Sunday, February 24, 2013

on love: definitions

Shan and I asked our dancers to bring in pieces of text that, to them, spoke about love. It's an easy thing to ask and a difficult thing to do, and I wasn't sure what the purpose of these texts would be, except that we felt the act of choosing them and sharing them might be important for the project in general, if not for the movement in particular.

I have a hazy idea that the pieces we chose are artifacts from the edifice we've each constructed to put under the word "love." There are some enormous things, a few great engines that drive our lives, that we can vaguely define in a universal way, but can only understand within the narratives we build for ourselves. And it's really weird to poke at the tangle of what I mean when I say "love," and to wonder what it is that causes me to adopt it, to come to it as a conclusion, to add up a certain assortment of reactions and desires and convictions and find the sum to be "love."

I half-remember reading something as a kid that said there was no way to know whether you and anyone else in the world really meant the same thing when you said the word "red." 
And now we can really understand what the meaning of music is. It's the way it makes you feel when you hear it. Finally, we've taken the last giant step, and we're there; we know what music means now. We don't have to know everything about sharps and flats and chords to understand music. If it tells us something--not a story or a picture, but a feeling--if it makes us change inside, then we are understanding it. That's all there is to it. Because those feelings belong to the music. They're not extra, like the stories and pictures we talked about before; they're not outside the music. They're what music is about.
And the most wonderful thing of all is that there's no limit to the different kinds of feelings music can make you have. Some of those feelings are so special they can't even be described in words. Sometimes we can name the things we feel, like joy or sadness or love or hate or peacefulness. But there are other feelings so deep and special that we have no words for them, and that's where music is especially marvelous. It names the feelings for us, only in notes instead of words.
It's all in the way music moves. We must never forget that music is movement, always going somewhere, shifting and changing and flowing from one note to another. That movement can tell us more about the way we feel than a million words can. 
That's from Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. 
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message "He is dead."
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. 
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong. 
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
It's really only the first two lines of the third stanza for me. It's "Funeral Blues" by W. H. Auden, but I always knew it as a moment from a movie that flew off the screen and hit me in the face. I can't remember anything else about Four Weddings and a Funeral.
I am a draper mad with love. I love you more than all the flannelette and calico, candlewick, dimity, crash and merino, tussore, crepon, muslin, poplin, ticking and twill in the whole Cloth Hall of the world. I have come to take you away to my Emporium on the hill, where the change hums on wires. Throw away your little bed socks and your Welsh wool knitted jacket, I will warm the sheets like an electric toaster, I will lie by your side like the Sunday roast.
That's from Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. I don't know Under Milk Wood at all. I've barely read anything by Dylan Thomas, except for a few poems slogged through when I was fourteen and impressionable and a friend gave me a book of Thomas and a book of Whitman because they were "the best poets in ever."

I'm not sure what these are in terms of my own bricks and mortar, but they do say "love" to me, beyond just the word.

Monday, February 18, 2013

tunes recently enjoyed no. 4

So Am I - George Gershwin

During the entire month of January, I was completely obsessed with Gershwin Plays Gershwin: The Piano Rolls. I listened to it on repeat, incessantly and without any real analytical thought. I wanted it to be the background to everything, for some reason, so I put it on, over and over, until they were pleasantly engraved into my brain and I caught myself enjoying the creepy sensation of listening to the memory of a tune as clearly as if it were actually playing.

This is my favorite song from the album. It makes me think of a late night, happily tipsy dance--stately gliding upset by bobbing changes of pace and unexpected leaps in altitude. Dreamy.

Andante from Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor - J. S. Bach

My sister and I recently discovered that the San Francisco Symphony offers some surprisingly cheap seats and we are now getting into the habit of taking advantage of this fact. We went to see a program organized around the talents of Alexander Barantschik, principal violinist. It was a program of old chestnuts, pieces that I (and probably everyone else in the audience) have been inescapably exposed to. They're in movies, on commercials, in cafes, in bookstores, in the vast and general cultural air... and I was completely shocked to find myself tearing up over this particular piece, eyes welling out of control over something so familiar, but so weirdly live.

It's a sad and stately beauty, this slow and almost plodding base with the violin singing across the top of it. It's very lovely, but not a piece that I usually go crazy for, so the efficiency with which it dragged me to the point of tears was a bit of a shock.

(the video features Yehudi Menuhin)

Serenade in D major, Serenata notturna- Mozart

This was the last piece on the aforementioned program of old chestnuts. It feels very earnest, a sunny and forthright bit of virtuosic glee. Hearing it and seeing it played live is fun. We sat in the odd bleacher-like seats perched at the back of the stage where you can peer down at the musicians and see, up close, these fascinating, alien habits and tics that slide along under the performance of the music itself. Watching excellent music played live is possibly my favorite thing in the world right now. I can't get enough of it. There's the aural pleasure of sounds with texture and distance and breath, of course, but the visual realization that those sounds are coming from human beings is somehow enormously satisfying. I like seeing how the violinists slide their bows onto shelves under their music when they're required to pluck strings with their fingers. I like seeing the principal bassist (whose name is Scott Pingle and who is extraordinary) exchange glances with the percussionist before their respective solos. I like seeing this collection of people turn into a strange and beautiful beast that makes music. It's as if all the information that comes in from my eyeballs sets my curiosity on fire so I can listen better.

Partita No. 3 in E major - J. S. Bach

I love this piece. The "Loure" in particular just wrenches my heart out because it's such a stringent stunner. It's so inarguably, intelligently ravishing, and it seems like every violinist pours themselves into it, souls pressed right out of their bodies and into the air via that flimsy box of wood. An illusion, obviously, but an irresistible one.

Gil Shaham reminded me of Dick Van Dyke. Long and off-kilter and warmly silly. I never expected to see a violinist move an entire symphony hall into a fit of giggles, but he managed it with panache.

These Arms of Mine - Otis Redding

This song is one that I imagine I will love forever, no matter where or for what it is appropriated. The way the beat goes on and on underneath a voice that's almost embarrassingly, sentimentally full of want... it gets me every time.

Ina Rae, the singer who we're working with on our current Sharp & Fine project, sang us a version of this that started out in classical, opera voice and tumbled down into something looser. It was amazing, even unfinished. I'm really hoping that it will fit into the finished piece because I think the entire audience will be left in tears.

Tow Away Zone - Sam Ospovat

Sam Ospovat, an incredible drummer, recently asked me to help him create some movement for a live performance of this improv-based composition. I listened to it a lot beforehand, at first because I felt like I should (even though I knew it would sound completely different in the show) and then because I felt like it was this weird and magical room that transformed itself every time I opened the door on it.

I used to have an enormous prejudice again contemporary improvised music. I was afraid of it, in the same way that I'm still afraid of things labeled "performance art."Afraid of boredom, confusion, and unpleasantness that you can't escape because you are at a show and good manners dictate that you shouldn't just walk out because you don't "like" something. But, having heard and seen more music like this performed live, I find myself starting to enjoy some of it. It's so interesting, so obviously full of ideas and strictures, both followed and defied, even if I can't understand most of the language it's speaking in.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

the man with the pomeranian

1/31/13, a hat shop in North Beach, San Francisco


I assumed the man was speaking gibberish. The sound had come from behind me and I ignored it for a while in the hope that it might go away.


The gibberish became more insistent, with discernible repeated syllables, and I turned around because this was a music show and I can't bear the thought of a scene in an audience, even a very small scene in a small audience, in a hat shop half-filled by a very loud brass band.

"Aren't you Chinese?"

I had to explain to the man that I am not Chinese. He looked like Omar Sharif, if Omar Sharif was leached of all color and afflicted with a form of plastic surgery that tugged his eyebrows into points. He was carrying an enormous Pomeranian under one arm.

"Is that your boyfriend playing the trumpet?"

I had to explain to the man with the enormous Pomeranian that the fellow playing the trumpet was not my boyfriend. The man opened his eyes, very wide and very shiny, and everything in his face pulled up under his pointed eyebrows into a smile of delight.

"In that case," the man said, "I'd like you to meet Buddy. I think the two of you would get along fine."

The Pomeranian, which was much larger than I thought it possible for a Pomeranian to be, a giant slab of fluff beached on the length of the man's arm, extended a paw.