Monday, August 25, 2008

Polyphony in Rimini

This summer is closing for me on some very special notes—including an F# from Palestrina’s Ego Sum Panis Vivus, a B flat from Guerrero’s Regina Caeli, a C# from Byrd’s Sacerdotes Domini-—and about a thousand others. I am off to take part in an international choral workshop run by Peter Phillips of the Tallis Scholars in Rimini, Italy (Fellini's home town).

The Tallis Scholars are the rock stars of a capella Renaissance polyphony. Started by Peter Philllips while a student at St. John’s College, Oxford, back in 1973, they had their first concert as TTS in 1976. From there, they developed “the sound”: distinctive, haunting, uplifting. It’s most dazzling when you see them live in concert, but their recordings are equally powerful.

Learning to sing Renaissance polyphony has been one of the great unexpected gifts in my life. What sets polyphony apart from other choral work is the equalness of the 4 (or 5 or 6) lines. It’s not a melody and a harmony. It’s a much more complex weaving of four independent parts that also, of course, stack to create chords. Polyphony requires rock-solid precision to allow the chords to lock in as they should. The group needs to feel the underlying beats absolutely and breath as one organism. The requisite blending of voices one into the next is very sensual. When it all comes together, it’s a heady experience.

For me, it also means finding a transcendent connection to the words of the Mass, either in the Mass parts themselves (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Angus Dei, Benedictus), or in settings of Bible texts: Ego Sum Panis Vivus—-I am the Bread of Life.

Peter Phillips, on the other hand, does not have this connection to the words of “the Christian fairy tale”; for him it is the brilliance of the music alone. Fair enough.

I am looking forward to singing under his direction. In his book What We Really Do, a memoir/telling of the history of the group, Phillips offers a peek into the Tallis Scholars’s personality as a group in a “Singers’ Argot,” many of which made me roar with laughter, sometimes from how understated or absurd the descriptions, and sometime because I was writing mental “yes how true” notes in the margin.

Here are just a few:

Gumby part. A non-academic term to describe a cantus firmus part in polyphony. It is a matter of some satisfaction to most of us that the majority of gumby parts were written for tenors, who, as everyone knows, are the divas of their trade.”

“Let’s just start it” Another of my catch phrases in rehearsal. The upshot is that we can find ourselves singing the beginning of a piece several times and never the rest of it. Mass settings are particularly vulnerable to this oversight: we get to know the Kyrie intimately but not the Agnus or the middle of the Credo. [Major head nodding on my part here.]

“Do you know the Victoria Requiem? Good. See you at Heathrow.”
[Said to a singer substituting for a regular. A confirmation of their disinclination to rehearse more than the barest minimum. If you knew how complex the Victoria Requiem is, you’d roar with laughter here too.]

As part of this workshop, this pick-up choir will sing at the 10:30 Mass at the great San Vitale in Ravenna (pictured above), and then after a week of rehearsals (and some beach time), give a concert in Rimini on Sept. 6.

And with this post, I am taking a blog break, to have time to learn the music before I go. Wouldn’t want the American contingent to seem lesser than the English and Italian singers.

I will be back midSeptember, and I hope you’ll come back then too.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Manny Farber: “Garrulous animality and resentful wailing walls”

I clicked over to Mr. Wolcott’s this mourning to learn of the passing of Manny Farber, one of the last century’s great, most distinctive writers on movies.

Besides the general affinity a lover of film, and fine art, feels when she encounters Farber’s work for the first time, the collection of his essays in Negative Spaces has a special, quiet space on my bookshelf: Steed brought me a copy of the Studio Vista Limited London edition, 1971, back from a business trip to LA one year. He had run across it in a used bookstore between appointments. It’s not something he did often, picking up books for me, but that’s how important Manny Farber is.

This is from Farber’s introduction to Negative Spaces:

"If there were a textbook on film space, it would read: 'There are several types of movies space, the three most important being: (1) the field of the screen, (2) the psychological space of the actor, and (3) the area of experience and geography that the film covers.' Bresson deals in shallow composition as predictable as a monk’s tonsure, whereas Godard is a stunning de Stijlist using cutout figures of American flag color asymmetrically placed against a flat white background. The frame of The Wild Bunch is a window into deep, wide, rolling, Baroque space; almost every shot is a long horizontal crowded with garrulous animality.

"Jeanne Moreau, always a resentful wailing wall, works in a large space, which become empty as she devastates it with scorn."

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Dancing Satyr Who Left the Sea

Michael Phelps’s record-setting accomplishment in the water almost defies the imagination. Excellence is one thing, but to be able to win against world-class competition with such short-term repetition simply invites disbelief, and yet, he did it.

I encountered another amazing aquatic story in a small fishing village in the southwest of Sicily called Mazara Del Vallo.

In 1997 a fishing boat from Mazara found a bronze leg amidst the fish in its nets. Many odd things from the sea end up in nets, the detritus of millennia of shipwrecks. The captain turned it over to archeological authorities and went back to business.

A year later, on March 4, 1998, the same boat and same captain were hard at work when one of their nets got caught on something on the sea floor. When a diver went down to free it, he saw that it was caught on some sort of bronze torso. He freed the net, put the torso into it, and signaled to bring it up. After 2,400 years, the dancing satyr was breathing air again.

The captain brought the torso to the same authorities. The leg from a year ago was from the same statue, a two-legged satyr (Greek saturos), with pointy ears and a space in the back for a tail. In mythology, lecherous, happy, dancing satyrs often accompanied the drunken god Dionysius.

It turns out this was a very important find. Some have dated it to 4th century BC, but it is at least from the Hellenistic period of the 3rd or 2nd century. The importance is in its distinction: the satyr is in a moment of ecstasy. His head is thrown back, his back is arched, his hair swings to the left, as it would if he were spinning. The Roman authorities did computer simulations of the piece, and determined that the physiology of the statue perfectly matches that of a whirling dervish. The sculptor was very, very skilled to achieve those details.

Ater a 5-year renovation, the Dancing Satyr of Mazara was on display in Rome where thousands went to see this amazing new reminder of their own celebrated antiquity. Then the Italian government put a lot of money into a permanent display in Mazara del Vallo, were we saw it. Like the Venus del Milo, it doesn’t have arms, or a second leg, but that’s not much of an issue for something as old as it is.

What stays with me about this story is the sheer magnitude of the 2,400 years that this statue lay on the bottom of the sea, quiet, patient, resigned. The Greek empire ended, the Roman empire ended, Christianity started, and there he be. Then somehow his leg becomes detached---maybe that happened in the initial accident that stopped his journey, maybe he landed intact, but the centuries wore away at the leg, until it was free.

Either way, the leg floats up and into the lives of the fishermen, a harbinger of his presence until he could muster the power the next year to snag the net.

As I walked around the piece and marveled, I realized what a huge metaphor it is for the idea that some things will not stay submerged, not in our psyches, not in our past. Certain things have the power to come into light, no matter what the odds, nor how long it takes. A word to the wise, I’d say.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Mad Men: "Tears rise in the heart and gather to the eyes"

“God, I miss the fifties.” Roger Serling

“I miss the blacklist.” Harry Crane

“I missed not live blogging with you all last week. Thank God my Norwegian ancestors kept me from being sad about it.”
M.A.Peel

Okay, so I have now seen “The Benefactor,” where Roger and Harry had throw away lines waxing nostalgic for their own recent past. The episode did not follow much of the story lines from the previous week-—we learned nothing more of Pete and the loss of his father.

Instead, it was Betty’s day. From her horseback riding to being the show horse on Don’s arm, inquiring if the dinner at Lutece is one that she’s supposed to talk at or not.

We can compare and contrast her to Don’s new dalliance-—she doesn’t qualify as a mistress—-the wife/manager Bobbie Barrett. Much blogbabble ensued from Don’s ladies room move on Bobbie, when he grabbed her nether reigns to get her to do what he wanted. It was crude, because of the time and place; it’s not heat between lovers, but the violence of a desperate, frustrated man toward a woman he doesn’t much like.

Bobbie acquiesces, while it is Betty who ends the evening in tears in the car. A woman doesn’t cry genuine tears like that in from of her husband if she can help it. The anguish is SO out of context for the average man that he will have no way to process it. As it was for Don, who, when he asked why she was crying, believed the “I’m just so happy” line.

But Betty isn’t happy. We see her being fairly detached from her children. She tried to go back in to modeling, but was boxed out by the stratagems of several mad men. Her husband cheated on her, and she must have given him an ultimatum, which has kept him home. But it feels like a forced victory. It’s not that he much wants to be home with Betty, but he is doing it out of obligation. That would leave an emptiness where Betty wanted to find the core of her life.

In Alex Witchell’s NY Times Magazine article, this is what January Jones had to say about Betty: “She’s so lost. She’s supposed to be this perfect Grace Kelly wife of a businessman, and it’s just not going the way she imagined.”

It’s sadly ironic that she draws the analogy to Grace Kelly. There have been many stories about how difficult her fairytale marriage to Prince Rainier was. That he was cold and not very interested in her outside of his heirs, and how as a young bride his family did little to help her.

This Sunday brings us the episode “Three Sundays.” The advance clip on the AMC website has Betty saying that it is Palm Sunday, a designation you don’t often hear on tv episodes. Tom Watson and I will be back in the live blogging chair over at newcritics. Come spend your Sunday night with us.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Our Sicilian Temenos

Persephone first crossed our path in Rome, freed as she was from the block of marble by the hands of Bernini only to be captured by Hades and forced into the underworld.

When her mother, Demeter, the goddess of all fertility, goes after her, she deprives the earth of its ability to grow food. Hades relents to the mother, and says Persephone can go, if she hasn’t eaten anything; he then tricks her into eating six pomegranate seeds. Demeter still strikes a deal with Hades: Persephone will spend 6 months in the underworld, during which her mother is sad and nothing grows, and then 6 months on earth, and her mother is so joyous that the earth blossoms into spring.

Legend believes that the very spot where Hades descended with Persephone is at Lago di Pergusa, near Enna, in the middle of Sicily. History says it became the seat of the sacred cult of Demeter.

We came to one of the worship sites of her cult at the strange sounding Selinunte.

Selinus is from the Greek name for the sweet-smelling herb Selinon, aka wild celery (heleioselinon – Apium graveolens) as well as mountain parsley (Oreoselinon – Petroselinum from which the English term is corrupted).

One of the glories of our rented beach house is that it sits at the edge of the archaeological park of the ruins of ancient Selinus. And so we are able to walk out our back door, down to the water, and a half hour later turn to walk up the hill directly to the ancient Acropolis, coming upon it by surprise, as the main entrance by car takes you to the Eastern hill temples.

Selinunte was the most westerly of the Greek colonies, established in 628 BC. Originally allied with Carthage, it switched alliance to Syracuse in 480 BC. Under Syracuse it grew powerful and wealthy, until it bothered its northern rival, Segesta, who called upon the jilted Carthage to help vanquish it. That brought Hannibal (an earlier one that the great), who destroyed the city in 409 BC. An earthquake in the Middle Ages brought down whatever structures were still standing. It was the Englishmen William Harris and Samuel Angell who started the excavations in 1823.

You can still get a sense of the teeming city on the Acropolis, where the thoroughfares are wide and intact. There are many temples in the city itself, mostly huge piles of rubble, except for two that have been partially reconstructed like a jigsaw puzzle.

One of our vacation party, a professor of Greek philosophy, brings the rubbles to life for us with commentary from the great thinkers. He also brought a pair of walkie talkies. It was a brilliant stroke to keep people connected amongst the rubble piles, which are so huge that you can’t see from one side to the other. It was part nerd, part practical. Just perfect.

From the Acropolis we make our way to the Eastern temples, outside of the city. There lies the celebrated Temple E, with 2 others. Temple E is the most completely reconstructed. What we didn’t entirely appreciate until later is it is one of the only temples you can walk into.

As we moved from column to column, I tried to sense the spirits of the original inhabitants, but the sun was so blinding and bleaching that I could see no shadows. And yet there we trod, where our distant, distant cousins worshipped Hera, (or Dionysius, the designations are not certain). Sitting and talking among the gigantic stones felt like inhabiting a dust to dust adage: their reality came to this—a pile of stones to be stared at by generations to come.

As we head back to the beach house we take the detour to the Demeter Temenos. The function of this sanctuary is linked to its place on the road from the Acropolis to the large necropolis of Manicalunga: funeral processions broke their journey here to call upon Demeter, the Goddess of Fertility and her daughter Persephone, Goddess of the Underworld and Sicily's chief goddess. There we saw the remains of one of the cult’s major places of worship, where Demeter was revered as Malophoros (Apple Bearer).

It boils down to the story of the mother who went to Hell to protect her daughter: the Greeks knew human nature very well.

Mary Taylor Simeti, who wrote the engaging Persephone’s Island, has her own take on the daughter: “Persephone, the eternal expatriate, the goddess of unreconciled contrasts and alternate allegiances, chose to eat the seeds of the pomegranate, that she might enjoy two roles, two worlds.”

Nice idea, or just making lemonade from her abduction.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Mad Men Season Two: "Flight 1"

Our thoughts take flight tonight in live blogging over at newcritics.


For all of today’s hypermobility of every kind—from the ubiquitous air travel we take for granted to the iphone culture that lets us take it all with us—we are a comparatively earth-bound people. I don’t think our society’s collective thoughts and imagination fly, not the way they did at the dawn of the sixties.

The National Air and Space Museum
tells us that Pan American ushered in the Jet Age in 1958 with the Boeing 707.

American Airlines set a new speed mark when it opened the first regularly scheduled transcontinental jet service in 1959.

On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy spoke to a special joint session of Congress with these fateful words:

"I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

And on February 20, 1962, six days after our Sterling Cooperite’s Valentine Day doings, John Glenn became the first American in orbit.

In this one little slice of time we see man’s first concerted efforts to lift his body into the firmament and suspend it there, for the length of a trip crosscountry or around the earth itself.

That’s quite a powerful parallel revolution to the forces afoot on the ground between the sexes and the generations. For some, I think it will help propel the spirit of the Age of the Aquarius---the light, heady feeling that leads to dancing in the park as we’ll see in Hair. The ideas of liberation that seized the imagination of various strata of society were fueled in part by the achievement of the commercialization of flight and the dawning of the space age. So much energy, so much hope and momentum all around.

Don Draper, however, is not flying to the stars. His body is weighing him down, as we see at the doctor’s, and he has come to some arrangement with his wife that tethers him home at night. (Although I didn’t get that plot point clearly until Matt Weiner explained it in the post-game session.) An arrangement that is making him feel leaden.

His feelings get some lift, some charge, when he reads Frank O’Hara. In the last scene we see him looking like a stodgy middle-aged man in his old-guard hat, enshrouded by the domesticity of walking the family dog, mailing a copy of O’Hara’s poems to someone. Midge? Rachel?

We’ll see. And we’ll see if Don takes flight of any sort— either to run away, or opening his spirit to the forces of the decade.

Come watch episode 2 of the new season with the newcritics, Sunday night at 10:00 pm ET. We love/hate the show in the very best way.

For another great perspective on what's going on with Mad Men, go see our own Lance Mannion and his experiment with The Naked City.

And as a bonus, it just so happens that Frank O’Hara wrote a poem called “Quiet Time” that speaks to the mystery of flight.

When music is far enough away
the eyelid does not often move

and objects are still as lavender
without breath or distant rejoinder.

The cloud is then so subtly dragged
away by the silver flying machine

that the thought of it alone echoes
unbelievably; the sound of the motor falls

like a coin toward the ocean's floor
and the eye does not flicker

as it does when in the loud sun a coin
rises and nicks the near air. Now,

slowly, the heart breathes to music
while the coins lie in wet yellow sand.

(Photo: The Douglas DC-8 was designed to replace the piston-engine DC-7 on long-distance routes. Credit: National Air and Space Museum Archive.)