Friday, September 30, 2005

blogger / jogger

I noticed there's been a lack of visual interest on hella frisch lately (colorful text excepted), so I decided to bring a camera on my run this morning and photograph the sunrise from various points on the beach.

6:52 am - beginning the run at 21st St. Posted by Picasa

6:58 - a couple watch at 10th St. Posted by Picasa

7:12 - a vacant lifeguard stand at 1st St. Posted by Picasa

7:13 - a ship (and jogger) at the end of the beach Posted by Picasa

7:19 - at 5th St., heading back north Posted by Picasa

7:31 - leaving the beach again, at 21st St. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Crichton's testimony: truth, or science fiction?

As reported in the New York Times, science-fiction writer Michael Crichton testified before Congress yesterday to debunk global warming, and promote his recent thriller State of Fear. Maybe now we can turn to some of the real dangers that are threatening Americans:

Angry talking gorillas

Anyone who has read Crichton's 1980 novel Congo can testify to the terror of these African beasts, especially when guarding mysterious supernatural diamonds. The Department of Homeland Security needs a special branch dedicated to gorilla linguistics and advanced primate diplomacy.

Alien spacecraft on the ocean floor

As described in Crichton's 1987 novel Sphere, the spacecraft might contain a mysterious spherical chamber - when someone enters the sphere, they attain an incredible psychic power to impose their own version of reality on the world around them. Should such a thing be discovered, it is proposed that we surround the spacecraft with federal troops and only allow radio personalities Rush Limbaugh and Michael Reagan to enter.

Sexual harrassment by your hot female boss

There are ex-girlfriends all around us - some may even supervise our employment! Are we prepared for the romantic intrigue and sexual manipulation sure to ensue, threatening America's continued productivity? Read Crichton's 1993 novel Disclosure and write your congressman (or woman!) right away.

Reconstituted dinosaurs

All that gene research stuff might sound innocent enough - but did you know they might have dinosaur genes? Can we afford to let them build a secluded theme park in the South Pacific with their supposedly "secure" reptilian clones, as they do in Crichton's Jurassic Park and The Lost World? Hadn't we better start a new Department of Homeland Dinosaur Extermination with broad military powers, and shut down all that creepy scientific research stuff once and for all?

As you can see, we have some much more pressing issues to address before worrying about climate change. Even if the polar ice caps are melting, and the coasts may all be flooded within our lifetimes, and hurricanes are on the rise, it's not going to rip us to shreds like a hungry, ravaging velociraptor. Or is it? Velociraptors can't swim, can they?

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

symphonic pop-art by Kenji Bunch

This past weekend our orchestra performed Kenji Bunch's Symphony no. 1, "Lichtenstein Triptych," a piece inspired by three paintings by the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein - the last movement is based on In The Car, the image shown here.

Understanding the pop art aspirations of the Bunch piece explained a lot of its seemingly cheesy tendencies. Just as Lichtenstein coopted the styles and cliches of advertising and comic strips, Bunch borrows from cartoon music and film soundtracks. When we first rehearsed the piece, you could hear the orchestra let out a collective groan as one corny stereotype after another emerged, from the percussion whistles and chimes to the silly brass riffs. It was easy to overlook the clever orchestrational touches, and some genuinely beautiful melodic viola writing, and see the piece as hopelessly derivative.

I think Kenji Bunch's piece is worth a second hearing, though - he's taken on an artist in Lichtenstein whose work is incredibly subtle and multi-layered, despite its surface appearance of familiarity. This could be taken as ambition to develop an original, engaging voice, not just to write a few pleasingly hummable tunes. I don't know if he's found that original voice yet in this symphony, but he is still a young composer and he's at least raised some interesting possibilities.

I love the idea that art does not have to forged in the 700-degree heat of some genius mind, that it can be found all around us by anyone curious and enterprising enough to look for it. This is my impression of Roy Lichtenstein's work - he's created images that might be indistinguishable from the many images that bombard us every day - except he's challenged us as viewers to distinguish, to look deeper and question and discover the hidden meanings for themselves. To find meaning amidst the chaos of everyday life - isn't this the oldest and highest imperative of all art? Except Lichtenstein does it in a completely new and fresh way.

I'm not sure if Kenji Bunch has challenged his audience in quite the same way. Certainly there were some puzzles for the orchestra to figure out, strange rhythmic figures which interlocked with other voices to form a typically cheesy dance rhythm, but I wondered if the audience had anything to keep them similarly engaged. Perhaps there is some miraculous leap of genius necessary to refine the vernacular ingredients into something clearly, directly powerful. Following the Bunch Symphony we played a work by another brash, ambitious young composer who somehow got that recipe right: the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein!

To read more about Kenji Bunch and hear an excerpt from the "In The Car" movement of his symphony, visit his Meet the Composer website. The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation is a great resource to see more of that artist's work. And our performance of Bunch's "Lichtenstein Triptych" was reviewed in a Palm Beach Post blog by Greg Stepanich.

Late breaking news

Still another article on John Adams' Doctor Atomic, this one by music critic and blogger Alex Ross, appears in this week's The New Yorker. You'll have to read the article in the actual magazine, since it's not online. I have long been a fan of Alex's writing in the magazine, and I am also much obliged to him for listing me on his page of music blogs.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

"as music goes, so we go"

Today two great American minimalist composers were featured prominently in news stories. Steve Reich was profiled this morning on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, talking about the release of a new CD, You are (variations). Reich discusses some of his varied influences: African drumming, Balinese gamelan, Hebrew cantilation, jazz, Bach... He also coins a new word (to me, at least): voicestrument, the fusing of a vocal and instrumental sonority. The piece "Cello Counterpoint" sounds fascinating.

Meanwhile, John Adams' new opera Doctor Atomic will premiere next weekend in San Francisco, and the New York Times reports on the work's genesis in an article entitled "The Opera That Chooses the Nuclear Option." Having played some of Adams' earlier compositions, I can relate to his comment that the orchestration "is like a great big ukulele...[t]he musical interest is in the chord changes, the breathless energy, the pulse." Being part of that breathless ukulele can be both tedious and intoxicating, but Adams can also write in a richer contrapuntal style, and in the new work he promises a "serpentine churning inner activity," expressing the conflicted emotions of his scientist protagonists.

It's exciting to see two great composers evolving within their own idiosyncratic styles, and turning their voices to timely subjects with philosophically timeless dimensions. From what I've been able to gather from the news stories, both composers still have a great deal left to say - I look forward to hearing it!

Friday, September 23, 2005

tunnels and mockingbirds

If literature can give new eyes to human beings, it is because the thing held in common is separately imagined. Utter "I would prefer not," and out of these few words Bartleby materializes, your Bartleby and my Bartleby, a mutual Bartleby: yet the seeing differs from mind to mind. And at the same time a tunnel has been dug from mind to mind, and an unsuspected new current runs between them.

- from Cynthia Ozick's essay "Saul Bellow's Broadway", an introduction to Bellow's novel Seize the Day, also published in the essay collection Fame & Folly, p. 174
The other day Lydia wrote a comment to my post on Nicole Krauss' Man Walks Into A Room, referencing another amazing novel about human understanding and empathy, Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. I was going to keep my reply to a brief comment on that post, but I had so much to say about the comparison, it would fit much better in a new post of its own!

I also haven't read To Kill A Mockingbird for many years, but those characters and ideas still have a particular resonance, like Bartleby and his "I would prefer not to", which leaves a lasting impression. You have only to mention the names "Atticus" or "Boo Radley", or the title of the book itself, and all these seemingly abstract notions about dignity, empathy, and compassion for the others' humanity come flooding back. This is the tunnel that Cynthia Ozick is describing in the passage quoted above, and it is a sign of the strength and nobility of Harper Lee's tunnel-digging that so many people who read her novel at age 12 continue to make frequent use of the currents that run through it!

I think this in a way is the purpose of all arts and culture, and the source of its relevance - it opens up passageways and dialogues between people who otherwise would have very little real basis for understanding. Sharing common symbols, mythologies, and characters can be as important as sharing a common language when it comes to real communication - one reason why joining a conversation between two old friends can sometimes seem like an exercise in futility. The words they are saying are only the surface level, while underneath lies a whole other dimension, formed from the memories and stories they both know.

This explains partly why the premise of Nicole Krauss' Man Walks Into A Room - a man loses his memory of his entire adult life due to an undiagnosed brain tumor - was so terrifying and so fascinating to me. He has lost none of his abilities or perceptions, and yet he only has the memories which formed up to the age 12: he can't recall meeting his wife, or seeing his mother die. His most meaningful relationships, his students and friends and his wife, are now merely strangers, and his life is robbed of much of its meaning as a result.

Maybe that is why after reading a great book like MWIAR or TKAM, I feel so powerfully compelled to share it with others. No matter how wondrous the tunnels a work has excavated, they are of very little use until we can open connections into other minds. Even a somewhat pedestrian book (I am thinking of Da Vinci Code for some reason) can have great value if it allows for a common reference with a vast population of readers. I don't know if that justifies the existence of the Oprah Book Club, but it means the books it chooses can't be entirely ignored!

Man Walks Into A Room is a book about the struggle for connection, and about an intriguing scientific "solution" to this struggle. I think it is a common impulse today to look to science for solutions for questions which might once have fallen to a philosopher, or a monk. The scientist Ray in MWIAR is a curious combination of those three callings:
"People---physicists, whatever---will tell you we're all tuned into the universe, to something greater than ourselves. What I say is, why can't we try to share, at the deepest possible level, that distant connection? What I'm saying is, why can't we get inside each other's heads? From time to time, to get out of ourselves and into someone else. Simple idea, but the ramifications are extraordinary. The possibility for true empathy---imagine how it would affect human relations. It's enough to keep you awake at night." Ray grinned. His teeth were perfect. "Or to send you out to the desert."
-Man Walks Into A Room, p. 105-106
In the end, though, the scientific solutions only serve as a stark reminder of how lonely we really are. It is a fascinating paradox of our times, I think, that even as technology facilitates ever quicker and niftier connections, we become increasingly alienated - a short recent New Yorker article captures this dilemma nicely. If we want to overcome this state of affairs, I'm afraid we can't just wait for technology to provide the answers: we have some serious tunnel-digging of our own to do - and more than that, we may have to follow some of those tunnels to wherever they might lead....

Thursday, September 22, 2005

New World Symphony offers "Symphonic Relief"

There's a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us

There's a time for us,
Some day a time for us,
Time together with time to spare,
Time to learn, time to care,
Some day!

We'll find a new way of living,
We'll find a way of forgiving
Somewhere . . .

There's a place for us,
A time and place for us.
Hold my hand and we're halfway there.
Hold my hand and I'll take you there
Some day,

- "Somewhere" from West Side Story; music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

This Saturday the New World Symphony performs a benefit concert for Hurricane Katrina relief, including Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. We rehearsed the piece this morning, and listening to the tender melody of the song "Somewhere", I found it touching how this music seems to offer solace to all those who are lost and displaced.

Many of the survivors of Katrina are no doubt seeking "a new way of living" right now, struggling to come to terms with their losses. At the same time, an exodus of evacuees clearing the way for Hurricane Rita may be reminding themselves that "peace and quiet and open air" must one day return.

Beyond just the lyrics, the music has a searching, prayerful quality which echoes, I'm sure, many of the prayers of the victims of both hurricanes in the Gulf Coast. For those of us who have been spared their misfortunes, this music can be a powerful tool for empathy. Hopefully our concert will provide some "time to care" for all who suffer.

The New World Symphony's concert, entitled "Symphonic Relief", will be broadcast on WLRN public radio Saturday, September 24th at 8 pm eastern. It can also be heard over the internet at

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Man Walks Into A Room, by Nicole Krauss

Somewhere many miles away, in the heart of the desert, a man was recording memories, preserving them as another desert air once preserved scrolls of parchment. Creating a vast library of human memory, and so that that library should not be lost – so that it should not combust in fire or vanish into dust and light – he was learning how to inscribe those memories in the one place they were ensured survival: in the minds of other people. A purely scientific project, but off the record he would say that he believed he had found the key to human compassion. To step into another man's skin. He would say he believed he had found a way to inspire empathy, a sense of cosmic belonging, that at some near point in the future human beings could be immunized against alienation as they were once vaccinated for smallpox, polio.
page 236, Man Walks Into A Room by Nicole Krauss

Lately I've been obsessed with the idea of memory, of our struggles to remember and to forget, and how our memories determine the substance and the quality of our lives. Nicole Krauss' Man Walks Into A Room is a fascinating exploration of these topics, but more than that it is a beautiful and moving book. As Michael Silverblatt noted in a radio interview with Krauss, it is the kind of book that reminds you of the powerful sense of consolation that literature can offer.

I don't want to give away too much of the book, since I'm hoping everyone will be intrigued enough to read it themselves! Here is a bit from that radio interview, though, which gives some insight into Nicole Krauss' characters. She is speaking about her more recent novel, The History of Love:

MS: Both books in essence are about how you communicate unconquerable sorrow.... Do you feel that that kind of compassion finds a place in the world?

NK: I have to believe that it does and certainly it’s the thing that, whether I know it at the time when I’m writing or not, that I continue to write novels about. And I realized at the end of The History of Love, looking back on both novels that almost all of my characters are in some way either radically alienated or just very, very lonely, they fall somewhere on that spectrum. And yet all of them are desperate to connect to other people. They need to find some way to communicate in order to be understood.

There’s a wonderful quote by Cynthia Ozick which is in the introduction to a Saul Bellow novel which I just read very, very recently but which seems so right according to the things I was thinking about when I wrote The History of Love. She talks about the underground tunnel that is dug between the minds of two people who have read and been moved by the same book, and the unsuspected current that runs between them. And there is this sense in The History of Love that these people have all been in some way moved, their lives have all been changed by this book and it becomes the vehicle, the tunnel and the way out of their loneliness. And I suppose that’s been my experience in life; that has been my experience since I was a child with books.

In addition to the radio interview linked above, Nicole Krauss has a short essay "On Forgetting" and a long excerpt from The History of Love, "The Last Words on Earth", both published online and well worth reading!

but how much will it cost to shut me up?

Most people who have read hella frisch or spent any time talking with me will have noted my tendency to cite articles from The New Yorker magazine at the slightest provocation. This annoying habit may soon get worse.

As NPR's Morning Edition reports today, the magazine is about to publish 80 years of back issues on DVD. The asking price is $100, but I found it on sale at for just $63 - not bad, since that works out to less than 1.6 cents per issue. How I expect to actually read those 4,000 issues, I'm not sure - maybe I'll quit sleeping.

For anyone not too familiar with The New Yorker, you can always read a sampling from the current issue on the magazine's website. I especially recommend Paul Rudnick's Shouts and Murmurs piece, "Intelligent Design".

There is a website offering a year's subscription to the magazine for just $18, which seems absurdly cheap: I can't vouch for its legitimacy yet, but I'm hoping it's for real!

preparations for Hurricane Rita on Lincoln Road Posted by Picasa

Monday, September 19, 2005

Internet 2 and a brave New World

Recently the New World Symphony has become increasingly involved in the technology of "Internet 2" - the new website features it prominently. The way I understand it, Internet 2 is mostly just like Internet 1, except faster, better, with lots more gizmos and much bigger screens. It's a shame, because I was just starting to get the hang of Internet 1. I'm not sure if I'll be able to produce enough content so that hella frisch will survive the changeover - it might end up with a lot of live footage of flossing and D major scales.

various Internet 2 gizmos which I'm not allowed to touch Posted by Picasa

Today I got to play over Internet 2 for the first time. They were doing a sound check for some cello lesson tomorrow, and the sound engineer asked if anyone would come and help them test the set-up. Most people here seem to affect an air of indifference, but I've secretly been an Internet 2 wanna-be for some time now, so I sort of leaped at the chance.

We were connected to Northwestern University in Evanston and some place in Wichita - apparently three-ways are the trendy thing to do on Internet 2. I set up facing two big screen monitors, each of which had a guy sitting around. It was kind of nerve-racking to realize that both of those guys were staring at me, though, and hearing me in digital sound! I went to school at Northwestern, so I found myself worrying that my old teacher would wander past while I was playing. I played the exposition of a concerto by Vanhal, and it did feel pretty weird. The engineer, Jacques, told me that later in the week they'd be connecting to 8,000 people at a conference in Philadelphia, in case I wanted to come back and play for that. I'm kind of thrilled, but at the same time horrified at what an internet exhibitionist I'm threatening to become.

Last week I sat in on a cello masterclass that was being taught over Internet 2 by Steven Doane, a professor at Eastman in Rochester. It was pretty much like any masterclass with a live and present teacher, except there were some speeches beforehand and an occasional thwack when a microphone got attacked by a cello bow. Once they got going, it was easy to forget about all those gigabits of data racing through the ether and concentrate on what Mr. Doane was communicating, which was a lot of great stuff: the beginning of the fugue in the 5th Suite Prelude by Bach should sound "like Rumplestiltskin walking around", he said, while in Don Quixote the bow arm should be "the marriage of a 100-lb. jellyfish and an eagle, or maybe some seaweed". It might sound like a bunch of non-sequiturs, but it made perfect sense if you were there - wherever 'there' was!

I was particularly impressed how Mr. Doane was able to help a cellist working on the Schumann concerto to open up his gestures and his sound. Playing a string instrument is such a physical act, and no matter how crisp the audio and video I wondered if an internet broadcast would capture the pure kinesthetic sense of a performer. Mr. Doane seemed to hone right in on what was constricting this cellist's playing, though, asking him to lean back and expand his lungs all the way from the diaphragm at the high point of a phrase. He also had some nuanced ideas about bow speed and distribution which were very helpful.

The idea I was left with, though, was that no matter how vast the distances we can propel our gigabits, the most meaningful and challenging span will always be those two inches between the ear and the part of the mind where habits are formed. Some of the things Mr. Doane was demonstrating and talking about seemed so clear and achievable - and yet the cellist just couldn't seem to change his habit, and adapt under pressure. I don't mean to slight his talent, since being adaptable and flexible to new ideas is one of the most difficult things in music. I guess it's a reminder that we still carry some of the most sophisticated and most mysterious technology around in our skulls every day. No Internet 2 breakthroughs are likely to change that.

If there's anything you've always wanted to tell 8,000 people in Philadelphia, though, please let me know before Wednesday.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Sunday evening on South Beach Posted by Picasa

Friday, September 16, 2005

Second Viennese soap opera

With the start of the fall TV season, we once again have a dearth of compelling drama which does not concern people being forced to eat live insects or marry repulsive strangers. Why not borrow from the real-life exploits of one of the hottest, raciest bunches of all time? I am of course referring to the Second Viennese School of composers: acolytes, rivals, friends (and lovers) of the dodecaphonic heartthrob Arnold Schoenberg.

To introduce you to the show, which I'm calling "Twelve Tones of Passion," here is a list of the main characters (also twelve in number, appropriately). I have taken some dramatic liberties with the actual history of the Second Viennese School; most notably, rather than Vienna, Austria, the soap takes place in a small town somewhere in California, Vienna Hills.

Arnold Schoenberg

The brilliant, haunted, and astonishingly handsome genius at the center of it all. Arnold has a troubled, mysterious past, but from the moment he arrives in Vienna Hills, all the most talented composers (and the most beautiful women) flock to him. He invents the Twelve Tone Method and founds the Society for Private Musical Performances to present his darkly disturbing expressions of loneliness and passion before a uniformly educated (and shockingly attractive) audience. However, most of the perfomances are interrupted within the first few minutes by screaming, gun-shots, revelations of infidelity, the return of a supposedly dead nephew, or all of the above. He alternates between prolific bouts of theorizing, composing, and obsessing over Alma Mahler.

Alexander Zemlinsky

Arnold's oldest friend and teacher - until a family member and a love affair come between them! Zemlinsky writes emotionally wrought tone poems about love, adultery, and murder, and tries to woo Alma Mahler, who before her marriage to Gustav "taunted him with his diminutive stature and unattractive appearance" (New Grove Dictionary); after extensive plastic surgery, however, he is now drop-dead gorgeous.

Mathilde Schoenberg (née Zemlinsky)

This passionate and sultry sister of Alexander impulsively marries Arnold, but later has an affair with Arnold's art teacher, Richard Gerstl. She is torn between the man she loves and the man whose children she bore; eventually, though, she returns to Arnold, with tragic consequences....

Richard Gerstl

Talented, artistic, and gorgeous, he introduces Arnold to expressionist painting before seducing Arnold's wife Mathilde! When Mathilde leaves him to return to Arnold, he takes his own life. Or did he? No signs of his body were ever found where he leaped from Erwartung Cliff....

Richard Dehmel

Brilliant, handsome, and romantic poet whose work is marked by the “pathos of a new, anti-bourgeois sexual morality [and] the idea of an all-conquering Eros that shuns every convention” (Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt). He lives the same way he writes, falling in love intensely and obsessively with the likes of Alma Mahler and Ida Auerbach.

Ida Auerbach

Beautiful and pregnant wife of Colonel Auerbach, she falls in love with Richard Dehmel, inspiring his poem "Verklaerte Nacht" - the tale of a woman shamedly confessing to her great new love that she is pregnant by another man; whereupon he absolves her of her guilt and promises to raise the child as his own, thus transfiguring the night, and their lives!

Alban Berg

Brilliant and incorrigibly handsome composition student of Arnold, but their relationship soon turns thorny. He insists on writing gorgeously lyrical operatic depictions of madness and death, which stretch Arnold's twelve-tone method in unimagined directions! He marries Helene Nahowski, but their relationship is soon strained by Alban's preoccupations with Arnold and with Alma Mahler, before he dies tragically (and mysteriously) of an insect bite.

Gertrud Schoenberg (née Kolisch)

After Mathilde's untimely death, Arnold quickly remarried this alluring beauty, the sister of Rudolf Kolisch, first violinist of the Kolisch Quartet. Some in Vienna Hills would say too quickly...

Anton Webern

Arnold's most devoted pupil, who regards the classy serialist with "an esteem the fervour of which at times resembled that of a love affair" (New Grove). A composer of miraculously perfect miniatures, he married his cousin Wilhelmine Mörtl but later had a fling with the poetess Hildegard Jone, and never got over his infatuation with Arnold - until his untimely shooting death on the porch of his daughter's house, perhaps the victim of some enemy of his black-marketeer son-in-law, leading to the climactic question at the culmination of season 14: Who Shot Anton?

Alma Mahler (née Schindler)

The ravishingly beautiful widow of Gustav, she holds all the men enthralled (and all the women in a jealous rage!) as she recounts her seduction of the reclusively brilliant symphonist Mahler at her weekly kaffee klatsches. She was herself a talented composer before retiring her gifts to marry Mahler; now she composes serial heartbreak for love triangles! All of Vienna Hills is in suspense about her next passion; will it be architect Walter Gropius? poet Franz Werfel? And who is that darkly handsome, hooded stranger who begins arriving uninvited at Alma's kaffee klatsches in season 4? Could it possibly be....?

Gustav Mahler

Manic depressive, unfailingly brilliant, strikingly handsome, but (supposedly) dead since 1911, Gustav's ghost seems to haunt the residents of Vienna Hills. No one can quite forget the way he seemed to prophesize his own daughter's death in his Kindertotenlieder, or the way he brought a new expressive depth and complexity to the symphonic form. Also he had those really irresistible high cheekbones.

Igor Stravinsky

A brilliant composer of ballets and a pesky long-time rival, this short, somewhat geeky (but still devilishly handsome) Russian wastes no opportunity to poke fun at Arnold's twelve-tone method and all his supposedly pretentious theorizing. Everyone in Vienna Hills knows, though, it's just because he's jealous. He'll probably even start writing using serial techniques himself, as soon as he can get Arnold out of the way.... That might demand a spinoff, though.

Will the residents of Vienna Hills ever find true love and happiness? Will Arnold get the recognition he deserves, or will he decide to just say screw it all and move to Hollywood to become a film composer? Who did shoot Anton, and will Helene ever let Berg's final unfinished masterpiece Lulu be completed and performed? All these questions may take several seasons to answer, but one thing you can be sure: all your expectations will be retrogradely inverted each week on "Twelve Tones of Passion"!

This weekend the New World Symphony performs Arnold Schoenberg's masterpiece Verklaerte Nacht, based on a poem by Richard Dehmel. The performance will feature stunning revelations about love and paternity, but will probably not be interrupted by gunshots or screaming. Unless another damn cell phone goes off.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Blame Game: Home Edition

Ever since Pres. Bush proposed last week that we not play "the blame game," that phrase has gotten tossed around a lot. What bothers me is not so much that the Bush administration has come up with one more cynical catch-phrase to deflect justified criticism of its policies; or that it has been opportunistically blaming everyone it could at the same time; but that the "blame game," at least in the case of Hurricane Katrina, seems not to be much of a game at all.

Any game worth playing needs to present some sort of challenge - but the Bush administration's policies seem perversely designed to create just such a disaster: from their disregard for the poor, to the shortsighted energy policy, to the underfunding and mismanagement of emergency services. Playing the blame game against the Bush administration on Katrina seems a little like playing one-on-one basketball against your cat - it might put up a fight, but it won't score many points.

I was thinking that if I did want to play the blame game, and have an actual challenge, I should play it against myself - which is why I decided to think back on some of the biggest disasters of the last 27 years, and try to figure out how I may have been personally responsible.

1980 Eruption of Mount St. Helens

It is difficult to pinpoint with any precision the causes of the geothermic disturbance which triggered this massive volcanic eruption in southwest Washington state - could it have been the overly rambunctious playing of two-year-old twins Daniel and Matthew in nearby Tacoma?

1989 San Francisco earthquake

Now known by their shortened names, Dan and Matt were rabid Oakland A's baseball fans who would have readily sold their souls to ensure victory over the San Francisco Giants in the '89 World Series. Did they somehow repeat their seismic voodoo to cause a 6.9 earthquake on October 17th, right as game 3 was scheduled to begin? The world will never know, but the A's did win in 4.

Florida recount of Nov. 2000

At the time of the 2000 presidential election, I was living in Chicago, and my vote for Al Gore was utterly meaningless. Had I practiced more diligently for my New World Symphony audition earlier that year, though, and gotten my Bach Prelude more reliably in tune, I might have had a chance of moving to Florida. Had I been here in Miami, I might have cast one of the 537 votes that determined the election outcome; I might even have volunteered for the Gore campaign, and persuaded another 536 people to vote as well, and who knows what could have happened? We might now have a president who could actually pronounce 'nuclear'....


In June of 2001, I took a taxi from New York's Penn Station to the JFK airport - I had to find a station wagon cab, since I had an enormous bass trunk. My cab driver was a Middle Eastern man who seemed to take the size of my luggage as a personal affront. At least that was how it seemed at first - he spent most of the ride scolding me for my American complacency and ignorance, informing me of the wretched conditions of his countrymen, and predicting a quickly approaching disaster. I finally figured out that all this was not just surliness about having to put his back seats down; and I started asking him more questions about what he had seen, and why he had become so angry.

It was a really fascinating conversation, and before dropping me off the taxi driver wrote down the name of an influential Islamic guy in Chicago, telling me I should look him up and give him a call. Of course, I never did, and I never told anyone else about that conversation; on Sept. 11, 2001, though, I suddenly remembered everything the taxi driver told me, and I wished I had done something. Or at least tipped him a little better.

2004 Indonesian Tsunami

On Christmas day, 2004, I was visiting my family in Las Vegas, including my twin brother Dan. We decided to go out to an Indonesian restaurant that evening. I had never had Indonesian, but I definitely enjoyed all the satay, padang, and rijstaffel - I think we even left a pretty good-sized tip. Nothing seems to have provoked us to use our psychic powers to trigger any natural disasters on this occasion. However, a powerful earthquake struck in the Indian Ocean just hours later, early on December 26th, causing a horrific tsunami. I can't help thinking I was somehow to blame.

If you are aware of any other disasters I may have caused, please let me know - this is just a short list off the top of my head. And I'll do my best not to think any more geothermically disruptive thoughts in the future. And play Bach better in tune.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

view of Miami from the MacArthur Causeway Posted by Picasa

Saturday, September 10, 2005

remembering my Grandma

I've been thinking a lot about my Grandma, who died a year ago today. She was such a wonderful, sweet, and generous woman. Even though she lived a very difficult life, she seemed to be perpetually sacrificing her own needs for the happiness of other people. Here is a letter she sent me, just after I moved to Miami:


Dearest Matt,

I hope sincerely that you'll be happy in Miami, and that your career progresses to your own satisfaction. Be patient and hopeful - it's always difficult in the arts and music to get started.

Here's a bit of an emergency fund until money starts coming in - don't be bashful about using it - do what's necessary. I love you and wish for your success and happiness.

Best regards to Karyn. I still would love to have a picture of you both.

Much love,

Note: Be careful - I understand that Miami is a rough city now - I visited there when your mama was about four, and Barbara was seven - it seemed like heaven after living in Cleveland. - H
It's sad to think of all the things I might have said and done for her, that might have given her a little bit of happiness - like sending that photograph she asked for. She was sometimes difficult to talk to, because she would recite all her worries and anxieties, which of course were born of her great compassion but could seem overwhelming.

I loved to write to her, though, and to read her gracefully handwritten replies. When she died last year, I felt like I had lost the one person I could always confide in. I suppose this blog, and a journal I began writing shortly after her death, have been my way of trying to make up for a small part of that lack. Nothing I write could encapsulate the person she was, though, or console all of us who still miss her terribly.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Spilling Clarence: a novel worth remembering

"What we can infer from Freud's theories is there is something innate about the tricks our mind plays. Perhaps we are biologically programmed to distort the past. Memory is associative, and we are surrounded by its cues all the time---smell, sensation, word, place---without these screens, perhaps, we would be constantly wallowing in trauma. Forgetfulness is not a sign of disease. It is natural, and may even be biologically positive. Perhaps the mind's ability to make the past malleable is essential for our survival."

Bennie begins to pace back and forth on the stage, as he usually does at the half-hour point.

"Because we've all made horrendous mistakes, suffered trauma, committed troubling acts in our lives. What would happen if we could remember them all, call them up with just a smell or a word? What would it do to us if we remembered our childhoods, our whole lives, every day?"

- Spilling Clarence by Anne Ursu, page 69
Anne Ursu's novel is about just such a situation: a pharmaceutical factory disaster in the small town of Clarence releases a chemical which renders people prisoners of their own memories. Ursu's novel is full of clever, heartwarming touches, especially in the character of 8-year-old Sophie, but it also has a dark and tragic side, in the psychology professor (and Sophie's dad) Bennie, who lost his wife to a car accident five years ago.

I always seem to be wishing my memory could be better, more detailed, more accessible - yet this novel reminded me that forgetting has its merits as well. Sometimes our most powerful memories, like the presence and impressions of a lost loved one, are best kept secreted away in some hidden corner of the mind, where they can't overwhelm us quite so easily.

A lot of my memories are locked up in pieces of music, I think - as in the Bruckner symphony I wrote about the other day. When I listen to that music, a whole other period of my life seems to come into focus, a time when I was tremendously determined and ambitious, and tremendously lonely. These are memories I never want to lose, because they make my life so much richer; yet to think of them every day might be painful and crippling.

Ursu's characters are beautifully drawn, sympathetic and funny, and their struggles through the obstacle courses of memory are fascinating and moving. I imagine Charlie Kaufman could write a great cinematic screenplay based on Spilling Clarence - as in his movies Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the tension and action takes place largely inside the characters' minds. No adaptation is really necessary, though, to appreciate what a lovely and sweet little novel this is. I suppose it would be an exaggeration to call it unforgettable - even the sweetest things in life are destined to be forgotten, but they are still worth experiencing!

Anne Ursu has a great website with lots of reviews and information about Clarence and her other novel, The Disapparation of James. She also blogs daily on a very funny Twins baseball fan site,, which is how I first heard about her.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Bruckner's 8th Symphony

If I had to pick my one favorite piece of music, it might easily be Bruckner's 8th. I first heard the piece when I was 18 - I had just moved to New York to attend Columbia University and Juilliard. There was an audition for the Juilliard orchestras, and one of the excerpts was from the third movement of Bruckner's 8th. I didn't know yet that I wouldn't be allowed to play in, or audition for, Juilliard's orchestras - that was one of the main reasons I left New York after just one semester! For the time being, though, I was preparing diligently for this audition.

I went to Columbia's listening library one day around lunch time, thinking I'd quickly find the excerpt, listen to it a couple of times, then pop over to the dining hall. What I didn't realize was that the third movement of Bruckner's 8th is the longest slow movement ever written, usually lasting nearly half an hour. The excerpt was nowhere near the beginning, either, so with no measure or rehearsal numbers to guide me, I settled in to listen to the whole movement.

By the time it ended, I was completely spellbound by the beauty of that music - I realized I had completely forgotten to find the excerpt. So I listened to it again. Then I listened to the symphony straight through in its entirety. Twice. I think the librarian had to kick me out around 5.

It's wonderful to have a piece of music that moves you so powerfully. Unfortunately I rarely find time to listen through the whole 90-minute symphony, though, or even that monumental slow movement! I've only heard it performed live once, with David Zinman conducting the Baltimore Symphony, which was quite thrilling.

Another performance I remember fondly was on television the summer I was at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in Germany. Lorin Maazel was conducting the Munich Philharmonic in a huge cathedral. There is a passage in the third movement that (like so many passages in Bruckner!) returns obsessively: the whole orchestra seems to climb out from a state of unrelievable tension and dissolve into a celestial harp shimmer. Each time the orchestra played this, the camera would pan up to the ceiling of the cathedral, as if God Himself were creating the music. I guess sometimes it can seem that way.

I wonder occasionally at all the things I've chosen to give up in order to play in an orchestra - like dropping out of that Columbia/Juilliard program. Then I listen to a piece like Bruckner's 8th, or play in a great orchestra, and all those sacrifices don't seem so crazy any more. Today was our first New World Symphony rehearsal, and so things were a little rough. Still, the memory that sticks with me is looking around while we were reading the first movement of Brahms 3rd, and seeing this amazing sense of giddiness in everyone. We were like a bunch of little kids playing after the first thick snowfall - "wow, it's been a while." I wouldn't trade that for anything.

a room (and maybe a recital) of own's own

This morning the New York Times reports on the plight of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra members. Like everyone in New Orleans, including some cousins of mine, they have been scattered all around the country, looking for work and places to live. I especially liked the composer in Oklahoma who "said he did not have much money but could offer a room and the chance of a recital."

It sort of reminds me of my own experience with the ill-fated "Atlantic Southeast Ballet Orchestra," which was based in Charleston, SC with plans to tour the southeastern United States. The day before the first rehearsal, though, the orchestra manager sent out an e-mail with the subject "CATASTROPHE." The orchestra's funding had just disappeared, and after we played a benefit concert (for the orchestra) on 9/11, so did the orchestra management. They left the country, fleeing creditors. The orchestra members were left to pick up the pieces, break their apartment leases, and find somewhere else to work, since Charleston is not a hotbed of classical music activity, at least for 11 months of the year.

That was how I came to live in Miami, and worked in the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra before joining the New World Symphony last year. I still have a part for Adolphe Adam's ballet Giselle, stamped "Library of ATLANTIC SOUTHEAST BALLET," as a souvenir.

A.S.B., 2003-2003, R.I.P. Posted by Picasa

Monday, September 05, 2005

flesh wounds

my frisbee injury Posted by Picasa

Yesterday I got smacked in the eye by a fast-moving frisbee while playing with some other NWS musicians and their church group friends. All day it's been modulating through various shades of blue and purple, which I've found quite interesting and entertaining. Sorry if you don't.

Jimmy's passing

Talk about fatal coincidences - yesterday I wrote jokingly about our front desk manager, Jimmy, and his penchant for strongly (and strangely) worded notices. Just a moment ago I learned that Jimmy had passed away some time this weekend. I'm not sure if I should delete what I wrote yesterday, now that my attempt at humor has become tasteless as well as lame.

Jimmy was a wonderful, kind person, and those notices only added to his idiosyncratic charm. He always called me by my full name, Matthew, and many times I found myself getting into long conversations with him while collecting the mail. He loved to cast ridicule at the bizarre attempts at modern art in the park across the street from our building, especially when the Art Basel festival came to town. He asked me once what I thought of Picasso, and I started some blather about discovering whole different ways of seeing, and he said, "Well, me, I just don't get it. Are those supposed to be people, or what?"

One of my favorite Jimmy memories was a conversation I overheard before Thanksgiving last fall. He, Joe, and Mitch were discussing their dinner plans, and apparently Joe or Mitch had made some comment about a restaurant with "a nice atmosphere." Jimmy replied, "Atmosphere? Atmosphere is what you worry about if you're taking a girl out. You're going alone, you want to worry about the food!"

I feel a little silly and more than a little sad trying to sum up this unique, funny person based on my limited experience of him. I guess it's a reminder to get to know people better, before we're all gone. One thing I can say: Jimmy will be missed.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

parsing Jimmy

I've lately started a collection of notices posted by Jimmy, the front desk manager in my building. They are usually short, apparently simple messages, but like a great haiku, they reveal untold layers of meaning as you ponder them more deeply. Most of these layers seem to concern what a bunch of clueless slobs we residents are. For example, here is today's announcement concerning bagels:




The all-caps is a trademark of Jimmy's style; it seems to proclaim, "I'M ONLY GOING TO SAY THIS ONCE. THEN I'M GOING TO STICK ONE ON EVERY DOOR IN THE BUILDING." The key line, to me, is the one right in the center: "EACH PERSON WILL SERVE HIMSELF". Is this hearkening back to a time when the Plymouth may have had a wait staff and white tablecloths? Does he worry that we might all just sit there, staring at all that coffee, those bagels, that cream cheese, wondering who will come to serve us? Or might the whole gathering descend into chaos, rioting, and violence as fellows try to choose bagels for one another?

Maybe I am stretching when I sense a tinge of contempt in that imperative "ALL OF YOU COME AND ENJOY." The miracle of these things, though, is that you can find so many different meanings in them. I haven't even touched on the enigmatic transformation of Einstein Bros. into "EISENSTEIN'S". For some mysteries, each reader may be best advised to SERVE HIMSELF.

Here is another recent announcement:


Artists in all forms have recognized the power of repetition, but few can match the sense of sheer desperation conveyed in these three sentences. The quiet resolve of the first line becomes a little breathless in the second, culminating in that climactic "PLEASE," and the final invocation. Again, there is a mysterious "typo" which seems only to heighten the power of that last, plaintive phrase.

fallible gods

To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god.

-Jorge Luis Borges

I'm not sure whether it was actual grief or just all the sand, sweat, and sunscreen that had gotten into my eyes - I had never gotten this emotional over topsoil erosion before. But tears were streaming down my face as I jogged up South Beach yesterday morning. Where there had been a thick layer of perfectly manicured beach sand was now just a patchily exposed cement surface. Most of the sand had blown off into the ocean with Hurricane Katrina.

topsoil-less: Miami's denuded beach Posted by Picasa

It was hardly the storm's most disastrous effect, but it does seem like the most convenient metaphor for this last week of disaster and disappointment: all pretenses and artifice stripped bare, leaving only the sad, ugly truth. Miami Beach, like New Orleans and so many other places, exists more as a product of the human imagination than any natural geological processes - and our inspired tinkering with nature tends to leave us all the more vulnerable to nature's impacts. A pristine, sandy beach seems much lovelier than the scrubby, untamed wilderness that preceded it; just as New Orleans is much nicer behind those levees than in its native, swampy state. The farther we get from reality, though, the more susceptible we become to these harsh reminders.

It seems that this is what we humans do: we take something humble, homely and real and we strive to build something that is huge, fake and beautiful, not foreseeing the wasteland that will result when it crumbles. As in that Jorge Luis Borges quote about love, we build our hopes on foundations which are just as fallible as we are ourselves.

While New Orleans may take years to reassemble, I'm sure that Miami Beach will be lustrously beautifully again in time for the fall tourist season. Only a few of us foolish late-summer residents will remember the ugly landscape that a hurricane exposed.

I'm not always this depressed; please read a more cheerful post about South Beach. I'd also recommend Nicholas Lemann's "In the Ruins," an insightful essay on New Orleans.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Las Vegas' mountains over a man-made lake Posted by Picasa

disaster and politics

Reading the news these past few days has been an exercise in compassionate helplessness, and the crisis in New Orleans only seems to be getting worse. I was visiting my Mom and step-dad Barry yesterday, and watching the emotionally wrought anchorwoman on CNN, I found myself saying, "This is almost worse than 9/11." Maybe that will seem like ridiculous exaggeration in another few weeks, but right now the scale of this tragedy is difficult to fathom.

I hate to indulge in what has become a sort of knee-jerk response, and blame this all on the Bush administration - disasters like this inevitably happen, Iraq didn't cause Katrina - still, the vast majority of deaths and suffering come in the aftermath of the storm, and depend critically on the federal government's response. There seems to be a pattern in the Bush approach to problem-solving - wishful thinking, ignored warnings, lack of preparation, followed by a lot of rhetorical posturing and very few substantive solutions. The news coverage of chaos on the streets of New Orleans, juxtaposed against similar horrors in Baghdad, suggests a common lack of sensible policies, and a pressing need for more effective leadership.