Sunday, December 18, 2011

Tomas Transtromer

Pictures above:
TT being serenaded at his Nobel lecture; at the piano with one good hand.

Tomas Transtromer has always been my favorite Swedish poet, well maybe neck and neck wih Ekelov, so I was elated to hear he had won the Nobel prize this year. Some naysayers complained that the Swedish Academy, which chooses the Nobel winners, shouldn't have named one of their own country men. But Tomas Transtromer is a universal poet, and his works have been translated widely, into as many as 60 languages.
Music, and its inner meaning for him, is a theme that permeates his poetic output, and he is especially close to Schubert. Sadly, he suffered a stroke several years ago and lost the use of his right arm.He's been a good pianist and now is learning left handed repertory, and it was rumored that for his Nobel lecture he would simply play something of Schubert (a transcription I suppose), but as it turned out various poets read his poetry to him and did so in several languages.
But the moment that I won't forget (I watched this on the Nobel Prize web site) was of a string quintet playing the Schubert C major Quintet right in front of him, only a few feet away. If you know his poem "Schubertiana" you would know what this meant to him.

Here's the first stanza of his poem:

by Tomas Transtr¨omer. (Trans. Kalle R¨ais¨anen)
In the evening-dark of a place outside New York, a look-out point
where one glance can encompass eight million people’s homes.
The giant city over there is a long, flickering snow-drift, a spiral
galaxy on its side.
Inside the galaxy, coffee cups are slid over the counter, store-fronts
beg with passers-by, a crowd of shoes that leave no traces.
The climbing fire-escapes, the elevator doors gliding shut, behind
locked doors a constant swell of voices.
Sunken bodies half-sleep in the subway cars, the rushing catacombs.
I know, also — statistics aside — that right now Schubert is
being played in some room over there and that to someone
those sounds are more important than all those other things.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Rambling along on the "canterelle trail" in Sleepy Giant Park the other Day, I found myself besieged by a group of Mahleresque tunes which had invaded my head. I wondered why this would be. Maybe its the sylvan setting? The pastorale? The futility of looking for chanterelles so late in the season (or the irony, which could accord with the Mahler ditties.)

Actually my son had reawakened my affinity with old Gus, as the other day we were driving and he insisted on playing the Symphony No 1, in the car, and l when we got back to the house he put on a record (yes, an LP) of the Sixth, which I must confess is one of my favorites--the slow movement being desert island material. I used to think the Third's slow movement without parallel, but lately I've thought it a bit too indulgent, somewhat over the top in reiterating those achingly longing long lines of desire. (A colleague of mine after a performance of the Third at Woolsey Hall in NH was heard to complain loudly in the lobby about this music's treacly sentimentality--"it's like a bunch of drunks at a high school reunion singing the alma mater over and over again).
Among other things, what kills me in the Sixth is the use of the almglocken (see picture above)
They appear very subtly (in most recordings) and are quite random in rhythm and pitch--Mahler wanted this "aleatoric" texture to conjure up an alpine pastoral setting. (although truth to be told, had a bunch of cows with their clanking bells wandered into the vicinity of one of his alpine composing huts, he'd have had a fit--he demanded silence from Nature when working.)
Another composer who has used cow bells to great affect is John Adams--in his"Naive and Sentimental Music" among others. And having brought Adams and Mahler together here, I ought to mention the book review in last Sunday's NY Times wherein a new biography of Mahler gives John the excuse to write a short essay on his take on the greatest symphonist since Bruckner.

Friday, September 2, 2011




Many have said "you guys were lucky, your power was only off for a few days" Considering that some folks here in CT still don't have it back (five days running) we do indeed feel "lucky."
Sitting in the dark with some candles and a flashlight or two, I thought "this should be a positive experience, like you are at your cabin in the Sierras and have the kerosene lamps going and the wood stove fired up; but no, its not like that at all. There's no romance. You really want "normalcy" to return. I tried reading for a while but couldn't concentrate so I stuck my iPod buds in the ears and ran the composer gamut, coming to a sudden halt at Sibelius, Symphony No. 4.
"Perfect" I thought--so dark and cold. I thought it might be interesting to follow the score, which I had handy, even though the low light made it hard to read; but the basic outlines of the notes was enough--it's long familiar music to me, but I hadn't listened to it in a while.
Back in Sibelius day--the 4th symphony dates from 1910 or so--electricity was not a given, especially in rural areas. Sibelius liked to compose at night (often with the cognac bottle handy) and I've often wondered if his output increased after electricity came to Ainola, when he could have better lighting for his nocturnal labor. But the Fourth is dark music and seems to paint a bleak but subtle music. It is bare bones stuff, shorn of ornament, frill and decoration. Its nick name was the barkbrod" symphony, which refereed to the Scandinavian tradition of mixing ground up birch bark with flour during times of hardship and famine.
The hurricane left a tremendous amount of moisture from the heavy rains and the woods and fields around here have been bursting with fungi.. I found a tremendous "Hen of the Woods" on my neighbor's lawn (tasty but needs long stewing) and a bunch of boletes, porcini like (not really edulis but close).
Identifying Boletus species can be challenging some times. But eating one you are not sure of is not as risky as you might think. There are no "deadly" toxins in the Boletus family, although there are a few that can give you a nasty gastrointestinal experience. If there are red pores (under the cap) and it stains blue wen cut, you are skating on thin ice.The "bad" ones taste bitter and the edible ones taste good, although many are mediocre.
So the rule is, about Boletes, if it tastes good, eat it! The same cannot be said for other mushrooms, especially the deadly Amanitas which, apparently taste pretty good

Monday, August 15, 2011

Bruckner on the Beach

After my ramble a few weeks ago over Bruckner as a montane composer I thought it might be interesting to size him up as an oceanic composer, especially as we went to Cape Cod last week and spent a good deal of time contemplating the mighty surf of the Wellfleet beaches. One day the sea wsa very rough and the waves were gigantic--no one , not even the most intrepid surfers, ventured into the water. Walking along the shore I found the scherzi of some of the symphonies quite well matched, but it was on another day, when the rolling breakers had more regular and rhythmic movement, that I found the Adagio of the 7th Symphony most compelling.

I wondered how old Anton would have liked walking along at the waters edge, barefoot, hearing his mighty creation in his ear buds--wait, that wouldn't have happened! Among his many eccentricities was an obsession with counting and apparently, given a beach, he was fond of counting grains of sand. I suppose it was sort of a meditation. I don't think he'd have made much progress.

The Brucknerian gradual build-up of minor climaxes that finally accumulate in something big and smashing, is certainly analogous to the way waves come in to shore. But in essence, I think Bruckner is more at home in the mountains than in the maritime environment.

Of course the ocean has its own sounds and doesn't need any sound track added to it, yet...there's a great temptation. I think the Brucknerian ocean analogue has to do with the peaks and valleys of the waves, those crests and troughs which are reflected in Bruckner's wonderful analogues of light and dark, loud (really loud!) and soft. His climaxes do so often work up to a glorious "breaking" just like a wave's behaviour.
Today, walking in the East Rock woods, there were so many boletes about that I made little progress, stopping so often to check then out and admire them (the red and yellow "Boletus bi-color" was particularly vivid and tasty too)---like Bruckner counting his grains of sand.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Brucknerian mountains

Sunday afternoon, a hot sweltering day in the City, I sat in the vast expanses of Lincoln Center's Fisher Hall, and I couldn't imagine being in a place more different from where I had been the week before-on the shore of an alpine lake at the base of the Sierra Buttes in the Sierra Nevada
Yet the glacial ebbs and flows, the undulating valleys and peaks of Bruckner's 9th Symphony transformed the hall (in my mind anyhow) into a very montane environment.
Literalists, or objectivists, would downplay the affective power of a Bruckner symphony, pointing out, in contrast, its purely"musical" (ie, "formal") attributes. Maybe it was because I had so recently been in such an environment that my sensors picked up the connection between musical structure, meaning, memory and mountains.
Yes, there are Brucknerian mountains, and they are not all in Austria
And indeed there are Mahlerian mountains, and even Beethovenian mountains (pace LB whose famous essay "Bullsession in the Rockies" from the late fifties warned us from such "meaningful" allusions - and no, there are no "Buxtehudian "mountains.}
Although I don't think Bruckner was much of an "Alpinist"--ie, a mountain climber/hiker--his music has its wildly contrasting peaks and troughs; in fact whole series of climaxes of varying intensities is a perfect way of "reading" a mountain range or massif such as the Buttes.
This begs the question: can we "read" Nature as we do Art? Or do we need to?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Wholefoods myco harvest

I was extremely optimistic about a late Spring visit to my cabin in the northern Sierras --actually, by the calendar, it was an early summer visit--as the late melting snow from the record breaking winter accumulation promised a bumper crop of morels and possibly boletes. Normally the prime season is the first few weeks in June, the last vestiges of snow having faded by then. But I guess the message didn't get through to the asco's mycelia that it was ok to come out now. Despite several serious sweeps of known areas of fruiting, the forest floor yielded NOTHING! I did, however, find a cluster of boletes growing in a disturbed area that had yielded the tasty mushrooms in the past.But wouldn't you know it-- they were just over the hill, worm ridden to the max.
Actually, there was one good specimen that we were able to eat after carving away the "bad" spots (In fact, I doubt ingesting the small larvae would do any harm)
Upon our return to the lowlands (Berkeley) we were delighted to find in the kitchen for dinner that night a handsome and generous collection of not only boletes but a few morels to boot! All this harvested in the produce aisle of the local Wholefoods by prescient Debby who must have heard of our misadventures. (Actually, the lack of fungi aside, we had a great week in the Sierra Nevada)
My cabin lies not far from the majestic crags called the Sierra Buttes, which are always awe inspiring in any season, but the late Spring's heavy mantle of snow gave them an even grander disposition; I never tire of feasting my eyes upon them, but this year they were positively Brucknerian.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Another Brooklyn Soaking

Back in November of '10 I ventured down to Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood to catch a concert at Galagpagos that included a piece of mine. In the process I got soaked thanks to the presence of lagoons and narrow unlit walkways (see my blog entry from Nov 2010 for a full description of my watery mishap).
Little did I knows last Thursday as I headed back to the same neighborhood, this time to hear Timo Andres play my Authentic Presence at Bargemusic, that I would get soaked again, only worse-- from head to toe! As I emerged from the High Street subway station, I was practically blown away by typhoon-like gusts and heavy rain. My little black umbrella was useless. Thunder and lightening was brilliantly violent. By the time I got to the restaurant where I was to meet my son Clem ,before the concert, I was completely soaked through, and water was sloshing around in my shoes.
At the concert "hall" (a barge floating woosilly in the harbor under the Brooklyn Bridge) I sat through two hours of brilliantly played pieces by young composers who had for the most part been my students at Yale. I was freezing from the effect of the cold air conditioning on my wet clothing, but I was warm inside because it was such a beautiful concert. As Timo worked his way thorough his program (besides me, pieces by himself, Cerrone, Cooper and Hearne --Boolah Boolah!) the heavens continued the show, sending down fusilades of lighting and thunder, and in the second half, actual fireworks erupted over the harbor. No one seemed to know what they were for.
The evening was full of surprises, and not just from the weather. After playing the last two notes of my piece, and letting them hang in the air for a few seconds before anyone could start clapping, Timo simply began playing Brahms's Intermezzo Op.119 No.1!
At fist I thoght, OMG, people are going to think I wrote this! But he played it so nonchalantly, yet restrained and smooth--just right you might say--that it seemed to make some sense and I sat back, relaxed and took it all in, including the water in my shoes and the flashes of lightening in the sky.
It was a truly memorable eveing and I'll probably never know what the fireworks were all about

Saturday, May 28, 2011


About a year ago I was waxing poetically about morels recently found and consumed.

Francis above, Guston below

This year the dismal Spring continues; I found a total of 5 morels in three visits to my hunting grounds. Lacunae, empty spaces-that's the description of my morel bounty this year.
But my allusions to the music of Morton Feldman are still relevant because there is so much empty space in his music, and there is emptiness in my woodland floor, so devoid of mushroom. One scours the ground, and there is so much detail what with leaf litter and grass and ferns and fallen branches, but the imagined sponge- head beauties are notable for their absence. It's like there are holes in the visual field, where the morels should rightly be!
If you listen to a piece by Feldman, such as "Rothko Chapel," you'll know what I mean--the spaces between the notes, between the gestures are perhaps as important as the sounds themselves. One thinks of Philip Guston, Feldman's favorite painter who left a lot of blank canvass in his paintings. Actually, it's not blank at all, but a muted hazy coloring that in the context appears to be some kind of empty background.

But there are painters who famously left a lot of white canvas in their pictures.One who comes to mind is west coast artist Sam Francis. Betty Freeman,who was one of the great patrons of New Music in our time was also a significant collector of art. Her house in Beverly Hills, wherein she held he famous Sunday, musicales or salons, was festooned with art-=-everywhere you looked in that house there were paintings, sculptures, installations.
Some years ago I was invited to present my work at one of her Sunday soirees. I asked if it wold be OK to show images from "Alcatraz", my collaborative work with photographer Jim Bengston. No problem,, there would be a slide projector setup as well as the usual sound system. When I arrived and was shown the living room where the presentation would take place, I noticed the slide projector, but no screen. I asked Betty where the screen would be set up; she gave me a puzzled look."Oh, when we have a slide show we just project the pictures on the lower right quadrant of the Sam Francis."
Indeed, there on the wall was a huge canvas by Francis, and in his inimitable style the actual painting was confined to only about a quarter of the frame, the rest being empty with a scattering of paint bits here and there. So that evening the work of Sam Francis and Jim Bengston co mingled while my prison doors slammed away in giddy celebration.It was a sort of accidental palimpsest.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Springtime Melancholia

The sub title of my blog--Mushrooms, Madness and Music--often puzzles me. Aside from the nice alliteration why did I choose it? --the Madness part, I mean. I haven't really touched on the subject of Madness yet, nor, I think, have I exhibited behavior that might suggest it.
Oliver Sacks, the noted Neurologist, has written a book "Musicophilia" which explores all sorts of bizarre, inexplicable relationships between brain disorders or aberrations and music. One of the chapters is titled "Music, Madness and Melancholia..Perhaps what I was aiming at had more to do with Melancholy, or underlying tristesse, than madness

These beautiful springtime images with their seductive efflorescence would seem to mitigate Melancholia and conjure hope in a soul wallowing in darkness. But April and May can be cruel, as we know from the poet, and I often find myself in a bittersweet mood when the darling buds of May come round. No lilacs ever bloomed in my door yard, although they seem to do well in my neighbor's. The squirrels munch on the few scrawny tulips that have emerged, and this year the morels are in very short supply.
Sacks writes optimistically about the power of music to penetrate the deepest states of melancholy in some patients, but I also know that some music can induce this state of Melancholia, or at least complement it, and this is not a bad thing.
Take for example the Schubert Piano Trio in E flat, which I've been listening to lately; in the slow movement there is an underlying C minor shadowy mood, a kind of dark inevitability pushed by an incessant march like movement. This eventually breaks out into a major harmonic world and the sun comes out--but, the pull back to the dark side is ever present; our cheeful, bubbly brook, Franz Scubert, knew Melancholy well.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Sure Sign

Of what? That Spring has really come? Usually, the sudden eruption of this periwinkle patch on a neighbor's lawn is a definitive announcement that Winter has been banished. These delightful little flowers arrive after the hardy crocuses which we must admire for their ability to shine through late wintry blasts and snowfalls.But the lavander vinca minoris says there's no turning back. And they are particularly effulgent this year.
And hope springs eternal on the digital airwaves. I have been tuned in to the on line radio of WQXR for over a year now--its called Q2 actually--and it's full of surprises and delights. There's no DJ announcing the selections so you have to go on line to see the playlist, or just guess--its mostly contemporary stuff and I often just leave it on, at a low level and if I hear something interesting, I turn it up (or off, if its some particularly annoying piece, and there are those!)
When WNYC went all talk radio a few years ago, I worried that this great outlet of new and unusual music would cease to exist--and it did, but now with their sister station, WQXR (whose more conventional "classical" programing still slogs along) sending out music in cyberspace, there's more new music than ever.

Oh, oh, oh, totus floreo!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Porcini secchi "Extra"

Now that Dan Johnson,music critique "heroique" here in NH, has dubbed me unsung genius and mycophile I thought I had better post something about funghi real quick so as to not lose my myco cred.
A year ago the topic was mushrooms in a vinegar setting--my wife Veronica had brought back from Slovenia a jar of pickled mushrooms.This year, on her trip to Trieste, she returned with two bags of Porcini Secchi "Extra". Dried boletes. Much better than the pickled kind; the aroma alone when you open the bag is worth the airfare to Italy! After a few weeks in a jar I took a whif this morning and got another powerful hit. I cant wait to actually cook them (maybe this weekend, a nice risotto?)
But what, I want to know, does "Extra" mean? According to Veronica, the Triestean purveyor of the woodsy treasures assured her that they were "best quality"--top of the line so to speak. Maybe it has something to do with size--they are big, some of them.
I'll report back on their "Extra"-ness after we've actually eaten some.

The other excitement around here was last night when Timo Andres played my piano piece, Authentic Presence, on a New music New haven concert at Sprague Hall. Timo played the pants off the things. It was dazzling, but even better, it was soulful.
It was a truly "extra" performance.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Winter that Refuses to Die

March Fourth and still a good foot of snow covers our back yard! Its a hard, crusty, icy mantle. We've had snow cover steady since Christmas. January was the big snow fall month and February was just plain cold so nothing melted much. Our roof sprang a few leaks, and our heating bill went through the same roof. Huge mountains of plowed snow decorate our streets, but these ungainly sculptures, now soot black, do little to elevate our spirits or arouse our aesthetic libido.
I've had my x-c skis in the back of the car but haven't used them in over a month as this hard old stuff doesn not invite trespass by foot or ski. Frustrating to say the least because it LOOKS so inviting from a distance.

In my class at Yale, ("Minimalism: Before, During and After") we have just listened to John Adams Harmonium. I am amazed at how powerful and full of expressive grace it is after all these thirty some years. Sure, it has an abundance of exurberance--maybe a bit too much--but it really holds up. Those cowbells at the end of the second movement haunt and remind me of a September night in the Sierran cabin when we were awakened by faint clangings, distant harbingers of summer's end (the bovine migration from the high country).h

News, news news!!
But the big Adamsian event was, of course, the Met's production of Nixon In China.We were fortunate to be able to attend the dress rehearsal and had great seats just six rows back from the pit. I am not an opera fan and I doubt that many contemporary operas will still be around in the next fifty years or so, but I have a feeling that Nixon will, if only because there's so much damned good music in it! A week after seeing the performance live, I was able to see it again in so called HD transmission in Yale's Sprague Hall. This was overwhelming and brought you into the opera more than the live performance. It was thoroughly captivating. Jame Madalena does a remarkable job with Nixon's character and has been doing so all over the world in the last 25 years. His voice seems a bit strained now, and he on occasion misses a high note or two, but his dramatic power is flawless; he really owns that character.
Dramatically I've always found the enigmatic last act weak, but it doesn't pull down the rest of the work; it is what it is and as such is unique and probably will be around for a long time.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A lonely ski trail

Where, one wonders, does it go?
More snow this week and as it mounts into great piles it remains serene and quietly seductive on fields and meadows and in woods. I was thinking yesterday as I was pushing along on my old skis--gliding actually,the snow being fresh and dry--about an obscure piece by Sibelius, A Lonely Ski Trail (En ensam skidspor) written in his "late" period. Based on a poem by Bertil Grippenberg, it's a charming little "melodrama" with the poem being recited. Charming isn't quite right as it's full of that Nordic tristese and resignation tinged with a kind of loveliness. It's rather dark actually.
But I wondered, as I glided through this crystalline, wintry landscape, did Sibelius go out on skis? I suppose he must have, it being comme il faut in rural Finland. But I bet he dressed to the nines--coat and tie and knickers.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Correction: Not so bleak afterall

This is one of those magical snowfalls that you remember in your dreams

Out on skis this morning along Mill Creek (Eli Whitney's old stomping grounds). About a foot of pristine snow, easy to glide along in.
The prediction of bleakness for today was ill-advised.
Maybe it's me, feeling kind of bleak myself lately. I've been grappling with the last psalm of my Psalmbook, and it keeps turning into a doxology (it is, in fact "Old Hundred"); now its becoming a Halleluia of sorts. The whole idea of the Psalmbook came from Arvo Paert's "Missa Brevis" wherein the vocal ensemble and string quartet are truly minimal and perfectly so--talk about economy of means! But it's turned into something more akin to Steve Reich's "Tehillim".
The anxiety of Influence! That's the trouble. Well, I have often preached that composition is only the art of discovery. Originality is a construction, a "trope." (Thats a foggy notion!)
I've been thinking about Tucson, remembering the pristine natural beauty of the mountains and desert and the souless suburban sprawl that offsets it; why do these violent acts always seem to happen in places where the weather is good?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

In the bleak mid Winter

After the Boxing Day Blizzard two weeks ago, we still have large patches of snow and ice here and there; it's also rather cold. Bleak is a good word for this season.
I love that Christmas carol, written by Gustav Holst, and I love even more the other setting by Harold Darke--it seems., well, bleaker, but also redolent of hope which, I think, is the sub-text of Christmas, isn't it?
Just occurred to me that this is the last day of the Nativity the so called Three Kings Day, so I can report on our Christmas Eve dinner, a beautiful side of Norwegian salmon, garnished-- no, covered-- in chanterelles. Yes, that's right, I broke down and bought them t the local Whole Foods. To my amazement, they were reasonable in price ($15 lb) and in decent condition ( chants are hardy and can maintain their integrity when others mushrooms have rotted away.). I believe their provenance was Oregon. With all the winter rain the PNW has been getting this year there seems to be a bumper crop. We enjoyed more on New Years Eve,when they underscored with their earthy, chewy succulence some gamey lamb shanks..
I suppose it was the utter lack of chanterelle fruitings last summer that gave me"permission" to buy them.
A recent post on my friend JA's blog ("Hellmouth") talks about "Stravinsky's Arm Farts." This is worth checking out. It tuns out, according to John (backed up I imagine, by his old nemesis, R Taruskin) that as a young boy Igor was quite adept at this method of body percussion --he learned it from a local serf on he family estate in the Ukraine--and that it may have been the source of his punchy, off kilter rhythmic machinations heard in Le Sacre etc. Musicologists, take note!
A new snow storm has moved in. It's quite lovely outside now; tomorrow it will be bleak.

Gloucester Cathedral-Holst

Kings College Camb.-Darke