“I mean who wants to listen to four and half minutes of silence? It’s really too much to impose on people. And have you ever really heard those chance pieces? It’s just not music and gives everyone terrible license to make bad art.”
These words, spoken by Shirley Perle, pianist and widow of distinguished composer and musical theorist George Perle, may come as blackest heresy to some, but goodness me, what a refreshing opinion in this anniversary year of wall-to-wall Cage events buoyed up by the unquestioning approval of performers and punters alike.
Shirley knew Cage. She spends her summers in a beautiful house with magical pool close by the Tanglewood Music Centre. Echoing Cage’s one-time teacher Schoenberg, she warmed to her theme over dinner one night:
“John wasn’t a composer. He was an inventor. And an extremely clever, brilliant and charming man. He could twist words in extraordinary ways and make you believe anything. A kind of trickster, a Loki. But goodness, have you ever been to those Happenings? SOOOOO boring I could have died. And people are doing it all over again! Decades and decades on.
I tell you, IT HAS BEEN DONE.”
Shirley knew, and knows Everyone. In a quiet way she seems (to me) to hold the core matrix of the Tanglewood energy grid with her great knowledge of, and friendship with, some of the most important characters in American 20th century music, not to mention the highest circles of Parisian society where she lived for a while.
Vicomtesse Marie-Laure de Noailles (1902 – 1970)
There’s wonderful story (not hers) of when a certain composer was invited to the salon of the daring and influential arts patron, La Vicomtesse de Noailles (who Shirley was friends with) at her fabled Hôtel Particulier, at 11 Place des États-Unis in Paris. Before setting off for this most exclusive of gatherings, said composer entered into a terrible row with his boyfriend de jour which escalated until finally he shouted,
at which the boyfriend promptly fainted.
Possibly one of the gayest stories I’ve ever heard.
And one that could well have been recorded in the infamous diaries of Ned Rorem (left), protégé of the Vicomtesse de Noailles, which I was finally persuaded to read. Well, volume one at least. Apart from the occasional mention of Shirley (called “Xenia” in most of the books), and a rather entertaining account of taking mescalin, this combo of bitchy gossip and sub-Truman Capote bon mots from the alcohol-soaked pen of a raging narcissist is amongst the most spiritually moribund I have ever encountered. But don’t take my crusty old word for it. Perfectly nice and intelligent people have found this riotously entertaining.
In which tone, if Ned hasn’t already written about it, I’m sure he’d have loved the story of Percy Grainger’s kneejerk reaction when Australia tightened up its porn laws. In a last minute panic Grainger was reported to have hastily gone through and chucked out a rather large amount of questionable published matter, including a book bearing the legend,
“The Lure of the Rod”
that later proved to have been an innocuous tome about fly fishing.
I more than suspect Grainger would have got on rather well with composer David Del Tredici who showed up at Tanglewood this summer to hear rehearsals of his piece “Happy Voices”.
David Del Tredici (left) was born in 1937, making this his 75th birthday year, and started his composing career writing elaborate settings of James Joyce that earned him the life long recognition and support of Aaron Copland:
“Del Tredici is that rare find among composers – a creator with a truly original gift. I venture to say that his music is certain to make a lasting impression on the American musical scene. I know of no other composer of his generation who composes music of greater freshness and daring, or with more personality.” Aaron Copland
Check out Syzygy (1966) for sop. horn and orch. Spiky and obsessive, “Like Birtwistle with different ears” (as one composer puts it), Webernesque but bonkers, filled with horizontal and vertical palindromes and intricate metrical structures it bursts with life, colour and inventiveness executed with impressive craftsmanship.
Having checked it was ok to do so in advance, I asked DDT (as he’s known) if it was true he had made a visit to Westminster Abbey with his boyfriend on a leash. “Sure” he said.
His boyfriend, a corporate lawyer, had asked to be on a leash at all times in public for two years. He was. They were. “How did people react?” I asked, fascinated. “Most pretend it’s not happening” he said, “but we did get stopped by a security guy on the door of the Abbey:”
Security: “What’s this?” (pointing to leash).
DDT: “We’re just playing”
Sec: “Is it a kind of kink thing?”
Sec: “OK, go right in.”
Shortly after “Syzygy” DDT’s style changed into something radically different. The spiky obsessive character remains recognisable, but a lush tonality starts to emerge during a 13 year obsession with the works of Lewis Carroll, beginning with “Pop-Pourri – a Cantata of the Sacred and Profane” (1968) for amplified soprano, optional counter-tenor, rock group, chorus and orchestra.
You HAVE to hear this extraordinary piece, the work of a truly magical musical imagination and like nothing I’ve EVER heard. It’s dream-like, dotty, moving, technically virtuosic with achingly beautiful melodic lines and is occasionally (intentionally) very funny, full of hidden musical jokes. These qualities and increasing tonal romanticism infuse the multiple Alice pieces that followed including “An Alice Symphony “(1969), “Vintage Alice” (1972) and “Final Alice ” (1976).
In the post-Alice years from the 80s on, DDT’s music has increasingly identified with expressing overtly gay sensibilities (he’s a hero of OUT magazine amongst others) including the works “Gay Life”(1996), “Love Addiction” and “SM Ballade”. I gave up on hearing “My favourite Penis Poems” (for voice and piano) which for me step more than a tad beyond even his own parody of harmonic camp.
But goodness, one has to hand it to him, the man and his music have life and twinkle.
The piece I got to hear at Tanglewood, “Happy Voices” (immediately christened “Happy Endings” by the less reverent amongst us) was the second part of “Child Alice” (1977-1981) – a full evening concert work for amplified soprano(s) and orchestra which can be divided into four separate pieces and has been described as DDT’s “neo-tonal romantic Postmodernist monument.’
The harmonic language of “Happy Voices” is that of late 19th century romanticism, filled with Wagner/Straussian operatic grotesqueries and based on a melodic motif remarkably similar to that of Blind Date. This most irritating of themes was subjected to every possible technical permutation through one of the longest half hours I’ve ever sat through.
Cilla Black and contestants on the mesmerizingly appalling Blind Date TV show.
For me the piece was all about delayed gratification. The increasingly unbearable theme grates upon its audience/ victim whose torment is increased by the never-resolving harmony. Again and again we think we’re about to be put out of our protracted dominant chord misery and the harmony suddenly shifts sideways, without reaching home. Blind Date peppers the rope burns, but always with a lush romantic orchestral sound plus the odd high-kicking show melody.
It’s really pervy, especially as it’s so technically prodigious: Opera Queen meets West End Mary with hardcore 20th century classical compositional chops.
In a programme that included new pieces by Helen Grime, Sean Shepherd, and George Benjamin’s wonderful piano concerto “Duet” played by my hero-whom-I-love, Peter Serkin, DDT’s piece provoked by FAR the most post-concert discussion.
Here he is in earlier days sporting his motto. His surname Tredici, incidentally, is “13” in Italian and appears in various guises throughout his music.
Thinking about it afterwards, I think he’s as radical a composer in his way as the early American minimalist boys. He is a wizard technician deliberately using romantic gestural clichés on a huge scale, but in a way that is utterly off the wall. But because of the language we don’t hear it that way.
Perhaps that’s why he’s been so roundly cold shouldered in the UK (with a few notable performance exceptions). It’s a real shame.
Susan Sontag has said that the post-Aids climate of sexual conservatism goes with:
1. A career in investment banking
2. Church Weddings
3. Rediscovery of the joys of tonal music
(“Against Postmodernism – in conversation with S Sontag” 2001)
David Del Tredici is the one composer I can think of to whom the last clause of this insightful observation doesn’t apply in the way it’s meant. He is a charming, hilarious, kind, generous, warm and very naughty man. I am SO glad to have met him.
Incidentally, there isn’t space to chat about all the wonderful music I heard during the week’s Festival of New Music directed by Oliver Knussen, which included new pieces by Marti Epstein, John Harbison, John Williams, Michael Gandolfi, works by Birtwistle and a semi-staged production of Knussen’s opera “Higglety Pigglety Pop” with animations adapted from the recent Aldeburgh production by director Netia Jones. It was a classy festival of classy performances.
Octopus tree, part of the Tangled Wood, replete with said composer plus documentary film maker Michael Waldram.
But I do need to mention Gunther Schuller, former artistic director of Tanglewood, and a featured composer in the festival.
He started off musical life as a distinguished horn player, playing principle with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and then at the Met, beginning his career in jazz by recording with Miles Davis. He’s on quite a few seminal albums. But Schuller is perhaps best known for his innovative blend of serial music and jazz known as “Third Stream” music.
Gunther Schuller conducting the Tanglewood Music Centre Orchestra. Note jazz jacket.
There’s a wonderful episode of Bernstein’s brilliant televised concert series for children with the New York Phil, featuring Schuller’s third stream orchestral piece, “Journey into Jazz.”
The jazz bit of the piece starts with high hat cymbal* riff, cool sustained atonal string chords and occasional 12 tone wind flurries. Then the camera swings over to the back of the stage where a couple of black dudes are grooving away unobtrusively in their orchestral chairs.
Suddenly one of them gets up and blasts his horn to hell in a wild screech howl jazz scribble. For some reason I find this moment indescribably funny and I’ve begged to re-see the sequence many times from the friend who owns the video. It still makes me ILL laughing.
The horn dude turned out to be jazz legend Eric Dolphy (left), who Schuller knew well. Actually, he knew EVERYONE, so I tried to prep myself in advance with my limited jazz knowledge before facing the scary prospect of dinner with him at a downtown Vietnamese restaurant one evening.
“What would you say the main difference between Dizzy and The ‘Trane’s improvisational approach was?” I asked him cunningly over the starters.
Three hours later the reply came to an end with the arrival of the bill, with pauses only for “Will you let me please finish?” when anyone tried to get a word in, and a final “Gee, well that was a most relaxing evening”.
Actually, I did manage to slip him a quezzy (also prepared in advance) about how the hell he’d managed to do his recording of Milton Babbitt’s piece “All Set” – a highly complex work comprised of serialized jazz gestures – using jazz musicians. (It’s a strangely compelling piece in a very serious way.)
Schuller threw down his fork in disgust. I’d mis-hit.
“You seem to think that jazz players aren’t capable of doing what dot-readers can. Well you’re wrong!” and glared at me with his malevolent glass eye (he has one). And off he went again.
There were some interesting stories about how he’d tried to teach Miles to play high notes: “I showed him that embouchure again and again but he simply wouldn’t listen”; how Leopold Stokowski (left) ’s adopted “Polish” accent would slip into his native cockney after too much whiskey; how Dolphy practised 17 hours a day, and Schuller’s own claim to fame that in all his 40 yrs as a horn player, he never once split a note. (…)
But amongst all the sometimes tetchy bluster you know there is still a great musician there with truly astonishing musical ears, a goldmine of info about a vast amount of music and musicians. Knussen chose him as a teacher because of it.
Horn players should know about Schuller’s bible of horn playing technique, conductors, his The Compleat Conductor, jazzers his two stonking volumes on jazz history and those still up for it can tackle his hefty autobiog, A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty.
Schuller’s piece “Dreamscape”, dictated to him in a dream, was given its first performance by the young Tanglewood orchestra that week, and contained many reminders of his pellucid orchestration. And you could still see remnants of his conducting chops (if not social grace in rehearsals) at the all-Ives concert he conducted later that week.
His son George Schuller (right) was also at dinner that night quietly listening to the proceedings, only looking slightly put out when his father dismissed Miles’ “Bitches Brew” album as “a down turn”. It turns out that George is something of a New York jazz legend himself (percussionist, composer, arranger, producer) whose music is definitely worth checking out. Schuller’s other son Ed showed up later in the week and is also a serious jazzer (bass). It’s clearly in the DNA.
Backstage after a concert I noted George’s jazz handshake with a jazz-playing bassist from the BSO. It’s a sort of low five followed by slow fist-to-fist punch turning into an understated full shake accompanied by slow nods and a deeply respectful “hey man” greeting.
Very different from the classical equivalent.
Standing nearby stood Frank Epstein, founder of Boston’s premier new music “Collage Ensemble” 40 yrs ago, sometime Boston S.O percussionist and author of Cymbalisms, the definitive book on how to play the cymbal*.
I haven’t read it. But the percussionist hard-core speak of it with great reference.
He didn’t have a jazz handshake.
Perched high on the hill from Tanglewood centre is “Seranak”, the spectacular house Koussevitzky had built to his specifications and lived in for his time as director of BSO. The view from his front veranda is one of the best around, taking in 4 states on a clear day.
John Harbison, on the composing faculty for many years, told me that whenever he’s stayed there, his sleep gets disturbed by mysterious loud knocks and raps around the house at night. It’s generally believed to be Koussevitsky’s ghost, and several years ago the fuss was enough to prompt Mia Farrow (then married to André Previn) to show up with a film crew to make a documentary about the hauntings. But Harbison reckons the ethereal culprit is Mrs Koussevitsky, who in life had a “pale pale face, long white hair, never smiled and always wore white.” Locals called her “The Ghost”.
Sneaking out from a composer gathering at the house one evening, I found Alban Berg’s death mask, perhaps another contender for the still-active poltergeist.
There is a mountain road leading away from spooky Seranak that has caught out a number of composer drivers over the years including Dutilleux, who was pulled over late one night after some Seranak carousing, and asked if he’d been drinking.
“But of course” he said, in his most winsome French accent. “ It was a most marveilleuse Chablis”. His charm allowed him to wobble off un-ticketed into the night.
But my fave composer driving story is of Copland who had an unfortunate collision with a cow on the same road some years before.
“Copland Kills Cow” read the headlines in the local press the next morning. One of the greats, really.
Part of the panoramic view from Seranak’s main verandah. (“Looks like a nursing home”, said DDT.)
If one makes it down this mountain road and negotiates a few twists and turnings unscathed by cops, composers or cows, one may discover Herman Melville’s house. From the back of the house you can see whale-shaped Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts and reputedly the inspiration for Moby Dick.
It was also the inspiration for finally carrying out one of those must-do-before-dying activities; whale watching. And this you can do from Boston, our final port of call before returning home.
Before sharing humpback adventures, I HAVE to tell you about the Isabella Gardner art museum which I got half an hour to dash round before catching the flight home. Time restrictions allowing, I was still knocked out by its unparalleled fabulousness.
Built in the style of a 15th century Venetian palazzo in 1901, it is STUFFED with art treasures of every kind gathered by heiress and philanthropist Isabella Gardner. It’s three floors branch out from a fountained and garlanded courtyard, and contain some 2,500 paintings, tapestries, furniture, rare books and decorative arts.
Entry is free for anyone wearing Red Sox gear.
The courtyard of the Isabella Gardner Museum. Photos just don’t do justice to this spectacularly lovely place. I could have happily spent days there drinking it all in.
There are masterpieces at every turn: In one room alone you might find a Titian, Michaelangelo, Renoir, Holbein or Botticelli gracing walls that oversee a 15th cent Chinese sedan chair, priceless French tapestries, cabinets of letters from a Bismark, Tchaikowsky or Poussin, a set of exquisitely carved golden ecclesiastical chalices, medieval Japanese silk screens and Renaissance Venetian furniture. I was literally gasping with all the beauty. It’s worth going to Boston JUST for this amazing place.
One of the many gorgeous rooms stuffed with treasures. I think that’s a Titian on the far wall.
The museum is also home to one of the most famous unsolved art thefts of all time. One night in 1990 two men disguised as policemen persuaded the security guard that they had business alone in the museum, and managed to walk out shortly after with 13 works of art including paintings by Vermeer, Degas, Rembrandt and Manet. No one ever found out who did it or recovered the paintings, now thought to be worth some $500 million. The FBI is still investigating.
Setting off early from Plymouth (an hour’s drive from Boston), the boat sails past The Mayflower (below) and Plymouth Rock where the Founding Fathers landed in 1620. As it happens, I recently saw the very spot where they left in Plymouth UK, a spectacular place in an otherwise hideously ugly town.
After an hour’s sailing out to the Cape, the boat slows down, and everyone suddenly becomes very, very quiet. Shrieking kids with hot dogs and play stations and their jaded parents suddenly stop still. And watch the sea. IN silence. Everyone senses that whales are something Other. Whales are SERIOUS.
After nail-biting minutes looking out over the endless greeny sea (green indicates the presence of plankton and therefore, whales), there was suddenly a ripple a few feet away and an slow, graceful black humpback arch, followed by fluke (tail) a few seconds later.
It’s the most beautiful and peaceful sight on earth. Or rather, sea.
Humpbacks often travel in pairs. Uncannily synchronised swimming.
The elegance and precision of these movements is hard to describe. It is all MUCH slower than I’d imagined, the whales are MUCH bigger than I’d realised and unbelievably graceful, moving in a kind of slow and beautifully crafted water ballet.
The following day of whale watching starting out from Boston itself (close to the aquarium for those interested), and after the hour and a half fast catamaran drive out to the Cape, we suddenly became aware that there were whales EVERYWHERE, blowing, breaching and fluking, some on the horizon, some much closer to us. Deep below our little boat the water was teeming with with whale activities more or less unknown even to the experts on board.
Because no one really knows much about whales when it comes down to it.
Playing to the crowd, one came up and literally waved to us with it’s 8 ft flipper. Anyone who says these are not sentient beings is just BLIND.
You may/not feel like watching South Park’s outrageously silly episode (is there any other kind?) Whale Whores in which Japanese samurai teams terrorize sea parks and aquariums across the country believing that Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, was driven by whales and dolphins…
Without launching into the whole save-the-whale thing, I have to tell you it’s heartbreaking to hear how these wise darlings are getting caught up in fishing trawler lines and dying unspeakably horrible deaths on a daily basis. The fishing industry is currently responsible for endangering them even more than evil whaling.
A friend of mine onboard observed that:
“Whales are living lives of true artists in a non-capitalist environment”.
Something to aspire to before the next episode of Z Blog. I promise it won’t be quite as epic but will feature white spandex body suits, contact mics and some not-so-silent Hitchcock.
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