Thursday, December 28, 2017

A Clarinet Wonder

Something weird and wonderful, Romantic and yet modern. The New York Philharmonic's composer-in-residence in 2010 was Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg. Hear his amazing Clarinet Concerto. Alas, the CD is out of print and the record company (Ondine) does not sell MP3 downloads either. I think it's even harder to be a contemporary composer than to be a contemporary poet.

Rachmaninoff Had Big Hands

Rachmaninoff and Humor do not seem to be two words that could share the same sentence. This video, titled "Rachmaninoff Had Big Hands" will thrill all classical music fans, especially those who once thought they could play the great C-Sharp Minor Prelude, until they saw the chords.  

Teddy Tahu Rhodes

Amazing baritone — Teddy Tahu Rhodes — made a breakthrough appearance on the 2010 Saturday live HD broadcast of "Carmen," filling in for an ailing Toreador. 

Here's also a YouTube clip of Teddy, also nicknamed "the baritone with abs," singing the great solo from Handel's Messiah, "The Trumpet Shall Sound."  

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Most Gothic Spot in Pittsburgh

I've been visiting Pittsburgh's cemeteries for two years now, but I have not seen every ravine and hillside that houses tombs and mausoleums. This week I found the best so far: a round, Gothic mausoleum that looks like a set for Poe's "Ulalume." It's in Allegheny Cemetery near the Bloomfield entrance. 

Moments of the Sublime

Breakthrough moments in human consciousness. Plotinus describes achieving oneness with nature/God/the Sublime (substitute your own overarching noun): "He was one himself then, with no distinction in him either in relation to himself or anything else; for there was no movement in him, and he had no emotion, no desire for anything else when he had made the ascent, no reason or thought; his own self was not there for him, if we should say even this. He was as if carried away or possessed by a god, in a quiet solitude, in the stillness of his being turning away to nothing and not busy about himself, altogether at rest and having become a kind of rest." My first moment like this was experienced at night, leaning against a great maple tree in Edinboro graveyard, after I had entered into the very essence of the tree itself (imagining myself as it, not me as one looking at it) .... another time in Providence late at night in the woods as a family of raccoons and I sat regarding the stars ... a few times, not enough times, in a lifetime. To attempt to describe such moments, and to give them value in everyday life, is a poet's life's work.

Monday, October 2, 2017

My Annotated Edition of Sorley, the Lost WWI Poet

The revised second edition of the poetry of Charles Hamilton Sorley is now available from Poet's Press/Yogh & Thorn Books. Robert Graves called Sorley one of the three best poets killed in World War I. Shot by a German sniper in the Battle of Loos, Charles Sorley died at age 20, leaving behind enough poems for a slender volume published by his father in 1915: Marlborough and Other Poems. Several of Sorley's poems have been featured in countless war anthologies, but the poet's complete work was kept in print only until 1932. There was a reprint sometime in the 1980s and then Sorley seems to have been forgotten again. Sorley's nature poems, inspired by English naturalist Richard Jefferies (the British Thoreau), depict the haunted landscape of the Wiltshire Downs, from the days of Roman-occupied Britain to Sorley's own time.
As a student at Cambridge, young Sorley was steeped in the classics; he then traveled to Germany to study and was in school there when the War broke out. He was arrested and sent home by the German government, and within days of returning to England, Sorley enlisted. The last set of his poems, written in the battlefield, contain both stark soundings of death, but also a kernel of wisdom and tolerance, as when he addresses a poem to the Germans he cannot bring himself to hate.
Perhaps the most poignant poem is one he sent home retelling a key scene from Homer's Odyssey and then assuring his friend that he, too, ten years hence, would be telling his own war stories by the fire. Three months later, Sorley was dead. His last poem, a blistering war sonnet, was sent home to his father in his kit. Sorley's body was never found.
This volume includes passages from letters, selected by Sorley's father as illustrative of the themes of the poems in the book. To make this volume more accessible to today's readers (and to students), I have annotated both the poems and the letters, making clear the numerous classical and Biblical allusion that would have been well-known to Sorley's contemporaries. Some 1903 photos of the Wiltshire landscape have also been added, taken from an edition of Jefferies nature writing.
The book was completely re-typeset from the 1932 edition, using typefaces from the World War I era. The book also includes an annotated checklist of the critical reception of Sorley's work from 1915 through 1973, by Larry Uffelman; a biographical sketch of the poet written by his mother for the 1919 Letters of Charles Sorley; additional letters; and juvenilia. This second edition has a longer introduction, covering biographical and scholarly sources about Sorley that were not available to me when the first edition came out in 2010.

To order from Amazon:

African Americans and the Classics

It has been fashionable for a long time to trash the classics -- the history, prose and poetry of Greece and Rome specifically. Yet the founders of the United States could almost all read Latin, and many read Greek as well, and they knew Greek and Roman history inside out. From this they learned what democracy is, and how republics rise and fall. There would be no United States had not a group of British Colonials in America fancied themselves as new Athenians and new Romans.
When African captives escaped from slavery, or, later, were freed, they knew that two things were vital to them: literacy, and the vote. Many former slaves craved the very classical knowledge that empowered the white man, and some used the wisdom of the classics in the further argument for their rights. It's more common to imagine these former slaves reading the Bible, but they craved -- and some got -- the education in the classics that white man wanted them not to have.
Finally, there's an important book about this, on a theme that is dear to me -- re-establishing the importance of the classics in American history. My friends who teach American literature or history will want to read this book. Other friends of a classical or historical bent will find it illuminating. Please ask your library to buy it. I'm sorry it's so expensive -- academic titles are criminally priced -- so you might need to have your library get it via interlibrary loan from another library that buys these kinds of books.

See Book on Amazon 

Beverly Sills in "The Turk in Italy"

One of the happiest, happiest nights in the opera house ever was seeing Beverly Sills in Rossini's "The Turk in Italy," a sequel to his "Italian Girl in Algiers." Its empowered heroine defies her husband and makes a fool of an amorous Turkish pasha. This version is in English, in a hysterical translation by Andrew Porter. Jokes, gags and memorable lines abound, such as her aria threatening, "I'll take lovers by the hundreds, yes, a new one every night!" Lines like that you never forget. The work was never recorded, but there was a TV broadcast, and here it is, at last, copied from a VHS tape. Sit yourself down and have a romp with this joyous sex comedy. I wish Fellini had made a film of this opera!

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Dvorak's Gloomy Seventh Symphony

The Carnegie Mellon Symphony Orchestra played Dvorak's Symphony No 7 in D Minor. Here is the full concerto from September 17, 2017. These programs are open to the public and are played in the historic Carnegie Music Hall. An outstanding program.

The program opens with the lively Carnival Overture, also by Dvorak, then continued with Chausson's Poeme for Violin and Orchestra. The Seventh Symphony is the second half of the program.

A Polka for Elephants, A Masque for Isabella d'Este

As the Carnegie Melon Wind Ensemble began their concert last night, one elderly audience member got up and fled in consternation at the raucous sounds coming from the stage. It was Stravinsky's "Circus Polka for a Young Elephant," a brief polka that Stravinsky actually composed for a circus. It includes a hysterical quote from Schubert's "March Militaire." The rest of this program shows a large array of CMU's wind and brass students playing some remarkable music. Renaldo Hahn's voluptuous neo-Renaissance piece for an imagined pageant at the court of Isabella d'Este; a lark for trumpet and trombone with full band; and a gorgeous rhapsody for solo flute and large band. CMU streams live from their concerts and here is the whole thing. This is a great demonstration of how vibrant the literature is for wind and brass bands, and how great these students are. The performance begins about 1:40 in, and after the intentionally honking and barking elephant music passes, it is smooth sailing. Enjoy! And remember, if you move to Pittsburgh, all this can be yours, for free! 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Two of My Piano Preludes Redux

I had posted both of these piano pieces before, but I did not yet have the ability to make the right-hand part play at a different volume than the left-hand part, so it sounded kind of mechanical, with chords "hammering." Now I have fixed that, and these two pieces sound pretty much the way I play them myself.

The Prelude in F Minor is another of my miniature preludes, as short as some of the Chopin Preludes. I fancy that a beginning piano student might enjoy playing this, as it has plenty of gloom and makes a big noise without requiring any technique whatever. I can imagine ten-year-olds terrifying the cat with it.
The F Minor Prelude Reposted Yet Again

The Prelude-Fantasia in G Major was a one-page, one-theme Prelude from 1968 that I expanded in 2003, varying the theme and adding a chorale-like statement of it with bare chords hanging in the air, making me think somewhat of last Liszt. I've tried this on electronic pianos where the several dissonant chords sound quite eerie, but on even a slightly-out-of tune traditional piano, these chords might bring mice and spiders from the woodwork. This was composed at the piano and then entered note by note manually into Finale.

Listen to the G Major Prelude-Fantasia

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Lines Overheard at The Russian Tearoom

As The Russian Tea Room says about itself: "For over eighty-five years, New York's defining cultural moments have taken place at Russian Tea Room. Ever since members of the Russian Imperial Ballet founded the restaurant in 1927, it has been a second home for boldface names and the intellectual elite-an exclusive enclave where actors, writers, politicians, and businessmen planned their next deals and feted their friends' latest Carnegie Hall performances."

Ludmilla’s got herself a husband.
It doesn’t matter that you’re stupid
if you can dance en pointe. —

The tables are so close here:
There’s Donald Trump.
Three tables down, that model
from all the magazines.
That dowager between
with that look on her face?
The poor man can’t count. —

Ya piu nad razorenni dom.
(I drink to our ruined house).
Why did we have to build it
in Florida? —

It was, of course,
a Jewish conspiracy. —

There is no evidence.
Besides, we already have
the green cards for everyone. —

So we played. We knew the music.
He stood there waving his stick.
He was two beats behind us
and never knew the difference. —

No one finds the bodies.
No one. They say he keeps
the eyeballs. He pickles them. —

I have a friend at Coney Island.
For you, he will fix everything. —

Ignore the news, Sergei.
Everything goes
the way we planned it. —

How many people here
would stop dead-track
if I said “Moose and Squirrel?”

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Afternoon Walk through Downtown Pittsburgh

I walked nine miles today and took 213 photos. The walk started and ended in downtown Pittsburgh. You can see some of them in this Flickr album.
Brett's Afternoon Walk in Pittsburgh Photo Album

Union Trust Building

The Gothic gingerbread atop the Union Trust Building gives little clue to what is inside: a classic lobby with an atrium that goes all the way up to the top of the building. It looks like some kind of video game, but this is real.
You can see all the photos I took on my Flickr page.
Brett's Flickr Page for Union Trust

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

One Night in Cyprus

This is a story I have waited decades to tell. One night in 1974 I had an intense dream, in which I was inside another person's mind and body. I was on the island of Cyprus, escaping by night from an unspecified peril. This poem relates the dream, exactly as it occurred. By the end of the next day, the world knew that a Greek junta-led coup had taken over Cyprus, and its Greek leader, Archbishop Makarios, had fled. These events led to a Turkish invasion and the permanent partition of Cyprus.

On the back of a truck
hurtling without headlamps
on a moonlit night on Cyprus,
the archbishop sat, cross-legged.
He saw great silhouettes of cedar trees
and overhanging crags black-edged,
an open sky of fierce and unnamed stars —
stars whose names he’d never learned,
though Greek and Arab astronomers
had classed and ordered them,
hard-tracing beasts and maidens,
hunters and bears, cup-bearers loyal
to the rampant, seducing cosmos,
now a mere tapestry for Christ’s passing.
Now he, a mariner without sail or star
had put his trust in strangers (strangers
who came from god and might be god),
hidden like thief beneath a flapping tarp,
a lump among fogs and onions
inhaling the incense of root earth.

The driver stopped, the men
invisible to him in the truck cab
came ’round to lift the tarp. He winced.
You may stretch your legs, Father.
We have reached the peak —
So far no sign of any soldiers.
We’ll send a scout ahead on foot,
the crossroads below a last point
of danger we’ll be stopped and captured.
He nodded, thanked and blessed them,
his hand making the crossroads sign
as he thought of the feared places
where Hecate was summoned and fetuses
buried. Thus one always shuddered at crossroads.
He walked to road-edge. If ever a prayer
was called for, it was now. No altar, no walls.

The arched cedar tree cupped praying hands,
the slope was dotted with flowers —
what color, the asphodel at midnight?
He said some words, not for himself at first,
then for himself, for so much depended
on his getting out and away, to save the country.
But where, in dark night, did prayers go?

* * *
I never knew you. I never heard of you.
I have never seen Cyprus, and yet the dream
that seized me was realer than real.
I felt the pain of your bones, I sighed your sigh
as you knelt and prayed. I did not grasp the words
or the language in which they were uttered.
Yet my self watching myself dreaming told me:
this is Cyprus, and this is happening.
Your prayer, for whatever cause, rose not to heaven:
it came to me, an atheist, and half a world away.

You fled the Greek-led coup on Cyprus, a hunted man,
and you escaped that night; you flew to London.
You returned to endure a Turkish invasion.
Your statue stands in Nicosia.
Why you, why me, Archbishop Makarios?

Wartime Fragment


was this a just war, an old men’s war?
a war of merchants who wanted their weapons used
so that the great treasures of two kingdoms passed|
o, into their hands, Vulcan’s malevolent sons?

O the why and wherefore of war, what reckoning
your heirs will make of it, beside a ruined tomb!

Nero and the Flamingo

He is the Emperor
of the known universe:
Rome, that is,
and of every place
worth having.

The gods are best pleased
by ever-more-exotic
No lowly chickens here
in Rome whose temples
all but outstrip Olympus.
Give up the cattle to Jove,
and to that upstart Mithra;
meek lambs and smelly rams
fit only for Judean
hecatombs. No,
only the best for Nero,
the whole menagerie
if need be, to assure
his eventual,
glorious godhood.

Today he picks a stately
bird, a solitary feeder
that keeps to its own corner
in a flush of pink feathers.
Hook-nose wary,
it is a half-arm taller
than his Centurions.
He waits at the altar.
It is all legs and beak,
draws blood from the priests
as they hold it down.
Nero approaches
with the drawn blade,
intones the prayer,
slashes the place
where gangly neck
and pink body converge.

The head comes off.
The body leaps up
and out of the priest-hold,
spurts blood
all over Nero’s toga.
No one moves; no one utters
a syllable; all of Rome’s heart
skips a beat. Crowds part
as the headless horror,
runs out and down the temple steps,
across the plaza, a blood Aetna
bespattering the paving stones.
Crowds part for its passing
until it reaches the Tiber
and plunges in.

The Emperor stands,
the knife in hand,
his toga bloodied, ruined.
The priests avert their eyes.
Centurions watch
as less-than-god hands
wipe blood on white linen;
they look at one another
and with a not-quite smile,
the same thought occurs
to each of them.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Variations on the Ibis

Artists are people to whom coincidence
adheres, filings to their magnet consciousness.
My painter friend Riva points out
a small montage, a hulking splotch
with linked chains and a few squiggles.
“It won some prizes,” she tells me,
“But as for what it means —“ she shrugs.
My eyes reel into its story-window:
I see Prometheus chained, a Grand Inquisitor
in purple robes, and there, the white wings
of the gloating Zeus-eagle. “I can write this,”
I tell her. “Take it,” she said.

Another time she shows me an etching,
a crinolin’d ghost shape a-dance
before a barren landscape. It sits
the bottom-most discard in a bottom drawer.
“That is the Empress Carlota!” I cry,
“And that is Queretaro where Maximilian died.”
So off I went and wrote a play.

On a graveyard walk she stops, leans down
and picks up a squashed shard, some scrap
of one car’s fender run over by another.
“I’ll make something of this,” she told me.
I carry it home in my bag, then place
it absent-mindedly on dresser-top.
Months later, she visits and spies it,
atop a wood frame. I pick it up
to hand it back to her. Our eyes dance
upon the seeming-shapeless object,
and then to what’s inside my glass-framed box:
the Indonesian fruit-bat I nicknamed “Claudius.”
The shape of the found object precisely fills
the silhouette of the preserved fruit bat.
We smile. This is how the universe works us.

Small wonder, then, that I am reading Egypt,
the lore of Thoth and Hermes, his totem
animals the Lower Kingdom’s lordly ibis,
the Upper Kingdom’s wise baboon,
when tea with Riva reveals a water color
mystery, a scimitar shape emerging
from a blue-gray mist, a river fog,
a scythe, perhaps, with a hand to weild it.
“No!” I said. “It is upside-down.”
And there, in lordly solitude,
stood the Egyptian ibis. I have it still.
Riva is gone, her mind first, and then her body,
the ka and the ba on out-of-kilter journey
across to the Land of Reeds in the West.
So now the ibis panting is in its place
at my compound shrine of Hermes-Thoth:
the ibis with kneeling scribe before it,
the ibis-headed god himself in sculpture;
the sacred baboon;
the head of Hermes; two small pyramids,
a hippo, and The Book of Coming Forth by Day.

I asked a Greek who’d been to Egypt,
an Alexandrian admittedly, about the ibis.
“Don’t mention ibises! Those filthy birds,
worse than the legendary Harpies, be sure.
Not just the stately water-strider
you see in those temple scrolls — no!
Packs of them in every garbage heap,
fish-trash and butcher dumping place.
They eat what jackals would scorn to swallow.
They eat anything! They gorge themselves
until their innards can take no more —
guts forty yards long, I can assure you —
until they’re fat as a pampered goose.
The ibis knows no repose from gluttony:
stuffed full, they go off to the water.
Then, cheeks and bill blown up,
they give themselves water enemas.
The stench amid the reeds
is not to be believed.
No one will eat an ibis, I tell you,
and fishermen at night have seen them
beak to belly in oral copulation
(You can look it up in Strabo, too!
I’m not making this up.)
Now what this says about the priests of Thoth,
those ibis-headed ministers
and their mystery rites
is best left to the imagination.
Would you eat at table with a man
who had such habits? One cup
his lips had touched could fell a village.
I’m not one to leap to conclusions
but I prefer my gods sunny, Greek, and clean.”

Autumn of the Oligarchs

What if all the awful things that are happening are exactly what the one percents wants to happen, including near civil war and a nuclear "accident?" Here is my latest, and gloomiest poem in the series "Anniversarius: The Book of Autumn." It is satire, but in satire there is often a sad kernel of truth. Some people really wouldn't mind ending civilization, if "their kind" survived.


Come September,
those dirty brown oak leaves
tumbling around like homeless persons
are not acceptable here.
Oak-leaf clusters, preserved and dried
in tones of cheerful red and orange
will make a suitable display
for our early-harvest luncheon.
The noise is worth it — those tawny Mexicans
leaf-blowing till every last derelict
of maple, birch, alder and sycamore
are hosed and bagged, and tucked away —
worth it to have a picture-perfect lawn
neat as a golf course.

Come October,
and every last leaf will be gone.
The acorns shall have been harvested,
bird-nests removed.

Those pine cones falling like hand-grenades:
one can scarcely keep up with them,
but go they must. The traps shall be set
for the aberrant beaver, the rabbit,
the ever-destructive mole.
As for the birds, the Ornithology Club
has come up with an “approved” list —
we’ll have drones with rifle-shots to cull the rest.
All of our poorer relatives patrol the woods
for deer and fox and all unwanted mammals.
The Approved Cat and her progeny, keep clear
the house and ground of rats, and mice, and voles.
As for the squirrels — anarchists all! — we make
their lives a misery with a pack of Approved Hounds
until we find a way to breed those rodents sterile
(a break-through that will come in handy
as we down-size — just think,
a whole continent all for the taking, all over again,
but I get ahead of myself —

Come November,
green turf, stripped-bare trees like telephone poles,
the grounds secure, the fences electrified,
we’ll settle in for the fall and winter.
There will be inconveniences, of course.
Next to the martini, an iodine tablet.
Old Master paintings all moved to a solid bunker
(Best of the Met slipped out by sleight-of-hand);
the dinosaurs and those quaint old dioramas
of Arctic and African species (fakes all in Manhattan
as long ago we stealthed away the originals).
Deep in a cave we have the best of the best
and we can visit any time, on trips to the vaults
where we’ve moved all our solid assets.
When things calm down, the missiles spent
and the Geiger-counter clicks are down to drip-drop;
when the cities are cleansed and the suburbs leveled —
just you wait for the turkey day to end all turkey days.
Done by Thanksgiving, the generals assured us,
just the one percent (us) and about five percent (them),
the ones we chose. By God, we’ll have stuffing,
cigars and brandy by the fireplace, a starry night.

Come December,
sure as hell it’ll be a White Christmas.


I wish I had just dreamt this, but I saw it on YouTube. White supremacy, from Mom.


Trailer park slattern, blonde,
      holds close two flax-haired children.
“We need another genocide,”
      she says to the camera,
more opioid mama than Viking
      shield maiden.
“You know that means killing?”
      the reporter asks.
She nods. “I know. We need
      to have another genocide.” —
“You know that means killing women,
      and all their children with them?” —
Her eyes drop, then raise. “I know that.” —
      “So why do we need another genocide?” —
“Them!” she shouts, pointing at progeny,
      “So my children will have a chance.”
Husband, off camera: “That’s my woman.
      Ain’t she something?”


The hand extended to an innocent child,
the hand snapped back; the slap
back-handed, the raised club,
the road-side stop, the knock
three times at the midnight door.
Dark-celled without a lawyer,
then bused to a border, and over it.
One hand, with a pen-stroke
(small fingers tweeting), eight
hundred thousand eye-blink exiles.
What list are you on, reader,
and when does your time come?


Monday, August 28, 2017

Henry Hornbostel's Porter Hall/Baker Hall

A photo tour of Carnegie Mellon University's Porter Hall/Baker Hall, the work of architect Henry Hornbostel from 1905-1914. Architect Naomi Yoran, who designed the 2002 addition to the connected halls, gave me a guided tour and showed how the new addition was created to blend in with Hornbostel's original design. Connecting the two structures is a glass, modern "bridge," from which distinct details of Hornbostel's design can be viewed up close. Details include a spectacular, almost Art Nouveau Guastavino-tile covered curved staircase; and sconced lighting in wide corridors creating ceiling light patterns, steel-reinforced corners and doorways, with doors recessed. The new addition, unlike the original buildings, has a basement, where the Giant Eagle Auditorium was placed. Several pyramidal skylights admit light into the lobby of the basement area. At the top of the round stairway I found two antique proof presses, relics of the Carnegie Institute's printing school. It will take a long time to exhaust the fascinating geometries of this building, just one of Hornbostel's Pittsburgh treasures. Thanks to Naomi Yoran for the guided tour!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

An English Fantasia

Back when I owned a Neupert harpsichord in the 1980s, I did more improvising than playing, and I wrote down a theme and variations inspired by my various attempts to play music from The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. This collection of Elizabethan keyboard pieces for virginal (a smallish harpsichord string sideways) or organ are the first real solo keyboard music in England. 
Composers like Orlando Gibbons and John Bull and William Byrd graced its pages. Any number of the pieces seem to be based on lute music, and one frequently finds pieces all notated in C Major, but using the same accidentals to create various chords that might have been played on the lute (just my guess on why this is so). 
A number of the pieces also have a lot of close-fingered melodies with imitation back and forth across a small span. So the theme I created has that same feel. It's not really a promising theme for variations but I had fun with it. A "skipping" variation uses dotted notes. A C-Minor variation was a devil to notate. Some bridge passages came from who-knows where. Then the theme is adapted into 5/4 time and the harpsichordist gets some trills and runs. The main theme returns at the end, played slowly, and ornamented with trills.
So here it is, for your enjoyment.
An English Fantasia on SoundCloud

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

"Death by X-Ray" - The Shostakovich Seventh Quartet

I wrote these program notes for a concert given in Providence in 2012 by the Jerusalem Quartet. This is an intense, short, and very weird string quartet, but worth the effort it takes to get to know it.

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975). String Quartet No. 7 in f#, Op 108 (March 1960)

  1. Allegretto
  2. Lento
  3. Allegro

Written in the same year that Shostakovich was forced to join the Communist Party, this quartet is spared the tragic dimensions the composer put into his Eighth Quartet, a virtual suicide note in music. Although it cannot be separated from the times and circumstances in which it was composed, this is an intensely personal work, an elegy for the composer’s first wife Nina, who died in 1954.
The work was premiered May 15, 1960 by the Beethoven Quartet in St. Petersburg (then still Leningrad), and had its Moscow premiere at the Moscow Conservatory on September 17 of the same year.
It is the shortest of all of Shostakovich’s quartets, and there is the risk of writing notes that take longer to read than the quartet takes to listen to! But as is often the case with great music, composers can compress much into a small interval of time.
The composer had a life-plan for composing string quartets, intending to compose one in each major and minor key, doing for the quartet literature what Bach did for the keyboard in his Well-Tempered Clavier. That said, the Seventh Quartet should have been in Eb Major, following the scheme the composer was using. Instead, the quartet is set in the moody and passionate key of F# Minor, which puts it in company of Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony and Mahler’s withering Tenth Symphony.
Shostakovich often includes coded content in his work, and when you hear the first theme in the opening Allegretto, a kind of sardonic, skipping melody, you will immediately hear three repeated eighth notes, followed by a rest, quite literally a “knock at the door.” In German folklore, Death knocks three times at the door or window of a dying person, to the horror of family members watching at the bedside. Considering how many nights during the Stalin years, the composer expected a different kind of “knock at the door” that would take him to the Gulag, this gesture is richly suggestive. We are meant to recall terrible times. (In the Tenth Symphony, Shostakovich alternated the door-knock with the notes D-Eb-C-B, which are D-Es-C-H in German notation for the composer’s initials, meaning, “Knock-knock-knock! Shostakovich!”) So no matter how engaging the violin’s utterances might be, the knock at the door is embedded in the theme.
There is a break into hurried sixteenth notes, and a key change to Eb (the “home” key Shostakovich planned to use originally!) with the cello carrying the line, some very chromatic passages passing it back to the violin, and then a bridge passage played in block chords.
This bridge brings us back to F# Minor, with the main theme played pizzicato. This adds further to the grotesque atmosphere. It has the air of a hushed conversation, and the pizzicato requires leaving out the grace notes, so that the effect is a coded conversation, out of earshot of Those Who Watch and Listen. The movement ends with extensions of the “knock at the door” motif.
The Lento is an eerie, almost minimalist movement, with no key signature, played with the strings muted (con sordino). The second violin plays an unsettling succession of arpeggios, which look like a wave depicted on an oscilloscope. Viola and cello play glissansdi at one point, adding to the weirdness of the atmosphere. What is going on here? The clue, I think comes from the biography of Nina Shostakovich. She was an experimental physicist who spent months each year on Mt. Alagez in Armenia, engaged in cosmic ray research. Like many Soviet researchers, she was exposed to massive doses of radiation from radioactive materials, and from poorly shielded X-ray equipment. She died from a radiation-induced cancer. This music sounds to me almost like a science-fiction sound track depicting radiation. I would venture to give this Lento movement the nick-name “Death by X-Ray.”
The final Allegro has, for most of its length, no key indication. It is highly atonal, and since it is riddled with intermingled sharps and flats, it must be a daunting task to play. Even though the musical materials are spun out from motifs in the first movement, it would seem to be a Dance of Death, with the skeletons from the X-Ray now hammering away at a fiendish dance. The theme is passed among the viola and the two violins as a canon, the strictest type of fugue imitation (a melody played against itself, not against a second theme). Even though what we hear would give Bach convulsions, it is a Baroque concoction as conceived by a wrong-note revolutionary. This is angry music depicting a universe that kills capriciously. Then, abruptly, the “home key” of F# Minor asserts itself, with muted strings. As the quartet slows down and softens to its conclusion, there is no fist-shaking against Death (what is the use?), just a quiet slipping away, life sitting at life’s deathbed, and a hint of the ominous three-note “knock at the door.”

Shostakovich's String Quartet No 8

I wrote these notes in 2005 for a performance by the Chiarra Quartet in Providence, RI. At this time, there were still people claiming that Shostakovich was a "good Communist" and a loyal supporter of the Soviet Union. At the time I left Providence in 2015, I was still getting in arguments with musicians and academics about this. Hard to believe, but political fantasies die hard, and the facts be damned. Here are the notes, and I shall link to a YouTube video of the quartet as well.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) String Quartet No. 8 in c minor, Op 110

Allegro molto
No work in the string quartet literature is more intense or more emotionally devastating than Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet. It was long assumed that this quartet was about “The Victims of Fascism and War.” So says the epigraph in the published score. So said all the program notes, and some of them still say so. There is no denying the tragic sweep of this work that seems to cry out like a dirge for millions of souls extinguished.
But since the publication of Shostakovich’s memoir, Testimony, in 1979, and more so the publication of the 1998 volume Shostakovich Reconsidered, we now know that the Eighth Quartet — however nobly it has served as a tombstone of the Holocaust and World War II — was composed as a purely personal self-epitaph, a suicide note in music.
The quartet’s obsessive use of the four-note “DSCH” motto which spells out Shostakovich’s name (Es is Eb and H is the note B in German notation); and its extensive quiltwork of quotes from other Shostakovich music have always seemed odd in a work that supposedly had a “public” purpose. At the very least, the work has always been understood to contain “I suffered too” as a sub-theme, including as it does quotes from works that were banned for public performance through the Stalin years. What was the Soviet Union’s “most loyal son” of composers doing and saying?
It may come as a surprise to many that Shostakovich did not become a member of the Communist Party until 1960, his 54th year. According to his wife Irina, he was finally blackmailed into joining. In Testimony, Shostakovich says, “When I wrote the Eighth Quartet, it was also assigned to the department of ‘exposing fascism,’ You have to be blind and deaf to do that, because everything in the quartet is as clear as a primer. I quote Lady Macbeth, the First and Fifth Symphonies. What does fascism have to do with these? The Eighth is an autobiographical quartet; it quotes a song known to all Russians: ‘Exhausted by the hardships of prison.’”
It was not until 1990 that Shostakovich’s colleague Lev Lebedinsky further confirmed the Eighth Quartet’s link to this low point in the composer’s life: “It was his farewell to life. He associated joining the Party with a moral, as well as a physical death… [H]e had completed the quartet and purchased a large number of sleeping pills, he played the Quartet to me on the piano and told me with tears in his eyes that it was his last work. He hinted at his intention to commit suicide. Perhaps subconsciously he hoped that I would save him. I managed to remove the pills from his jacket pocket and gave them to his son Maxim, explaining to him the true meaning of the Quartet.”
The composer’s son, Maxim, at a conference in 1992, added, “My father cried twice in his life: when his mother died and when he came to say they’ve made him join the Party. […T]his was sobbing, not just tears, but sobbing.” Lebedinsky also reveals that “a much-trumpeted Party plenum” was called to present Shostakovich for one and all to see as a born-again Communist, and the event “deteriorated into a farce due to … the unexpected absence of the composer!” Abject apologies were made, and Shostakovich was dutifully enrolled as a Party member, but clearly one to be watched.
In the limited space we have to describe tonight’s work, it has seemed more compelling to tell the truth about this staggering composition than to engage in musical analysis. Moreover, those who know Shostakovich’s music in depth are “insiders” to this music, which resonates with themes from four of his symphonies, several other chamber works, and the opera Stalin hated, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Better perhaps, to let the DSCH motto take over and view the work as a phantasmagoria of musical threads, woven with passion and musical genius. Since Shostakovich is one of the truly great quartet composers, this work deserves to be examined as pure music — but not now, and perhaps not for a long time to come. Accept this quartet as a message in a bottle, a cry of despair, a warning that collaboration with evil destroys the soul.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Visiting Fallingwater

A house so beautiful that you almost burst into tears the first time you see it up close. I spent half a day yesterday at Falllingwater and it is everything they say it is, and more. The pity is that one cannot linger. We were on tour number 29 of the day and when we left, tour number 60 of the day was setting out. The walks and hikes in the woods are not hurried, however, so one can linger and enjoy the land, verdant with white rhododendron groves. I found a few native sassafras trees asserting themselves amid the pines and other tall trees. Photos inside the house were prohibited, so I cannot share the details of the house and its construction. You just have to go there. The best life of all is in a great city, with access to art and music and culture, but if one is to have second place amid the mountains, nothing on earth could be more joyous than this place. To awaken in a house like this is to arrive in a day in which great things are expected of you. Maybe some people could not deal with that, and for them, the trailer park, the cookie-cutter suburban ranch, the termite-nest apartment building.

Mini-Review: Japan's Longest Day

I was up till 2:30 last night watching "Japan's Longest Day," a 158-minute drama released in 1967 by Toho Films. I associate Toho with Godzilla movies and Samurai films, so this was a startling surprise -- a film that was not made with American viewers in mind. It covers the last 24 hours before Japan surrendered at the end of World War II. The isolated Emperor, absolute ruler -- the custom-bound bureaucrats and cabinet ministers -- and a group of crazed military officers who attempt a palace takeover to stop the Emperor from making a radio speech announcing the surrender. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mentioned with some bleak wide-angle photos of the devastation and some horrific close-ups of charred corpses. But the government officials seem numb to the scale of the carnage, and the honor-crazed military men want to hold out for a land battle in Japan. To watch this in the present moment is signficant. We who lost a couple of buildings in 2001 and thousands of troops we send off like rent-a-cops to overseas war that have no purpose, do not know defeat, have not suffered the deaths of millions.
There is a lot to think about in this film as some leaders talk about what the future can be for the future innocent, and what it would be like to live in a country that vowed not to make war again -- against the madness of ideology and blind patriotism. Intriguingly, the power of the media is also at the center of the film, as all realize that the Emperor's radio address would make the surrender irrevocable. The most telling moment in the film is a crazed soldier holding a revolver to the head of a radio broadcaster, who sits defiantly with the threat of a bullet inches from his head. This will be a hard film to forget.

See Wikipedia Page on Japan's Longest Day

Adirondack Mountain Man

Hikers in the Adirondacks know Pieter Vanderbeck as the mountain-man artist, who spends about five months of each year doing conte crayon drawings and line drawings all around the region. Pieter is also a poet and novelist, and was my neighbor in Providence for many years. He and I co-authored a book together, Twilight of the Dictators, and Pieter illustrated my book, Poems from Providence. A while back I bought tripods and lamps and umbrellas so that I could photograph more than 100 of Pieter's drawings for a DVD he was making. I'm delighted to see these photos are now on Pieter's own website. Enjoy!

Visit the Pieter Vanderbeck Site

Jack Veasey's Poetry

A young poet named Jack Veasey was brought to my dooorstep in 1975 by poet Barbara A. Holland. Soon after, we published his first little poetry book, Handful of Hair. Jack left us in 2016, and here is the last book he gave us, and the world. A posthumous collection of sonnets is in the works. Now you can have the ebook for less than the price of a cup of coffee, and get enough mind-jolts to keep you awake for weeks. The cover art is the oldest-known image of a dancing male figure (the full painting is shown here, and I used the figure on the left.)

Purchase Veasey Ebook

Doctor Jones and Other Terrors

No poem cost me more to write than "Doctor Jones," a stark confrontation with a rural Pennsylvania horror: a demented country doctor who enjoyed cutting off the arms and legs of little boys. Was he real? Or only partially real? Or the imprint of unspeakable abuse? All I know is that writing it, hands shaking, was a trauma in itself, and a liberation. The second poem, "Torrance" explores, in narrative poem and in photographs, the Pennsylvania state hospital where ordinary mental patients were mixed with the criminally insane, an Arkham Asylum if ever there was one. It was a leap of imagination to place Doctor Jones on the staff of Torrance, where I made him "The Night Doctor." Meet Doctor Jones in ebook format.
Purchase Doctor Jones Ebook

August - The Silly Season, with Fascists Added

As August sets in, who wants to do any useful work? Here, "retired," it is all play (editing poetry books, creating music), but even so, I know that academic people and publishers to whom I have written and await word from, are likely at their beach or mountain houses, or traipsing through museums and sipping absinthe of an evening.
If the Republic were not in mortal peril, I could switch off and spend the "silly season" watching old movies and TV shows and drinking iced tea.
But I can't.
I don't know what's coming next, and if we don't watch out, people like me will find men in brown shirts cutting my internet cable and following me around. It will not be safe to walk past alleys.
I will have to resume plans to join the resistance, or to slip across the border, or find a commune somewhere in the deep woods.
I may have to re-learn how to build cannons.
I will have to know how many days I could live with the food in my pantry.
I will have to check in again with those people I know would hide me, and whom I would help if they were on the run and needed to establish a new identity.
I am far from the rising coastal waters, but not far from armies of Bible-waving fools.
"The silly season" is an old newspaper term to describe the nutcase stories that journalists used to use as fillers in August, when there was a shortage of hard news, and the thermometer seemed to provoke the crazies with conspiracy theories to come out from their basements. Higher temperatures also meant more crimes of passion. Plus a host of stories about people being eaten by sharks and alligators. Now the White House fills the Silly Season with endless headlines.
So, have your August fun, folks, but keep the computer on and pay attention.

Stalin and Shostakovich

What is it like to live in a country where the leader does not care for artists (except those that praise him) -- and where the leader can write your name on a piece of paper, and you will be killed? Composer Dimitri Shostakovich was just one of many who went through that hell, but he was one of the most famous Russians terorrized by Stalin. Here is the story, in a poem, from my book, Twilight of the Dictators:


It's three in the morning and snowing in Moscow.
The streets are dark--but here and there a light--
a solitary bulb throws out its beacon:
a yellow beam from Stalin's workroom,
steady when the Great Helmsman has an idea,
tilted downward as he studies his lists,
casting a shadow of his giant hand
as fountain pen
makes check marks next to offending names.

Tomorrow those names and their owners
will separate forever as People's Enemies
become "Former People."

The offices of Ministries are well lit, too--
memos to write, conspiracies to ferret out,
coffee to drain by the cup, by the gallon.
(If Comrade Stalin can work all night,
who dares to leave his tasks unfinished?)

At the Lubyanka Jail, one basement window
emits its light in slitted segments.
One could see--
if anyone dared to press his face there--
an arm with a truncheon--a mangled visage.
Dim slots of light--a doorway--come on and off.
Men in black coats are framed there.
Then slashing beams and feral tail lights
precede and follow the Black Marias.


The clock chimes four.
Another lamp is burning, too--
another hand makes nervous tick marks
as Shostakovich blocks out chords and melodies.
Even the vodka and cigarettes
are quite forgotten as the climax approaches.
Eyes blur with staves,
sharps dance like angry snowflakes.
He cannot concentrate.
Half his brain is listening.
Not to his inner Muses--
not tonight,
not any night this year--
listening for the Black Marias.
A car glides by--too slowly?
Someone is running at the end of the block--
why, at this hour?

An interval of silence--too long, too quiet.
A truck stops--how long until the doors swing wide
and heavy-footed steps
echo from the building fronts.

A street lamp winks out; across
the street a curtain parts,
a candle moves once
across a table--
is it nothing-- or a signal?

He cannot go to the window and look.
Watchers in raincoats
dislike being spied upon.
It's never wise to stand in a window, anyway:
rocks have been thrown
by zealous members of the Communist Youth
rocks with notes
What if one of them took a gun to a nearby rooftop--?
Open season on Formalist Anti-People Artists!

His hands make notes in jagged gesture.
Attaca subito-

Stalin condemned his last opera.
What will he think of this symphony --
its Mahleresque, giant orchestra,
its jarring, piled-on harmonies,
its bleak and withering quietudes?
Will this, too, be a "muddle instead of music?"
How can be help being himself? 

He writes not what he wants,
but what he has to.
He tries to be grand -- it comes out bombast.
Tries humor, only to ooze sarcasm.
He has no smile that convinces --
could a lobster smile
while dangling over the cooking pot?

He must put everything into this symphony.
It may be his last, anyway.
Ignoring the clock, he labors on.
This page: the whimper of the beaten.
There: the shriek of the victims' widows.
There: the whining voice of the apparatchik.
This horn sounds a denunciation.
This oboe betrays a friend for a dacha.
This violin divorces its partner,
disclosing her unacceptable class origins.
A clarinet warns of rootless cosmopolitans.
Let them guess what it's all about!
To hell with their need for uplift! 

Rub their faces in the ruin of Russia!
Let them try their dialectic on this one!

Stalin works on. He sees the name
of Shostakovich. A memo asks:
Arrest and interrogate?
"I like a tune," he says to himself,
"and now and then even a poem."
The chastised artists would come around.
They'd write their odes and symphonies
to Russia and Comrade Stalin.
They'd do it willingly.
They'd trample one another for the privilege.
No action at present, the dictator writes.

Done for the night, the weary composer
dons coat and shoes, tiptoes
out door to the unheated hall.
Suitcase beside him, he curls up there
between the elevator and the apartment door.
Tries to sleep, tries not to listen
to the spiderweb sounds of the dying night.
The suitcase is packed for a long journey--
a cold one.
Better to wait in the corridor, he thinks;
better not to wake his sleeping wife and son
if this is the night that makes his life
another unfinished symphony.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sunday Organ Madness

I just posted two new compositions on SoundCloud for your enjoyment. Curiously, the two pieces are based on the same score I created in Finale. The jaunty one is a fast Little Prelude in D major, which sounds a little like a Ragtime piece.

Then, perverse creature that I am, I took the same piece, slowed it down, shifted a few voices up an octave for clarity, added some staccato accents as needed, and, lo, a full-fledged Prelude in D Major for Organ emerged.

The Little Prelude in D Major for Piano: Listen to the Piano Prelude

The Organ Prelude in D Major:
Listen to the Organ Prelude

Sarah Helen Whitman As Poet and Critic, Part 6 (Final)

Whitman As Literary Personality By the 1830s, Whitman had already settled into the eccentric style of dres...