31 August 2009

Haiku 243

Chill night-time breezes
Creep through my bedroom window
Whispering winter

30 August 2009

Ask and Ye Shall Receive, To Some Extent

My statcounter hasn’t been that amusing lately, not that I blame you personally; lots of people just search for my name or reverberate hills, though occasionally I get “reverberant hills” which always surprises me slightly since I’m so used to the original. Take it up with Mr Shakespeare.

My titles get me in trouble sometimes. After I used “Guys Gone Wild” I got a lot of hits from people who were, I fear, disappointed that they ended up with my entry on San Francisco Opera’s last Don Giovanni. But Godspeed, fellas, and good luck on your valiant quest to find those elusive pictures of drunken shirtless frat boys somewhere on the Internet.

I still get quite a few for Go, Lovely Rose, which I used for an entry on Rachel Portman’s operatic version of The Little Prince. I assume these are mostly from students, since they often take the form of “Go Lovely Rose meaning.” To which I have to say – you’re kidding, right? If you can’t figure out what that poem means, you should be out getting your heart broken before you try to read any more poetry. But that’s the problem with teaching literature – most students don’t really understand it at the age when they’re required to read it. You just hope they remember it’s there when they need it later on.

I assume The Bonesetter’s Daughter is now on reading lists as well, since sometimes people just type in what is obviously the teacher’s thought-provoking question. You’d think they would at least rephrase it to shorten what they have to type. The latest was “Who is the antagonist in The Bonesetter’s Daughter?” Well, I guess that would be me, or possibly M. C-.

Narwhal searches show up frequently – apparently there is a paucity of Internet sites featuring narwhals! – and I’m sorry, but I still don’t have any recipes for them. As for the person searching for “the narwhal bacons at midnight, meaning,” I hate to keep apologizing, but I’m sorry, I just don’t think I can help you, even if you switch bacons for either beckons or beacons. Though maybe it really does mean bacons, and as I said, I’m sorry – no recipes, though I imagine anything you use for walrus would also work.

UPDATE: OK, today (August 31) I had a hit for "narwhal kills Aquaman." Cool! When I was young, the only superhero I liked was Aquaman, mostly because he got to live underwater. I also liked that he wore a cool green-and-gold uniform, rather than the usual red, white, and blue. Having him killed by a narwhal just makes a good thing better!

My translation of Hypocrite lecteur – mon semblable – mon frère! continues to be semi-popular, but I’m embarrassed to say I can’t find it now. Yeah, I'm lazy, but it's been that kind of day – I swept the front yard only to have it covered in leaves once again by the time I finished, I did piles of laundry and immediately started filling the laundry basket again, I did the dishes and already more are piled in the sink. So I'll just figure repeating translations is part of the Sisyphean upkeep life requires: Hypocrite reader, my likeness/reflection, my brother!

Now write the rest of the term paper yourself.

I can offer answers to the person who searched for “Pace, pace mio Dio Chinese meaning,” thanks to consultation with my vast international pool of experts (muchas gracias to Mr G/S Y):

If we take the English meaning as “God, please grant me peace,” then the equivalent in Mandarin could be:

Shang-Tian (the Sky/the Heavens), Qing (Please) Tsi Wo (Give Me) He Ping (the Peace)

Now good luck with that audition.

To the searcher for “Nathan Gunn biceps” – oh, can we just call them Nathan’s guns? – I’m sure he has them, but I really don’t have any other information. I also do not have “naked/shirtless pics” of Gunn, Dimitri Hvorostovsky, David Adam Moore, Brandon Jovanovich, or any one of a number of other comely tenors and baritones – but check out this site, I think he can help you.

As for the person who searched for “shirtless Mickey Rooney,” well, I can’t help you, and you may actually be beyond help.

Haiku 242

Shiny silver discs
What pleasures you hold in store
Reviving the dead

29 August 2009

El Otro, the Same

Thick House Theater has revived El Otro by Octavio Solis, and for me this sentimental melodrama is their first real misfire since I've started attending their productions. “Sentimental melodrama” may conjure up a Victorian well-made play like Way Down East, but though it is an accurate description, it's not how you experience this drama, which has very fancy ways of telling its very conventional story.

Romy is a 13-year-old girl being picked up from her father Guadalupe (called Lupe) by Ben, her mother Nina’s new husband. Lupe, a drug dealer and general low-life, insists on bringing them to a ranch to give Romy a farewell present. The story is told mostly from Romy’s point of view, which is unfortunate since she’s the least interesting character on stage (and Maria Candelaria looks about ten years older than the rest of her stage family). She takes some peyote before the Dad exchange, which presumably is why she often breaks into less than entirely plausible stagey-poetic stream-of-consciousness monologues that contrast sharply with her normal demotic style of speaking.

Ben (Johnny Moreno, good here and so good in Thick House’s Blade to the Heat, a much more interesting examination of ethnicity and masculinity) is an Army private, a second-generation immigrant Mexican from Chicago who doesn’t speak Spanish. For some reason everyone keeps calling him by a different army title (I think Lieutenant) and he has to keep correcting them. There are some recurring themes and images that develop (for example, dogs, associated with Lupe and his past, and horses, associated with Nina and Ben) but this isn’t one of them.

Another much-repeated bit that goes nowhere is Lupe’s repeated insinuation that Ben wants to molest Romy, which Ben then indignantly denies. There’s no reason to believe this is anything other than Lupe being ugly, so all the repetition does is make you wonder why Ben is putting up with Lupe.

Lupe is presented as sort of a trickster figure, which strikes me as an extremely sentimental approach to someone who is basically a bully and a thug. There are various other attempts to add mythic resonance with various magical-realist elements, but they mostly appear for theatrical effect or to paper over implausibilities. I suppose it’s a tribute to Sean San Jose’s performance as Lupe that it is even slightly plausible that Ben would accompany him, given Lupe’s relentless crude insults and threats. Ben’s motive for going is presumably to protect his Nina’s child, and sure, he’s meant to be slightly passive and safe, but it’s difficult to believe he wouldn’t fight back, and pretty early on too.

All Ben really had to do to win Nina (the appealing Presciliana Esparolini) is deal with some very spicy salsa; after he proves his Mexicanness by eating peppers so hot they make him sweat, she tells him she has a daughter, and the news not only doesn’t scare him off, he determines to be a father to her child. But Romy, in the unoriginal way of children of divorce, resents the interloper, though you’d think she’d be grateful that at least one adult shows some interest in her. Yet she rejects him until his arduous ordeals finally convince her he is worthy of her love.

I find it very strange, and very limiting to the play, that it consistently takes such a superficially adolescent point of view. Ben seems like a stand-up guy, but we're supposed to sympathize with Romy's hostility (if you lose patience with her attitude, then the evening really drags in an irritating way – trust me on this). The emotional focus of the play is Ben winning Romy, not her mother. Romy repeatedly rejects him because he’s “a nerd,” a longing for a cool dad that is difficult to take seriously, especially given Romy’s life with the violent and unstable Lupe.

But this is one of those explorations of ethnicity that insists that the only real experience for its people is as an underclass. You hear about black or Latino school kids saying that studying is for whites and so forth, which strikes me as a tragic example of internalized racism. Yet it's this adolescent point of view that this play embraces in its insistence that Ben must always give way to Lupe, so that he may be purged of his attempts to lead a regular middle-class life and instead be initiated into true Mexicanness.

Because apparently a non-Spanish speaker from Chicago doesn’t count as a real Mexican. Ben must suffer the underclass indignities of the illegal immigrant – a dangerous river crossing, harassment by border patrol, physical violence, and various other trials. You can dress up the humiliation of Ben as a vision quest or a search for an authentic self and toss in all sorts of colorful magical realist bric-a-brac, but not respecting Ben’s experience on its own terms is really no more than a way of insisting that Certain People just don’t belong in Certain Places.

It turns out that the whole thing is based on a passionate love triangle from the past that ended in violence. Nina and Anastasio (who melds with Ben and is played by the same actor) are having an affair. His parents disapprove so they go to Lupe and demand that if he’s a man – if he’s a Mexican – he end things. Not unexpectedly, these taunts lead him to kill Anastasio, and I’m not sure what else the parents expected, though it’s also not entirely clear that they realize their son is dead. They seem to think he's just been otherwise occupied for fourteen years. It’s also not clear why Nina sticks with Lupe for over a decade after he’s killed her true love, or why she’s never told Romy that Anastasio is her biological father (as if it matters; apparently no one here has heard the expression “Your father is the man who raises you” – what an odd faith in bloodlines). Yes, it’s the same old clichéd story – hot-blooded Latins vowing vengeance! killing for honor! Living by a primitive code in a sunbaked land!

There's a lot of yelling and gunfire and blood. You don't even get the payoff of seeing Romy start to move from her adolescent point of view to an adult point of view. It's all just teenage wish fulfillment.

Oh, those Latins! So much passion! So much screaming! So much spicy food!

Haiku 241

Leaves falling reveal
The branch-held labored twig-mound,
Its hatchlings long gone

28 August 2009

Haiku 240

(scenes from public transportation)

Heads nodding in time
Two boys (one black, one white) share
A single iPod

*******

(a dramatic monologue in 17 syllables)

There's a bleeding wound
In my heart that bears your name:
Thank you, I suppose

Remember when we would never forget?

San Francisco Symphony is presenting a free public concert at Justin Herman Plaza on the Embarcadero, featuring Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No 1, Rodgers' Carousel Waltz, and Ravel's La Valse. This delightfully swoony festival in 3/4 time will be held on September 11, a date that doesn't seem to have rung any bells over at the symphony.

27 August 2009

Haiku 239

(for CS)

I googled your name
And found that twelve years ago
You had indeed died

26 August 2009

25 August 2009

Philadelphia 16: neighborhoods

Some travelers speak scornfully of tourists and their touristy places. I don't. To me it seems fairly arrogant to assume I'm going to grasp the true native essence of a place in a few days. I mean, I'm not sure I do that in places where I've lived for decades.

On the other hand, when I had to transverse Fisherman's Wharf to get to Fort Mason for L'Amico Fritz, I saw the advantage of avoiding the more nakedly awful touristy places.

But when I travel I do tend to spend most of my time walking among museums, churches, theaters, and historic sites. Those are tourist places in the sense that people go to cities specifically to see them, and the natives rarely bother, even when that's what the city is famous for.

The first two shots here are near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, going away from the Square and towards the science museums. This is a part of Philly that reminds me of Beacon Hill, which is also full of three-story nineteenth-century brick houses on tree-lined streets. I used to live on Beacon Hill, but my horrible little dark apartment next to the burnt-out building was not at all what you might think of if you only knew that I used to live on Beacon Hill.
There was a young teenager playing baseball by himself on this street, and I tried to take a picture of that (a boy playing baseball on those leafy streets just looked so iconically American to me) but when you play baseball by yourself you have to run after the ball yourself, trot back, toss it up in the air, hit it, and then chase after it again, and that takes kind of a long time and I was starting to feel a bit creepy waiting for him to strike the right pose, so I walked on. But that was his life in his hometown.

Thanks to my friends Arby and L (with their adorable almost-two-year-old daughter) we spent one of my few sunny afternoons in Philly in another neighborhood I wouldn't normally have seen, though I'm not sure exactly which neighborhood it was. It was a place where the people who live in a city live, and mostly you would have no reason to go there unless you knew them, as we didn't. But we were looking for the Dock Street Brewing Company, and that brought us there. I like beer, but I don't claim Arby's expertise, but I knew I could trust it.

The neighborhood looked a bit dicey to me, but, as I realized when I went to Baltimore several years ago, I, as a native Californian, have trouble reading eastern cities. So much of my state was built up after World War II that when I see solid brownstoned streets I immediately assume I'm in Edith Wharton territory. This isn't always where I am. And I don't have a sense honed from childhood of where exactly I really am, sociologically. This is occasionally a problem.

I've known easterners who can barely bring themselves to call Houston a city. I see why, from their point of view, but to me it looks like Mountain View in Silicon Valley, only inflated. When I visited Houston, I had the opera house about ten minutes to the left of my hotel, and the baseball stadium about ten minutes to the right, and in between was a light rail that took me to the Museum of Fine Arts and (after a short walk) the various building of the de Menil collection. So I considered it a fine city, at least for a visit.

The area around the Dock Street Brewery appeared to be a mixture of lower middle-class black families and young white hipsters, though I have no idea if it's always been like that (whatever always means in American cities) or if it's gentrifying. Once we were out of the car it felt like a much better place to be, which is not always the case.

The brewery is in a handsome building, with outdoor seating that was ruined by smokers.

Since I will often order something based on its name, I had Man Full O' Trouble porter, which I recommend, and then later I had a porter (I think it was another porter) that had coffee in it, which is a surprisingly good combination. Beer plus coffee seems to be sort of a thing now, since The Thirsty Bear in San Francisco had the same combo last time I was there. I can't drink coffee normally, but fortunately for me I can take it in beer or ice cream form.

We had pizza with our beers, which was very good, though I forgot to tell them to go light on the cheese. But I've never had a bad meal in a brew pub.

Haiku 237

Small brown boring birds
Strung out like rosary beads
On telephone lines

24 August 2009

Haiku 236

Strong winds bend tall grass
That ship has reached the skyline
Go ahead and weep

23 August 2009

22 August 2009

21 August 2009

20 August 2009

tonight we improvise

I was feeling sort of trapped in my head earlier today, so I thought I'd mix it up a little by opening the floor to suggestions for future haiku topics. Leave them in the comments to this entry and I'll see if I can 17-syllable them.

Haiku 232

One day slips away,
Until the disappeared days
Drift into a life

19 August 2009

Haiku 231

Next season's tickets,
Laden with hopes, flutter in;
Pasteboard happiness

18 August 2009

Haiku 230

Gray mist lying low
On gray hills and the gray bay
Ships sail slowly by

16 August 2009

15 August 2009

Will someone please smash the BART unions?

This Monday the entire Bay Area will most likely be plunged into transportation chaos when the BART system shuts down due to a strike. Every time the contract is up for renewal we go through this, spending weeks under threat of a strike or actually suffering through one. And while I have no doubt that BART management contributes to the dysfunctional nature of the organization, and the poor quality of their regular (very expensive) service, and undoubtedly is as overpaid as most management in America, I have to reserve my anger for the unions, which rejected an excessively generous contract for their already overpaid members.

Normally I am a staunch union supporter. I avoid crossing picket lines even if it means inconveniencing myself. I am regularly nauseated by the American tendency to blame all economic problems on workers (as opposed to the financial drain caused by lack of a sensible national healthcare system, or inflated management salaries, or short-sighted management decisions). But the one group that turns me from Mother Jones to Maggie Thatcher is the BART workers.

“Workers” implies that they actually work, of course. Maybe I should just refer to them as BART employees? I regularly defend the salaries of professional athletes and actors, and I’m happy to see generous wages going to firefighters, nurses, pastry chefs, miners, bus drivers – people who actually do things at their jobs. The BART drivers don’t really drive, of course, and the station attendants are notoriously lazy, rude, and unhelpful. None of them even have to deal with the public in any sort of direct way; they just sit in their little glass booths staring out at struggling travelers.

I’m sure they don’t think so, of course. Just a few weeks ago, when it was very obvious that I was checking a posted schedule, a station attendant asked me if I had a question. Clearly he was trying to pretend the station agents do something, so that during their little strike-time pity parties they can weep over how little the public understands or appreciates them. (Incidentally, the schedule at the entrance and the one on the platform didn’t match, which is not unusual on BART. It was a Sunday, so good luck getting a train to show up on time anyway.)

And they’ll always mention what they did during the Loma Prieta earthquake. I wasn’t here at the time, and will assume they did do what they say they did; yes, almost twenty years ago, there was an emergency, and many BART employees were called upon to do something resembling work, a novel occurrence that clearly made some sort of impression on them, since they still bring it up, as possibly the sole instance in which they were useful to the passengers.

But we live in the day-to-day, and day-to-day is where the BART employees fail regularly. I’ve stopped and helped tourists trying to figure out the ticketing system, only to realize that a station agent had been sitting right there ignoring them; I’ve had operators not only shut the doors in my face, but make rude gestures to taunt me because I would have to wait another twenty-plus minutes for another train to show up; I’ve smelled the stench of drivers smoking in their little compartments on the train; I’ve waited on a cold, dark, wet platform for an early morning train that never showed up, only to be told when I contacted BART that their records showed the trains had been there, so I was obviously wrong, even though I’m the one who was on the platform. Everyone who takes BART regularly pretty much knows it’s a waste of time trying to get help from a station agent.

And do we need to be reminded that the entire state of California, and many of its inhabitants, are in economic freefall? Absolutely nobody thinks the BART employees are worth what they get now. Yet when they were offered a contract that didn’t require layoffs and that maintained their current, outrageously high salaries – they already have higher incomes and better benefits than many of their riders, me included – one union rejected it since it was for four years, and they wanted it for two. And that means all the unions will go out on strike, even the ones that had enough sense to realize it would be wise of them to take their already ridiculously generous salaries without drawing too much attention to them.

Their attitude goes beyond greedy into delusional. Fares have already been hiked earlier than expected, and I’m noticing a drop-off in ridership during rush hour. As a non-driver I’m stuck with BART, but given the expense and inconvenience of taking their increasingly dirty and crowded trains, I’m not surprised that those who can will take other transportation instead. Since the increased expense is largely to subsidize employees who are already overpaid, and increased expense drives riders away, I’m seeing a self-defeating trend, at a time when it’s more important than ever to get people out of their cars and onto clean, inexpensive, accessible, and convenient public transportation.

Even if the dispute is settled at the last minute and we’re not plunged into the same mess we had last time, I have to ask why this situation is allowed to continue – why it’s OK for a small and already pampered group to hold the entire area hostage like this.

It’s been months now that a strike has been threatened. I’ve been holding off on buying any tickets for evenings when I might not be able to get back home. I’ve held on to any possible vacation days, since I’ll need (for reasons of mental health) to waste some of my precious few vacation days in the event of a strike. And my income has taken a direct hit with the continuously increasing fares; yes, my fixed expenses have increased so that I can subsidize a group that is already grotesquely overcompensated.

What really angers me the most is not the cost and trouble to me personally, or the helpless feeling that comes when you’re being held hostage. No, it’s this: at a time when it’s more important than ever that workers’ rights be respected, we have a group that embodies every ludicrous right-wing claim against the union movement: lazy, greedy, arrogant goldbrickers who fatten themselves at the expense of other workers. It’s painful to admit that the contemptible right-wing has somehow stumbled into accuracy, but they can always point to the BART unions when they want to slander the whole labor movement. Is reality going to intervene at some point? Why is this allowed to continue?

Haiku 227

Yet when I woke up
I thought not of beauty but
Flesh-eating zombies

14 August 2009

13 August 2009

Haiku 225

Winds rise around me
As waters rising engulf
The strongest swimmer

*******

Views from my bus seat:
Guts, butts, backpacks, buckles, bags,
Glassy sullen eyes

12 August 2009

Haiku 224

Transit strike looming,
Buses may show up or not,
I should have had wings

11 August 2009

10 August 2009

Haiku 222

Late afternoon light;
The pillow still holds the dent
From your dreaming head

09 August 2009

Haiku 221

Leaves green, browning, brown
Polka-dot the driveway length
Right after I swept

08 August 2009

fear death by water

The doors don’t open for Ecstasy: A Waterfable until right before 8:00, because when you walk in the whole cast is on-stage chanting – OK, the story is already flowing midstream when we enter. This premiere by Denmo Ibrahim is presented by Golden Thread, a Middle East-centered theater group that is new to me (the ticket was part of my subscription to Thick House Theater). It is based on a Sufi parable called When the Waters Were Changed, as is mentioned in every article about the play, though during the play itself you never get to hear the whole parable, which as far as I can figure out seems to be about a day when the waters changed (and changed those who drank them), and one man resisted and was unchanged, until he stopped resisting and joined the others.

This being a Middle Eastern-centered show, there is ululating and keening, and a twinkly and foul-mouthed old wise woman. There are also chants and ceremonies and stories that are repeated in part over and over, there are ablutions and dreams; there is a sense of time that encompasses the present day and the timelessly mythological. Characters turn into other characters and then back into themselves, only played by different actors. Water runs through the whole action in the form of drips or lakes or jugs of water; the set contains boats and sinks and buckets and a toilet. There is a man subject to visions who writes a strange script on the wall, and a young couple coming to terms with changing from two individuals to a couple. There is almost always someone on stage asleep and dreaming, and what we see may or may not be his or her dream.

If this sounds confusing – well, that depends on your point of view. The script and staging are very suggestive, and you will probably seize on the through-line that most reaches you and interpret the action by your own lights – as a story about an individual resisting the group, or surrendering to the group, or as a story about when everyone changes religion (yeah, it's the Middle East) and you don’t, or as a metaphor for becoming sexually active, or as something else entirely.

If you need someone to tell you what the moral is, or if you need a linear narrative, this play will probably bug you. I’m not criticizing people who want those things; it’s just that linear plots aren’t that important to me. And initially, I too was resistant to the show – as I said, there is ululating, in that way that signals “mideastern” just as flamenco guitars signal “Spain,” and an old woman who is alternately wise and potty-mouthed, which can be sort of a cutesy cliché. And there is a character called Birthsong, and if I had taken that in before the play started, I might have run screaming into the night.

But by the end of the evening (and this is a short play – about 75 minutes, no intermission) I was loving it. In fact I felt sort of giddy – it was the sheer theatricality of the whole thing. Much as I love traditional plot- and character-driven theater, lots of those plays would work just as well if they were filmed. Something like this can only be experienced as theater – if you were reading the script, what is fast and fluid would be slow and confusing, and if it were filmed, with dissolves and cuts and other special effects, I think it might look gimmicky instead of as inevitable as it does here. This is theater as lyric poem, and it just doesn’t translate into other media.

So big praise to Ibrahim, and to director Evren Odcikin, and to the very talented ensemble: Cec Levinson, Garth Petal, Nora el Samahy, Roman Kosins, Bobak Bakhtiari, Deborah Eliezer, Bora “Max” Koknar, Alika Spencer, and Heidi Wolff. The show is still running and you have a few more chances to catch it this coming weekend; check here for more info and tickets.

Haiku 220

As the heat rises
So does the warm western wind;
Sweat trickles earthward

Philadelphia 15: Random Barnes

As an addendum to my earlier post on the Barnes Foundation, here are some more random shots of the grounds and buildings.

Well, OK, that first one is actually the park by the Merion train station as you walk to the Barnes, and that seems like argument enough for keeping the Barnes where it is rather than sticking it in the car-congested Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

And the above is on North Latch's Lane, on the walk to the Barnes. OK, all the rest of these are from the Barnes.

One of the Jacques Lipchitz reliefs that Barnes commissioned for the gallery exterior. The buildings below are part of Barnes's living quarters, now used as administration buildings and not open to the public.


Some of the African-influenced tiles at the front entrance. The little pagoda below is also in the front.


The birdbath in the rose garden. There's a shot farther down that shows the layout of the rose garden.





I like the shot above because it reminds me of a Jackson Pollock action painting.











The above is the rose garden, which has the most formal layout to be found in the Arboretum.





Fallen flowers.



The above is the little building in the back, near a greenhouse. I think that's where tour buses go, and maybe some drivers, though I think some cars also enter by the front gate, where pedestrians like me also enter.






07 August 2009

Haiku 219

Witty bookstore clerks
Have shelved the Romance novels
Right next to Horror.

*******

Torso towelling
I glance downward and notice
A chest hair turned white

06 August 2009

Haiku 218

Bronze lions will roar
Despite wind, rain, madding crowds,
Cars, and pigeon shit

05 August 2009

04 August 2009

Haiku 216

From the dark subway
Up to the bright tree-lined street
Rise like Lazarus

*******

Froth and foam, waters,
Swirl, O lacy lapping sea;
We are far from home

03 August 2009

evidence of things not seen

Last Friday I was at the second local presentation of pieces from Sarah Cahill's fascinating project, A Sweeter Music (which is music commissioned from a wide range of composers about war or peace, preferably peace; the title comes from Dr Martin Luther King Jr: “We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody, that is far superior to the discords of war.”). I had also been at the first local presentation in Berkeley several months ago. Thanks to Lisa for letting me know about Friday's concert, which I otherwise would have missed; it turns out that Old First Church in San Francisco has an extensive concert program that I wasn't aware of. Some of Friday's pieces were repeated from the Berkeley concert and some were west coast premieres. Both concerts also featured accompanying videos by John Sanborn (a video artist who is married to Cahill).

In theory I'm all in favor of varying the recital format by adding visual elements, acting, dancing, and all kinds of wacky whatthefuckery. There is a spoken word component of several of the pieces, and though chanting or yipping along doesn't seem really natural to Cahill she pulled these moments off with aplomb. So can I say without discouraging innovative presentations that in this case the video just isn't working for me?

As we all know, we live in an extremely visual culture, which is both the reason to add a visual element to recitals and the reason not to. The visual can provide a level of comfort with the experience of listening that can draw people into what's going on. On the other hand, why make things too comfortable? Presumably people think they’re there to listen, even if they're really there to look around, so why not provide an experience that requires them just to listen, instead of relying on a visual crutch?

A visual element might work better with more familiar music, providing a variant way of seeing something we've already taken in on some level, but these pieces are all new (or at most pieces I've only heard once before, months ago), so the pictures aren't playing off familiar sounds; the piano often seems like accompaniment to the pictures rather than an equal or even superior partner. Our first experience of the music is being guided by the pictures. The videos play across a triptych of large screens, and the images are constantly changing in a distracting way; I found myself concentrating on the screens – for instance, when phrases would slowly appear and float across the pictures, I found myself waiting in suspense for the next word to appear, even when I could guess what it was. And what I did see of the videos struck me as of varying interest – I have to admit that when I realized how distracting they were I just shut my eyes and listened.

Frederic Rzewski’s Peace Dances was one of the repeated pieces, and I was happy to hear it again. As with his variations on The People United Will Never Be Defeated, he weaves in tunes from protest songs. He also includes a centennial birthday tribute to Elliott Carter – “his name appears musically in the middle [of the seventh dance], overlaid with We Shall Overcome.” I don’t know if this means he used E and C, or some other variant on Carter’s name; Cahill didn’t seem too sure either in her spoken introduction to the piece. I was glad she spoke before the pieces, though, since at the Berkeley performance it was sometimes unclear which piece was which (I thought they should have just projected composer and title on the screens, since they had them there).

I liked the two new pieces as well, Phil Kline’s The Long Winter which has a lovely carillon-in-the-mist sound at the end, and Kyle Gann’s War Is Just a Racket, which I thought was just a witty title for a musical piece until I read the program and saw he was quoting Smedley Butler, whose words are declaimed to a musical accompaniment that is often jaunty in a way that reminded me of the earlier poems in Whitman’s Drum Taps, the poems that have to convey why war is exciting and appealing, before the truth of war is revealed as the poems progress. What struck me as jazzy martial sounds deepened and made more complex the experience of the words.

One piece from the Berkeley concert that was not repeated, and that I didn’t miss, was Yoko Ono’s monotonously simple Toning. Ono’s note said that the piece was to be performed “by the performer solely for the purpose of toning and healing the body and the mind of the performer” – as opposed to entertaining the audience, and I’m not being sarcastic, that really is Ono’s point, which makes it rather blithely self-indulgent to perform it in front of an audience. There’s a concept there, but like a lot of conceptual art, it's meant to be explained rather than experienced.

And as my mind wandered during Ono’s piece, I was reminded of the physical effect music has. Years ago I was wandering through the lion cages at some zoo, thinking how sad caged lions always look, with their tatty manes and listless manner, and wondering why lions rather than the more visually interesting tigers or leopards were considered the King of Beasts. Then one lion roared, and I could feel the vibrations of the sound physically pass through me – entering through my chest and exiting through my spine – and I understood.

Both the Berkeley and Old First concerts ended with Terry Riley's Be Kind to One Another (Rag), a really lovely lullaby-like piece that has the liveliness of ragtime yet radiates serenity and inner harmony. I don't know if Cahill always ends these concerts with this piece, but she should.

There was another recital-with-pictures even earlier this season, when Dawn Upshaw performed Kurtag's Kafka Fragments in the Peter Sellars staging, and as that last word tells you this was done as a theater piece. I went to both performances. Upshaw was in beautiful voice both nights and gave a committed performance, even though I wasn't quite convinced by Sellars's conception of the piece. He had Upshaw dressed down in a dark blue flannel shirt, cleaning house, surrounded by ironing boards, buckets, and suchlike paraphernalia. To me all this gave the evening a very dated 1970s "housework is oppression!" look that limited rather than expanded the piece. The idea of Kafka Fragments is pretty intriguing and provocative to start with, since if ever there was a writer who created entire seamless and inescapable worlds, as opposed to fragments, that writer is Kafka. The screen in the background had English translations of the German text, and then there were black-and-white shots that often seemed, though beautiful, a bit random. Occasional moments gestured to a larger world, though in open-ended ways (for instance, the section “Offensively Jewish: In the struggle between yourself and the world, side with the world” had Upshaw fearfully scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush, which I took to be a reference to the Nazis forcing Jews to scrub the streets with toothbrushes, but I wonder how many people read it that way). I thought the concept would have benefited from being both more abstract and more open-ended. I'm glad I saw this staging, but I think there are other ways of doing it. I think Sellars has a visual sense, but based on his recent stagings I’m just not sure it’s one I respond to.

A few days before Kafka Fragments I was at the San Francisco Symphony's Mahler 8 performance, and that's one organization that might want to consider visuals in the form of surtitles, which they persistently and peculiarly eschew. Perhaps they just assume that we have of course all memorized the end of Faust in the original German. Maybe they like the waves of simultaneous program-page-turning that sweep the hall, which you’d think they’d like to avoid when they’re recording a piece. Other than that oddity, this was one of the highlights of the Symphony's season, with another outstanding performance from the chorus. James Morris was not in his best voice, and neither was Anthony Dean Griffey; the best of the men was Quinn Kelsey. The women soloists (Erin Wall, Elza van den Heever, Laura Claycomb – who sang about two lines, which is really luxury casting – Katarina Karneus, and Yvonne Naef) were all strong. Tilson Thomas handled the mighty forces with grace and ease. The recording is coming out in a few weeks, but you really had to be in the hall to vibrate to it live.

Haiku 215

Nodding pink roses:
Perfumed imagined lips of
Young Parisian whores

02 August 2009

Haiku 214

Birds among dead leaves;
Perhaps sunshine has faded
That robin's red breast

01 August 2009

Philadelphia 14: The Barnes Foundation

One of the great American museums is currently right outside Philadelphia, in a suburb called Merion. The Barnes Foundation has always been controversial. Dr Albert C Barnes had a contentious personality, and a number of strongly held opinions, such as beliefs in racial equality and in the value of modern art, that put him at odds with early twentieth-century Philadelphia society. If you have any love for such Impressionist and post-Impressionist painters as Cezanne, Renoir, Rousseau, Matisse, Soutine, Modigliani, and Picasso (among others), you really should be planning a trip to Philly right now.

Entire books (some of them for sale in the Barnes gift shop on my recent visit) have been written about Dr Barnes and his personality and his collection and its subsequent adventures in the world (more particularly, in the courts). There currently is a plan afoot to move the collection to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, not far from the Museum of Art, though it's a little unclear when or even if that's going to happen.

The city powers of Philadelphia obviously would like the move to happen to punch up the tourist trade, but their reasons are not mine and, even if they retain the current arrangement of the art, it will become more like an ordinary museum in a car-choked city and less like the inspiring place it currently is. So by all means try to visit before any move takes place, and take the train there (it's not only much easier than the bus, faster and more pleasant, but by luck I happened onto a "silent" car -- no cellphones, iPods, etc allowed).

The Foundation is a short and pleasant walk from the train station, through what is obviously a very wealthy town. The residential location and the Foundation's educational activities mean the number of visitors is limited, and you have to get a timed reservation (which is easily available from the Barnes Foundation website).

The Benjamin Franklin Parkway has large signs marking the future home of the Barnes, but though Wikipedia gives dates, the Barnes Foundation site itself says nothing definite has been planned.

The sign above gives you some notion of how the art is arranged at the Barnes, though it doesn't show you the cars constantly whizzing by on the Parkway, a feature happily absent from the Merion location. Photography is not permitted inside the museum, so this is as close as I can get to showing you how Barnes arranged the works. His will originally forbade color reproduction of the collection or lending the pieces, though a few years ago an exhibit did tour and a splendid color catalogue was issued. But even with these recent changes, the images in the Barnes collection are not nearly as well known as other works by these painters, so when you see them you are usually having your first experience of them, just as their first viewers did, face-to-face and as paintings instead of as smaller, shinier reproductions.

The courts have given permission for the Foundation to be moved, but as you walk down North Latch's Lane you see signs in front of many of the yards suggesting that the residents of Merion have not given up yet.

The Barnes, like the Gardner Museum in Boston, the Frick in New York, the Phillips in Washington DC, and the de Menil in Houston, very clearly expresses the wishes and personality of its guiding collector (they all had advisors, but could accept or reject their advice).

The collection is housed amid the extensive informal gardens that make up the Arboretum, in a two-story building of cream-colored stone, with inset sculptures that I guessed correctly were by Jacques Lipchitz (yeah, I had to mention that I guessed the artist correctly).

The main entrance is set with ceramic tile, including beautiful reliefs based on some of the African art in the collection.

The world has caught up with many of Dr Barnes's beliefs, but I think the remaining aura of cranky bullheadedness around him has subtly affected how people see his legacy. It's easy to dismiss his strictures and his wishes as the perverse eccentricities of a willful rich man, but his whole museum is in reality incredibly well-considered.

Although the museum can seem a bit intimidating as you approach, off the beaten track and with guards checking your reservation number and time of entrance, on both my visits there the staff has always been very friendly and low-key, and willing to let in those of us who are paranoid about time and consequently showed up a bit too early, without having to wait until the precise moment of the reservation.

Once you're in, you can spend as much time as you like wandering the collection and the gardens. The first time I visited it was pouring rain, but luckily for me I had a clear sunny day this time. I only wish I hadn't been too late to see the lilac garden in bloom.

In fact the entire experience of the Barnes is very much up to the viewer -- there are no labels by the works with lengthy explanations of what you're supposed to be looking at (some have artist and title on the frame, but all are numbered, and you can check the artist and title on the laminated keys in each gallery, or not, as you wish).

Barnes had very strong opinions on what you should be looking at and for in art, and he arranged the paintings and the African sculptures and the many pieces of ornamental ironwork to make certain points. But it's up to you to draw the connections. For instance, in one room a small Cezanne painting of four people bathing by a river is hung above an early Netherlandish crucifixion (as in the Phillips collection, there are a number of earlier paintings here, often by artists considered precursors to the moderns in some way). And you can notice that in each picture the four figures are in roughly similar locations, and how the composition works around them, and how the nudity (of all four bathers or of the crucified Jesus) affects how you read the picture. Or you can look at just the Cezanne, or just the Crucifixion, or draw other conclusions.

It's one of the least coercive museums I've ever been to. This struck me especially because the day before I had been to the Museum of Art's Perelman building, and there was an exhibit of Daido Moriyama's photographs, and one with a sleeping woman's head that mostly took up the bottom half had a label assuring us that the image was "easily read as misogynistic."

There was no reason to read the picture that way at all; you could actually have seen the woman as dominating the picture, and read that as a sign of her power in a positive way, but that didn't fit in with whatever little theory the curator had. I'm training myself to skim or skip museum labels, but that's not easy for a compulsive reader.

You don't have that problem at the Barnes. The problem is absorbing everything. When you see galleries filled with amazing works you've never seen before, your little mind is apt to be blown.

The last time I was in New York I went to the Frick, since I hadn't been there in many years, and though the entire collection is on an extremely consistent and very high level, I realized that there's about half of it that just wasn't my thing (all those marzipan French nudes). The equivalent at the Barnes for me is the massive number of Renoirs.

I've always preferred the son's work to the father's. I especially dislike Renoir pere's nudes, though I will say that the Barnes has so many of them that I found a few I did like. Looking at a Renoir nude, with the massive thighs and hips tapering up to tiny breasts and a tinier head, is like seeing the Michelin Man naked. But it wasn't just their size and shape that bothered me, and on this trip I finally managed to figure out just what it was about them.

I'm more of a Botticelli man, myself, but that wasn't it, since I can look at the expanse of glistening dimpled flesh in a Rubens and see why that was considered the hottest thing around.
Then I realized why: Renoir's nudes all look incredibly stupid. With the Rubens nudes, the eyes sparkle and you can tell there's something going on up there. Calling a Renoir nude bovine would be a considerable exaggeration of intelligence and vivacity.

But I had no problem skipping over the many Renoirs and admiring the rest of the collection. There's a really stunning Picasso in rose, white, and gold, The Girl with a Goat, and an epic Dance that Matisse painted for this building, and a wonderful Cezanne of Leda and the Swan, of all unlikely subjects.

Just go and see them for yourself, and do it while you can still wander in the gardens afterward and even have the occasional room to yourself. The only thing they really need to do is put a cafeteria in the current location -- I will admit that sometimes what really helps you contemplate art is a sandwich.