wet earth

Wondering to Be Done

Is there a word for the phenomenon in which a person who lives in a particular area is less likely than, say, a tourist, to visit a notable site in that area?  The classic example is the New Yorker who sees the Statue of Liberty every day but has never stepped on the island or climbed the steps to look through the windows in the statue’s crown—unless, of course, it’s to shepherd folks from out of town.  Is it that “there’s no rush”?  That one can always do it tomorrow, even when “tomorrow” turns out to be one decade slipping past the next?

I think that something similar occurs in literature—at least, it has with me.  Since coming to live in Monterey County over a dozen years ago, I have been aware of Jane Smiley, have known that she lives in Carmel Valley, am aware that she is an important, notable author.  But years passed and I never read her books.  This was true despite the fact that I was drawn to the subject of A Thousand Acres, with its inspiration in King Lear; was impressed by the idea behind 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel—not only an examination of the novel genre but an extended commentary on one hundred of them; was cheered by Smiley’s Letters to the Editor in various publications in which I wholeheartedly agreed with her politics.  I really do think that it was my knowledge of her physical proximity, the fact that she lived in the same county, that made the act of picking up one of her books seem less urgent.  What was the rush?  She was right next door.  In my mind, someday, I would read Jane Smiley. 

That day has finally come, and I can’t believe what I’ve been missing.

Smiley, who will be speaking at MPC this Thursday evening, writes about people and landscapes with depth and insight and a mature awareness of suffering and its corollary: the ability to carry on.  Indeed, in 13 Ways (which I am currently reading), she argues, “It is in the nature of the novel to say, ‘We are still alive.’”  Stories are always about life moving forward, in whatever direction of joy or disaster a particular author may have chosen.  “Prose implies that events can be organized, understood, endured, and survived,” Smiley writes, and it is exactly this quality of careful construction I found so striking in A Thousand Acres, a fantastic novel, and worth the wait.  In that book, Smiley reels out her story with patience and deliberation, creating a delicious tension in the reader who may know what happens to the characters in Lear and is eager to see how these Shakespearean fates may or may not translate to the novel’s damaged farm family in Iowa.

Smiley also writes about the human body with an uncommon level of spiritual curiosity.  Here are two passages from A Thousand Acres:

“Shame is a distinct feeling.  I couldn’t look at my hands around the coffee cup or hear my own laments without feeling appalled, wanting desperately to fall silent, grow smaller.  More than that, I was uncomfortably conscious of my whole body, from the awkward way that the shafts of my hair were thrusting out of my scalp to my feet, which felt dirty as well as cold.  Everywhere, I seemed to feel my skin from the inside, as if it now stood away from my flesh, separated by a millimeter of mortified space.” (p. 195)

“When I contemplate this memory, I feel on the verge of remembering what childhood felt like, that its hallmark was the immediacy of one’s every physical sensation, and also the familiar strangeness of one’s parts—feet and hands, especially, but also chest, knees, stomach.  I think I remember meditating on these attached objects, looking at them, touching them, feeling them from the outside and from the inside, wondering about them because there was wondering to be done, not because there were answers to be found.” (p. 277)

There is always wondering to be done, even if the answers are elusive, and Smiley is a welcome guide and companion on the wondering, wandering path of reading.  Looking down that path, I see many more books by Jane Smiley in my reading future.

The MPC Guest Authors Series presents Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley in Lecture Forum 103 at MPC on Thursday, April 19 at 7:00 p.m. The author will read from her fiction and discuss the writing of novels; questions from the audience are encouraged. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; tickets ($10) will be sold at the event.

The Artist and the Art

How much of the artist is in the art?  Earlier this month, Thomas Kinkade, renowned painter of picturesque thatched cottages cozily nestled in gauzy landscapes, died at the age of 54, likely from alcoholic poisoning.  It is a sad ending, a kind of ending that would never be found in his work, for in Kinkade’s idealized paintings there is no conflict, no tragedy, no sorrow.  His paintings represent a world in which human suffering is banished, an Eden empty of drama.

But when Adam and Eve are forced to abandon the Garden of Eden, the story goes with them.  No one cares about Eden after they leave.

I am sorry for Kinkade’s death, and sorry too that the man evidently experienced so much suffering.  I’m especially sorry that he was not able to use his share of artistic talent to produce genuine art.  The paintings that he (and his employees) offered to the public may, in their material nature and their marketability, resemble what we call art, but in my opinion such art is fraudulent, because it reveals nothing of its creator.  Kinkade created images completely detached from the darker realities of his life experience.  His paintings were his mask.

These thoughts were given special focus recently at a concert in Carmel featuring the Daedalus String Quartet.  The concert, presented by Chamber Music Monterey Bay, was the occasion of a premiere of a new work, “White Water,” by Joan Tower.  “White Water” was commissioned by CMMB as the first work in a multi-year cycle of four commissions called “Arc of Life.”  The idea of “Arc of Life” was inspired by “Going Forth by Day,” a video installation by Bill Viola that treats the cycle of living and dying through a series of compelling film portraits.  CMMB Board President Amy Anderson was inspired by Viola’s work when she saw it in New York in 2003, and when the opportunity arose in 2008 for CMMB to commission new work, she asked four composers to look at “Going Forth by Day” as part of their compositional process.

“White Water,” the first “Arc of Life” installment, was given a sensational world premiere performance by the Daedalus Quartet.  The piece opens with a single rising line in the viola, a haunting, exploratory melody that returns throughout the piece in several forms.  The other instruments gradually enter, creating a texture of rising and falling that includes generous use of glissandi, a kind of liquid sliding up and down a single string.  Later in the piece, a more intense rushing sound, evocative of the work’s title, is produced through furious crescendi and quick, agitated bowing.  Out of this mass of sound, the lonely, even small voice of a single instrument (the first violin) emerges, as if to wander through the desolate wreckage left in the wake of a deluge.

The work is brilliant, and I can’t wait to hear it again (KUSP will broadcast this concert on Friday, June 22, at 8 p.m.).  But what struck me most about this music was how much I felt to be experiencing the very nature of the woman who had written it.  At a Q&A session before the concert and at an event the previous evening, Tower showed herself to be a powerhouse individual, driven and ambitious in her art, relentless in her pursuit of musical excellence, but not without an inner quality of vulnerability that was revealed when she discussed how difficult composing music really is.  Yet this driven quality, so evident in the incredible rhythmic vitality of the piece, does not so much contrast with the inner sensitivity as it arises from it.  During the performance of “White Water,” I found myself feeling almost uncomfortable during the quiet solo violin passage.  I wondered if it was going on too long, if it sounded too separate from what came before and after, if the voicing was too thin, almost fragile.

Later (and only working from memory, since I don’t have a recording of the piece) it occurred to me that perhaps that extended moment of quiet vulnerability was not so much outside the piece’s bigger moments as it was its truest heart, the kind of still, inner place that can be our most reliable source for bravery and action.

Art may have as many different meanings as there are people who experience it.  For me, art worth caring about is art that tells us something deeply true about the artist, something honest and human that reaches across the artist’s medium, be it pigment or sound or words or stone or the body of a dancer, and touches us, one beating heart to another.  This is the art that lasts, beyond the life of its creator, because once it enters our own tender hearts it never leaves.


If parody is often a mark of affection, then “The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!),” now playing in an MPC Theatre Company production directed by Gary Bolen at the Bruce Ariss Wharf Theatre, in Monterey, is a ginormous love-bomb to the grand history of American musical theater.  Last year, PacRep presented “Forbidden Broadway,” which shares with “MMM” an insider’s perspective about the popular musicals that continue to be the favorites of audiences.  “Forbidden Broadway,” however, mocked the stars as much as the shows, whereas “MMM” trains its wicked, loving sights on the creators responsible for such classics as “Oklahoma,” “Cabaret” and “Evita,” refraining from lampooning the hardworking performers, famous or not, who at the end of the day have to pay the rent.

And paying the rent is what “MMM” is ostensibly all about.  In five scenes, each devoted to a different musical-creating individual or pair, Eric Rockwell (music and book) and Joanne Bogart (lyrics and book) tell the story, more or less repeated five times, of thwarted lovers whose greatest dilemma is an inability to pay the rent.  The works of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Kander and Ebb are mined to an almost alarming degree, with references to multiple musicals whizzing by at breakneck speed, sometimes in a single line.  “Follow your dream,” Mother Abby (Jennifer L. Newman) sings in "Corn," the segment inspired by “Oklahoma,” her hands reverently clasped like the warbling old nun's in “The Sound of Music.”  “Don’t ask me why,” she wisely adds.

Indeed, with a show like “MMM,” it’s best not to worry about the plot or ask questions, and instead just let the echoes of familiar shows and characters wash amusingly across one’s mind.  I especially enjoyed “A Little Complex,” the segment devoted to Sondheim musicals.  Many consider Sondheim’s songs to be inordinately complicated, unmelodic and full of neuroses, to which I say, what’s wrong with realism?  Maria Comstock, as the young apartment-dweller struggling to pay the rent, pulls off the rapid patter of a song similar to “I’m Not Getting Married,” from “Company,” and Mitchell Davis, as the Sweeney Todd-like Jitter, nicely conveys the wild intensity of Sondheim’s most inspired creation.

Because of a scheduling conflict, I watched the show during its preview performance instead of opening night, and while the cast was generally solid, there were a few songs offered in approximate pitches; I expect the production will tighten up throughout the run.  Standout performers include John Daniel as Jütter, the emcee-like character from “Cabaret,” whose sprechtstimme-style singing is excellent and whose movements across the stage are convincingly creepy and assured.  Less convincing in this segment (“Speakeasy,” referencing “Chicago” and “Cabaret”) was the show’s one gay embrace, which struck me as needlessly timid.

As I’ve written before, Camila De La Llata wonderfully channels the goofy charm of the young Carol Burnett; in “Aspects of Junita,” as the Evita-inspired character, she carries off one of the show’s funniest moments, which I won’t describe here, except to say that you may remember a certain chandelier in “Phantom of the Opera"...

Jennifer L. Newman and Phyllis Davis both offer strong voices and smart comedic timing in their scenes; the remaining cast provides capable support for this fast-moving show, especially the fine-voiced Kristin Grillo.

The Wharf Theatre boasts an interesting history; though the building has a somewhat crusty feel, which suits the Fisherman's Wharf atmosphere, its great advantage is the good acoustics, with not a bad seat in the house.  The singers perform without electronic enhancement.  What a joy to hear natural, unamplified voices!  The able Michael Blackburn, on piano, accompanies the entire show.  (But why no program bio for the pianist?)

At the performance I attended, the audience included several people who evidently knew as much about these musicals as the people who wrote them; the laughs were plentiful and frequent.  Those less familiar with the ins and outs of Broadway shows may not catch every gag (such as the hurrying woman who cries out “Sorry!” then adds, “Grateful!” as she exits stage left) but the obvious enjoyment with which Bolen’s talented company romps across the stage is contagious.  It’s the kind of show you leave humming a favorite tune, or perhaps two or three or more, and perhaps all of them at the same time.

“The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!),” plays at the Bruce Ariss Wharf Theatre through April 29.  For tickets and information, call the MPC Box Office, 831-646-4213, or visit www.mpctheatreco.com.