wet earth

Listening for the Flow

At the beginning of my improv class in Santa Cruz yesterday, as we were warming up by massaging our jaws and shaking the tension out from our faces, one of the teachers said that she had recently listened to a radio interview featuring a trauma specialist.  The specialist had gone with a team to a war-torn foreign country, to work with people who had been exposed to horrible conflict and suffering.  And yet, according to the trauma specialist, in her experience the bodies of most Americans are bound up with more tension—more trauma—than those of people in other countries, even people whose lives have been affected by dislocation or violence or war.

Why is this so?  What are the specific qualities of American culture, habits and thought-patterns that lead so many of us to hold tension in our bodies?  One might think of these qualities, perhaps restlessness, or competitiveness, or isolation, as an invisible force, as silently persistent as a thought, flowing as if throughout our American air and water, shaping us from the moment we are born—indeed, likely before we are born.

I imagine that other qualities shape other cultures in other places.  Last Friday evening, at the conclusion of a glorious concert by the Pavel Haas String Quartet at All Saints Church, in Carmel, the woman sitting in front of me turned around and remarked that she thought that other countries must take music more seriously.  The four performers of the Pavel Haas are from Czechoslovakia, and what she meant was that it was evident, from the specific quality of sound they produced, that their lives—not just their training in a conservatory, but their childhood, and their parents’ childhoods, and so on down the ancestral line—had taken form in an environment in which classical music is as pervasive and vital as air and water.

The Pavel Haas, presented by the Carmel Music Society (and shown at right in the Prague State Opera House), played with a warm, burnished tone.  It is a sound I have heard in other European ensembles: at concerts featuring the Ysaÿe and the Fine Arts Quartets, on recordings by the Talich Quartet and the Quartetto Italiano.  I find that many American ensembles offer a bracing, zippy, lively energy to the mostly European repertoire of classical music, and this often has the stimulating effect of making old masterworks feel fresh and new.  Yet there is an undeniable comfort to be savored in the rounder, more mellow and mature sound that I often hear in chamber ensembles from Europe.

The Pavel Haas played three works: Tchaikovsky’s first String Quartet, Shostakovich’s No. 7, and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.”  The Tchaikovsky benefited the most from the group’s golden tone.  The four musicians played with seamless integrity and a kind of creamy lyricism, imparting a steadily flowing through-line to the work’s romantic themes.  In the Schubert, they offered a performance of admirable balance; the darkly sonorous weight of Schubert’s chordal textures, which can sometimes sound too chunky if the players are over-enthusiastic, were here played in a manner that respected heft but also grace.  I was reminded of a classical building, heavy columns supporting a structure whose main effect is to suggest lightness and space.

It was in the Shostakovich that the limitations of the Pavel Haas’s sound palette were heard.  This quartet, written in 1960 but brooded over since the death of the composer’s wife, in 1954, is a short, incisive portrait of loving grief, a raw meditation on fate by a man who would express a lifetime of inner torment in his music.  Yet the roundness of the musicians’ combined tone worked against the performance here; the edges of Shostakovich’s great work were softened, even muted.  The music was not unenjoyable, yet I had the impression of experiencing it as if through a kind of liquid veil.  I wanted to hear more grief and less beauty.

Sometimes what a composer wants, what a musican wants, and what a listener wants all seem to merge in a vivid and shared experience that is often described as “beyond words”—it was not uncommon at premieres of Shostakovich’s works in Soviet Russia for audiences to openly, collectively weep, or to applaud for extraordinary durations in a kind of frenzy that goes beyond mere catharsis.

The applause in Carmel was passionate and grateful, especially for the Tchaikovsky and the Schubert.  After the concert, I reflected on how strange it is to try to write an objective account of a musical performance.  Live music is not like a book or an art object that can be studied and considered at length.  Music is a brief experience in time, as passing as a cloud or an emotion or a thought.  All sorts of ephemeral phenomena may influence how we feel about a performance.  The venue, the weather, the time of year, the time of day, one’s age and physical condition and mood and circumstances, whether there are friends in the auditorium, one’s feeling of affiliation with the presenting organization.  The contingent and contextual background materials of our lives may be as important as any particular training or skill or aptitude in assessing a performance.

Such things are like water.  With care and luck, over time, the flow we allow into our lives will bring ease and vitality, not tension and suffering.  Before the concert, I walked for several blocks below the church.  The air was warm, the evening sky over the ocean was the color of orange sherbet, and the gentle roar of the waves rolled up the little sloping town through the silhouetted trees.  My stride was comfortable.  I was looking forward to a wonderful evening of music, and that is what I heard.

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.

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