Today’s Wordless Wednesday … a 1913 sketch by Valentine Hugo describing Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography of the Danse sacrale (Sacrificial Dance) from Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du printemps.
Monthly Archives: February 2017
When one thinks about the earliest woman composers in history, the name most commonly thought of is Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). There are other earlier names, including Enheduanna, one of the daughters of Sargon of Akkad, who was writing music and hymns in the twenty-third century BCE and is perhaps the first composer, male or female, that can be identified. But in terms of those whose music still exists, Hildegard is among the earliest. Along with the great beauty of her music, her reputation for learning – she wrote nine books on subjects ranging from natural history, medicine, and cosmology to music, poetry, and theology – make her an important figure in the artistic and intellectual history of the Middle Ages.
But she is not the earliest female composer whose music can still be heard today. That distinction is held by Kassiani (810-865). Like Hildegard, Kassiani was an abbess at a convent. Also like Hildegard, she wrote her own poetry as well as music. Around fifty of Kassiani’s hymns have come down to us, and twenty-three are still part of the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Kassiani, sometimes known as Kassia, was born in Constantinople into a wealthy family. She was said to be very beautiful, and supposedly had a chance to marry the young Emperor Theophilos and become the Byzantine Empress. According to chroniclers, when Theophilos suggested to Kassiani that “Through a woman came forth the baser things,” she replied, “And through a woman came forth the better things.” In any event, the marriage didn’t happen, and a few years later, she returns to documented history in 843 as the founder and abbess of a convent just outside Constantinople. Later she settled on the Greek island of Kasos, near Crete, where she died and where her tomb and reliquary can still be seen. The feast day of Saint Kassiani is celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church on September 7.
Probably the best-known of her compositions is the beautiful Hymn (or Troparion) of Kassiani, which is sung every Holy Wednesday. According to legend, the Emperor Theophilos, who was still in love with Kassiani, went to visit her at her convent as she was writing this hymn. He wanted to see her one more time before he died. When she realized who it was that was arriving, she hid in a closet in her cell, not wanting to reawaken old feelings on either her or his part. Theophilos came into her cell and saw the unfinished hymn on her table. As he cried over having rejected her years before, he added a line to her hymn: “those feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise and hid herself for fear.” Then he left, and Kassiani finished the hymn. Its music is slow and sad, and is demanding for the singers who perform it. People apparently still go to services on Holy Wednesday specifically “to listen to Kassiani.”
Very few recordings have been made of her music, unfortunately, although it has been taken up by groups like the Kronos Quartet. It would seem that the only CD of Kassiani’s music is by the ensemble VocaMe on the Christophorus label. That entire album is happily available on YouTube.
Sunday Salon 2-12-17
Time and Place: 7:30 Sunday morning, at my main computer at home.
Reading: Along with continuing in the novel Headlong by Michael Frayn, which I should finish in the next day or two, I read one self-help book this week, Susan J. Elliott’s Getting Past Your Breakup, which I indeed hope will prove to be self-helpful.
Viewing: My coolness toward film watching continued this week, as I only watched a couple of documentaries: InnSaei, a somewhat muddled exploration of intuition and mindfulness, and 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama. It’s never a bad idea to spend some time listening to the Dalai Lama.
Listening: It has once again been a listening week dedicated to the music I needed to write about for my program note projects. This time, it was the contents of the concluding concerts of the Reno Chamber Orchestra’s current season: Beethoven’s concert aria Ah! perfido and Antonín Dvořák’s Stabat Mater.
Blogging: My blogging goals seem to have settled into the idea of doing two extended pieces per week, along with a Wordless Wednesday and a Sunday Salon. I usually feel fairly good if I can manage that much. And this week, I succeeded, producing:
* An article I had meant to write for a long time, Looking At Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks
* My impressions of Frank Stella – A Retrospective, an exhibition currently at San Francisco’s de Young Museum
Pondering: This has been another of those weeks where pondering, thinking, anticipating, remembering, dreaming … they’ve all turned out to be more harmful than helpful. Living in the present moment, which is all we’ve got after all, without judging and evaluating and comparing seems to be a more beneficial way to go.
And finally: Returning to the theme of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, the painting has been enormously influential. One never knows where it will turn up…
Looking At Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks
Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is, for me and for many, many others, a particularly important and resonant painting. It encapsulates a mood, an aspect of life that few other paintings have addressed so well. On a personal level, at my Facebook page, you’ll see that the painting serves as my cover photo, and my profile photo is the man facing away from the viewer (I hope that isn’t too revealing of my personality, or neuroses).
Now on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, Nighthawks is a moderately large painting at 33 1⁄8 × 60 inches. Hopper finished it on January 21, 1942, after about a month and a half of work. He put it on display at Rehn’s, a gallery that often sold his works. Daniel Catton Rich, then the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, liked it, and arranged for the Art Institute to purchase it for $3,000. Nighthawks has been displayed at the Art Institute ever since.
In the notebook about Hopper’s work that he and his wife Josephine, or Jo, kept for years, Jo described the painting this way: “Night + brilliant interior of cheap restaurant. Bright items: cherry wood counter + tops of surrounding stools; light on metal tanks at rear right; brilliant streak of jade green tiles 3/4 across canvas–at base of glass of window curving at corner. Light walls, dull yellow ocre [sic] door into kitchen right … Very good looking blond boy in white (coat, cap) inside counter. Girl in red blouse, brown hair eating sandwich. Man night hawk (beak) in dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, blue shirt (clean) holding cigarette. Other figure dark sinister back–at left. Light side walk outside pale greenish. Darkish red brick houses opposite. Sign across top of restaurant, dark–Phillies 5c cigar. Picture of cigar. Outside of shop dark, green. Note: bit of bright ceiling inside shop against dark of outside street–at edge of stretch of top of window.”
Hopper said that Nighthawks was inspired by “a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet.” But no one has been able to track down the exact restaurant, although many have tried. One Hopper expert, Gail Levin, identified the spot as the “empty triangular lot” at Mulry Square, where Greenwich meets Eleventh Street and Seventh Avenue. During Hopper’s time and long thereafter, a gas station was located on one side of the lot there, and apparently a diner on the other side.
In Nighthawks, the diner seems to represent the only activity in the neighborhood. Based on the signage at the top of the building, we might call it the Phillies Five-Cent Cigar Diner (although I believe that Phillies is meant to be the name of the cigar, not the diner). The space the building inhabits seems a bit strange, out-of-kilter. This would seem to be a corner-side diner, but the angle is too sharp. The streets clearly aren’t at right-angles (Hopper painted this sort of space a couple of other times), and so the diner must be wedge-shaped. Hopper had a great fascination with how man-made light illuminates night scenes. Nighthawks is one of his finest examinations of this. Notice how the light from within the building spills out onto the sidewalk in multiple streams, from the several light sources within, that intersect in fascinating ways.
We view the scene within the diner through one large pane of glass, with another behind it both serving as a backdrop for three of the four people in the painting, and revealing a bit of the street scene on the other side of the building. Across the street, all the buildings seem abandoned, even uninhabited, although one can see an old-fashioned cash register in the window of one of them.
How does one enter the diner? There is a wooden door at the back, which looks more like a bathroom door than anything else. But in the front part of the diner, there is no apparent entrance – and thereby, of course, no exit. The clerk seems trapped, too – how exactly does he exit his spot behind the counter? Its triangular shape seems to surround him.
Inside of the diner, the light is bright, almost antiseptic, and impossible to hide from. Fluorescent lights were just at that time becoming commonplace, and one commentator described the lighting here as “clinical,” “intimidating, alienating, and dehumanizing.” While the light is cold, there is some warmth within the diner in the cherry wood color of the counter. Empty stools help emphasize the loneliness of the scene.
Olivia Laing, in her book The Lonely City (which I discuss here), writes generally about Hopper that “…his paintings tend to be populated by people alone, or in uneasy, uncommunicative groupings of twos and threes, fastened into poses that seem indicative of distress,” combined with a particular sense of space, “the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure.”
At the counter we see a couple sitting next to one another. Their hands may almost be touching on the counter, but other than that, they seem very cold, almost oblivious to one another. The man stares blankly ahead, and the woman abstractedly examines her nails. Even with their seeming isolation, the postures of the couple compliment one another. It may be that the title of the painting came from the hawk nose of the man. The red-haired woman was apparently modeled by Hopper’s wife Jo.
The clerk behind the counter looks engaging enough and seems to be trying to make small talk, but doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. On the counter, there are a couple of coffee dispensers, but, aside from salt and pepper shakers and napkins and such, no other indications of food or drink, not even a kitchen, at least from our vantage point. Perhaps all his establishment offers is coffee for its late-night denizens.
What about the most intriguing, figuratively and literally the central, figure in the painting, the man facing away from us? We have no clue as to what he’s looking at or thinking about. There’s a slight indication that he’s holding something in his right hand, but we can’t make out what it is. There is an almost existential quality to the man’s isolation. Hopper’s wife Jo described him as “dark sinister.”
Hopper biographer Gail Levin suggests that Hopper may have taken some inspiration for Nighthawks from Vincent Van Gogh’s famous Night Café, which was on exhibit in New York in early 1942, as well as Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story, The Killers. Those who have seen the marvelous 1946 Robert Siodmak-directed film of The Killers will remember a very Hopper-like cafe early in the movie, entered by the two hitmen who are seeking out Burt Lancaster’s “the Swede” in order to kill him. Indeed, one can’t help but connect Nighthawks with The Killers and other examples of film noir, “black film,” that distinctive style of existential urban crime drama that thrived in the 1940s and 1950s.
Nighthawks doesn’t seem to have any obvious specific narrative, although it’s suggestive enough that we might want to speculate on one. While he always hesitated to interpret his own work, Hopper did say that in Nighthawks, “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.” The scene feels static, but at the same time tense with expectation. Why does the couple seem so aloof? Does the figure with his back to us have some kind of ill intent? Hawks in general, including nighthawks, would normally be thought of as predatory – but who, if anyone, is preying on whom here?
Recall, too, that this painting was being created right at the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entry by the United States into World War II. While the people within the diner seem exposed to the world, vulnerable in the bright light, they are also protected in the cocoon of the diner. Perhaps that’s another subconscious way in which Hopper created a feeling of alienation – all the figures seem entirely isolated from their surroundings.
By the same token, this scene could be interpreted is as a respite. Presumably the three figures have lives outside the diner, jobs and relationships and bills to pay. Perhaps they derive some comfort from the isolation of the diner, some protection from the ravages of the world outside. They don’t need to be self-conscious here, and are free to inhabit their own thoughts.
There seems to be a general consensus that loneliness is at the heart of Nighthawks, perhaps the most famous of Hopper’s paintings. Joyce Carol Oates has called it “our most poignant, ceaselessly replicated romantic image of American loneliness.” Yet, as Olivia Laing writes about Hopper’s work in The Lonely City, it is “as if looking itself was an antidote, a way to defeat loneliness’s strange, estranging spell.”
By the way, a multitude of other works, from novels and poems to films, paintings and sculptures have found inspiration in Nighthawks, including The Simpsons…
Frank Stella: Harran II
Carrying on from yesterday’s blog post on Frank Stella, today’s Wordless Wednesday is Stella’s Harran II (1967).
Frank Stella (b. 1936), Harran II, 1967. Polymer and fluorescent polymer paint on canvas. 120 × 240 in. (304.8 × 609.6 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; gift, Mr. Irving Blum, 1982 © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Frank Stella – A Retrospective
Frank Stella’s career has been so varied and unpredictable that summarizing it in a single exhibition would be a challenge to anyone. But an excellent attempt has been made in Frank Stella: A Retrospective. Currently on exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, it is the first comprehensive exhibition of the influential artist’s work in the United States since the 1987 retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Works in many of the media Stella has worked in are included, including painting, sculpture, photography, and printmaking.
Born in Massachusetts in 1936, Stella studied history, art history, and painting at both Phillips Academy in Andover and Princeton University. On graduating in 1958, he moved to New York, where he attracted attention with the Black series of paintings (1958-60). His first one-person show took place in 1962 at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. The Museum of Modern Art presented his first retrospective in 1970; another followed, as mentioned above, in 1987. “It’s not merely the length of his career, it is the intensity of his work and his ability to reinvent himself as an artist over and over again over six decades that make his contribution so important,” says Adam D. Weinberg, one of the current exhibition’s co-curators.
In the Black series, the bands of black, slightly outlined by strips of blank canvas, seem completely opposed to pictorialism, as well as direct or even metaphorical meaning. Stella more or less confirms this when he calls these works “a flat surface with paint on it.” They straddle both American Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. From around the same time is East Broadway (1958), which evokes the space of lower Manhattan, where Stella lived at the time. Along with the doorway-like space, the painting’s yellow calls to mind New York taxicabs, and the black is like that of asphalt.
There is some illusion of depth, but strictly within bands of stark color, in works like the two-part Jasper’s Dilemma (1962), which actually offers the viewer a choice between austere black and white and brilliant color. The title and color schemes refer to a statement of Jasper Johns, who once said that the more he worked in color, the more he saw gray. Stella used a simple 2.5” painters brush and inexpensive commercial house paint in works like Marrakech (1964). These works have moved into pure abstraction.
In the 1960s, Stella started exploring all sorts of irregularly shaped canvases, combining color fields offset by painted bands, creating a sense of energetic flow and rhythm he called “spring-loaded.” Despite Stella’s own protestations, paintings like those of the Irregular Polygon series (1965-6), with their slight irregularities of color within fields, create a feeling of depth and movement between dimensions.
Shapes not only become more complex and irregular, but actually start emerging from the flat canvas, in the late 1960s and 1970s. Planes of color are offset and graded, giving both depth and dynamism, a three-dimensional quality. Around this time, he starts talking about “building,” rather than “painting,” his works. During his time in the early 1980s as Charles Eliot Norton Professor in Poetry at Harvard University, Stella said that “what painting wants more than anything else is working space – space to grow with and expand into, pictorial space that is capable of direction and movement, pictorial space that encourages unlimited orientation and extension. Painting does not want to be confined by boundaries of edge and surface.”
Overwhelming size combines with a stained glass window quality in Damascus Gate (Stretch Variation III) (1970), part of the Protractor series (1967-71). In Eskimo Curlew (1976) from the Exotic Bird Series (1976-80), shapes curl and fly above a painted aluminum surface. Forms go from moderately regular to wild and dynamic, and colors from constricted fields to wild and abstract, in pieces from the Circuit series (1980-4) like Talladega (1980). Named after the super speedway in that city, the work’s shapes, made of painted sheets of metal, imitate the curves of a race track.
Stella once stated that “Painting does not want to be confined by boundaries of edge and surface.” He has wanted to explore how paintings exist in space. Shapes start emerging dramatically in sheets of cut metal, extending many feet from the wall. Some regular shapes, like circles and cones and cylinders, are still present, but have exploded, so to speak. The physical presence and materials of these works influenced many younger painters in the 1980s.
However, Stella started to feel that abstraction, reliance on the materiality of painting, was an expressive dead end. In the 1980s, inspired by a trip to the New York Aquarium, Stella read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. This led to a monumental series of three-dimensional works, one for each of the book’s 135 chapters. Combining found, cast, and fabricated parts as well as freestanding sculpture, these works are still largely abstract but have some narrative qualities, including references to whales, waves, and the color of the sea.
From the aluminum of the Moby Dick works, Stella has explored other materials, even embracing computers and 3D printers. The ongoing Scarlatti Kirkpatrick series (2006-present) is inspired by Ralph Kirkpatrick’s famous performances of the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Musical shapes and playfully swirling forms evoke the interweaving polyphonic lines of Scarlatti’s music. K. 459 (2012), for instance, is all gray and clear plastic, wild and free yet with an industrial feeling as the regular shapes seem to unfurl.
The works of the Scarlatti Kirkpatrick series are quite large, at odds in a sense with the miniature quality of Scarlatti’s sonatas, yet in sync with the dynamic, virtuoso qualities of the music. Oddly enough, more evocative of the world of Scarlatti’s music for me is Circus of Pure Feeling for Malevich, 4 Square Circus, 16 parts (2009) – sixteen metallic forms displayed on four wooden tables. Stella certainly hasn’t lost a sense of whimsy in these lovely, curious, abstract works.
Also on display in the main foyer at the de Young is Stella’s Das Erdbeben in Chili (1999), a vast, colorful explosion of activity depicting, or evoking, the 1647 earthquake that destroyed Santiago, Chile. With a title borrowed from the violent, melodramatic novella by Heinrich von Kleist, the work is a cataclysm of abstract, geometric, organic, and architectural forms.
A joint exhibition presented by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Whitney Museum of American Art, Frank Stella: A Retrospective is on exhibit through February 26, 2017 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Read more at the de Young Museum’s website.
Sunday Salon 2-5-17
Time and Place: 8:00 Sunday morning, at my main computer at home.
Reading: While I didn’t complete any books this week, I did start a new novel, Headlong by Michael Frayn, which details a plot to secure a long-lost and extremely valuable painting by Pieter Bruegel from an unknowing couple. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the comedic tone and the amount of historical and Bruegel scholarship included in Headlong has surprised and delighted me.
Viewing: As I’ve mentioned before here, I’ve been enduring a cold spell with regards to film viewing. For some reason, the time and attention required has seemed more than I could manage. I’ve tried to counteract that by choosing to watch a film that I already knew I loved. I wanted to watch something with poetry and wonder and heart, with vivid characters and setting, something that reminded me why films are made in the first place. Pondering this for a moment, what came pretty quickly to my mind was Jean Renoir’s The River. I watched it last night, and was not disappointed. It may not get me back on track with film, but The River is certainly a beautiful work of art.
Listening: Aside from Mike Oldfield’s new album Return to Ommadawn, which I’ve been enjoying greatly, my music listening has unfortunately followed the same path as my film viewing. Fortunately, I am “forced” to listen to music for the sake of the program notes I write. But a renaissance of interest is needed here as well.
Blogging: Unlike the previous week, when I did basically nothing on the blogging front, the week just past was remarkably productive. My posts included:
* a little free fantasy on the nature of consciousness, to be as pretentious about it as possible, based on a quotation from Virginia Woolf
* a beautiful quotation from Pirandello
* an old woodcut by Moritz von Schwind, The Hunter’s Funeral, that is said to have provided inspiration for the third movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (about which I recently wrote a program note)
* my impressions of the recent volume of conversations on music between Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa, Absolutely on Music
On top of that, I’ve also just about completed a review of Frank Stella: A Retrospective, which I saw recently and is currently on exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. This should appear at the blog in the next day or two.
Pondering: It’s an age-old question, but how could I have been so unmotivated to write two weeks ago, and yet so remarkably productive this past week? Although I did write some in that down week, the process consistently felt like trudging through mud. This past week, everything flowed easily, and what I wrote needed little revision. Which is it going to be in the coming week?
And finally: By the brilliant Tom Gauld, author of You’re All Just Jealous Of My Jetpack…
Murakami: Absolutely on Music
Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa
Translated by Jay Rubin
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016, 325 pages
Haruki Murakami is, of course, the world-famous Japanese author of books like Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and 1Q84, as well as short stories and non-fiction books like Underground (which I’ve written about at this blog). As anyone who has read Murakami’s novels will know, he is an enthusiastic music fan with catholic tastes. Classical music has had a central role in several of his novels – for instance, Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta in 1Q84, and Franz Liszt’s piano travelogue Années de pèlerinage in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Murakami admits to having little formal background or training in music. But he is obviously a serious and sophisticated listener with excellent taste and a great ear.
Murakami had known conductor Seiji Ozawa in passing for many years. Ozawa served as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for twenty-nine years, and held the same position with the Toronto Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, and Vienna State Opera, as well as at the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony. While he lived in Boston from 1993 to 1995, Murakami went to many Boston Symphony concerts at which Ozawa conducted. He went on to attend many Ozawa performances around the world. Sharing a similar doggedness, conviction, and enthusiasm about their respective areas of expertise, Murakami writes, “I had never encountered anyone before Seiji Ozawa with whom I found it so easy and natural to identify.”
In 2009, when Ozawa developed esophageal cancer and had to take a break from musical activities, he and Murakami decided to formalize their musical conversations and turn them into the present book. “My only purpose in this book was for me, as a music lover, to have a discussion of music with the musician Seiji Ozawa that was as open and honest as possible. I simply wanted to bring out the ways that each of us (though on vastly different levels) is dedicated to music.” Their conversations took place from November 2010 to July 2011 in Tokyo, Honolulu, and Switzerland. They not only talked, but listened to recordings (handily, timing cues are included for the recordings they listened to, so readers can follow along, and Murakami’s official website includes a Spotify playlist of the recordings).
They begin by listening to the famous 1962 live performance by Glenn Gould, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic of the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms, which was preceded by a spoken disclaimer by Bernstein commenting on the unusually slow interpretation that was to follow. Ozawa, as Bernstein’s assistant back then, was present at that performance, and actually has many nice things to say about it. Ozawa talks about the way Gould phrases music, and relates it to Japanese music: “In Japan we talk about ma in Asian music – the importance of those pauses or empty spaces – but it’s there in Western music, too. You get a musician like Glenn Gould, and he’s doing exactly the same thing.”
At the end of a session in which they listen to some or all of several performances of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, they move to the recording by pianist Mitsuko Uchida, whose music making both of them love. Murakami’s comments about the recording show this: “truly miraculous music making … The two listeners groan simultaneously … Beautiful piano solo unfolds, like an ink painting in space … A string of notes, perfectly formed and brimming with courage, each note thinking for itself.”
Ozawa reminisces about his two and a half years as one of Leonard Bernstein’s assistant conductors. It was hard, ill-paying work, as Ozawa had to be prepared to conduct all of the music Bernstein was to lead, in case illness or something kept Bernstein from appearing. This forced Ozawa to do a lot of reading of scores, and he found that he liked it, getting into the habit of spending a few hours early every morning at the task.During that time, Ozawa also began his extensive recording career, conducting everything from Bartók and Honegger to Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. Once he became Music Director of the Toronto Symphony, he recorded big pieces like Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony. Many, many more recordings followed with the Chicago, London, and, especially, Boston Symphonies. Comparing three Ozawa performances of the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz, Murakami perceptively opines that in the earliest one with the Toronto Symphony, from 1966, “the music leaps and dances on the palms of your hands.” In the recording from seven years later with the Boston Symphony, “it feels as though you’re cupping your hands, embracing the music, carefully letting it ripen.” And in a much later one from 2007 with the Saito Kinen Orchestra, “you’re unfolding your hands a little, letting the air in, free it up.”
Gustav Mahler is a major topic of their talks. It happens that Ozawa’s period as Leonard Bernstein’s assistant coincided with Bernstein’s exploration of the music of Mahler, which, as the book reminds us, wasn’t at all popular or well-known prior to Bruno Walter’s early stereo recordings of a few of the works, and then Bernstein’s from just slightly later. Bernstein became engrossed with Mahler’s music during that time – “feverishly grappling” with it, in Ozawa’s words. At first, Ozawa had become aware of Mahler through the study of scores. “It was a huge shock for me – until then I never even knew music like that existed … I was amazed that there was someone who knew how to use an orchestra so well. It was extreme – his marvelous ability to put every component of the orchestra to use. And from the orchestra’s point of view, the Mahler symphonies are the most challenging pieces ever.”
Murakami ably summarizes part of the uniqueness of Mahler’s music: it is “filled with many different elements, all given more or less equal value, used without any logical connection, and sometimes even in conflict with one another: traditional German music, Jewish music, fin-de-siècle overripeness, Bohemian folk songs, musical caricatures, comic subcultural elements, serious philosophical propositions, Christian dogma, Asian worldviews – a huge variety of stuff, no single one of which you can place at the center of things.”
Along with their conversations, Murakami attended the eighth annual Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland, a seminar for younger string players held from June 27 to July 6, 2011 in the town of Rolle, on the banks of Lake Geneva. The players, who go through an audition process to take part in the Academy, form string quartets and play in an orchestra. As they rehearse and present concerts, they also receive instruction and guidance from famous string players, including longtime Juilliard Quartet violinist Robert Mann. Murakami wondered at how rough the young musicians could sound in early rehearsals, and by contrast how polished they’d sound at the actual performances several days later – it was “like a mysterious rising of the air” as their performances came together. Even as Ozawa’s health problems continued, Murakami marveled at his dedication to his academy. “To hand genuine ‘good music’ on to the next generation; to convey that intense feeling; to stir the hearts of young musicians in such a pure and fundamental manner: these surely gave him a joy that was fully as profound as that to be gained from conducting such world-class orchestras as the Boston Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic.”
One gets lovely flashes of Murakami’s affectionate attention to music throughout this book. For instance, he remarks of a section from the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms, “Brahms uses the horns with great skill, as if calling the audience deep into a German forest. The sound carries with it an important part of Brahms’s internal spiritual world.” He and Ozawa discuss intricacies that most ordinary listeners, including Murakami himself, aren’t aware of. For instance, there is a passage in that same Brahms symphony where two horns, then two flutes, play alternating phrases that slightly overlap, so that there is no audible breath to break the phrase. Brahms deliberately wrote it that way, but all we normal listeners hear is a long phrase of music.
The insider anecdotes are many. For instance, Ozawa describes something I had never heard of before, the “shower.” When a conductor who has received some bad reviews comes out to take a second bow after a subsequent performance, “the musicians all make random noises with their instruments – the trumpets, the strings, the trombones, the timpani all together make one big fwaaan or gaaaan sort of noise …this was kind of like the orchestra’s musical protest to the critical reviews.”
These informal, accessible talks between the author and conductor are a delight, especially for music and Murakami fans. Even those new to classical music can learn much from these conversations, as Murakami, a musically enthusiastic layman with a gift for description and evocative metaphors, meets Ozawa, with the deep knowledge gained from a career spanning more than six decades. Buy yourself a copy of the book, fire up YouTube or Spotify, and prepare for some entertaining musical adventures.
“I would love to spend all my time writing to you; I’d love to share with you all that goes through my mind, all that weighs on my heart, all that gives air to my soul; phantoms of art, dreams that would be so beautiful if they could come true.”
– Luigi Pirandello
Moritz von Schwind: The Hunter’s Funeral
For the last couple of days, I have been writing program notes for an upcoming concert by the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. One of the pieces I’ve been working on is the Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler. So for today’s Wordless Wednesday, I thought I would share what is thought to have been the original inspiration for that symphony’s third movement, the 1850 woodcut The Hunter’s Funeral by Moritz von Schwind.