Saturday, October 31, 2015

Tributes to My Teachers:
Stephen Sondheim, teacher by example

Stephen Sondheim once remarked that making art and teaching are both attempts to share a vision of the world. In this sense, the artist Sondheim has been my teacher. 

His music and lyrics for the show A Little Night Music revised my view of the world. No production I've seen has ever lived up to the one I imagined, so probably it was a good thing that I missed my first opportunity to see the show. It was 1974, on a visit to Broadway with Atlanta's school of performing arts. The school's pianist Paul Ford invited me to see Night Music with him, but I saw a rock musical (Raisin) instead. (Read more about Paul at the end of this piece).

Later, on Paul's insistence, I bought Night Music's original cast album.  At first, I wasn't interested. I preferred loud, flashy, blatantly emotional stuff. But Night Music conjures a twilit world where love is the only concern, and where an orchestra fills the air "like perfume" (as Sondheim intended). A month later, nagged by the refrain to "A Weekend in the Country," I gave the album a second listen.
This time, I "got it." I remember the moment when I saw how everything fit together perfectly. It's in the song "Now," when the lawyer Fredrik plans a "suggestive" strategy to put his wife into an amorous mood:
In view of her penchant for something romantic,
Desade is too trenchant and Dickens too frantic
and Stendhal would ruin the plan of attack
as there isn't much blue in The Red and the Black...
In just those last two lines, there are four rhymes,a sly pun, with vocabulary that I had to open a dictionary to appreciate; and yet it all seems conversational, specifically suited to a late-Victorian Swedish lawyer who would likely have Stendhal on his bedside table. And though the musical accompaniment builds to a passionate climax here, it all grows methodically from the very first notes of the strings -- mirroring the lawyer's logical thought process. 

Seeing in an instant all that Sondheim had worked into just this portion of the song, I gave a little laugh. It was a pivotal moment for my life. I'd been a scornful atheist, but then I came to an important conclusion: there's more to life than mere matter. Evolution alone could not explain Sondheim's imagination, or the drive to work out so thoroughly the small wonderful details of that one song, or even the impulse to create such a perfect piece of music, words, and theatre. Nor could Darwin explain the pleasure I got from apprehending it all. Listening to the Night Music recording, I concluded that there must be a Creator, and Sondheim's art is a glimpse of the Creator's image.

From then on, I followed strands from Sondheim outward to other interests. Recordings of his music by Cleo Laine and Bobby Short led me into jazz (thanks to tips from my chorus teacher Frank Boggs) and, from there, the great American songbook of standards. Composers compared to Sondheim brought me to Bernstein, Ravel, Reich, Janacek, Britten; and each of those pointed me to others, until I appreciated centuries of music. His artistry with words set a standard as I learned to appreciate Shakespeare, Beckett, Stoppard, and Updike. I studied music composition. The stories that I wrote for my Master's degree in Professional Writing connect to his art.

Sondheim taught me directly once, as my college counselor. On another tip from Frank Boggs, I wrote Sondheim a letter asking for guidance about selecting a college. In my letter, I quoted an interview in which his mother said that young Steve always wanted to write words, compose music, and perform: "He wanted to be Noel Coward." I told him I was the same way, that I wanted to be him, and I asked for his advice. 

Sondheim responded that, first, it was his mother who probably wanted to be Noel Coward. Beyond that, he said to skip music appreciation, because even a little knowledge of music theory would do more for me than any course in listening (an insight that proved true, and that I use to guide me when I teach music to children). A year later, I wrote him again, asking if my friends and I could meet him during a brief stay in New York. He's had a few more notes from me in the decades since then, as when I heard the recording of Sunday in the Park with George, and I've always received a kind reply.

Every angle of my inner life converges on the moment that I "got" A Little Night Music. Writing music for theatre and for worship; helping students to create art and to apprehend history with an artist's imagination: what else do I ever think about? what are all my daydreams? how do I spend my free time? It all meets in the work of Stephen Sondheim.  (See my Sondheim page.)
Paul Ford soon left Atlanta for New York, where he quickly became the pianist of choice for Broadway shows. Looking up from the pit orchestra of Into the Woods in 1987, he recognized me and warmed up with a song I'd done with him in ninth grade. Sondheim's Assassins originally played with just synthesizer, drums, and Paul at the piano. He's currently touring the country as accompanist/arranger for Mandy Patinkin's recital of Sondheim songs.

Mia's anima, a Dog's Soul

Do animals have souls? 

Because anima is Latin for "soul," the answer by definition seems obvious.  By "soul," do we necessarily mean immortal spirit?  I'm okay to leave speculation on the afterlife for others, and to define "soul" as "that which animates us," i.e., our desires. 

Now, my dog Mia is certainly animated by desires for food, companionship, adventure, and what I see in her eyes, pictured below, looks to me like soul.  What the pictures can't show is how her whole sinuous body wriggles in her anticipation of joy that is itself a joy -- for her to experience, for me to share.

[Top photo:  Posed in her compartment of my hatchback, Mia decided mid-selfie to see if she could just bound over the barrier.  No problem.]

[Second photo:  Mia enjoys visits to the vet.]
[Third photo:  Mia napped in my lap on the back porch one summer evening.]
[Fourth photo:  I wasn't home when friend Susan arrived at my front door early for a dog walk.  Mia knew what was ahead.]

I wrote about a conflict with Mia that disturbed me enough to dream about it, and I included another photo of her at "Jung Over: Dreams the Morning After."

Friday, October 30, 2015

Barry Moser's We Were Brothers:
"Let Them Grow Together"

Here's serendipity: on the same morning that I finish reading a memoir of brotherhood, I read a gospel meditation that turns on memory and the phrase "let them grow together." .

Jesus' parable of the weeds sown among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30) gets a new spin in today's meditation by Christine McSpadden in Forward Day by Day.  When the landowner directs his servants to let both crops "grow up together" until the weeds can be reaped and burned, I've always taken that for an image of retribution for unrepentant sinners.  But McSpadden applies the landowner's wisdom to something in all of us, our memories.  She writes
Very often, the core of our stories begins in childhood, and over time we sort through experiences, aligning them with that core or discarding them.  We compose a narrative line, cobbling together even the most disparate of fragments, weaving meaning and purpose into our stories.  Over time, we create a cohesive tapestry of identity for ourselves. ...Then, as we go forward in our lives and ministries, we can choose again those bits that give life, hope, vitality, and promise. (Aug-Oct 2015. p. 92)
McSpadden's view fits what I've learned in the Episcopal Church's "Education for Ministry" program, for which participants re-examine their life stories regularly, looking for threads, especially any sign of God's influence.

In the new memoir We Were Brothers by famed book illustrator Barry Moser, brothers growing together turn out very differently.  In adulthood, one is a cosmopolitan artist known to readers of The New York Times Review of Books while the other is a small-town banker and overt racist.

Writing perhaps in the same way that he makes his famed wood cuts, Moser sketches the whole story in early chapters before filling details in second and third passes over the same outline.  His was a genteel Chattanooga family fallen on harder times; he and brother Tommy were apart three years but only one grade at the local military academy Baylor; by mid-book, we understand how the older brother bullied the younger one; by the end of the book, we've read bloody details of their most memorable fights.  Through all, Moser traces a theme of the family's relations with African Americans: Klan members, yet cordial to individuals such as the mother's best friend Verneta.

As the meditation on the parable suggests, however, Moser's memories differ significantly from his brother's, as they discover in a remarkable set of long letters to each other that bring reconciliation after years of estrangement.   

Moser naturally illustrates his own memoir with delicate renderings of family photos. His own writing gives us more than the visual.  Here is a complicated incident where the stepdad, evidently fed up with young Barry's hiccups, pulls the family car over, kicks the boy out, and drives away.  Sure, he comes right back -- it was all to cure the hiccups -- but the damage is done:

Daddy kissed me -- smooched me, actually -- several times, put me down, and opened the back door.  I snuffled my way back up onto the backseat behind Mother.  Tommy wouldn't look at me.  He was crying.  Daddy picked up my shoe and put it on my foot before he closed the door and drove on. (286)
The fight scenes are tremendous!  There's a big fight in the basement when mother sends the stern uncle in to stop the teenaged boys:

...but perhaps our shared, pent-up anger at him for his years of sullenness and irascibility toward us kicked in.  No matter, we took him by his arms, dragged him out onto the front porch, and threw him bodily into the front yard... (1042) 

...and kept fighting.

I'm hardly estranged from my own brother, but I can attest that Moser's tale is universal.  For that matter, so can the Bible, in every story of brothers from Cain and Abel to James and John: Rivalry, shared interests, common memories, conscious differentiations, and affection.  Once after I'd beaten him up one afternoon in second grade, Mom told me that he'd spent all afternoon waiting for big brother to come home from school.  I never think of him without thinking of that! At a crucial time in our twenties, he shared his perspective on our lives, stunning me:  I'd had no idea.

[Photo:  This is my favorite among all our family photos. I remember coming home from the bus stop after a day at first grade, to find the photographer at our home.  ]

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Nixon's Voice

Nixon was my first President.  I recall JFK's death; I remember Johnson on TV; but I stayed up late to see if Nixon would pull ahead of Humphrey and Wallace in November 1968.  In Mrs. Finkle's  Fourth Grade classroom, I watched his inauguration and his daughter's wedding.  I cried at my summer job, hearing on the secretary's radio his farewell at the White House.  I know his voice:  a little coppery in timbre, growly and husky in texture, deliberate in rhythm.

From reading his self-justifications in print and from researching him myself, I also know his writer's voice.  It jumps out at us early in Stephen Ambrose's biography, a portion of an interview late in Nixon's life:
What starts the process, really, are laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid... [but] if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance, while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts.
He thinks he's Everyman, telling everyone what "you" go through; and he thinks he's the hero of this tale.  He tried to turn his story into an uplifting one, but uplift doesn't go well with bitterness.

In 1987, I saw the premier production of the opera Nixon in China by John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman.  My friend John Davis, polymath and astute observer of everything, opined at the time that Nixon would long be a source for artists, while Reagan, Johnson, and most others never would be.

Why?  Davis suggested that, for a man so determined to control his own image, Nixon's inner conflicts and torments were always on view.  Nixon argued endlessly that he made all of his choices for the right reasons.  His good intentions make him tragic; his lack of self-awareness makes him comical.

Adams, Goodman, and their director Peter Sellars caught some criticism from Nixon haters for presenting Nixon at his height, using only resources pre-Watergate, putting verse in his mouth that represented him as he might have seen himself.  Thus, Nixon sings
On our flight over from Shanghai,
The countryside looked drab and gray.
"Bruegel," Pat said.  "'We came in peace for all mankind,'"
I said, and I was put in mind 
Of our Apollo astronauts, simply achieving a great human dream.
We live in an unsettled time.
Who are our enemies?  Who are our friends?

... As I look down the road, I know America is good at heart...
Shielding the globe from the flame-throwers of the mob.
                               (quoted from memory - apologies if I miss some words)
There we have laconic Pat, Nixon's pretentions and his goofy inability to separate personal from public.  Biographer Stephen Ambrose tells how Nixon, awaiting  medical help beside an injured woman struck by his motorcade,  crowd and cameras watching, asked her opinions about taxes!  That's the Nixon we have in the opera, wanting desperately to be good, unable to connect to Mao or even to Pat, and apt to orate.

That's the Nixon we see in the best parts of Austin Grossman's 2015 novel Crooked.  Early in the novel, Grossman's Nixon tells us:
This is a tale of espionage and betrayal and the dark secrets of a decades-long cold war.  It is a story of otherworldly horror, of strange nameless forces that lie beneath the reality we know.  In other words, it is the story of a marriage. (16)
That mordant punchline is a bit out of Nixon's range, but the plan for a story is a good one, to move forward on parallel tracks of marriage to Pat and of supernatural cold war.   The novel is eventually derailed when apocalyptic events overwhelm the more personal story.

Grossman is at his best when his narrative voice is closest to Nixon's own: pedantic, dignified, stern,  misty-eyed patriotic, and doggedly determined.   

Grossman's Nixon remembers that he romanced Pat "with exactly the same no-brakes determination with which I later ran for public office," and Pat "sensed that I was as desperate as she was, as angry as she was, and that I was struggling to go places" (Kindle edition 14).  That sounds right; the intervening commentary that "the heart lives by unreadable codes ... [and] knows nothing of dignity or humanity" seems a step away from Nixon's earthbound self concern.

Still in the setting-up phase of the novel, Grossman's Nixon gives us these insights:
My other asset was that, as I discovered, I wasn't a nice person. (18)
I never hid any of this from Pat.  ...She believed I was doing it for the right reasons, that this was a small price to pay to get a decent man into Congress (or at least a man who was decent before the campaign and had very sincerely promised to become decent again once he got there).  (19)
That idea seems key to Nixon's whole career: he's decent except when decency isn't practical. Grossman's Nixon seems to see the irony of this; real Nixon called it realpolitik.

At a reception with Pat, neither of them like the sensation of being liked: "They liked me now that I'd had a success, but I'd spent too long hating them to value what they had to say to me.  I'd seen what they were like to people they couldn't use." (68)

There are other delights in Crooked, as when Nixon considers killing Howard Hunt during their first meeting, feeling found out, and when Nixon has to smuggle a message hidden under carrot cake (76).  The sight of Ike, stripped to the waist dripping blood and sweat onto a pentagram is one that Grossman's Nixon and I both will never forget.

For the true voice of Nixon, elevated to EveryWhiteAmericanMan , I'll return to the opera.

Related Blogposts

  • Austin Grossman's earlier novel Soon I Will Be Invincible was a delightful mix of super-hero characters in the style of a first-person noir detective story (read my blogpost).   
  • "You Never Get Over It" reviews the film Frost/Nixon
  • "How Little We Knew How Little They Knew" responds to the book Nixon and Kissinger. I'd always believed that Nixon was at least a competent President; this book, using those famous tapes, dispels that notion.
  • "Thanks to and from Composer John Adams" gives much space to his appreciation for librettist Alice Goodman's Nixon in ChinaJohn Adams' Musical Landscapes tells how, a bit baffled at the premier, I learned to love this opera above almost any other piece of musical theatre I know.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Martian's Intelligent Design

Director Ridley Scott lays out Author Andy Weir's premise with breath-taking speed during the first few minutes of the film: astronauts abandon Mars during a storm, leaving for dead a crewmate who spends the rest of the film trying to survive alone.  Once he finds a way to contact NASA, all earth  becomes engaged in his rescue.

Weir created The Martian on his personal blog, accepting readers' help online to solve each insurmountable obstacle threatening the protagonist.  In Ridley Scott's lavish film, scene after scene shows us astronauts, suits, and many species of Geek collaborating via social media to find ways past dead-ends.   The film is all the more enjoyable for being a meta-mirror of the manner of the story's creation, ending up explicitly celebrating the power of patient creative problem-solving and community. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Liaisons Project:
Entering the World of the Song

Liaisons is the perfect name for this project, as each of thirty-six composers has created original pieces that have "loving relationships" with songs by Stephen Sondheim.  NPR reporter Ari Shapiro hears composers working with Sondheim's music in the way that Sondheim works with the music of composers he admires.

[Photo: Anthony DeMare, from Boise State Public Radio]

Each composer has, in the words of a Sondheim lyric, entered the world of the song, "coming back to this one from that."  They return with pieces that build on as little as a measure or two of accompaniment, or pieces that elaborate a single song to capture the sweep of an entire story.  All the pieces demonstrate techniques that Sondheim himself uses to get, as he says, "maximum development of the minimum of material" (see my article on How Sondheim Found His Sound).

The results are sometimes so far afield from their sources that I, who have known the songs for decades, had to check the track listing to know what song had inspired what piece.   But all the pieces show seriousness of purpose, personal reflection, and care in execution. 

Pianist Anthony DeMare commissioned and recorded the first pieces over four years ago; I'm proud to have been one of the contributors who responded to a crowd-funding campaign to complete the project.  The result is the best tribute of all to the composer-lyricist whose artistic integrity and generosity in collaboration have by now inspired generations of admirers, emulators, and teachers.

Back when I was the first kid on my block to own the LPs of A Little Night Music, Company, and Follies, I wanted my guy Sondheim to be as popular as those guys who wrote Hello, Dolly! and Jesus Christ Superstar.    I wanted to see his music on the Billboard Charts.

Well, this tribute, which has indeed hit the Billboard charts, is more satisfying than popularity.  This project distills generations' appreciation for both Sondheim's achievements, and Sondheim the man.

See my Stephen Sondheim page for other articles about Sondheim, his music, and his shows.  

Sources consulted
Liner notes by Mark Eden Horowitz 

Ari Shapiro's interview on NPR's All Things Considered

Review by John Kelman.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Terror and Powerlessness:
Two by Agatha Christie

Too terrifying for me to buy at age 10, 4:50 from Paddington (formerly What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw) is as good an idea now as it ever was: a little old woman witnesses a murder on the commuter train running parallel to hers, and is powerless to stop it, or even to convince others that she saw what she knows she saw.  I held that book in one hand, and Hickory Dickory Death in the other, weighing them as if much more than $1.50 (price of a paperback in 1970) hung in the balance.  Two roads diverged in a wood; I took the one with the friendlier Mother Goose title.
The Moving Finger also takes powerlessness as its premise, as no one can stop the anonymous poison pen letters that attack characters in a small town.  Everyone has to be suspicious of everyone else; no one shares the shameful things they've read.   

Terror isn't Agatha Christie's real interest, though.  She aspires to Noel Cowardy repartee -- "Quite dreadful" someone says, viewing a corpse.  "Of course I despise money when I haven't got any," says a Wildish heir (Paddington 227).  She has observations to make about intellectuals who lack common sense, and sensible underestimated women.  She takes gratuitous swipes at an aesthete whom she calls "effeminate" and "queer," Mr. Pye in The Moving Finger.  Most interesting is the observation by the rector's wife in Finger that the unknown writer has made vile accusations while missing the real sins of the town:"Well of course there's plenty of adultery here -- and everything else.  Why doesn't the writer use these?" (59) 

Besides, Christie likes romance.  A brother and sister pair, each wanting a mate, are the protagonists in The Moving Finger, notwithstanding a late entrance by Miss Jane Marple.  The man becomes Pygmalion to the clumpy 20 year old "girl" who "hates" the village.   In 4:50, the pert young jack-of-all-trades Lucy Eylesbarrow, hired by Miss Marple to infiltrate a household, falls in love with the one decent human being in the house.  "Are we investigating crime, or are we matchmaking?" Lucy asks her (173).

While I read the novels, I enjoyed them, page by page.  Both novels did give us those kinds of coincidences that open Christie up to ridicule, when one character suddenly reveals she's actually so - and - so's long-lost French wife, or another character happens to open a book whence came all the pages cut into poison-pen messages.  

I wonder if Christie could have found a way to sustain her terrifying visions?  We've hardly explored the implications of random violence on a train when Miss Marple has discerned that the body Mrs. McGillicuddy saw must have fallen on the grounds of a country estate, domesticating the urban nightmare.  The poison pen letters result in an apparent suicide, and we're back to dealing with understandable motives.

When Christie had these visions of powerlessness facing malevolence, was she unable to spin the stories out beyond the usual tales of inheritances and infidelities, or was she unwilling?  I think I know how she may have felt:  I once brainstormed a series of detective stories set in a neighborhood like my own, but filed it all away when the idea occurred to me of a serial pet killer.  Some story ideas are too horrible to contemplate, and we want an Agatha Christie to tame them for us.