Saturday, October 25, 2008

Ten Commandments as Ten Beatitudes

(excerpt from sermon by Rev. Kirk Lee, delivered at St. James Episcopal Church, Marietta, GA, October 5, 2008)

I didn't think there was much new to say about the Ten Commandments, but Rev. Kirk Lee tried. He questioned the advisability or even possibility to "put aside" the "overlap between public and private spheres of moral and religious life." He capped his sermon with a new spin on the old "Shalt nots." Here are excerpts:

We live in a day where the very concept of some type of objective, independent morality is being questioned. ...Where are we going to find such a standard?

...We could depend on human feelings, as illustrated in [the] song, "how can it be wrong when it feels so right?"

Or ... we could rely on majority vote. How can it be wrong if 55% of the people voted for it? Right?

The problem with these choices is that feelings change, and the majority often shifts its position.
...We need something or someone who stands outside of the world, outside of just being human, outside of the community, who can look in and give us direction. That someone can only be God.

Some people complain that the Ten Commandments are just too inflexible, too narrow and negative. ... But they are not all negative. ... When we turn them over, we find the ten most positive statements about life ever written. Here is how they look:

Blessed are they who put God first.
Blessed are they who need no substitutes for God.
Blessed are they who honor God's name.
Blessed are they who honor God's day.
Blessed are they who honor their parents.
Blessed are they who value life.
Blessed are they who keep their marriage vows.
Blessed are they who respect the property of others.
Blessed are they who love the truth.
Blessed are they who learn the art of contentment.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Thanks To and From Composer John Adams

(Reflections on John Adams' autobiography HALLELUJAH JUNCTION, just published by Farrar.)

Twenty years ago, when I learned to love John Adams' first operatic composition NIXON IN CHINA, I was struck by the librettist Alice Goodman's statement that she had intended to represent each character in the most generous way possible, as they themselves would want to be represented.

While several of the themes emerging from Adams' autobiography take us through conflicts with others, Adams follows Goodman's example. We can read between the lines that Adams doesn't care for the music of some of the composers mentioned here, and we can guess that he had some run-ins with some collaborators. All those composers, teachers, and even an ex-wife get, at worst, the benefit of the doubt. His suggestion that Philip Glass sometimes composes on auto - pilot is balanced by his acknowledgement of borrowings from Glass and works by Glass of immense beauty and power.

Other themes in the book: Gratitude for the influences and efforts of his parents and teachers . . . gratitude for his experiences in both serial music (exemplified by Boulez, p. 32) and also the avant-garde music of the late 60s (exemplified by Cage), though he came to see both as dead ends (and he frankly admits now that a lot of that new music, lacking "shape," was "pushing the boredom envelope" 85) . . . gratitude for performers and patrons who allowed him to indulge in some failed experiments in the 70s . . . and a broad, historical view of music's "evolution" that includes a short history lesson on 20th century music (102 ff.) and a rumination on whether there's progress in any aspect of human life, much less in music itself, certainly rejecting the idea that increasing complexity is necessarily good. So there's another theme: Defending his works (though not all of them) from his critics.

I love this description of his collaborator Peter Sellars, how he speaks "in full paragraphs, punctuated by sudden peals of laughter that was . . . the result of amusement at what his words had managed to conjure" (126).

He is his own fairest critic. He acknowledges that the Houston premiere of NIXON (which I saw in 1987) probably didn't deserve much higher than a passing grade, and that KLINGHOFFER in Brooklyn (which I also saw) was just what I thought: unclear in its staging, unclear in its focus early on, and a bit long-winded in several spots. He gets most defensive on this topic, denying point by point the critics who accused him and his collaborators with favoring Palestinian terrorists because they once again allowed these characters to be presented as they themselves might want to be presented.

Since the falling-out with Alice Goodman is pretty famous, dwelt upon in another book THE JOHN ADAMS READER, I was especially interested to see how Adams treats her with respect and appreciation. He writes,

She could move from character to character and from scene to scene, alternating between diplomatic pronouncement, philosophical rumination, raunchy aside, and poignant sentiment. And she did all this in concise verse couplets, exhibiting a talent and technique that has nearly vanished from American poetical practice. (136)

His citation of lines from Pat Nixon's aria "This is Prophetic" brought tears to my eyes, as he focused my attention on an aspect of the words that I hadn't seen so clearly before. Here are the lines that he quotes, as Pat Nixon piles image of America on image in the form of a prayer :

Let lonely drivers on the road
Pull over for a bite to eat,
Let the farmer switch on the light
Over the porch, let passersby
Look in at the large family
Around the table, let them pass.

Adams comments, "It was part of Alice's genius to be able to handle images of Americans -- so routinely abused in magazine and television advertising -- in a way that recaptured their virgin essence, making them, when Pat sings them, not cliches at all but statements of a deeply felt, unconflicted belief." I'm pretty sure that Adams and I reach different conclusions about politics and religion, but it's clear that, in this book and in his art, he speaks what I believe, that humanity is deeper than all our economics and policies and creeds.

Other posts on this blog that focus on composer John Adams:
Doctor Atomic Staged Two Ways
30 Second Composer on John Adams
Musical Landscapes
Slow Motion Emotion: John Adams' Christian Zeal and Activity.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith

(reflection on Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith, a detective novel.)

Kept up late and awakened early by the effort of getting another school year off to a good start, I've been reading non-fiction articles here and there since August, and I've grown restless, yearning almost physically for a book that creates different world that I can return to at the end of the day, or immerse myself in on a weekend afternoon.

More than plot, more than appealing characters, this reader craves the sensation of being in a different world. It's not just descriptions that I need, but a rich texture, defined by that world's history, the outlook, the mood, and the language. To achieve all that requires that the action must be filtered through the moral vision of some central consciousness, just as Henry James said.

I've written elsewhere on this blog about how Raymond Chandler's novels are less like following a plot than they are like touring another world -- Chandler's L.A. -- and detective Marlowe is the vehicle. Chandler narrates in third person, but filters all through Marlowe's perceptions.

In the same way, novelist Martin Cruz Smith has taken me to Russia through detective Arkady Renko. I saw the movie made of Cruz's first Renko novel GORKY PARK back when it came out in the mid-80s, and I read a follow-up, POLAR STAR. I remember nothing of the plots behind those titles, but I remember Renko, decent, generally beat up by enemies and circumstances, and I remember the atmosphere on the ship Polar Star, literally dense with fog and grime and rust, filled with menace. Not a place I'd like to be, but a rich place to visit, especially as you're pulling for Renko to fight his way through.

STALIN'S GHOST conjures the new Russia, where the Stalinist past is truly being resurrected. The ghost story that hooks Renko and us into the plot actually fades away fairly early on, and I admit that I can't exactly explain what was behind the ghost's appearances. By mid-book, I'd forgotten which corpses perished in which circumstances. Even by the end, I was having trouble remembering which female character had lived with Renko, and which was someone he'd met more recently. That's due more to my erratic reading schedule than to the complexity of the story.

But what I won't forget is that texture. It's comprised of layers of snow, the sense of skeletons both real and metaphorical under every surface, ill-lit rooms, vodka, wealth and grimy poverty, and menacing hulks in black berets belonging to special forces OMON. There are some settings that stand out: the eerie old subway station where Stalin's ghost has appeared, the chess championship played under TV lights at a gaudy casino, and the spectacle of a chaotic dig of a mass grave -- with live land mines -- outside the town of Tver.

The plotline is direct: Arkady guesses that a certain OMON soldier named Isakov is behind a series of suspicious deaths, and he pursues Isakov to prove it. Everything else is embroidery: Arkady's lover has left him for Isakov, and Isakov is running a political campaign that appeals to "patriots" (i.e., those who idealize Stalin as the miracle-worker who saved Russia from the Nazis and enemies within).

There's a sub-plot: Arkady is also trying to locate Zhenya, a slight twelve-year-old chess prodigy, anti-social and on the run from his own abusive father. The two plots intersect when Zhenya finds Renko, and transfers his personal allegiance to Isakov.

Renko plods on, ridiculed for his integrity, mocked as a cuckold, and attacked by Isakov's partisans. What hurts most is when the boy Zhenya scorns him for his weakness, especially for not carrying a gun like the hero Isakov.

A couple of personal resonances for me. I visited Russia in 1977, and remember wandering the streets of Tver, then called Kalinin. In the mid-1980s, I had the great pleasure and challenge of dealing with a Ukrainian refugee from the Soviet Union, whom I could easily imagine doing what Zhenya does, in the same situation.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Effective Nonsense: POETRY in September

(Reflections on issues of POETRY magazine, September 2008).

In the September 2008 issue of POETRY, two poems by Alan Shapiro give effective expression to the myth that whatever is bourgeois, whatever is orderly, whatever contributes to the workings of nine-to-five polite society, must be phony, confining, and inimical to Real Life. The first of these two poems, "Gas Station Rest Room," goes to the underbelly of the beast and delights in its soils and smells -- words so evocative of their subject that I'd rather not re-read, much less quote them. But the graffiti there, in its furtive energy, seems to declare
is here at hand
and dark, and hell
is odorless; hell is bright and clean.
It's almost convincing, until you remember any graffiti you've seen lately, the angry or pathetic quality of the discourse there.

More true is Shapiro's other poem, "24/7," which seems to take place inside the convenience store that fronts that gas station restroom.
The one cashier is dozing --
head nodding, slack mouth open,
above the cover girl spread out before her on the counter
smiling up
with indiscriminate forgiveness
and compassion for everyone
who isn't her.
Other verses describe the laser beam of the scanner that "drifts free in the space that is the sum / of the cost of all the items that tonight / won't cross its path." There are "columns onto columns / under columns" of packed goods without
any trace
of bodies that have picked
packed unpacked and placed them just so
so as to draw bodies to the
pyramid of plums

Though to call a convenience store a "paradise of absence" is a little like shooting fish in a barrel, it makes me see the commonplace in a new way, especially at the end, when night "press[es] the giant black moth / of itself against the windows / of fluorescent blazing."

Both poems explore the feeling we all get looking at Hopper's paintings of urban alienation, especially "Night Hawks." Looking at that one, we are the giant black moth pressing up against the illuminated window. (Edward Hopper. Nighthawks, 1942. Oil on canvas; 33 1/8 x 60 in. (84.1 x 152.4 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago; Friends of American Art Collection.
Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago

But as Shakespeare observed, nothing is good or ill but thinking makes it so. I know one pre-teen for whom every convenience store was paradise, a place of tantalizing choices where I could exert my power to choose -- by drawing a few quarters from my pocket.

The same issue of POETRY also includes whimsical self-portraits by Philip Larkin, some scrawled in the margins of the agenda for a library staff meeting. There's also another thought-provoking article by Clive James. "It is possible that Shakespeare spoiled us," he says, by cramming his plays with so many flashes of metaphor and "his Olympian playfulness." By contrast, the sonnets work more with "syntactical tricks ... to compress and energize plain prose statement." James takes issue with the notion that what's plain and clear in poetry must be simple-minded.

The next best thing to reading a poem and getting it, is reading someone else's writing that open up the art to you.

Music, Morality, and Horror: Salome Slays Sweeney Todd

(reflections on seeing an High Definition broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's production of Richard Strauss's SALOME in a movie theatre at the same time that I'm learning the piano parts for Stephen Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD for a production by teens at The Walker School.)

The moral horror that we feel when we see SALOME is different from the visceral horror of SWEENEY TODD.

The stage violence of SWEENEY is intended to startle us, and to evoke laughter, and even to be cathartic -- as we enjoy seeing the despicable judge come face to face with the man he wronged. The corny diminished chords that open and close Sondheim's score, heard first on a reedy organ and last in orchestral accompaniment under Sweeney's final lament, frame the action in a long, long tradition of melodramatic music for old movies and even older stage shows.

SWEENEY ends with a "moral" that also comments on our vicarious pleasure in seeing Sweeney's schemes finally succeed: "To seek revenge may lead to Hell, /but everyone does it, though seldom as well / As Sweeney...." Which adult has not felt the need to seek revenge, maybe outraged at some fellow drivers in heavy traffic? We at least recall revenge fantasies from adolescence. Of course, revenge is a "dark and hungry god" that doesn't stop when it devours its original object, as it does in SWEENEY, so we also get the self-satisfaction of feeling morally superior to Sweeney, and we accept the caution at the end in a spirit of fun.

As pianist, I'm enjoying more than ever the other kind of fun involved. Just as the plot criss-crosses the characters and incidents in an elaborate pattern of coincidences and inevitable surprises, the music is doing the same thing. Hearing the piano accompaniment alone, I'm discovering how underscoring for one character ties him to another. I'm learning how songs that I've loved for thirty years as distinct creations are actually variations of each other.

SALOME ends, like SWEENEY, with a bloody embrace and a sharp edge cutting off the life of the title character, but the experience is different. There is little in the way of vicarious pleasure, here. Quite the opposite: Every kind of sensual pleasure is presented during the hour - and - some minutes of the opera. On stage are "the beautiful people" in silky evening dress (Queen Herodias resembling Elizabeth Taylor in her prime), luscious music, drinking and eating, erotically explicit dancing. Instead of vicarious pleasure, these images evoke disgust. That's literal, too, as "dis + gust" means "loss of taste." These guests, especially the Princess Salome, are bored with their pleasures, and are hungrily looking for novelty. They find it, holding their drinks, and lounging around listening with mixed horror and fascination to the prophesies of doom emanating from the well on stage. The King himself is wearied: tired of the mother, he's pursuing the daughter. The most horrible part of the opera may be her attempt to seduce the ascetic Johannan. She sings, first, "I love your body," and she rhapsodizes on its whiteness like ivory. When he rejects her, she immediately reviles his body as "white like a corpse," then coos, "I love your hair." Ditto: he rejects her, and she fixes on another part of him, his mouth. Unable to shake his moral resolve, unable to comprehend a life guided by something other than appetite, and stung by rejection, she resolves to get what she desires by other means.

The rest follows inevitably from that encounter. There's the King's promise to give her anything if she'll "dance" for him, the spectacle of her dance with its thrilling music, and the ghastly fulfillment of her desire when she holds the prophet's head in her hands and sings, "I want to bite your lips as I would bite into ripe fruit." Even the king is sickened, and orders the guard to kill her in the opera's last seconds.

Strauss's music swells and churns with each whim of appetite, coming into focus with chorale - like accompaniment whenever Johannan sings.

Both shows confront us with our worst secret impulses; SALOME, digging deeper, is the more horrifying.