Sunday, January 8, 2012

Thomas Ades' Polaris--The Metaphor of Music

Part of the wonder of classical music, for me, is attending its performance live—the small meal before, the glass of wine, the movement of people into the lobbies and the hall, the mix of high and low dress, the anticipation as the musicians tune their instruments, and then the electricity as the conductor floats onstage.

The forced attentiveness.

Last night, I went to Lincoln Center to hear The New York Philharmonic perform Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. I am, I admit, not an enormous Gustav Mahler fan. His music often strikes me as a bit ponderous. Except for his Ninth. Perhaps because it was written after the death of his daughter and with the knowledge that he too would soon die of heart disease, it is filled with grief and, as well, the wonder of being alive. Mahler died only a year after completing this, his last, symphony. The first and last movements are my favorites. Who doesn't tear up in those final moments? I recently downloaded the Ninth performed by The Berliner Philharmonica and conducted by Claudio Abbado. It might be my favorite, although many people recommend Leonard Bernstein’s 1979 performance. Of course, there are many many versions. While I haven’t heard them all, I haven’t yet heard one I hated.

Why am I writing this? Granted, Mahler’s Ninth always bears a return. But, it wasn’t just Mahler that sends me to the page. Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic’s Music Director opened the evening with the New York premiere of a 13-minute contemporary piece written by the young British composer Thomas Ades called Polaris. After the Ades pieces, Gilbert could have thrown up his hands and said, that's all for tonight folks. I would have been cool with that and felt, honestly, that I'd received more, more than my money’s worth. It was terrific.

I have always had difficulty with music as metaphor, particularly in the sense of the concrete. Music represents, evokes abstract emotion for me—joy, ecstasy, pain, sorrow,…but I am less successful at finding concrete image in the notes. I suppose I am too tied to words. I need the lyrics. Funnily enough, even lyrics in a language I don’t understand. Opera, for instance, paints pictures for me. There is something about the human voice, on the page, in the air.

But last night, the Polaris did it for me. Of course, the title refers to the North Star, or Pole Star, around which other stars appear to rotate, giving me a first image. The symphony notes also speak of navigation, suggesting the sea and some kind of voyage. But it was the music, with its recurrent theme, the departure and return to what seemed a single note (the star?), the turbulence, the interplay of a bass section set apart from the orchestra and the woodwinds like two people separated by at least an ocean, and their final reunion, that convinced. I felt as if I had been on a voyage. I felt the cold North Sea wind on my face. I heard the creak of a ship. I tasted salt! It was glorious.

Ades conceived Polaris for performance with a projected visual work by the Israeli film- and video-maker Tal Rosner. The work has been given with projections arranged in different ways, but it is also written so that it can be presented as a purely musical piece, which is what Gilbert chose to present to New York. You can see the images and a brief clip of the combined orchestral/visual presentation on the web. The film images are beautiful, but Ades’ music doesn’t require them. Perhaps, in fact, the voyage is better with images of one’s own. Judge for yourself. 

Saturday, December 31, 2011

2012! Finally

So many things to be thankful for -- friends and lovers, decent eyesight, books, all of the books being written and read, Borges and Montale and Levine, dogs and old people, a good view and a sunny day, foggy days, all ten of my fingers, smart phones.

I am not making too many resolutions this year except to begin a novel, write at least ten poems I am proud of, be a better daughter, and not spend so much time on the internet. I will also finish reading The Aeneid. I am going to be attentive to my writing life.

Today is the last day of 2011. Tomorrow is the first day of a new year. This poem is not one of the 2012 ten. It is only the last poem I'm writing in 2011. Well, I think so anyway. There are still a few hours left. So much could still happen.


It’s already 2012 and I know too many souls
who won’t stop reading me

about the end of the world. How twelve months from now,
it will finish. Everything will finish.

With solar storms and supervolcanoes, there’ll be a rebalancing
of the universe, the dispensation of all
consciousness. All I can do is open my hands, show them
its palm and wrist, the blue rivers running

with fish, their surfacing almost a kind of forensic
defense. A prediction becoming visible. Open my hand
to catch the leaf, the ball, the full weight of light
thrown down on top of me. We all know too many souls who say

live every day like its the last. Tell them, find me
Jeremy Schwartz, even one soul who will make a fire hot enough.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Art as Something Other than Truth

I want to start with a long quote from Maggie Nelson’s book The Art of CrueltyThis comes from a chapter in which she discusses how artists and writers have somehow, in at least some spheres, become regarded as ‘tellers of truth.’ Or that they are at least supposed to be ‘tellers of truth.’ Whatever that means. Here’s her quote:

When it comes to art, I personally cannot see the use-value of these proclamations, nor of the related, superficially inverse claims that a culture’s artists are somehow its “priests of truth.” I don’t mean to suggest that one isn’t working toward something while working on a piece of art, something that could be called “truth” (though it might also be called “making it work,” “aesthetic resolution,” or some such thing). But to approach works of art or literature with the hope that they might deliver a referendum on truth, or provide access to Truth-truth, is to set up shop on a seriously faulty foundation. A work of art may tell us little about factual truth, or about Truth-truth, but that is no reason to banish or belittle it. So long as we exalt artists as beautiful liars or as the world’s most profound truth-tellers, we remain locked in a moralistic paradigm that doesn’t even begin to engage art’s most exciting provinces.

She goes on to say:

By virtue of its being multiply sourced, art cannot help but offer up multiple truths. To a moralist in the market for “an ordered universe and objective truth,” such an offering can be only a contradiction in terms. Worse still, because of its episodic nature, art offers the passing impression of truth, without the promise that the truth revealed will have any lasting power.

I quote this, not because I want to belittle or begrudge artists their role in telling truth. On the contrary.

Art is important not because it shows us the one version of truth; it is not important because artists are prophets are visionaries. Rather, art is crucial because it allows us to recognize other perspectives, other versions of what might be called truth. Art forces us to shift our vantage point so that our view shifts, broadens, brightens. Of course, it doesn’t mean that what the spectator sees or hears is what the artist intended. I don’t think most artists have such agendas. Art opens a door, without the confrontation inherent in most rhetoric, and the spectator is often changed, even if in only a small way. 

I am entering my third week of my fellowship residency at Vermont Studio Center. I am surrounded by artists, all who are telling their version of what might be called truth. Although I don't think they would call it that. They are just laying it down, in paint, in stone, in words, whatever it is.

P.S. Maggie Nelson is, in my opinion, a genius. Her book of poetic essay Bluets is among my favorites. Her book Jane was a thriller of a poem. Anyway. Enough gushing. Go read her work.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Quick Wit of Lydia Davis

Last night, I heard the fiction writer, translator, poet Lydia Davis read her work at Johnson State College last night in Vermont. As an aside, I’m in Vermont for a month, writing poetry at the Vermont Studio Center on fellowship. So lovely! Anyway, back to Lydia Davis. I love her work, for its conciseness, for its edge, for its wit, for its dark humor. Stripped of all description, stripped of all narration, her ‘stories,’ if one dares call them that, translate the interior musings of a deliberate and attentive mind into what I want actually to call verse.

This is a very very short story poem (unpublished I think) that she read last night:

Contingency versus Necessity

He could be our dog
But he’s not our dog
So he barks at us

There is so much contained in those words as it relates to human/animal relations and love. What happened to their dog? The elliptical three lines leave us filling in the blanks. Like a poem.

She reminds me that the details left out can often be the best part of a poem. Strip it down, she seems to say. You can read more of her work here.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Lemon Trees

I just returned from a week in Florence. I am reeling. I am settled. Sometimes one must leave for a place the opposite of everything that is familiar to know what is real.

Florence is filled with art and poetry. Dante and Boccaccio, Bernini and Michelangelo. To see their work is to feel inadequate, is to feel inspired. To be drunk at 2AM in front of The Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna in the Loggia dei alters all your perceptions. The moon seemed full every night. I cannot write. I can do nothing but write.

To travel, to live in other countries, to speak with someone whose language is not your own, is to see the world from another chair. It is to learn how things smell differently, sometimes better, it is to relearn how to see and taste and think. Even if the experience is filtered through your own culture and biases. It changes you, not just for those few days, forever. You can’t help but carry something of the scent back with you.

For me, for me as a writer, going from place to place is crucial to my creative process. I know it is the same for others. Though not for everyone. Travel estranges everything, especially what you return to. When I returned from Italy, even wine and bread smelled differently. And lemons. I spoke with an Italian man about what I loved about Italian poetry. Most of all it is Eugenio Montale. Most of all it is his poem "The Lemon Trees." The man I spoke with knew very little English. I speak no Italian. But we both could say Montale. I pasted my favorite translation below in which the last stanza explains everything I’ve just said. Where the sight of a lemon tree can remind you of everything amazing in life, where the sight of a lemon tree can “blow your bones wide open.”

Listen, the prize poets stroll

only among the trees

with uncommon names:

boxwood, privet, acanthus.

Me, I love roads that run out

among grassy ditches into

mud-puddles where kids

hunt skinny eels; lanes

that follow field-banks down

through beds of reeds and

end up in back gardens

among the lemon trees.

Best if the birds' chatter-prattle

is hushed, swallowed up

by the blue: then you'll hear

- clearer in the still air – the whisper

- of companionable branches,

and catch a sense of that smell

that can't tear itself from earth,

drenching you in edgy pleasure.

Here, by some miracle, the battle

between one distracting passion

and another dies down, and here

even we who are poor
up our share of wealth –

and it's the scent of lemons.

Look, in these silences

which things sink into

and seem on the verge of

opening their closest secret,

you'd expect once in a while

to uncover some mistake

in nature, the world's still point,

some weak link, the loose thread

that leads us at last

to the heart of truth. Eyes

rummage in every corner:

the mind seeks agrees argues

with itself in this perfume

that floats – as day fades –

over everything; a silence

in which, in every dwindling

human shadow, a troubled

divinity could be seen.

But the image fades, and time

takes us back to the din of cities

where you see the sky only

in bits and pieces, off up

among the chimneys. Rain then

wears the earth out, dreary winter

settles down around the houses,

light grows miserly, the soul bitter,

till one day, through a half-

shut gate, you see

among the trees in someone's yard

the yellows of lemons –

and the heart's ice melts,

and with their music

the golden trumpets of sunshine

blow your bones wide open.