“The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds and makes of all political and social life a mass illness. Without this housecleaning, we cannot begin to see. Unless we see, we cannot think.”
– Thomas Merton
This dewdrop world
Is but a dewdrop world
And yet –
– Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)
Reading: I finally decided to take the plastic wrap off of my copy of Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore, and read the latest novel by one of my favorite authors. I’m now about three-quarters of the way in, and, while musing that the book could perhaps have profitably been 500 pages long, rather than around 700 (just a little too much repetition and marking time for me), I’m still enjoying it very much. At the same time I’m also a ways into Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, among the most-recommended “advice” books for authors, and one that seems to have lifted me, at least temporarily, out of my recent writing slump (or was it just laziness?)
Viewing: Perhaps it’s because I check out reviews before watching films, or because most of my viewing comes either from my own collection of Blu-rays and DVDs or from reliable sources like MUBI and the Criterion Channel, but I have watched a string of really fine films in the last couple of weeks. Just to mention a few … Love Education (2017) by the multi-talented and prolific Sylvia Chang, Joanna Hogg’s first feature Unrelated (2007; her first three films are all happily available on the Criterion Channel), the classic I Remember Mama (1948), and the most recent, and in my opinion probably the best, film by the wonderful Kelly Reichardt, Certain Women (2016). It is perhaps not a coincidence that three of these four films, all excellent, were written and directed by women.
Listening: I’ve lately been gravitating back toward my usual sort of music – modern and contemporary classical music that straddles the line between consonance and dissonance, between tonality and atonality (or at least free tonality). Recent enthusiasms include the symphonies of Allan Pettersson, orchestral and chamber music by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and Become Ocean by John Luther Adams, a remarkably atmospheric work that deservedly won Adams the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. Living amidst the desert as I do here in Reno, I can hardly wait for Adams’s “sequel,” Become Desert, to come out on CD next month.
Blogging: I’m still not making promises about my blogging on a more regular basis, although I’ve got lots of ideas and plenty of items partially finished.
Pondering: Throughout this morning, I’ve been listening to a very loud bird singing from the tree just outside my front door. Her song seems to have a seven-note core: roughly E, E, E, down to D, up to F#, back down to D, and a return to E. There are a multitude of variations, though. For instance, there can be anywhere from one to four soundings of E at the beginning, at the end there might be an added D or a second E, and so on. It is very pleasant, but it also got me thinking about composer Olivier Messiaen, who was famously obsessed by bird songs, transcribing many hundreds of them and including them throughout his compositions. I’ve noticed that my bird isn’t absolutely predictable about pitch, and definitely has a liking for microtonal variations of her song. This has me considering how Messiaen dealt with these variations, and the ways in which he adapted the songs for fixed-pitch instruments like the piano. I’d like to read more about this.
And finally: Speaking of Messiaen, for many months now I have been enjoying Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recording of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux, thirteen portraits of birds (their songs, their habitats, their flight) composed in the second half of the 1950s. Even before I’d heard a note of the set, I was favorably disposed to it, having found inside its box, along with the CDs and booklet, a couple of feathers!
I’m a big fan of Aimard’s playing – his recording of György Ligeti’s Études is another great favorite. Having studied with both Messiaen and his wife, Yvonne Loriod (for whom he wrote the Catalogue), Aimard’s Messiaen performances seem pretty authoritative. Before the Catalogue recording came out, Aimard performed the entire set in a very special way at the 2016 Aldeburgh Festival, documented in this short video. I truly would have loved to be part of the audience for this!
Reading: It has been a good couple of months since I checked in with a Sunday Salon, so I’ll try to be selective about describing what I’ve been up to during that time. Much reading has occurred, fortunately. Among the books I’ve completed in recent weeks are Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop, Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell, Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, Belinda Thomson’s Impressionism, and, because I spend more time trying to motivate myself than I do actually motivated, James Clear’s Atomic Habits and the recently-released Keep Going by Austin Kleon.
Viewing: My enthusiasm about the recent launch of the Criterion Channel has been significantly tempered by the fact that its copy-protection methods are incompatible with my seven-year-old television. Therefore, I have to watch its films on my computer. Even so, I may continue the subscription simply because the offerings are so interesting. Film watching hasn’t been a huge focus for me lately, to be honest. But among the fine films I’ve watched are the classic William Wyler version of Wuthering Heights with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Cannes Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters (as great as advertised), and, a very pleasant surprise of a film I hadn’t heard of previously, Microhabitat, the first full-length feature by South Korean writer-director Jeon Go-woon (thanks to MUBI for making this gem available).
Listening: There are two significant reasons why I haven’t been active on the blog recently. One is that I’ve started a new job as Content Coordinator and Producer at KNCJ Radio, where my task is to bring music, interviews, and such from our area’s excellent classical music community to the airwaves. My other reason for being away is that I agreed to do a series of three ninety-minute presentations on the connections between visual art and classical music for our local OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute). As usual, I vastly over-prepared for all three classes, and much of what I put together went unused. Even so, I learned a lot in the process. The topics were the Renaissance, Impressionism, and music inspired by specific works of art. This allowed me to listen to quite a range of music, from Renaissance choral music (Josquin des Prez and Monteverdi were my faves this time around) to Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead, Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, and music by the Impressionists Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel (see one example below).
Blogging: As explained above, there hasn’t been much blogging lately, other than posting some paintings that I’ve been dealing with in the OLLI talks mentioned above. I hope my blogging habits will improve … but I’m not making any promises!
Pondering: An unfortunate thing I’ve had to deal with lately is the need to say “no.” In the last few weeks, I’ve been nearly inundated by requests for unpaid work, mostly writing projects but also donations of time and other services for non-profits. While there hasn’t been a project brought to me that wasn’t totally worthwhile, and while I appreciate that so many people like my work and want me to share it with them, I’ve had to put my foot down about how much I can, or want, to take on. I hope to get better at this “no” stuff one day.
And finally: Since I’ve been spending so much time with the Impressionist painters and composers recently, I though I’d end today’s Salon with an example. Water was, obviously, a major theme for the Impressionists. Musically, both Debussy and Ravel turned to the idea often. Maurice Ravel wrote his Jeux d’eau – which can be translated as “Fountains,” “Playing Water” or literally “Water Games” – in 1901, “inspired,” as he put it, “by the noise of water and by the musical sounds which make one hear the sprays of water, the cascades, and the brooks.” Here, Martha Argerich plays it with profound musicianship and appropriately dexterous fingers. This video was made back in the 1970s, but I’m willing to bet she could still tear through this piece in the same way today.