. These performances were meant to be presented in small, intimate spaces. I don’t believe they were ever intended to appear in front of a large audience; I do believe their performance suffers, and they lose something in their musical message when they do so.
During the Renaissance and Baroque periods there was some very fine music produced by some of the world’s greatest musicians in some very intimate settings: Monteverdi in the court at Mantua, Luys Milan in the Valencian court , Robert DeVisee at Louis XIV’s bedside. There is a account of Francesco da Milano holding his listeners spellbound at a royal banquet in Milan. Selected Venetian cognoscenti were in the habit of retreating to a special salon deep in the Doge’s palace to hear musicians perform. The list of examples goes on. Probably the largest performances given to the general public–the closest things to today’s media extravaganzas-- were those of the great choral works performed in the cathedrals.
We seem to have forgotten that some music is better heard in small intimate settings. Performance practice throughout history bears this out. Performers and composers for solo guitar know this from direct experience and most players I know prefer to make music in smaller spaces. I have no doubt that, for the most part, the audience also feels the same: no one wants to sit in the back of Avery Fischer Hall when John Williams gives a guitar recital there. This crosses over to other musical disciplines as well. I would much rather see a jazz quartet at a small supper club than in a large concert hall. The tablaos in Madrid and the the gypsy caves and tavern back rooms of rural Andalucia are where you go to see and hear the heart & soul of flamenco plumbed to their depths. From a purely aesthetic point of view, solo and small ensemble players of any type of serious art music would have to be out of their minds to prefer playing to a large, faceless audience instead of in the intimacy of a small gathering. It’s not the same. They are not interchangeable.
This is especially true for modern "art music" composition. More often than not, modern atonal or dissonant works heard in a large hall sound like mush. I spent a season attending recitals of some very modern works at the Rose Studio in Lincoln Center. It’s a small room (150 people, max) where the audience sits right up close to the performers. Much of it was pretty involved music, by the likes of composers from Webern to Zorn, but it comes across beautifully when it’s up close and personal. The close proximity of the audience, indeed, drew them into the very act of performance itself. We, in a sense, became a part of it. This added dimension of involvement gave the music an immediacy that commanded my complete attention. I became totally immersed in what was going on and, consequently, understood the message. The music spoke. This would have been impossible in a large hall.
Trends in composition also indicate that many beautiful works were designed for small performance settings. Miguel de Fuenllana’s sacred "duos" for solo vihuela are perfect examples. These were small musical prayers set for performance in, at most, a small chapel. The most moving performance of these duos I ever gave was to a single listener, on a dark and silent late summer night in a backyard set back off the beach on the Long Island Sound. The only light we had was supplied by half a dozen candles set around the music. The music came alive in a way only such a setting could have engendered: quietly, delicately, magically, with a sense of space at once grand yet intimate. It was the performance of a lifetime; I don’t think I’ve ever played them as well since. My listener sat there entranced, bundled in a blanket, wide-eyed and silent. It happened again (though, personally, I don’t feel I played that well that night), at a performance one night on vihuela in a gallery on Lake Michigan in the fall, lights turned off, dozens of candles everywhere (something about those candles and this music), the walls covered with beautiful paintings. Though there was standing room only, you could hear a pin drop throughout the performance. People told me they’d never heard anything like it in that town.
These are the kind of places this music was meant to be performed in. These are the settings. Setting is so important for this kind of music (there is definitely an element of theater here); it brings out the best of what it is supposed to be. The experience of such performances, for both artist and listener, would be lost in a large venue. The aesthetic surrounding these kinds of performances is totally alien to the concert hall.
Today’s large venues serve more as an indicator of an artist’s popularity, if anything, than as a reliable gauge of the quality of the music being produced. It also serves as an indicator of the availability and demands of a mass market for what has become a very commercialized product.. The construction of these large halls was not to facilitate an increased quality of music, but to exploit the larger audience that a growing middle class was providing. They were what we would call today a new marketing device. The invention of new and louder instruments, like the piano and the modern classical guitar, and the composition of symphonic works for larger orchestras were a response to the growing size of available venues. It was not the other way around. While they may have appreciated the increase in independence and income, composers and performers were not necessarily looking for larger halls in which to make better music. Beautiful music was being written and played for all manner of instruments long before they entered the concert hall. In this sense, they never lacked for legitimacy, and functioned as vehicles for expressing the soul on the deepest levels long before their appearance on the stage at Carnegie Hall.
Personally, I’ll leave the concert halls to the symphony orchestra; that’s the only place they’ll fit in anyway. As a solo performer, I’ll take the intimacy of a small space any day...and the magic that is unique to an intimate gathering of souls in a beautiful place with an inspired setting, to swim in the pure sound of Music.