Lauren and I went to the Empire State Building observatory today, an undertaking that entails standing in line for at least an hour (unless you pay extra for an “express” ticket, a newfangled piece of cash-and-carry privilege that sticks in my craw). The long line is set up in such a way that you spend much of your time shuffling forward, thus creating the illusion of progress. Most of the people waiting to board the elevators to the eighty-sixth floor were teenagers, and though they came from all over the world, most of them were dressed identically.
I hadn’t been to the Empire State Building for a number of years, and I’d all but forgotten how charming it is. It opened its doors in 1930, and the streamlined décor is as redolent of the Thirties as a Pullman sleeper or a Jimmy Cagney movie. The observatory itself is wonderfully tacky—the only thing missing is a dirty-water hot-dog cart—and the view is as spectacular as advertised. I talked Lauren’s ear off, pointing out every landmark I could think of: Central Park, Radio City Music Hall, Wall Street, the Brooklyn Bridge, the UN, Macy’s, even the dear old Flatiron Building. I also showed her the hole in the skyline that was created by the destruction of the World Trade Center. It’s easy to miss, so much so that you wouldn’t know where the twin towers once stood if you didn’t know where to look. I overheard a father pointing out Ground Zero to his son, and remembered the night I brought Lauren’s parents to Windows on the World for a drink, long before the sunny morning when the face of New York was changed utterly by the hand of evil.
In due course we descended to Fifth Avenue, rejoined the mere mortals, and took a cab to Tibor de Nagy Gallery, where we looked with great pleasure at a show of sweetly naïve urban landscapes by Rudy Burckhardt. Tiffany’s is across the street from the gallery, so we stopped by afterward to ogle the merchandise. (Memo to the folks back in Smalltown, U.S.A.: no purchases were made.)
Later on we went to Broadway to see The Wedding Singer, a show I liked far more than most of my colleagues. I’d been wondering whether I’d like it as much the second time around, so I’m happy to report that I continue to stand firmly and wholeheartedly by my Wall Street Journal review, in which I ranked it
among the most ingenious and amusing musical adaptations of a Hollywood film ever to reach Broadway....No, we’re not talking Adam Guettel, but The Wedding Singer is smart, handsomely designed by Scott Pask and sparklingly staged by John Rando, the director of Urinetown, who has an uncanny knack for underlining the comic nuances of a script….The Wedding Singer delivers what it promises, no more and no less, and if you long to laugh yourself silly, it’ll do the trick.
It’s a good thing I haven't changed my mind, since quotes from that review are plastered all over the front of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Like most of us, I have my little vanities, one of which is that my name occasionally appears in smallish type (“A KNOCKOUT AND A WOW!”—Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal) on the signs and posters hung in front of Broadway theaters for the purpose of wooing passers-by. Not often, for even my most enthusiastic reviews tend not to lend themselves to such treatment, but every once in a while I swing for the fences, and sometimes a publicist takes note of the fact. I’ve been a drama critic for three years now, so you’d think I’d be used to seeing my name on the Great White Way, but the truth is that I get a huge kick out of it, and probably always will. Tonight my pleasure was enhanced by the presence of my niece, who took a snapshot of me standing next to one of the Wedding Singer posters that bears my name.
Enough already. As soon as I inflate Lauren’s bed, which is set up in the middle of the Teachout Museum, I’m going to crawl into my loft, put out the light, and sleep deeply. Friday is her last full day in New York, and I’m sure it’ll be a hectic one. I have nothing planned for the weekend—and that includes answering the phone.
See you Monday, maybe.
UPDATE: John Rando talks about his directorial method in this Playbillinterview about his latest production, Pig Farm.
I know critics play a vital role in a Broadway play's success...or failure. But they're not involved in any of the creative, directorial, financial, human resource related aspects of the play/musical. And yet credit is given to them. It's like showing up at your grandmother's for the Thanksgiving meal and being hailed the conquering hero for eating.
Except for the stomach-turning part, I don’t disagree with anything he says, all of which is worth reading. Nevertheless, I do think he’s coming it a teeny bit high! The kick I get out of seeing my name under a marquee is not to be confused—nor do I ever confuse it—with the justifiable pride a playwright or actor or director or producer takes in his work. It’s simply the forgivable (I hope) vanity of a small-town boy turned big-city critic who never imagined that such things would happen to him, and it’s a far cry from the vulturine posings of, say, Addison DeWitt. What’s more, I do take credit for having helped keep a number of worthy shows from closing, which obviously isn’t the same as having written them but is still better than nothing.
Might I suggest that Mr. Pertinence’s sense of humor is in need of a slight adjustment?
Today’s Wall Street Journal drama column contains the first fruits of my recent trip out west, a review of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival:
In Idaho the license plates say “Famous Potatoes,” and the nickname of Boise, the state capitol, is “City of Trees.” Both statements are true as far as they go: Boise is as green as Dublin, while Idaho’s chief cash crop is so esteemed around these parts that you can even buy a tuber-shaped candy bar called the Idaho Spud. But Boise is also known, or should be, for the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, whose theater is an outdoor pavilion across the street from the foothills of the Rockies, which supply a spectacular backdrop for the five plays performed there each summer. The productions are unfailingly fresh and engaging, and the casual atmosphere is perfect for art-starved tourists.
Boise is a smallish city (pop. 190,117) with a low-rise skyline, a pedestrian-friendly downtown and amiable residents who make a point of saying hello to startled strangers. Its companionable air is mirrored in the dress-as-you-please code of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, where flip-flops, insect repellent and well-stocked coolers are all standard equipment. Most of the local playgoers pack a meal or buy one on site, and dining is encouraged during the shows. You can either eat at your seat or book a box equipped with a picnic table. Each performance is given to the bucolic accompaniment of chirping birds and croaking frogs, with occasional guest appearances by a skunk who lives beneath the stage. (Not to worry—if you leave him alone, he’ll leave you alone.)
Don’t let the informality fool you: Idaho Shakespeare is both artistically serious and theatrically adventurous, and the anything-goes production style does much to enliven the straightforward bill of fare….
No link. You know what you can do, and you know what you should do. So do it.
In my next “Sightings” column, to be published in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, I hail the reprinting by Princeton University Press of Louis Moreau Gottschalk's Notes of a Pianist, which I use as an occasion to discuss some of my favorite non-literary artists who write—and, nowadays, blog—on the side.
What can we learn from "practitioner criticism" and the autobiographies of working artists? For the answer, pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal, where you’ll find my column in the “Pursuits” section.
"There is a school of painting called abstractionist or non objective which is derived largely from the work of Paul Cézanne, that attempts to create 'pure painting' that is, an art which will use form, color, and design for their own sakes, and independent of man's experience of life and his association with nature. I do not believe such an aim can be achieved by a human being. Whether we wish it or not we are all bound to the earth with our experience of life and the reactions of the mind, heart, and eye, and our sensations, by no means, consist entirely of form, color and design. We would be leaving out a great deal that I consider worth while expressing in painting, and it can not be expressed in literature."
Edward Hopper, letter to Mrs. Frank B. Davidson, Jan. 22, 1947
The only thing I don’t like about my beautiful white iPod is the crappy little set of earbuds that came with it. Now that I’m spending so much time in the air, I decided the time had finally come to spring for a better set of headphones. After much research and careful consideration, I ordered a set of Ultimate Ears super.fi 3 in-ear monitors. They arrived in today’s mail, and so far I’m blissfully happy with them. To be sure, I may feel differently once I’ve subjected them to the acid test of listening to Morph the Cat at 30,000 feet, but I have a feeling that they’re keepers.
Except for a noontime visit to Antonio Prieto Salon, which is far from my beaten path, my niece and I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary today. We brunched at Good Enough to Eat, visited the Metropolitan Museum, dined at Bright Food Shop, and saw Pilobolus at the Joyce Theater. Just another Wednesday in New York, in other words—except that this time around I saw Pilobolus and Times Square and Central Park and John Twachtman’s Arques-la-Bataille through Lauren’s eyes.
which made them as new to me as they were to her.
I was especially pleased by Pilobolus. Not only has it been a couple of years since I last saw them, but outside of a single performance
by the Mark Morris Dance Group in March, I haven’t seen any dance since my unexpected trip to the hospital seven months ago. It was a nice way to slip back into the swing of things, and what made it nicer still was that Lauren and I ran into Jonathan Wolken and Robby Barnett, two of the troupe’s founders, in the lobby. I hadn’t spoken to either one of them since I took part in the filming of Last Dance, Mirra Bank’s 2001 Pilobolus documentary, and we had a lot of catching up to do.
Now I’m sitting at my desk, eavesdropping as Lauren chatters away on her cell phone in the next room. She's telling a friend in Smalltown, U.S.A., all about Pilobolus’ Day Two, the hot, steamy fertility rite set to the music of David Byrne and Brian Eno that ended tonight’s program with a bang (and a splash). She sounds thoroughly impressed. So was I—not merely with Pilobolus, but also with the miraculous good fortune that makes it possible for me to take days like this for granted, even though I rarely do. May I never forget how lucky I am.
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
"It was hot. A few lost, cotton-ball bunches of cloud drifted in a brassy sky, leaving rare islands of shadow upon the desert's face.
"Nothing moved. It was a far, lost land, a land of beige-gray silences and distance where the eye reached out farther and farther to lose itself finally against the sky, and where the only movement was the lazy swing of a remote buzzard."
By the way, all of the summer nominees for the Lit Blog Co-op are being introduced this week, including my nomination of Edie Meidav's daring and brilliant novel Crawl Space. Here's a bit of what I say:
Some antiheroes are more anti than others. Emile Poulquet, the antihero of Crawl Space, is a Vichy war criminal and an absolute of his kind. Poulquet is a man divided along seemingly a hundred internal fault lines, and so too will be the reader of Edie Meidav’s rich and troubling novel, a searching inquest into the banality of evil. A provincial bureaucrat during the French Occupation, Poulquet was complicit in the deportation of thousands to Nazi death camps. Now, decades later, his face surgically altered, his conscience rattled but intact, he is on the run from the authorities and drawn like a moth to a flame to his old prefecture of Finier.
Poulquet is not clearly remorseful; if guilt dogs him at all, it manifests itself in self-pity and what he calls a cousin to guilt, the desire for vindication. “What did that mean, anyway, ashamed,” he asks. “Shame depends wholly on others. Who cared if I toted shame around like some battered private trophy, proof of my inner good, my bewildered soul? Wasn’t it more heroic to wander the world lacking an audience, the society of brothers and sisters which shame and its absolutions automatically offer the renegade?” Indeed, his crimes are so great and his name so despised that it's hard to imagine anyone in his position could own them directly and fully. Poulquet's relationship to personal agency is so troubled that he carries around a small pendulum to decide everyday questions such as where to go and what to eat. His relationship to his hated name is similarly fraught; as the novel proceeds, he increasingly refers to himself in the third person and scrambles to remove instances of “I” from the last will and testament he carries around with him. Meidav depicts with authority—with virtuosity and unlikely beauty—the gnarled consciousness and wizened moral sense of this unrepentant war criminal, who loathes himself and his pursuers in equal measures but in different modes. It's a thoroughly haunting portrait.
There will be a week of discussion of Meidav's novel at the LBC site next week, including author and nominator podcasts. The group's Summer selection is Michael Martone's inventive Michael Martone.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, July 19, 2006 | Permanent
TT: The usual chaos
My niece's timing was off: a power failure at LaGuardia caused her afternoon flight from St. Louis to be cancelled. Fortunately, American Airlines was able to book her onto a later flight, and she appeared on my doorstep a mere three hours behind schedule, minutes ahead of a thunderstorm. The weather in New York is still sickeningly hot. Nevertheless, we mean to have a good time or die trying.
I don't expect to check in again until Thursday, but you never can tell. Anyway, later.
It was hot in Manhattan on Monday, but not as hot as it was in St. George, Utah, last Friday. The bank thermometer read 110 degrees when I left the airport in my rental car. Fortunately, Cedar City, my destination, was considerably higher and somewhat cooler, and I got through my weekend at the Utah Shakespearean Festival in one piece. It helped that I ran into a long-lost friend with whom I had an unexpected and gratifying reunion, and I also profited from the advice contained in an e-mail from a fellow blogger:
If you have a free afternoon in Cedar City, take the 45-minute drive to Cedar Breaks National Monument. It's sort of like Bryce Canyon, only more colorful and without big crowds. Visitor facilities are so rustic you'll swear you've stepped into the 1930s. If you do decide to make that trip, don't forget that you'll be very high up (over 10,000 feet), where the air is thin and water—including the water in your radiator—boils quickly.
I took him up on it, and spent a considerable chunk of Saturday morning gawking at the view. As always, the trouble with scenery is tourists, and I felt sorely tempted to give a good hard push to a couple of noisy women at the Chessmen Ridge Overlook. Fortunately, the altitude silenced most of the other people I ran into (it really does make your head spin), who appeared to respond to the beauties of Cedar Breaks in much the same way as the raven-haired ranger to whom I paid my four-dollar toll. I told her I'd never seen anything like it, and she grinned at me and replied, "Oh, I'm in love with it. I have been ever since the first time I came here."
I was tickled by two signs I saw along the way:
WARNING EXPOSED CLIFF EDGES AND NEARBY LIGHTNING ARE HAZARDOUS
OPEN RANGE WATCH FOR LIVESTOCK
Sunday was…well, long. I arose at 4:30, drove back to the St. George airport just ahead of the sunrise, flew from there to Los Angeles, sat around the terminal for a couple of hours, flew from there to Newark, and was driven from there to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As I expected, it took me about thirteen hours to get from point A to point E, but I made reasonably good use of my time, writing part of my Wall Street Journal drama column in an LAX snack bar and reading most of Gail Levin’s Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography on the plane. (I’d read it years ago, but I know a lot more about art now.)
Now I’m back home again, writing my “Sightings” column for Saturday’s Journal and preparing to receive a houseguest, my niece Lauren from Smalltown, U.S.A., who arrives in New York for a visit later this afternoon. We’re going to ascend the Empire State Building, ride the Circle Line, and go see Pilobolus, the Metropolitan Museum, and whatever Broadway musical I can get us into on the cheap by paying a sweaty visit to the TKTS booth in Times Square, which will be a first for me. I expect I’ll be blogging about Lauren’s visit from time to time, but should you not hear from me as frequently as usual, it means I’m out showing her the town.
I wrote about Mickey Spillane in National Review three years ago, on the occasion of the paperback reissue of six of his out-of-print mysteries:
You remember Mickey Spillane, right? No? Not to worry—it’s an age thing. If you were born before 1960, his name will definitely ring a bell. He wrote six of the biggest-selling detective novels of the 20th century, and Mike Hammer, their tough-guy hero, was for a time all but synonymous with the genre. They spawned two TV series and several movies of widely varying quality, among them Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me, Deadly (1955), now regarded as a film-noir classic, and The Girl Hunters (1963), a curiosity in which Spillane himself played Hammer (ineptly, alas, though it’s a wonderfully wacky idea—try to imagine Dashiell Hammett swapping wisecracks with Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon). In addition, the “Girl Hunt” ballet in The Band Wagon is a Spillane send-up, with Fred Astaire as Hammer and Cyd Charisse as the leggy lady of mystery. That’s fame.
Back then, Spillane was considered the lowest of lowbrows, though he had his unlikely admirers, among them Kingsley Amis, who thought he was a better writer than Hammett or Raymond Chandler, and Ayn Rand, who said he was her favorite novelist since Victor Hugo. (I’m not making this up—it’s in her 1964 Playboy interview.) But most people who wrote about mysteries placed him several degrees beneath contempt. Chandler, not at all surprisingly, loathed Spillane, claiming that “pulp writing at its worst was never as bad as this.”...
And now? Well, it’s not quite right to say Spillane is forgotten, but the truth is even worse: he’s out of print. Though he continues to grind out an occasional novel, the early Hammer books, which between them sold some 130 million copies, have long been unavailable, even in paperback. At a time when American intellectuals are obsessed to the point of mania with pop culture, the most popular mystery writer of the postwar era has become an unperson, in spite of the fact that he is alive, well, and available for interviews….
The Mike Hammer series, launched in 1947 with I, the Jury, appears at first glance to share many of the major themes and preoccupations of postwar noir. Like countless other noir anti-heroes, Hammer is a World War II vet who comes home to find that the city of his youth (New York, not Los Angeles) has become a dangerous place, crime-ridden and profoundly corrupt. He, too, has changed, for the experience of combat has aroused in him a dark love of violence, which he uses in an attempt to restore order to the chaotic world around him: “I had gotten a taste of death and found it palatable to the extent that I could never again eat the fruits of a normal civilization….I was evil. I was evil for the good.”
Most noir characters are vigilantes of one sort or another—they have to be, since they are functioning in a radically corrupt society—so what was it that put this one beyond the pale? Part of the problem was Spillane’s blunt, inelegant prose style, which is unfailingly effective but in no obvious way “literary,” just as his frame of reference is deliberately, even aggressively anti-intellectual. Whereas Philip Marlowe drank gimlets and read Hemingway (or at least made well-informed fun of him in Farewell, My Lovely), Mike Hammer drinks beer and doesn’t read anything at all. He is a regular guy who happens to pack a rod….
Spillane was writing for a generation of fellow veterans who spent their off-duty hours thumbing through paperbacks—thrillers, westerns, even the odd classic. They were accustomed to taking pleasure in the printed word. Now their grandsons go to the movies, or watch TV. Novels, even mysteries, are overwhelmingly read by and written for women. This is not to say that nobody’s writing regular-guy books anymore: they’re just not being read by regular guys. A no-nonsense crime novelist like Elmore Leonard is far more likely to appeal to eggheads like me than the working stiffs about whom he writes—I’ve never seen anybody reading a Leonard novel on the subway—whereas Spillane’s books were actually read and enjoyed by men who weren’t all that different from Mike Hammer. He may well have been the last novelist of whom such a thing could be said….
Spillane died yesterday at the age of eighty-eight. If you're curious, these were his three best books.
This is one of those horrible days when nobody in Manhattan is out and about who doesn't need to be. Alas, I do. Not only am I seeing three performances tonight and tomorrow (Merce Cunningham's Ocean, Basil Twist's La bella dormente nel bosco, and another program by Pilobolus), but I have a houseguest arriving on Saturday afternoon and countless errands to run before I hit the road again first thing Sunday morning.
All this notwithstanding, I decided to visit an art gallery today, having learned from Ionarts that Salander-O'Reilly, one of my favorite New York galleries, is featuring several of my favorite painters, among them Milton Avery, Jane Freilicher, Arnold Friedman, Marsden Hartley, Albert Kresch, and John Marin, in its summer inventory show, “Scapes/Landscapes." I scooped up two dollars' worth of accumulated nickels, hopped a crosstown bus to 79th and Madison, and there discovered that the summer hours posted on the Salander-O'Reilly Web site are off by an hour. (Fortunately, the show is up through August 26, so I'll get another crack at it.) I wilted briefly in the sun, then noticed that a branch of my bank was right across the street, thus allowing me to do one of my essential pre-trip errands, which cheered me up no end. I returned to my air-conditioned apartment on the next bus, not much the worse for the wear.
As many of you will recall, my upcoming trip to Missouri is neither for pleasure nor business. My mother is undergoing spinal surgery on Monday, so I'll be spending the next two weeks in Smalltown, U.S.A., looking after her while she recuperates. Since I've got a couple of deadlines hanging over my head, I'm bringing my iBook with me, and I hope to be blogging at least intermittently. (I've already freshened the Top Fives in preparation for my departure.) I don't expect to be back on line until Tuesday at the earliest, though, so I thought I'd wave goodbye now.
If I were going to be posting an almanac entry on Monday, this'd be it:
“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
My drama column in today's Wall Street Journal is a tripleheader. First is Primo, Sir Anthony Sher's one-man stage version of Primo Levi's Auschwitz memoir:
"Primo" is a very great piece of theater, but the tale, not the teller, is what matters most, and it is to their credit that Sir Anthony and Richard Wilson, his director, have opted for stark simplicity in presenting "If This Is a Man" (originally published in the U.S. as "Survival in Auschwitz"). The set, designed by Hildegard Bechtler, consists of a few concrete walls, a shovelful of gravel and a single wooden chair. Into this cold, bare space walks the bespectacled Sir Anthony, wearing an old cardigan. "It was my good fortune," he says matter-of-factly, "to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944...I was 24, with little wisdom, no experience, and a tendency—encouraged by the life of segregation forced on me by the racial laws—to live in an unrealistic world of my own." Then, without further ado, he flings you into the bowels of hell….
Despite the TV versions of "The Forsyte Saga," John Galsworthy is no longer widely remembered in this country as a novelist, much less a playwright, though he used to be world-famous in both capacities (he actually won the 1932 Nobel Prize for literature). None of his 27 plays has been seen on Broadway since 1931. Now the Mint Theater Company, a tiny off-Broadway troupe with a justly admired knack for exhuming what it calls "buried theatrical treasures," has revived "The Skin Game," a 1920 melodrama about the limits of upward mobility in England, and it proves to be a rattling good show indeed….
After a dismaying string of fair-to-middling Shakespeare in the Park offerings, the Public Theater has brought a winner to its outdoor home, Central Park's Delacorte Theater. Mark Lamos's production of "As You Like It" is a summery romp played out on a giant map of the cosmos, with the trees of the park (and Belvedere Castle just beyond) supplying a lovely backdrop for romantic hijinks in the Forest of Arden….
My column for this week is one of the stories in Friday's Journal that's being made available on line in its entirety as part of the Journal's "Today's Free Features" Web page. To read the whole thing, of which there's far more, go here. If you're a blogger, link away!
As usual, you can also read the column on paper by shelling out a dollar for today's Journal or (better yet) going here to subscribe to the Online Journal, Web-based journalism's best deal ever.
UPDATE: The original London production of Primo was telecast and will be released on DVD in the U.S. next month by Kultur. To place an advance order, go here.
In the fall of 2000, The Oxford Companion to Jazz
was published—864 pages long, with 60 essays by 59 distinguished musicians,
scholars, and critics. In 2001, the Jazz Journalists Association voted it "Best
Jazz Book" of the year. And it received over 50 reviews worldwide, about 90
percent of them positive. My favorite "review," though, came from composer-arranger Johnny Mandel,
who remarked: "Putting this book together must have been like being contractor
for the Ellington band."
I'm pleased to announce that this month, the Companion has just become
available in a new paperback edition, complete with a number of small additions
and corrections. It can be purchased in bookstores internationally as well as from a variety of Internet outlets. At, I might add, an even more reasonable price than previously: $29.95 U.S. (retail).
If you haven't yet checked out this book (which a number of schools have used as a textbook), I hope that the following list of essays and contributors will serve as encouragement.
• "African Roots of Jazz"—Samuel A. Floyd, Jr.
• "European Roots of Jazz"—William H. Youngren
• "Ragtime Then and Now"—Max Morath
• "The Early Origins of Jazz"—Jeff Taylor
• "New York Roots: Black Broadway, James Reese Europe, Early Pianists"—Thomas L. Riis
• "The Blues in Jazz"—Bob Porter
• "Bessie Smith"—Chris Albertson
• "King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Sidney Bechet: Ménage à Trois, New Orleans Style"—Bruce Boyd Raeburn
• "Louis Armstrong"—Dan Morgenstern
• "Bix Beiderbecke"—Digby Fairweather
• "Duke Ellington"—Mark Tucker
• "Hot Music in the 1920s: The 'Jazz Age,' Appearances and Realities"—Richard M. Sudhalter
• "Pianists of the 1920s and 1930s"—Henry Martin
• "Coleman Hawkins"—Kenny Berger
• "Lester Young"—Loren Schoenberg
• "Major Soloists of the 1930s and 1940s"—John McDonough
• "Jazz Singing: Between Blues and Bebop"—Joel E. Siegel
• "Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday"—Patricia Willard
• "Jazz and the American Song"—Gene Lees
• "Pre-Swing Era Big Bands and Jazz Composing and Arranging"—James T. Maher and Jeffrey Sultanof
• "Swing Era Big Bands and Jazz Composing and Arranging"—Max Harrison
• "The Advent of Bebop"—Scott DeVeaux
• "The New Orleans Revival"—Richard Hadlock
• "Charlie Parker"—James Patrick
• "Cool Jazz and West Coast Jazz"—Ted Gioia
• "Jazz and Classical Music: To the Third Stream and Beyond"—Terry Teachout
• "Pianists of the 1940s and 1950s"—Dick Katz
• "Hard Bop"—Gene Seymour
• "Miles Davis"—Bob Belden
• "Big Bands and Jazz Composing and Arranging After World War II"—Doug Ramsey
• "Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus"—Brian Priestley
• "John Coltrane"—Lewis Porter
• "The Avant-Garde, 1949-1967"—Lawrence Kart
• "Pianists of the 1960s and 1970s"—Bob Blumenthal
• "Jazz Singing Since the 1940s"—Will Friedwald
• "Jazz Since 1968"—Peter Keepnews
• "Fusion"—Bill Milkowski
• "Jazz Repertory"—Jeffrey Sultanof
• "Latin Jazz"—Gene Santoro
• "Jazz in Europe: The Real World Music...or The Full Circle"—Mike Zwerin
• "Jazz and Brazilian Music"—Stephanie L. Stein Crease
• "Jazz in Africa: The Ins and Outs"—Howard Mandel
• "Jazz in Japan"—Kiyoshi Koyama
• "Jazz in Canada and Australia"—Terry Martin
• "The Clarinet in Jazz"—Michael Ullman
• "The Saxophone in Jazz"—Don Heckman
• "The Trumpet in Jazz"—Randy Sandke
• "The Trombone in Jazz"—Gunther Schuller
• "The Electric Guitar and Vibraphone in Jazz: Batteries Not Included"—Neil Tesser
• "Miscellaneous Instruments in Jazz"—Christopher Washburne
• "The Bass in Jazz"—Bill Crow
• "Jazz Drumming"—Burt Korall
• "Jazz and Dance"—Robert P. Crease
• "Jazz and Film and Television"—Chuck Berg
• "Jazz Clubs"—Vincent Pelote
• "Jazz and American Literature"—Gerald Early
• "Jazz Criticism"—Ron Welburn
• "Jazz Education"—Charles Beale
• "Recorded Jazz"—Dan Morgenstern
• "Jazz Improvisation and Concepts of Virtuosity"—David Demsey
To order a paperback copy of the revised and corrected Oxford Companion to Jazz, go here. Even if you don't like my chapter (of which I'm actually quite proud), it's still worth every cent.
I spent Wednesday in Washington, D.C., attending two closed sessions of the National Council on the Arts. All fun, all interesting, and my fellow council members are as collegial as can be, but it was still a long, hot, humid day, and when it was over I knew I'd be coming back to a hotel whose air conditioning has proved unequal to the demands of Washington in July. (I've also been having troubles with the hotel's high-speed Internet service.) Hence I didn't care to spend the evening in my room, and it happened that all of my Washington-based friends were either busy or elsewhere tonight.
What to do? I treated myself to a good dinner, then went looking for a movie I hadn't seen, which turned out to be Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know. On my way to the theater, I tried to think of the last time I'd spent an evening watching a movie by myself in a city other than New York. When I go out of town, it's usually to visit a friend or cover a performance, so I tend not to be faced with the problem of what to do after dinner. At length I recalled that I'd seen Audrey Wells' Guinevere in Washington's Dupont Circle six years ago. I liked it very much, and I liked Me and You and Everyone We Know even more, but a few minutes into the film, it struck me that (A) I was watching a sad little comedy about the loneliness of postmodern urban life and (B) nobody in the world knew where I was.
Sitting in the sparsely peopled theater, alone with the characters and with myself, I thought of a remark A.J. Liebling made in my favorite of his books, Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris:
Granted that in later life a man will have to learn to get along with other people—I learn with horror that the knack is now taught in high school as a “social study”—that is all the more reason there should be a period in his life when he has to get along with nobody but himself. It will be a sweetness to remember.
I think there's quite a bit of truth in that—up to a point. I don't spend too many evenings by myself: I'm in the company of friends far more often than not, watching performances or just hanging out. Sometimes I find myself hungering for solitude, and there are occasions when I'm almost painfully grateful to spend a night with my prints, my CDs, my iBook, and my trusty TV, watching What's My Line?, keeping my own counsel and staying up as late as I like. I've recently discovered, much to my surprise, that I even like vacationing alone. At the same time, I'm no hermit, and like most singletons, I find there are other times when being alone is no fun at all. One is when you finish watching a really good movie and, instead of chatting about it over a drink with a friend, retire to an empty hotel room in a city far from home.
My solitude, fortunately, will only last a single night. Tomorrow morning I'll be meeting my v., v. cool friend Ali for breakfast, after which I'll head over to the Old Post Office for one more NCA session. At twelve-thirty I'm lunching with a fellow newspaperman, then taking a mid-afternoon train to New York. In the evening I'm taking Bass Player, one of my favorite people in the whole world, to see Pilobolus at the Joyce Theater, after which we intend to have a late supper and talk until the waiters start giving us dirty looks. Friday and Saturday will be much the same, and by Sunday, when I fly home to Smalltown, U.S.A., I'll probably be thinking wistfully of my solitary trip to the movies.
Would we all be happier if we were capable of always enjoying to the fullest whatever we're doing at the moment we're doing it? Probably—but then we wouldn't be quite human, would we? Such contentment is not in our natures: we keep one eye on the horizon, and sometimes both, which leaves neither free to see the moments that pass before us in review, each one crying out, Look at me! Aren't I pretty? George Balanchine knew better. “Why are you stingy with yourselves?” he used to ask his dancers. “Why are you holding back? What are you saving for—for another time? There are no other times. There is only now. Right now.” But, then, Balanchine was a genius, while I'm just a middle-aged critic, whiling away an idle hour in an overheated hotel room in Washington, hoping it cools down enough for me to get some sleep.
"Whoever invented the meeting must have had Hollywood in mind. I think they should consider giving Oscars for meetings: Best Meeting of the Year, Best Supporting Meeting, Best Meeting Based on Material from Another Meeting."
The last 24 hours or so have been, um, hectic. I went to Central Park last night to see As You Like It, arose early this morning to write, edit, and file my review, ran several thousand errands, jumped in a cab at the last possible minute and raced to Penn Station to take the last possible train to Washington, D.C., took another cab from Union Station in Washington to the National Endowment for the Arts, spent the next six hours in meetings (during one of which dinner was served), took yet another cab to my hotel, checked in, turned on and plugged in my iBook, read and responded to 67 e-mails, and now am blogging at last. Did I mention that ArtsJournal's blogging platform was down this morning, making it impossible for me to post prior to hitting the road? Or that the temperature in New York and Washington today was in the approximate vicinity of hellacious? Or that the air conditioner in my expensive hotel room is not adequate?
Anyway, I'm done, and I'm about to go to bed. I'll try to post something worth reading at some time or other on Wednesday, but I'm not good for anything more tonight. Do forgive me—I spent the whole day selflessly serving you, the American taxpayer. (If you're not an American taxpayer, I spent the whole day not serving you. Tough.) Now I shall sleep the sleep of the just.
P.S. In case you didn't notice, four of the Top Fives are new this week. Read 'em.
I just got off the phone with Our Girl in Chicago. She, too, was elsewhere last week, but she can't tell you about it herself, because no sooner did she come back to the Big Windy than her hard drive started emitting black smoke, then went kaplooey and gave up the ghost. As of tonight she doesn't have an Official Estimated Time to Return to Blogging (or e-mail, for that matter—be patient). I'll keep you posted.
As for me, I'll be taking the Metroliner to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday morning to attend a three-day-long meeting of the National Council on the Arts. I'm thinking of taking my iBook with me so that I can blog from my hotel room (which means, of course, that I probably will).
A more extended absence is in the offing, however: I'm off to Smalltown, U.S.A., on Sunday. It isn't a vacation—my mother will be going into the hospital that day for an operation. Not to worry, it isn't anything life-threatening, but it'll be disagreeable at best, so I'm planning to stick around for a couple of weeks. I'll be blogging from there, and you'll hear about everything as it happens.
Given these distractions, don't be surprised if I should vanish unexpectedly and without warning for a whole day, or even two. It probably means I'm in transit, or emptying a bedpan. Whatever it is, wherever I am, I'll be back as soon as possible. Likewise OGIC. After two years' worth of steady blogging, I think it's safe to say that we aren't going anywhere. We like it here, and we like you.
Last Tuesday afternoon, having seen too many plays and written too many pieces and desiring to break free of my life for a few short days, I shut my iBook, packed a small bag, picked up a Zipcar at a garage around the corner from my Upper West Side apartment, and drove over the George Washington Bridge, up the Palisades Parkway, past West Point, and across a twisty road cut into the side of Storm King Mountain. Within an hour I was well north of all my usual Hudson Valley haunts, and by suppertime I was rolling into Woodstock, New York, a town that time seems to have left behind—thirty-six years behind, to be exact. My destination was the Woodstock Inn by the Millstream, an old-fashioned motel lately converted into something not unlike a newfangled B&B. The simple yet attractive rooms are a few steps away from what the inn's Web site correctly describes as “a swimming hole gracefully carved from the rocky bed of the Millstream.” I sat at a table by the water until it was too dark to keep on reading De Kooning: An American Master. I tried to check my messages, but my cell phone was out of range, so I went to bed, read until I was drowsy, switched off the lamp, and fell asleep.
I returned to my brookside table in the morning to partake of what the modest proprietors of the Woodstock Inn are pleased to call a continental breakfast, though in point of fact it includes such tasty treats as smoked salmon and miniature quiches. My original plan had been to go more or less straight from there to my next stop, but ten minutes out of Woodstock I decided to improvise, turned right instead of left, threw open the windows and sunroof, cranked up Miles Davis' 'Round About Midnight, and drove all the way through the Catskill Park to the Pepacton Reservoir, a man-made body of water whose creation required the seizure, condemnation, and flooding in 1955 of four now-forgotten villages to whose former existence four small roadside signs pay tribute. (Donald Westlake once wrote a comic crime novel whose hapless protagonists sought to retrieve a buried stash from one of those underwater towns.) I felt as though I had come at last to the far side of the world, infinitely removed from the irritations of everyday existence.
I stopped for lunch in a mountain town with the quaint name of Roscoe. Spotting a B&B by the side of the road, I resolved on the spot to stay there one day, but since I had another place to be that night, I pointed my Zipcar southward and drove unhurriedly through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, pausing briefly to take a roadside nap. No sooner did I exit the National Recreation Area than I found myself trapped in the hideous foothills of the Poconos, surrounded by tourist-trap attractions of the grubbiest sort. I drove by a huge sign directing me to Caesars Pocono Palace and declaring that Crosby, Stills & Nash
would be playing there in August. Only a week or two before, I'd been wondering whatever had become of Stephen Stills, one of the musical idols of my rock-and-roll youth. Now, mere hours after I'd spent a perfectly happy night in Woodstock, answer there came in the form of a bright neon sign: he plays casinos. To sing the blues you've got to live the tunes...and carry on, I thought, and shuddered.
Before long I was snaking down the Delaware River to Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania, the home of Bridgeton House On-the-Delaware, an inn about which I can't begin to say enough good things. It's on the river, the rooms are handsomely appointed, and most even have their own private riverfront balconies. After driving across the bridge to the Milford Oyster House, there to sup on Crab Norfolk and a garlic-laden salad, I retreated to my balcony to watch the river flow and the fireflies blink. It was a hot and humid night, but before 15 minutes had passed the temperature had plunged at least as many degrees, and the fireflies flew off to make way for a thunderstorm. The lightning exploded over Upper Black Eddy as I looked on, delighting in the gaudy detonations far overhead. A half-hour later the storm was gone, and I climbed gratefully into my soft bed to read February House: The Story of W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof In Wartime America and drift at length into yet another deep, untroubled sleep.
Another tasty breakfast, another unhurried drive across the river and along country roads, and in a couple of hours I had made my roundabout way to the rusty outskirts of Newark. Is there any other place in the world where beauty and ugliness alternate with such dizzying rapidity as in New Jersey? My midday destination was the Newark Museum, where I planned to spend an hour or two looking at “In the American Grain: Dove, Hartley, Marin, O'Keeffe, and Stieglitz,” a touring exhibition put together by the Phillips Collection, and inspecting the museum's own permanent collection of American art, about which I'd long heard great things, all of which are true. Alas, the Newark Museum has become yet another of those aging inner-city temples to art that has outlived its clientele and now behaves as though it's slightly embarrassed to display its paintings, hiding them upstairs and explaining their beauties away with the kind of hectoring, didactic wall labels that give art scholarship a bad name. (It says everything about the museum that its own shop sells not a single book or pamphlet describing the permanent collection.) I arrived halfway through a noontime jazz concert, passed up an exhibition called “Here Come the Brides: Fairy Tales, Folklore & Wedding Traditions,” and finally made my circuitous way to the upstairs galleries. Except for three stone-faced guards, I was the only living soul there. I oohed and aahed at Marsden Hartley's Still Life—Calla Lilies, Joseph Stella's Voice of the City of New York Interpreted, and Joseph Cornell's Les Constellations Voisines de Pôle, then reveled in a dozen fabulous John Marins and Arthur Doves that haven't been on view for the past couple of years. Yet I don't know when I've seen a sadder museum.
I fled Newark as fast as my Zipcar would carry me, roaring down the New Jersey Turnpike past mile after mile of industrial blight (And was Jerusalem builded here/Among these dark Satanic mills?), arriving in due course at the Jersey Shore, a place I'd heard about for years but never seen. Coming as I do from the middle of America, I find at the age of forty-nine that I can count on the fingers of both hands the number of nights I've slept by an ocean. Like everyone who falls in love with the sea in adulthood, I'm incapable of saying anything about it that hasn't been said a million times before: its ever-changing, self-renewing presence instantly reduces me to clichés. As I sat on the boardwalk and watched the waves that my beloved Fairfield Porter painted so well, I could do no better than to recall
the words of Jean de la Ville de Mirmont that Gabriel Fauré set to music with such exquisitely apposite simplicity in L'horizon chimérique, the most perfect of all his song cycles: The sea is infinite and my dreams are wild.
Would that the Jersey Shore were better suited to such romantic reflections! It is what it is, a strip of sandy beach overlooked by the balconies of a thousand tacky condos, crammed to overflowing with noisily joyous vacationers, and I was what I was, a middle-aged aesthete dressed in black, seated on a bench and gazing in silent wonder at the surf. Still and all, I liked it just fine, though I'm probably too old ever to feel what my friend John Pizzarelli
feels when he sings I Like Jersey Best:
Traveling down the Turnpike
Heading for the shore
A thought just then occurred to me
I never thought before
I've been a lot of places
Seen pictures of the rest
But of all the places I can think of
I like Jersey best.
I sat by the sea for a good half-hour before I thought to pull out my cell phone and call my mother back in Smalltown, U.S.A. “Listen, Mom,” I said, and held the phone up to catch the sound of the waves. “Can you hear the ocean?”
“No, not really...oh, yes! Yes, I can.” She paused. “I hate to tell you bad news in the middle of your vacation, but did you hear what happened in London today?”
“No,” I said, realizing in a sickening instant what it must have been. “I haven't seen a paper or turned on my car radio since I left New York.”
She told me of the four bombs that mere hours before had killed four dozen Londoners on the other side of the ocean by which I sat. All at once I remembered Auden's poem about how suffering “takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” On Thursday I was one of those someone elses.
The waves having briefly lost their savor, I gave up my bench and walked across Ocean Avenue to the Cashelmara Inn, my comfortable home for the night, on whose broad, inviting veranda I sat in a rocking chair for a peaceful hour, listening to my iPod, lapping up the sea breeze, and playing idly with the two golden retrievers who call the inn home. After dining at a cheerful restaurant a block away, I retired to my cozy dormered room on the third floor. I slept badly, awakened by a nightmare for whose origins I didn't have to look far.
My window was spattered with fast-falling rain when I got up the next morning. I knew there would be no more sitting on the boardwalk, so I packed my bag resignedly and went down to breakfast. The dining room was occupied by four families and an unattached woman, a bespectacled brunette with sharp, pretty features who read Good Housekeeping while she ate. I cast sidelong glances at the happy families that surrounded us on all sides. Don't be so sure of yourselves, I thought, feeling a wave of silent camaraderie for my fellow singleton. I was once as you are, and someday you may be as we are. Life is pandemonium!
An hour later I was driving back up the New Jersey Turnpike toward the George Washington Bridge, and an hour after that I was unlocking the door of my apartment. I greeted the etchings and lithographs on the walls as if they were my own family, then turned on my iBook for the first time in three days and found 205 pieces of e-mail awaiting me. I closed my eyes and thought of fireflies, smoked salmon, the smell of the ocean, and the half-recalled colors of a painting by Arthur Dove. “I can't wait to do it all again,” I said out loud. Then I dragged my chair a little closer to the cluttered desk and started answering my mail, and the tentacles of dailiness reached out and swept me back into their embrace.
I wish you would touch me
I wish you'd leave me the hell alone
And oh, how I wish this crutch
Didn't leave such an imprint in my bone
All these half-assed wishes
Stretched across the stars
Lead to angry men in cocktail bars.
Ten things an older man must never say to a younger woman:
1) I'm dying!
2) I can't hear what you're saying!
3) How many fingers are you holding up?
4) Listen to my heart.
5) Take my pulse.
6) What's your name?
7) Is it cold in here?
8) Is it hot in here?
9) Are you in here?
10) What wings are those beating at the window?
Not that a man should stress his youth in a dishonest way
But that he should not unduly emphasize his age.
I'm curious, and it might be worth blogging about: what does your work space look like? I once saw a photo book of writers' studies, and I spent hours poring over photographs of desks, bookshelves, odd pieces of detritus thumbtacked to the walls, and I came away believing (perhaps wrongly) that I knew a bit more about each of them. We know some of what is on the walls, so what about the rest?
I work at home in a small office-bedroom whose third-floor window looks down on a quiet, tree-lined block of Upper West Side brownstones. The window is to my left, a clothes closet to my right, and over the closet is a sleeping loft. (The ceilings in my apartment are unusually high.) The walls are white, the furniture black, the rug black and tan. I sit on a cheap, creaky swivel chair. My desk is one of those Danish-style slab-and-tube jobs: four shelves, no drawers. The shelf on which I work holds my iBook, a pair of good-quality desktop speakers hooked up to the computer (I often listen to music while I write), a phone-fax-answering machine, an external zip drive, and a tall, sometimes shaky stack of review CDs. My printer is on the bottom shelf. The shelf immediately above eye level holds a few framed pictures, a flashlight (just in case),
and two short stacks of review copies and bound galleys of forthcoming books.
On the top shelf are:
• The Library of America's Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works • Four hardbound Viking Portables: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Johnson & Boswell
• An old Modern Library collection of Montaigne’s essays
• Dostoyevsky’s Demons • Kenneth Minogue’s Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology • Arlene Croce’s Writing in the Dark, Dancing in The New Yorker
• David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film • H.L. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations • The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary • Fowler's Modern English Usage • A Terry Teachout Reader
To my immediate left, below the window sill, are two neat stacks of books and papers. To my right is a small wheeled hutch that contains office supplies and other papers. Atop the hutch are two boxes full of Giorgio Morandi and Fairfield Porter notecards, a small rock from the shore of Isle au Haut, and a Cup of Chicha coffee mug full of pens and pencils. Beyond it is an electronic keyboard on a floor stand, and beyond the keyboard, next to the closet, is a case of books about music. Behind my chair are seven custom-made cases containing 3,000 CDs.
Hanging on the walls are:
• A framed gold record given to me by the members of Nickel Creek • A Hatch Show Print poster
advertising a concert by Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, printed from the original blocks
• A poster advertising a 1974 Hans Hofmann show at André Emmerich Gallery
• A blue-and-gold poster from New York City Ballet’s 1982 Stravinsky Centennial Celebration
Only one item in the Teachout Museum can be seen from my desk, a Joseph Cornell-like assemblage put together by Paul Taylor out of the original newspaper version of "The Importance of Being Less Earnest," one of the essays in the Teachout Reader. It hangs by the keyboard. My prints are all next door in the living room, where they can’t distract me from the day's work.
My posting about the potential embarrassments of reading in public has brought in some delightful responses, but none better than this:
Your reminiscences brought to mind some less-than-pleasant scenes from my
days as a pre-adolescent, adolescent and post-adolescent bookworm...and one
story you might find amusing.
It was back in '74 or '75, at Dumont High School in N.J.; one day,
standing outside the auditorium waiting to go into an assembly or something,
I had my nose stuck in Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming." A very perky, very blonde,
reasonably sweet cheerleader noticed what I was reading and said, "Oh,
that's so cool!"
Well, naturally I was kind of...flabbergasted. But hey, you never know with
people...and I did have one of those lusting-from-afar crushes on the young
lady, so I said something fairly lame, along the lines of, "Yeah it's really
something," to which she replied with an eager "Uh-huh."
Not knowing where to take this, I thought I would make a joke. "I think the
Drama Club ought to do this sometime." And she beamed and said, "Yes,
absolutely." And then she paused and said, "Who do you think should play
It took me a few seconds before I put it together and realized that she was
under the impression that what I was reading was the script for the
television movie that served as the pilot for the series "The Waltons," also
titled "The Homecoming." I was bitterly disappointed for a second, and then
relieved to be returned to the reality I knew.
So be wary of that fantasy waitress....
Actually, all the waitresses at Good Enough to Eat, my neighborhood hangout, are maximally cool. Several are performers of various kinds, and when possible I go to see their shows. (Where are you now, Shannon Hope Lee?) As for the other restaurants in the immediate vicinity, though, I make no promises!
"About Last Night" got written up yesterday in Publishers Lunch, the daily publishing-industry e-mail newsletter (go here to subscribe). I thought what they said might interest you:
Finally, the big blog occasion this week is the one-year anniversary of cultural critic Terry Teachout's abundant blog About Last Night. He writes, "Blogs are the 21st-century counterpart of the periodical essays of the eighteenth century, the Spectators and Ramblers and Idlers that supplied familiar essayists with what was then the ideal vehicle for their intensely personal reflections. Blogging stands in the sharpest possible contrast to the corporate journalism that exerted so powerful an effect on writing in the twentieth century."
Other bloggers write to celebrate the generally rising profile, quality and influence of blogs. What strikes me is the way Teachout has utterly changed his profile as a critic and his relationship with his audience through his blog in just a year. It's no accident that he's had three books coming during the year that he's been blogging, and he's developed a meaningful connection with a large circle of readers (he cites about half a million page views).
As I noted on my BEA blogger panel, what writers do best is write. Blogs are a great way of letting writers connect on a regular basis with readers, and attract new audiences and fans, while still keeping whatever respectful distance they like and having the power of their words rule the day. I still can't figure out why everyone isn't getting their authors to blog.
Much Ado was slow to get off the ground, but Kristen Johnston was great right from the start:
The six-foot-tall alien of TV’s "Third Rock from the Sun" also has an impressive track record on stage, including a vital performance earlier this year in the New Group’s revival of Wallace Shawn’s obnoxious "Aunt Dan and Lemon," and though she’s a Shakespearean debutante, she clearly has great things ahead of her. As Beatrice, the hard-nosed bride-to-be of "Much Ado," Ms. Johnston bestrides the stage like a full-fledged star, seizing your attention with every word she speaks (and even when not speaking—I couldn’t take my eyes off her in the crowd scenes). Her dark-brown baritone voice cleaves the air like a well-honed knife, one that she not infrequently turns on herself. Not only does she have the happy knack of knowing how to be funny and rueful at the same time, but her handsome, wide-mouthed face, at once sexy and silly, was custom-made for comedy. When she orders her hapless suitor Benedick (Jimmy Smits) to "kill Claudio," you want to run right out and tie the noose.
The trouble with the first three-fifths of the play is that David Esbjornson, the director, has failed to create a convincing setting for Ms. Johnston’s magical presence. He has updated the play to Sicily circa 1919, but for no apparent reason other than to appeal to the "Under the Tuscan Sun" crowd, and his puzzling period references (including a bizarre scene set in a Futurist disco) shed no light on Shakespeare’s sufficiently luminous text….
Then came the wedding scene, and everything started to hum. Mr. Esbjornson shook off the confusing superfluities of the previous acts and homed in on the play’s emotional truths, and all at once the whole cast snapped to attention. It was like a helicopter taking off. Actors who had been slightly off target suddenly got the point: Mr. Waterston became frighteningly angry, Mr. Smits charmingly funny, and Brian Murray, who had hitherto fallen flat as Dogberry, the idiot constable, turned before our eyes into a gloriously plummy-voiced boob whose every polysyllabic malapropism brought down the house. Nobody on stage put a foot wrong for the rest of the night.
I Need a Guy Who Blinks may not be Shakespeare, but it’s hair-raisingly relevant:
An 80-minute monologue in which Ms. Squillari describes a disastrous string of bad dates, bad relationships and bad breakups, it is every Gen-X woman’s worst nightmare come to life—plus laughs. Ms. Squillari claims to have an infallible track record when it comes to dating: "Granted, I may not have always made the best choices in men. In fact, I’ve never made a good choice in men." Fortunately, she was taking notes as she lurched from bed to bed, and she tells her horror stories with a self-loathing glee guaranteed to make every man in the audience take stock of his own peculiarities. I especially liked the questionnaire she created in order to screen out losers up front: "How many people are involved in a monogamous relationship? (A) One. (B) Two. (C) Three."
No link, so if you want to read the whole thing (and if not, why not?), buy a Friday Journal, turn to the "Weekend Section," and look for my drama column right next to the Wall Street Journal/ZAGAT Theater Survey. Or subscribe to The Wall Street Journal Online by going here. That’s what I do.
"Wearing a dinner jacket, Umfraville was otherwise unchanged from the night we had met at Foppa's. Trim, horsey, perfectly at ease with himself, and everyone around him, he managed at the same time to suggest the proximity of an abyss of scandal and bankruptcy threatening at any moment to engulf himself, and anyone else unfortunate enough to be within his immediate vicinity when the crash came. The charm he exercised over people was perhaps largely due to this ability to juggle with two contrasting, apparently contradictory attributes; the one, an underlying implication of sinister, disturbing undercurrents: the other, a soothing power to reassure and entertain. These incompatible elements were always to be felt warring with each other whenever he was present. He was like an actor who suddenly appears on the stage to the accompaniment of a roll of thunder, yet who utterly captivates his audience a second later, while their nerves are still on edge, by crooning a sentimental song."
I appeared Wednesday afternoon on Soundcheck, John Schaefer’s daily radio show about the arts in New York City. We chatted about the Teachout Reader, middlebrow culture, and the first anniversary of "About Last Night." Alas, it slipped my mind that the show airs live each day on WNYC (it’s a good thing I got there early!), and so I forgot to post about it in advance of airtime.
If you’re curious, the program has already been archived, and you can listen to it by going here.
(The WNYC Web site, incidentally, describes me as a "serial blogger." Stop me before I post again!)
You’d be surprised—or maybe not—by who reads "About Last Night." Bob Brookmeyer, the composer and jazz trombonist about whom I’ve blogged on several occasions, wrote the other day to comment on my approving link to a posting in which artsjournal.com blogger Kyle Gann declared that "the entire body of serialist music produced nothing that will ever mean much to anyone beyond composers and new-musicians interested in its technical aspects."
2 cases in point put a dent in the "beyond my ken" reaction -- Berg's Violin Concerto (one of the most moving pieces I have ever heard) and Webern's Symphony Op. 21, which I -- at age 20 -- declared "the only perfect music I have ever heard" -- both of these date back to 1950, for me, and time has only increased my love and wonder at the beauty and clarity "organization" can bring to bear. Berg, who was always regarded as the connection to the past, was one of the most organized composers in history, yet much of his music sounds almost improvised. SOMETIMES the means justify the ends. Much the same, for me, with electronic music. It all depends on the composer.
I agree, at least in principle (though not about the Webern Symphony, which has never made sense to me except when used as a ballet score by George Balanchine). The Berg Violin Concerto, for instance, also strikes me as profoundly moving. It is, however, a very special case, a piece of serial music based on a tone row whose interlocking major and minor triads are manipulated by Berg to create quasi-tonal effects. I think its appeal is essentially theatrical, by which I mean it’s not so much pure music as a piece of "representational" art in which Berg uses the tension between tonality and atonality to portray an extra-musical emotional state. (He does the same thing in Wozzeck, though the fact that Wozzeck is an opera makes it more obvious.) That doesn’t mean the concerto isn't beautiful, though. Brookmeyer is right: like every other variety of art, music is an essentially empirical operation to which theory is ultimately irrelevant. What works, works. The fact that most atonal music doesn’t work says something relevant about the fundamental problems of atonality—but that doesn’t make it impossible for a genius to compose a piece of atonal music that does. In art, all definitions are slippery, which is one of the things that makes it so miraculous.
(If you’ve never heard the Berg Violin Concerto, by the way, I’m especially fond of this recording.)
Another reader of "About Last Night," Toni Bentley, rose to the bait I offered in a recent posting in which I announced that I’d finally bowed to her wishes and watched The Red Shoes. Not only was Toni delighted that I liked it so much, but she sent me a speech she gave at a recent West Coast screening of Michael Powell's 1948 film.
Here’s part of what she said:
On a more personal note I would like to comment as a former classical ballet dancer on the depiction of the dance world as portrayed in this film as demanding, difficult, and frequently physically painful—all of which is accurate. What is perhaps even more revolutionary now than in 1948 is that this film, while not denying the hardships and sacrifices, actually extols them as the worthwhile price of achieving great art. The dance world continues today to receive criticism as being a profession that demands too much of its young aspirants for a career that is brief, badly paid, elitist, undemocratic, and can be abruptly ended with an injury in the blink of an eye. I cannot in all honesty tell you that any of these complaints are not true. But more often than not these are the complaints of those who don’t actually dance, but those who observe—and, perhaps, covet the stage. What I can say, from the other side of the footlights, is that the reward of achieving some measure of transcendent beauty for those of us who pursued it, and for our appreciative audiences, was worth every bloody toe and every drop of sweat. And besides, democracy has never had much to do with making great art.
The movie that you are about to see is that rare work that argues that art is not only important but possibly the most important thing in life. "The Red Shoes," wrote Michael Powell in his autobiography, "is an insolent, haunting picture the way it takes for granted that nothing matters but art, and that art is something worth dying for." Ballet, in its deft defiance of gravity itself, is the ultimate metaphor for this transcendence of our wretched mortality. In our time of much meaningless death and much bad and boring art, The Red Shoes, 56 years after its premiere, feels like a breath of fresh air—and a call to arms—for Dedication, Beauty and Passion of the kind that helps the rest of us find meaning in something that surpasses our mere mortal selves.
Between "About Last Night"’s first anniversary
and my nomination
to the National Council on the Arts, our mailbox is bulging. Here are some e-letters that caught my eye:
• "Congratulations on your first anniversary as a blogger. I've more or
less been reading you from the beginning--I don't think I caught on
right away, but once I figured out what you were up to, I went back
and caught up with the first two or three weeks I'd missed. I was interested to see that you'd spent a happy afternoon scrolling
through your About Last Night archives, not long after your post
about not keeping keepsakes, and tossing out most of your old print
clips. Is a dust-free, spatially invisible archive somehow different
for you from a drawer full of yellowed clippings? Personally, if my
scribblings are available online, I don't bother with a printout, yet
I do still maintain a drawer of my older magazine articles and
increasingly brittle newspaper cuttings--just in case I need them for
quick reference, of course."
Well, "About Last Night" archives itself automatically with no additional effort from me! As for the old newspaper clippings, I feel considerably lighter for having consigned them to the recycling bin—but check back with me once I finish transferring my entire CD library to my iBook, which at this rate should happen early in the 22nd century….
• "My heartfelt congratulations on your first anniversary in the
blogosphere. Hope you have many more. By the time I discovered your blog some about eight months ago, I had
been a long-time reader of your essays in Commentary. It was your piece
on David Helfgott -- you were, I believe, the only critic not to have
been fooled by that spectacle and to have had the courage to say so --
that made me a permanent devotee. If your blog could have a sub-title, I would suggest: ‘Everything you
always suspected about art but were afraid to say.’ Those of us who
have always loved Chandler, Sinatra and Mitchum and have not had much
use for Brando, Larry Kramer or Phillip Glass, can now say so at a
Manhattan cocktail party without feeling like we're committing a grave
social sin. Thank you for that."
Somehow I doubt that regular consumption of "About Last Night" is likely to improve anyone’s comfort level at Manhattan cocktail parties. As for the essay in question, "The David Helfgott Show," I made a point of including it in A Terry Teachout Reader. I’m proud of it—not least because more than one practicing psychiatrist wrote at the time of its original publication to congratulate me for my honesty. That’s the kind of fan mail a writer remembers.
• "I am not sure exactly how long I have been reading
your blog, but it must be a while now, since I
recognized a number of the ‘greatest hits’ you
selected. It was interesting to read your childhood memories of
being considered an egghead and an odd duck. I also
spent a lot of time reading and following obscure
topics. I can certainly relate to feeling embarrassed
at being caught reading a book in public. And yet, I really didn't become much of an
intellectual. I like some jazz, mostly stuff like
Erroll Garner and Jimmie Lunceford, but am not terribly
knowledge. Oh sure, I like Miles, but who doesn't? I
liked Filles de Kilimanjaro and On the Corner, and
that's rather suspicious. Let's face it -- I'm just
much much more passionate and informed about hip-hop
and soul music. I've listened to some classical, the basic stuff
everyone knows. I like Charles Ives, but couldn't
begin to explain why. I don't know anything about
opera or ballet. There's a long list of great novels
I've never read; on the other hand, there's a longer
list of paperback mysteries I have. Point being, I find your blog to fill me in on things I
know nothing about. Occasionally, things go over my
head, but not due to your writing."
Whenever "About Last Night" has a high-traffic day, OGIC and I publish a pre-written posting for the benefit of first-time visitors. This is part of what it says:
Our interests are wide-ranging, and we think there are plenty of other people like us out there in cyberspace, plus still more who long to wander off their beaten paths but aren't sure which way to turn.
That’s why we’re especially pleased whenever we get letters like this one.
Thanks to all of you—and to all who've sent good wishes in recent days. Like I said yesterday, you are why we write this blog.
What happened to Brie and Chablis?
Both Brie and Chablis used to be
The sort of thing everyone ate
When goat cheese and Napa Merlot
Weren’t purchased by those in the know,
And monkfish was thought of as bait.
And why did authorities ban
From restaurants all coq au vin?
And then disappeared sole meunière,
Then banished, with little ado,
Beef Wellington—and Stroganoff, too.
Then cancelled the chocolate éclair.
Then hollandaise sauce got the boot,
And kiwis stopped being the fruit
That every chef loved to included
Like quiches, or coquilles St. Jacques,
They turned into something to mock—
The fruit that all chic chefs eschewed.
You miss, let's say, trout amandine?
Take hope from some menus I've seen:
Fondue has been spotted of late
And—yes, to my near disbelief—
Tartare not from tuna, but beef.
They all may return. Just you wait.
Calvin Trillin, "What Happened to Brie and Chablis?"
But bear with me. The anniversary of About Last Night sneaked up on me. Most days, I would probably give a little start if you reminded me we weren't always thus. I wasn't here at the beginning, but I was loitering just behind the scenes, interested as hell but still occupying some sort of limbo between ardent blog reader and bona fide blogger (my personal anniversary, not counting guest blogging, comes in October). As Terry says below and Sarah echoes here, the last year has been an explosive one for culture blogging. It's hard to imagine that when Terry started this site, I didn't yet know about TMFTML, Maud, Cup of Chicha, or Old Hag. And Elegant Variation, Pullquote, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, Return of the Reluctant—essential daily reads that seem like permanent fixtures—didn't exist. Golden Rule Jones was primarily a listings site. The cabal was not incorporated, not yet a splinter under Jennifer Howard's skin. And the fact that I can't remember the first time I noticed half these blogs is, I think, testament to the excellent openness of this world.
This landscape changes fast. About Last Night has itself undergone some semi-dramatic reinvention during the year of its existence. The two major changes: moving from a fixed daily posting to a looser, rolling schedule; and adding, ahem, a co-blogger. In retrospect, both of these seem natural if not inevitable developments, reflecting perhaps the two great distinguishing features of the technology: its instantaneity and the way it facilitates conversation and community. Michael Blowhard happened to reflect on the origins of his site this week, talking about how his and the now-retired Friedrich von B's traditional opening salutations were a vestige of their early practice of simply blogging their email. Although Terry and I don't often include the salutation here, much of our blogging is in that spirit, if not straight from our email. (Although our friendship began in person when I worked for his publisher, it was cemented through a robust email correspondence that began after I moved to Chicago.) Always a shy type, I sometimes still experience a paralyzing brand of stage fright when trying to put together a post; simply typing the words "Dear Terry" at the beginning of the draft is a reliable trick for shaking off my reticence and some of the stiff formality of my early drafts. So, a resounding yes to everything Terry said earlier today about the intensely personal nature of the medium. And, while I don't think the irrelevance of the print media is quite nigh, I do love the way blogs have made stories in publications like the New York Times no longer the last word on a topic, but a starting point for discussion, dispute, elaboration, and amplification from every point of view.
None of these thoughts are particularly original, but today I'll settle for being apropos. I second Terry's thanks to Doug McLennan, all our blogger friends, and especially everyone who reads us. Coattails can be a beautiful thing, and I may have come in on Terry's, but now you're stuck with me!
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, July 14, 2004 | Permanent
TT: One and counting
"About Last Night," the first artsjournal.com blog to go live, made its debut a year ago today. Go here to read what I posted on July 14, 2003.
I was, so far as I know, the first widely read print-media critic to launch a daily blog about the arts, and my single-handed assault on the blogosphere didn’t exactly trigger an avalanche of imitators (though the artsjournal.com blogroster now contains a number of other familiar faces, and Alex Ross of The New Yorker, much to my delight, recently started a blog of his own). Instead, something far more interesting and significant happened: the blogosphere invaded the print media. Several of the artbloggers listed in the "Sites to See" module of the right-hand column, many of whom started blogging before I did and most of whom were unknown before they started blogging, now write for newspapers and magazines. Yet they continue to blog as well. Why? Because blogging, which operates according to its own homegrown rules, has evolved into a brand-new style of journalism indigenous to the Web, one whose exciting blend of immediacy and informality has its own unique appeal to readers—and writers. I know I'm hooked.
A theologian I know once told me that technology is not merely neutral, but a positive good. I'm no Luddite, but I had trouble getting his point. Now, after a year of blogging, I understand it completely. Blogs are the 21st-century counterpart of the periodical essays of the eighteenth century, the Spectators and Ramblers and Idlers that supplied familiar essayists with what was then the ideal vehicle for their intensely personal reflections. Blogging stands in the sharpest possible contrast to the corporate journalism that exerted so powerful an effect on writing in the twentieth century. Instead of the homogenized semi-anonymity of a mass-circulation magazine, it offers writers the opportunity to practice the old-fashioned art of individual journalism, self-published, unmediated, and interactive. That's a good example of what my theologian friend meant: the highest purpose of the Internet, a seemingly impersonal piece of postmodern technology, has turned out to be its unique ability to bring creatures of flesh and blood closer together.
I started "About Last Night" because I'd come to believe that the print media were losing interest in the fine arts. I suspected that serious arts journalism was destined to migrate to the Web, which is the perfect medium for cultural niche marketing, and it struck me that as an arts journalist, I might therefore do well to investigate its possibilities. At the same time, I never meant for this blog to be devoted to high art alone. Of the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve posted here to date, I think these might be the most important:
I don’t think The Long Goodbye is as good a book as The Great Gatsby, and I believe the difference between the two books is hugely important. But I also don’t think it’s absurd to compare them, and I probably re-read one as often as the other.
The point is that I accept the existence of hierarchies of quality without feeling oppressed by them. I have plenty of room in my life for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler, for Aaron Copland and Louis Armstrong, for George Balanchine and Fred Astaire, and I love them all without confusing their relative merits, much less jumping to the conclusion that all merits are relative.
In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s part of what this blog is all about—a big part.
It sure is, and it still is.
To all of you who read "About Last Night" regularly, I want to express my deepest gratitude for your support. You are why I write this blog.
As for Our Girl in Chicago, who became my co-blogger last fall, I can’t say enough good things about her. "About Last Night" is a better blog—and infinitely more fun to write—because of her "additional dialogue."
And to the other bloggers out there in the 'sphere who have befriended and advised me, thanks for being so patient with a terminally unhip boomer who decided to get crazy and plunge head first into your brave new world. You’re teaching me a lot, every day.
Much else has happened to me in the year just past. I published a book, wrote another one, and had a third come out in paperback. The Teachout Museum, which started out as a couple of prints on my wall, became a serious and passionate pursuit, so much so that I’ll be giving a lecture about it next March at my favorite museum, the Phillips Collection (watch this space for details). I visited a Maine island, rode a roller coaster for the first time, consumed an enormous amount of art, and was investigated by the FBI. But of all the things I did, I suspect that starting this blog will prove in the not-so-long run to have been the most consequential. I’ve been present at the creation (well, almost) of a totally new journalistic medium, the first one to come along since the invention of TV, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.
So I’ll close by thanking Doug McLennan, the mastermind of artsjournal.com, who called me up out of the blue one afternoon and said, "How’d you like to write a blog for me?" Three weeks later—one year ago today—"About Last Night" was born. Since then, it’s racked up more than 430,000 page views and is now being read in thirteen time zones around the world. That's a start.
Blogging is a fugitive medium, which is at once its charm and its flaw. I’ve spun some of what I’ve written for "About Last Night" into print-media pieces (and vice versa), but most of it has disappeared into the ether. On the other hand, everything posted on this blog is electronically archived, and I recently spent a sunny afternoon trolling through my postings of the past year. Here are some that caught my eye:
• "In the words of one of the gazillion e-mails I've received since opening for business on Monday, 'Do you realize that once you start blogging, you cease to have a life?' That's what a new blogger likes to hear at 1:18 in the morning as he wonders whether he remembered to put in all the serial commas." (Alias terryteachout.com, July 16, 2003.)
• "I’ve come to feel that as a rule, the thing I do best is point people in the direction of that which and those whom I love. Let somebody else ice Piss Christ—I’d rather spend my remaining hours on earth telling you how beautiful The Open Window is, especially if you’ve never seen it before. In the long run, silence may be the most powerful form of negative criticism." (Let’s drop the big one (and see what happens), August 6.)
• "If we think a house or painting or photograph or ballet is beautiful, we want it with us always. But the catch is that the more pieces of the past we succeed in preserving, the less space and time we have in which to display and contemplate the present. Too many lovers of art live exclusively in the past. I understand the temptation—I feel it myself—but it strikes me that we have an obligation to keep one eye fixed in the moment, and that becomes a lot harder to do when you’re pulling a long, long train of classics of which the new is merely the caboose. Needless to say, this is a problem without a solution. The only thing you can do is fiddle with the proportions and try to get them right, or at least righter." (Going, going, September 25.)
• "Somebody (me, I guess) ought to write an essay about how jazz has come to be used as a cultural signifier in films, TV shows, and ads, an infallible indicator of upper-middle-class hipness. That’s part of the reason why a pathbreaking musical statement has become so ubiquitous—but not the biggest part. Kind of Blue, lest we forget, was always popular. It was a hit in 1959, too. Why? Because for all its undeniable radicalism, Kind of Blue is also accessible and memorable. You don’t have to know what modal improvisation is to revel in its spare, lucid textures. You don’t even have to know who Miles, Trane, Cannonball, and Bill Evans were. Yes, they’re doing astounding things—but they don’t hit you over the head with their innovations, or try to tie your ears in knots. The results are simple, beautiful, and new, and the last of these is not the first." (Kind of omnipresent, October 21.)
• "Above all, blogging is fun. And that’s one thing I don’t get from Jennifer Howard’s eat-your-spinach account of life in the blogosphere: a sense of how much fun we’re all having out here. ‘We’ meaning TMFTML and Maud and Cup of Chicha and Old Hag and Bookslut and the thousands of nice people who visit us every day. It’s not a private party. There’s no secret handshake. All you have to do is click on a link. Or not. But we hope you do." (Not exactly Heathers, November 15.)
• "Is it just me, or are any of you out there offended by the tone of the countless clever-clever op-eds, think pieces, and thumbsuckers of the past couple of days that have sought to ‘interpret’ and pseudo-intellectualize the Michael Jackson story? Jackson's arrest isn't a Media Phenomenon, nor is it a sign of the times. It's a news story about an alleged pedophile, one who has spent millions of dollars to keep himself out of jail. And I don't give a good goddamn about the social significance of his mug shot, either. If he did what he's said to have done, I want to see him in a jail cell, and once he's there, my interest in him will be over and done with." (While I’m at it, November 22.)
• "I believe devoutly and passionately in the permanent significance of classical music. What’s more, I believe truly great music is being written right this minute. But pop culture isn’t going away, and that means symphony orchestras have to build their own audiences. If they don’t, nobody else will. And if their audiences are shrinking, it means they’re doing a bad job—period. It doesn’t matter whether they’re playing well. It doesn’t matter whether they’re playing good music. If nobody’s listening, something’s wrong. You can spend all day assigning blame, or you can try to figure out what to do to change things. There is no third way. Minds won’t open themselves." (It’s dark in here, damn it, December 1.)
• "Jenni Ringley has earned herself a footnote in the history of the information age: she will be remembered as the Milton Berle of the Web. She was present at the creation of a radically innovative form of interpersonal communication, and used it to show the world her underwear. What’s more, the world turned out to be interested in her underwear—briefly. Then something more interesting came along, and Jenni’s underwear turned out not to be soooooo special after all." (14:59, December 9.)
• "I’m always struck by the small things that distinguish my home town in southeast Missouri from my adopted home, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I’d never really noticed until today, for instance, but the only houses that are architecturally 'modern' in any recognizable sense are a half-dozen Frank Lloyd Wright knockoffs built in the late Fifties. Similarly, you rarely see reproductions of modern art on anybody’s walls. It’s as though time had stopped in 1900." (A visit to Red America, December 23.)
• "Once a year, every working art critic should be required to attend a blockbuster show on a weekend or holiday. He should buy a ticket with his own money, line up with the citizenry, fight his way through the crowds, listen to an audio tour—and pay close attention to what his fellow museumgoers are saying and doing. In short, he should be forced to remind himself on a regular basis of how ordinary people experience art, and marvel at the fact that they keep coming back in spite of everything." (When size matters, January 7, 2004.)
• "6. Blogging puts professionals and amateurs on an even footing. That’s why so many professional writers dislike and distrust it." (Notes on blogging, February 1.)
• "All I can say for sure is that I’ve never been intimate with anyone lacking a sense of humor, or truly loved a work of art by a humorless artist. That might just be the most revealing thing about me." (Clubbability, February 27.)
• "Three months ago, All in the Dances didn’t exist. Over the years I’d told dozens of people all about George Balanchine’s life and work, but every time I had to start fresh. Now there’s an inch-thick pile of paper on my kitchen table with a title page on top, the gateway to a world I made, and even though I’ll be reviewing a Broadway play tomorrow morning, then writing my Washington Post column in the afternoon, part of me is still back in that world of shadows." (Finishing the book, March 31.)
• "I’d rather go to good plays than bad ones, just as I’d rather be happy than unhappy—and maybe that explains why I’m a critic instead of a creator. I’ve been desperately unhappy on many occasions in my life, but never did it occur to me that I might profit from my misery, much less write a sonata about it. All I wanted was for it to stop." (Gladder to be happy, April 22.)
• "At the time of the original publication of one of the best essays in A Terry Teachout Reader, I received a letter of praise from a well-known author who singled out for particular comment a sentence I hadn’t written. To be sure, it had been implicit in my draft, but I didn’t make it fully manifest: my editor did the job for me, and I gladly accepted his contribution. That sentence now appears in the Teachout Reader without benefit of asterisk or footnote. It’s taken for granted that I wrote it, and I don’t propose to blow the whistle on myself now. That’s what good editors do—they make your stuff better by any means necessary, and they keep their mouths shut about it." (Ghost writers in the sky, May 13.)
• "Few biographers and fewer critics long outlive their own time, and I doubt I’ll be one of them. More likely I will go down in history as the first known owner of Hart-Davis 631, and in 2104 some art historian specializing in the Edwardian era will click on that entry in a computerized catalogue raisonné, scratch his head, and say, ‘Who was that fellow with the odd name? Did it ever occur to him that the only thing he’d be remembered for was having owned a Max Beerbohm caricature and edited an H.L. Mencken anthology?’ Indeed it did—and let it be said, if not necessarily remembered, that the prospect made me smile." (A peep into the future, June 7.)
• "By removing myself from the scenes of my professional excesses—the desk, the computer, the city itself—I had catapulted myself out of my confining routine. Instead of reconstituting it in Cold Spring, I happily frittered away the better part of two whole days without a second thought. Anywhere you go, there you are: so runs a favorite saying of mine, yet in my case it turned out to be not so true as I’d always thought. Yes, I was still me, but a slightly different me, one unexpectedly content to be idle. Perhaps I had rediscovered a part of me that my father had buried under the weight of his own obsessions. Perhaps I had simply figured out for myself what my friends always knew, which is that to do and to be are not necessarily the same thing, at least not when you’re sitting by the Hudson River, watching the sun set behind a green-topped mountain." (Nothing to do, June 24.)
• "Middle age has its cold consolations, one of which is the knowledge that you’re not nearly as important as you thought you were, or hoped someday to become. I used to save copies of everything I wrote, and for a few years I even kept an up-to-date bibliography of my magazine pieces! Now I marvel at the vanity that once led me to think my every printed utterance worthy of preservation." (Remnants, July 9, 2004.)
Good times and bum times,
I've seen them all and, my dear,
I'm still here.
Plush velvet sometimes,
Sometimes just pretzels and beer,
But I'm here.
I've run the gamut,
A to Z.
Three cheers and dammit,
C'est la vie. I got through all of last year
And I'm here.
Lord knows, at least I've been there,
And I'm here!
Look who's here!
I'm still here!
I’ve been preoccupied (my mother broke her arm yesterday) and only just read about the widely reported skirmish in which Stanley Crouch took a slap at Dale Peck.
I'm no admirer of Dale Peck, so this is presumably where I should toss off some witty plague-on-both-your-houses crack. Unfortunately, I don’t think what Crouch did is even slightly amusing. I think it’s disgusting—though not exactly surprising. As owners of A Terry Teachout Reader are well aware, I think Crouch is a musical ignoramus with an embarrassingly purple prose style. Among other repellent things, he flirts avidly with reverse racism in his jazz criticism. He's more than happy to play the race card whenever it suits his interests (as he has done with me), though he writes contemptuously of others who do the same thing. Some, I’m told, find him a charming rascal, but I’m not nearly enough of a hypocrite to be charmed by people who make nicey-nice in private after they insult you in public. I didn’t think my opinion of him could sink much lower. I was mistaken.
I decided some time ago to have nothing more to do with Stanley Crouch. Since then, I’ve declined invitations to appear with him in public and on radio, nor will I knowingly participate in any published symposium in which he takes part. As far as I’m concerned, he’s an unperson. And instead of tittering over his latest escapade, I think the rest of the literary world would now do well to do likewise.
• I scaled back my performance-going in preparation for the coming torrent of work, but I did get to Central Park on Saturday to see the Public Theater’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Much Ado About Nothing, which I’ll be covering for The Wall Street Journal.
• Though I spent much of the rest of the weekend blogging, I did make time to watch three DVR-stockpiled movies, the best of which was Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes. Even though I’m a devoted balletomane, I somehow made it to the age of 48 without having seen this most celebrated of highbrow backstage movies, and Toni Bentley has been pushing me for months to plug that hole in my cultural armor. Now I’ve done so, and loved every minute of it, for The Red Shoes mixes over-the-top and stiff-upper-lip in a way I found irresistible. What nobody ever told me is that it’s also a smart movie, smart in a way to which (say) the preposterous The Turning Point can’t even begin to compare, firmly rooted in sharp-eyed observation and executed on the highest possible level of craftsmanship. I suppose it’s better to have seen it as a teenager, but I wouldn’t have missed my belated first viewing of The Red Shoes for the world.
I also looked at two well-known Hollywood movies of the Forties, Michael Curtiz’s no-nonsense adaptation of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf (strong performances by Edward G. Robinson and Ida Lupino, plus one of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s best scores) and William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (high-minded treacle, compellingly acted and accompanied by another superb score, this time by Hugo Friedhofer).
• Now playing on iTunes: Constant Lambert’s score for Tiresias, a 1951 ballet by Sir Frederick Ashton. It was the last composition Lambert completed before dying of drink that same year. Between watching The Red Shoes, re-reading Anthony Powell’s Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (in which Lambert figures prominently, thinly disguised as "Hugh Moreland"), and watching the Lincoln Center Festival’s Ashton Celebration (which featured Dante Sonata, set to Lambert's orchestral arrangement of Liszt's Apres un lecture de Dante), it was inevitable that I’d want to hear some of Lambert’s own inimitably piquant music. What a tragedy his early death was!
"I was moderately happy. At least at the moment I was happy, but not for the reasons given above. The reason I was happy was that I was reading for perhaps the fourth or fifth time a Raymond Chandler novel. It gave me pleasure (no, I'll put it more strongly: it didn't just give me pleasure, it was the only way I could stand my life) to sit there in old goldgreen Louisiana under the levee and read, not about General Beauregard, but about Philip Marlowe taking a bottle out of his desk drawer in his crummy office in seedy Los Angeles in 1933 and drinking alone and all those from-nowhere people living in stucco bungalows perched in Laurel Canyon. The only way I could stand my life in Louisiana, where I had everything, was to read about crummy lonesome Los Angeles in the 1930's. Maybe that should have told me something. If I was happy, it was an odd sort of happiness."
Have you written about the state of music criticism in major daily newspapers? The realization becomes stronger with every review that I read, especially of those specific concerts that I attend, that the "music critics" [of my local newspaper] are not critics, but occasional reviewers and mainly typists. One in particular writes like an adolescent. How does he get away with it? He writes as if he has no editor. He is condescending, limited, contradictory and flatulent with zircon-encrusted notions about relative value/new music/warhorse programming and other phony issues. He does not know much and it seems that whatever editor he has knows even less.
Is this the case in most cities? I mainly read the New York Times and do find individual writer bias. But the quality of writing is much higher than in -----. Please review the reviewers some time. Maybe I am out of touch and what I read in ----- is as good as it gets. But I am disappointed that the newspapers get away with pretending that their coverage is real or useful. If you have a comment, please relay it.
I edited out the name of the city in question because I’ve never read the work of the critics to whom my correspondent refers. In any case, much the same thing could easily be said of countless other provincial arts critics. It’s a chronic problem, one that will never be cured, though it can be ameliorated to some extent, at least for a time.
My correspondent puts his finger on one part of the problem when he remarks of a particular critic that "whatever editor he has knows even less." Of course there are any number of honorable exceptions—I wouldn’t care to tell you how often my own editors have saved me from dumb blunders—but given the way newspapers operate, it’s inevitable that many, perhaps most of their arts critics will usually be hired and supervised by editors who simply don’t know what they’re writing about.
What to do? I blogged
about the problem of incompetent critics a year ago, and offered this partial solution:
It's not a popular view among my colleagues, but I think most of the best critics—not all, but most—have had at least some professional experience in at least one of the arts about which they write. I know I try to write not as a lofty figure from on high, smashing stone tablets over the heads of ballerinas and prima donnas, but as someone who has spent his entire adult life immersed in the world of art, both as a critic and as a practitioner. I was also fortunate to have served my apprenticeship as a critic in a middle-sized city, because it taught me that criticism is not written in a vacuum. It touches real people, people of flesh and blood, and sometimes it hurts them. If you don't know that—and I mean really know it—you shouldn't be a critic. And you’re more likely to know it when you’ve lived and worked in a city small enough that there's a better-than-even chance of your meeting the people you write about at intermission.
Unfortunately, such critics are rarely content to stay in the middle-sized cities where they’re so desperately needed. Instead, they get pulled up the food chain to big-city papers, leaving their former readers bereft.
So is there an alternative to bad newspaper criticism? Of course—and you’re looking at it. Those who know better than the maladroit critics of their hometown papers should put their money where their mouths are and start arts blogs. I’ll tell you a little secret: newspaper editors and publishers are incredibly thin-skinned, so much so that they’ll do anything to avoid answering their detractors, at least in public. But the recent experience of media-savvy political blogs suggests that an alert, aggressive, well-informed blogger with patience and determination can make a difference, and I think that’s no less true when it comes to the arts. Even if you don’t persuade the local paper to hire a better critic, you’ll have created an alternative voice, one that might in time become important and influential. Believe me, stranger things have happened in the blogosphere.
I was reading Anthony Powell’s At Lady Molly’s as I ate lunch at a neighborhood restaurant the other afternoon. A waitress approached the table and asked, "Hey, whatcha reading?" Long experience has taught me never to answer this question other than noncommittally, so I showed her the spine of the book and said, in a fairly friendly tone of voice, "Oh, just a novel." She lit up like a sunbeam and replied, "Wow, that’s cool!"
The week before, I'd had a less satisfying encounter with a waitress who took an interest in my bound galley of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Collected Stories: A Friend of Kafka to Passions. She asked what I was reading. "A book of short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer," I replied. She looked at me blankly, so I added, "He wrote in Yiddish," to which she responded, "Yiddish? What’s that?"
In Manhattan, encounters like these are the price you pay for reading in restaurants, and they usually make me squirm. I think the origins of my discomfort must go all the way back to my small-town youth, when I was rarely to be seen without a book in hand. Even as a child, my reading habits were fairly advanced, and I got kidded mercilessly for toting around such triple-decker novels as Moby-Dick and Les Miserables. The teasing of my peers had an aggressive edge ("Hey, man, Teachout reads the encyclopedia!"), whereas my elders were merely puzzled, but the net result was to make me self-conscious whenever anyone asked what I was reading. Nearly four decades later, that question still makes me tighten up a bit, fully expecting to be razzed, and though it rarely happens nowadays, the resulting exchanges nonetheless tend to leave me feeling like a lifetime member of the awkward squad.
From childhood onward, I was acutely aware of the gap that separated me from my classmates. It’s not that I was treated badly, because I wasn’t. Most of the residents of Smalltown, U.S.A., treated me quite nicely, rather like a cute little dog who could extract square roots with his paw. The problem was that they treated me differently, and once it was clear that I was also musically talented, my situation became impossible. By then, everybody in town knew who I was—Bert and Evelyn’s boy, the smart one—and there was no hiding from my citywide reputation as Smalltown’s number-one egghead.
What saved me, paradoxically, was that I was physically clumsy. Even if I’d wanted to be a rebel, there wasn't a whole lot I could do other than read, write, and play music, a state of affairs that forced me to accept myself as I was. What’s more, I was always sensitive to beauty—first in words, then in music—and so I derived boundless pleasure from my strange appetites. In any case, I was never wholly without friends, and I even managed to find myself a girlfriend midway through high school, a development that made my father breathe easier, he having been deathly afraid that his oldest son would grow up...well, peculiar. (That was never in the cards, but it wasn’t something I could have discussed with him, even reassuringly.)
Once I left Smalltown for the big city, I started to make friends whose interests resembled mine more closely, and in time learned to suppress the self-consciousness of my childhood. Yet it can still be inflamed by a certain kind of kidding, some of which has lately been occasioned by the blogosphere-wide spread of the Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index. You’d be surprised—or not—by how many bloggers have posted comments about the TCCI that basically boil down to "Dude, this thing’s soooo highbrow!" Such talk rarely fails to trigger the same squirmy sensation I experience whenever a well-meaning stranger asks what I’m reading. Even now, there’s a part of me that wishes I knew all about baseball instead of ballet.
I’m sure this is part of why I later fell in love with westerns and film noir, and it probably also has something to do with my youthful decision to concentrate on playing jazz instead of classical music. I don’t mean to denigrate those pop-culture pursuits—far from it—but for me, they were as close as I could come to being a regular guy, and I was distressed to discover that they didn’t do much to narrow the gap. Being a John Wayne fan (which I am) helps a little, maybe even more than a little, but being a Raymond Chandler fan does nothing to disarm those who don’t read any books at all.
If I sound neurotic about my interests, I’m not. I like being a drama critic who collects American prints, hangs out with jazz musicians, and writes books about people like George Balanchine and H.L. Mencken. I wouldn’t have me any other way. But you never get completely over your childhood, and my guess is that I’ll spend the rest of my life being evasive whenever a waitress asks what I’m reading—at least until one glances at my copy of The Locusts Have No King and says, "Cool, but I like A Time to Be Born better." As the Duke might have said, that'll be the day.
Stunned is the word for the way I feel as a result of the continuing flood of links to the Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index. I’m not even trying to keep up with the responses anymore, but it seems that everybody and his cat is taking the TCCI and commenting on it. (For the final tally of scored responses by "Sites to See" artbloggers—the last one I’m going to post, anyway—go here.) It’s a mystery to me that a quiz I threw together to amuse and edify my readers ended up being the Shot Heard 'Round The Blogosphere. "About Last Night" has never pulled so much traffic in a single week, and my hope is that at least a few of the strangers who came here to take the TCCI will become regular readers.
Conversely, the response to Friday’s late-afternoon announcement that President Bush will be nominating me to sit on the
National Council on the Arts, about which more here, is only just starting to trickle in. So far, it's equally gratifying, albeit in a different way. Pre-confirmation etiquette forbids my responding other than in generalities, but I thank all those who’ve written and posted—well, nearly all—for their kind and supportive words. (As for the exception, you know who you are, but believe me, I’m still laughing.)
I’m ramping up to a couple of fairly intense weeks of writing and performance-going, meaning that blogging may get a bit thin at times. Fortunately, Our Girl is back in Chicago, and I’ve no doubt that she’ll take up the slack with her customary verve and charm.
For the moment, be sure to watch this space on Wednesday for a very special group of postings about which I’ll say nothing in advance other than that they mark a great occasion….
UPDATE: The National Endowment for the Arts has just issued a press release about my nomination. To read it, go here.
Classic film noir (the black-and-white kind) has been inexcusably slow to make its way onto DVD, but a whole freshet of noir titles was released the other day, the greatest of which is Out of the Past. Most buffs regard this 1947 Jacques Tourneur picture as the quintessential film noir, and it definitely has all the expected accoutrements: Robert Mitchum as a hapless anti-hero dragged out of his nine-to-five life by the hand of fate, Jane Greer as the most fatale of all possible femmes, a Daniel Mainwaring script full of convincingly counterfeited Chandlerisms, malevolently dark cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, an age-of-anxiety score by Roy Webb…what’s not to like? As for Tourneur’s direction, it’s full of atmosphere and self-effacing ingenuity from the opening credits onward. With the possible exception of Canyon Passage, he never made a better film.
Takers of the TCCI will recall that I preferred Out of the Past to Double Indemnity, though not by much. Even if you beg to differ, I can’t imagine failing to find it on the top-five classic noir list of any serious moviegoer, along with In a Lonely Place, Detour, and either Gun Crazy (also newly reissued), Scarlet Street (whose current DVD version was ineptly transferred from a bad print), or Touch of Evil (which is less a film noir than a commentary on the genre, though marvelously overripe and excellent of its kind). Some other favorites of mine are The Big Combo, Raw Deal, Pickup on South Street, The Narrow Margin, On Dangerous Ground, Night and the City, and Pitfall, the last four of which have yet to make it to DVD, though you can often find used VHS copies if you look hard enough.
If Out of the Past tops the list, it’s because Tourneur and his collaborators struck just the right balance between action and fatalism, a combination nicely caught in this crisp exchange between Mitchum and Greer. They're ostensibly talking about roulette, but of course they mean something completely different:
"That’s not the way to win."
"Is there a way to win?"
"There’s a way to lose more slowly."
The DVD is nothing fancy, a clean, well-lighted print and not much else—no trailer, for instance, and James Ursini’s commentary sounds too off-the-cuff to suit me. Still, it’ll do. Film noir, I’m told, is a largely masculine taste, though I had no difficulty in hooking Our Girl (one look at In a Lonely Place and she was a goner). I once called
it "the porn of pessimists," and certainly some folks just aren’t on its bleak wavelength. But if you’re even slightly convertible, Out of the Past will get you there with bullets to spare.
Time once again (well, this is only the second time, but I’m trying to turn it into a trend) for the Monday-morning Web surf. Here are some things that caught my eye:
• Though minimalism has never appealed to me even slightly—not in music, not in the visual arts—the always acute Tyler Green of artsjournal.com's Modern Art Notes puts his finger on why others beg to differ:
For many years now museums have been where secular America goes to church. In an era where most mainstream entertainment is designed to be as baroquely overblown as possible (what else could possibly explain The Rock?), museums provide rich visual quiet.
The current run of minimalism shows makes clearer than ever that museums are the new churches. Some minimalist art is hard, flat and repelling (think Judd, early Stella, Andre). It provides the viewer with something wonderful to look at, but it doesn't give the viewer a place to go within the work (like Matisse does). Instead, it forces the viewer to examine his own response to the work as much as the work itself….
The conventional wisdom in the art world had long been that minimalism is difficult, but strong attendance for minimalism shows exposes that theory as elitist bunk. Museum boards, the folks who fund these shows, apparently love minimalism too. That's no surprise: Museum boards are now what main-line Protestant church boards used to be: the bastion of the moneyed establishment. Museums are the new churches. The sudden prevalence of minimalism makes that clearer than ever.
• Speaking of the other side of the coin, Kyle Gann, another artsjournal.com blogger, writes an epitaph for an unloved corpse:
But I also think that aside from Berio’s Sinfonia, Babbitt’s Philomel, maybe Zimmermann’s Requiem, and a couple of other pieces with textual elements, the entire body of serialist music produced nothing that will ever mean much to anyone beyond composers and new-musicians interested in its technical aspects. There will always be interest in serialist music - it’s always fascinating when people pour tremendous creative energy into something that doesn’t appear to mean anything. Write some apparent nonsense, and people will study it for centuries! - look at the endurance of Finnegans Wake. It’s fascinating that people once wrote music that tried to alienate people. But again, once you reach a certain age it becomes less fascinating, and one can start to feel a certain urgency for connecting with that which can be understood. I think….
• Sarah has a nice post on the relative importance (or unimportance) of first lines in literature. Like most people who’ve worked for newspapers for any length of time, I’m acutely lead-conscious. I can’t continue writing a piece until I have the first sentence locked in (though I don’t always write the rest of the piece in beginning-to-end order). Books, I think, are different—you usually don’t pick a book up unless you already have a reason to read it—and I never judge them by their first lines. Instead, I use what I call the "core-sampling" method, opening the book at random to two or three different spots to get a feel for how well it’s written. If I’m disappointed every time (or if I run across one or more obvious untruths in a work of nonfiction), chances are I won’t go on with it.
Having said this, I’ll add that my electronic commonplace book does contain a section called "Opening Lines, Great." Here’s my favorite one: "No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear." How could you not keep reading?
• Others have linked to "Hip, But Inscrutable: Music Reviews at NPR," a genteel rant against obscurantism by Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, NPR’s ombudsman, but his piece was so boneheaded that I wanted to make sure it reached as many readers as possible:
NPR regularly reviews new music. This is good, since it takes NPR listeners out of what is familiar and exposes them to what is happening in other parts of the culture.
The problem, according to some listeners, is that NPR's reviews are too hip to be good journalism. In short, some musical commentary, especially on All Things Considered, is incomprehensible to some listeners, and I confess, to me….
Modern music, and especially rock 'n' roll, was always about who was "in" and who was not. Nothing is more embarrassing than older people claiming to dig the latest sounds.
This is a quandary for NPR. How does NPR reach out to a younger group of listeners without irritating its older core? If NPR's music journalism is really meant for that younger audience, then irritating older listeners is a price young radio producers are willing to pay.
NPR needs to do music reviews but they need to be written so all listeners are able to understand the criticism and the music. The reviews should give listeners a glimpse of something new, even if it is hard to understand (or like).
Now, I could easily imagine a parallel universe in which these complaints were valid. But when I read the actual reviews singled out by Dvorkin for criticism, I cringed—and not at the reviewers, either. Here, for instance, is a description of the music of the Magnetic Fields:
The songs themselves are the draw. They're disciplined little gems of composition, poison-pen letters set in the first person and caustic, coffee-shop observations propelled by not particularly heroic desires. The best of them tell about being deluded in love or not being able to let go of an old flame. And even under Merritt's dour storm clouds, they gleam.
If NPR’s ombudsman is concerned about the accessibility of a review like that, then NPR needs a new ombudsman.
• The New York Times ran an important story last week about ArtistShare, the new Web-based music-distribution technology that Maria Schneider is using to distribute her latest CD:
In the last decade, Maria Schneider, who regularly wins prizes for best composer and best big-band arranger in jazz, has made three albums on the Enja record label. Each sold about 20,000 copies — very good numbers for jazz. She didn't make a dime off any of them. On two of them, she lost money.
So recently, she went off the grid. She became the first musician to sign with a company called ArtistShare. Rather than go through labels, distributors and retailers, ArtistShare sells discs over the Web and turns over all the proceeds (minus a small fee) to the artist.
Her new CD, "Concert in the Garden," went on sale last Thursday exclusively through www.mariaschneider.com. If it sells one-quarter as many copies as any of her previous discs, she will do better than break even. If it sells half as many, she will earn tens of thousands of dollars.
"Making an album takes lots of time and effort," Ms. Schneider said in her apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. "It takes me two or three years to write the music. Then there are the rehearsals, the studio time, the mixing and mastering. It would be nice to get something back for it. The thought that I could actually make a profit off my records — that's unbelievable, really."…
If you want to read more about the future of recorded music, click here and ponder.
• Also of interest is the Times’ story about the decision of Pilobolus Dance Theater to hire Itamar Kubovy as executive director and give him the authority to overrule any of the four artistic directors, who had hitherto run the company by collective consensus throughout its three-decade-long history. I’ve spent quite a bit of time watching Pilobolus up close (I even appear in Last Dance, Mirra Bank’s 2002 cinéma-vérité documentary about the making of "A Selection," on which the members of Pilobolus collaborated with Maurice Sendak), and I’ve long wondered whether the group would manage to survive the growing internal strife caused by its laborious manner of decision-making. It seems they were worried about the same thing:
Mr. Kubovy agreed that the situation bears an eerie likeness to John Guare's "Lydie Breeze" plays, which he directed four summers ago at the New York Theater Workshop. Set in the late 19th century, the tale begins with three men and a female mentor who set up a commune on Nantucket. Rising tensions within the group eventually lead to murder and suicide.
Things have never gotten so dire at Pilobolus, and if Mr. Kubovy can help it, they never will. "A director's role is to protect the play," he said. "I feel like the play here is Pilobolus, and I'm the protector; I have to make sure that individual impulses don't run wild at the wrong moment."
I wish him the best of luck.
• Here's Mark Cousins, writing in Prospect:
The whole point about cinema, surely, is the close-up of the human face. Huge images such as the Sphinx, Mount Rushmore and the colossal statues in Greece and Rome established the sense of wonder to be had in gazing at magnified physiognomy, but until the movies, such depictions were rare. Even in vast paintings - of battles, landscapes, coronations - the human beings tended to be no more than twice or thrice our size. But Greta Garbo's inscrutable face was hundreds of times bigger than that of those who read their own thoughts into it. Therein lies the wonder of the movies.
It is perhaps surprising, therefore, that cinema is currently undergoing a flight from close-ups. It does this every now and again, as if bored with the effortless way in which macro-imagery can enrapture….
"For I am like a passenger waiting for his ship at a war-time port. I do not know on which day it will sail, but I am ready to embark at a moment’s notice. I leave the sights of the city unvisited. I do not want to see the fine new speedway along which I shall never drive, nor the grand new theatre, with all its modern appliances, in which I shall never sit. I read the papers and flip the pages of a magazine, but when someone offers to lend me a book I refuse because I may not have time to finish it, and in any case with this journey before me I am not of a mind to interest myself in it. I strike up acquaintances at the bar or the card-table, but I do not try to make friends with people from whom I shall so soon be parted. I am on the wing."
I can’t quite believe that "About Last Night" has come to the end of its first week (yes, I’m taking the weekend off—I need some sleep!). Your response has been phenomenal and gratifying. I didn’t realize there would be so many people out there who were looking for a site like this. As you can see, your mail is becoming an ever-expanding feature of my postings. I love hearing from you.
What’s up next week? Beats me, though I can promise that you’ll be seeing some new Top Fives in the right-hand column. Probably I’ll post a bit less—I have a couple of bad deadlines just over the horizon—but there will always be fresh content every weekday, plus all the surprises I can think of.
Please make "About Last Night" a regular part of your morning Web routine—and, as always, tell your friends to pay a visit to www.terryteachout.com. If you have an arts blog to which you make regular postings, link to me and let me know.
I’m definitely having fun yet.
P.S. Do you find the typography of this blog difficult to read? If so, please send me an e-mail telling me what parts are too small or too dim, and please also tell me what browser/system you're using. I'm not sure how much we can do to help you, but we'll sure try.
I reviewed the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park production of Henry V, directed by Mark Wing-Davey and starring Liev Schreiber (who is really, really good), in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. Here’s the money graf:
"Up until the war scenes proper, all the energy of this production is comic, with Mr. Schreiber the only straight face on stage. Everybody else is trying to get laughs by any means necessary. Even the low comedians are painted with a too-wide brush: Bronson Pinchot’s Pistol is a pompadoured idiot with a Tony Curtis-type Lawng Oyland accent whom we find amusing himself in a latrine, a girlie magazine in his free hand. The fact that so much of the slapstick is clever (though not that particular bit) only makes matters worse. By the time intermission rolled around, I felt as if I’d been watching an old friend skinned alive by a stand-up comedian who told really funny jokes as he wielded the knife."
No link, alas, but the "Weekend Journal" section of the Friday Journal is definitely worth a buck, with or without me.
I’ve been mentioning Brazil a lot this week. Small wonder—I’ve been up to my ears in Brazilian music for the past few months, and loving it. As I recently confessed in the Washington Post, "If the Great God of Art told me I could only listen to one kind of popular music for the rest of my life, and that it couldn’t be jazz, I’d take a deep breath—a very deep breath—and say, ‘O.K., make it Brazilian.’" (This piece was picked up by a Brazilian newspaper, which translated it, logically enough, into Portuguese: "Se o Grande Deus da Arte me dissesse que eu poderia ouvir apenas um tipo de música popular para o resto da minha vida, com exceção do jazz, eu respiraria fundo bem fundo e diria: ‘Tudo bem, pode ser a brasileira.’" It’s much prettier that way, don’t you think?)
On Wednesday, I went to the Jazz Standard to hear Trio da Paz, a Brazilian jazz trio you probably haven’t heard of—yet—unless you happen to share my obsession (though you may possibly know about guitarist Romero Lubambo, who plays on Brazilian Duos, the gorgeous CD that turned me on to Luciana Souza). They’ve been slowly but steadily building up a following in New York, and this well-attended gig undoubtedly brought them a bunch of new fans. Me, I find them utterly entrancing, and go to hear them whenever they perform in New York. Though Trio da Paz never plays straight-ahead four-four swing, preferring the sinuous lope of the samba, there’s something about their spare, airy sound that reminds me of the deep-dish groove of Count Basie’s rhythm section. If I may lapse into jazz for a moment, these guys don’t just have great time—they’ve got time-and-a-half.
While I’m at it, I want to say a word about the Jazz Standard. Talk to musicians about jazz clubs and you’ll hear…well, a whole lot of bitching. (Among musicians, unsatisfactory clubs are known as "toilets.") But there is a very short list of New York night spots that treat both patrons and artists in a civilized fashion, and the Standard is on it. Every time I go there, I feel as though I were visiting a place whose owners like jazz, which is a lot rarer than you might suppose. It helps that the Standard shares a kitchen with Blue Smoke, the high-end barbecue palace upstairs, meaning that you can eat dinner there without running the risk of an untimely hospitalization.
As you will recall from yesterday’s "Words to the Wise," the Maria Schneider Orchestra opens tonight at the Standard for a three-day run. If you have something better to do, kindly send me an express e-mail and tell me what it is.
This exchange with Paul Johnson, author of Modern Times, was posted yesterday on National Review Online’s The Corner. (Several writers, myself included, were recently invited to supply questions for Johnson to be asked on a PBS show called Uncommon Knowledge. This is from the transcript—the show hasn't aired yet.)
Q. Terry Teachout asks—
A. I know Terry Teachout. He’s a wonderful writer, especially on music.
Q. Terry would like to know if Paul Johnson has a favorite painting by Norman Rockwell.
A (after a long silence while he thinks): The one of the barbershop. All of his paintings are interesting and good and a lot of them are funny. But that is one which clearly has the right to be called a considerable work of work. The actual structure of the painting is marvelous.
How does one go about discovering gems like your new Marin etching? I am just starting out and would like to replace my college-era posters with something more enduring, but I have absolutely no clue how or where to look for such things. I have contemplated purchasing several pieces in the past, but I find art galleries imposing and a little bit scary. How does one learn how to buy art? And how does one know if the prices are inflated? Sorry to burden you with such an odd request, but I can't be the only one who is afraid to embark on this enterprise.
Nothing odd about it. I felt the same way when I first started going to galleries, though I think in my case it arose from a fear of looking dumb, coupled with the reflexive embarrassment that Midwestern WASPs feel at the thought of discussing money with strangers. But as Anthony Powell wrote in A Question of Upbringing, "Later in life, I learnt that many things one may require have to be weighed against one’s dignity, which can be an insuperable barrier against advancement in almost any direction." The first step in the process of smashing through that barrier is screwing up your courage and saying to the ominous-looking person in charge, "Uh, what does that pretty purple-and-blue one cost?" Once you do this, you will have lost your virginity and can proceed at will. It only hurts the first time. Very often—though not always—you will quickly discover that the folks who run galleries are nice, helpful human beings who wouldn’t dream of embarrassing a potential customer. (Many galleries, by the way, have printed price lists of the works on display at the front desk. Ask.)
Are the prices inflated? Sometimes. How do you know? You don’t. That’s why God made computers. The Internet is without question the most valuable educational tool available to budding young art buyers, especially if you’re looking (as you should be) for "multiples," meaning works of art which exist in multiple copies, i.e., etchings, woodcuts, or signed limited-edition lithographs and screenprints. Galleries dealing in multiples can be found in most major cities, and many of them also have Web sites. A good Web site features thumbnail images of the pieces in a gallery’s inventory (which can usually be enlarged). Most of the time it also includes prices, and if it doesn’t, all you have to do is send the gallery an e-mail asking for the price of a specific piece, which is less anxiety-inducing than asking in person. Once you’ve spent a few Web-browsing sessions engaged in competitive shopping, you’ll start to get a feel for whose prices are inflated and whose aren’t. Generally speaking, the Web has helped to bring on-line prices into broad accord, but I was looking for a particular Helen Frankenthaler screenprint last month and discovered that there was a $3,000 difference in price between the least and most expensive copies. (Guess which one I bought?)
Don’t buy art until you’ve looked at quite a bit of it, both off and on line, and know which artists speak to you most persuasively. The trick is to reconcile your tastes with your budget. I’m interested in American art, not only because I like it but because much of it is still affordable (also, there are a whole lot of phony European art prints out there). Many fine 19th- and 20th-century American artists have made prints of various kinds. Start looking, and see what you like best. Read art books. Use Google, searching for both the artist and the medium that interests you. I found my Marin etching by searching for "John Marin" and "etching." Another useful code phrase is "fine prints," which often (but not always) appears on the Web sites of galleries. Remember that inventories turn over, so don’t assume that just because you can’t find what you’re looking for this week, you’ll never be able to find it. Be patient.
What about eBay, you ask? Well, I’ve bought a couple of lovely pieces there, but I can’t recommend it to the novice buyer, simply because you don’t yet know enough to know whether you’re getting (A) an amazing bargain or (B) screwed. I came away clean both times, but I already knew a lot about the artists in question (Nell Blaine and Neil Welliver). Much better to stick to galleries until you find your footing.
Buying art on line isn’t nearly as risky as it sounds. Reputable dealers typically belong to the International Fine Print Dealers Association (whose Web site is a good place to start learning about prints) and advertise that fact on their sites. The more extensive and well-designed the site, the more likely the dealer in question has been around for a while. If you really want to play it safe, which is perfectly all right, the Metropolitan Museum of Art publishes and sells signed limited-edition prints on its Web site. I bought my first piece from them. You should also look at Crown Point Press, a much-admired publisher of prints by a wide assortment of American artists. Both of these sites are completely up front about pricing. Visit them and you’ll start to learn what things cost. In recent months, I’ve also bought from Jane Allinson, Rona Schneider, Flanders Contemporary Art , and K Kimpton , all of whom have good Web sites and are a pleasure to deal with. Tell them I sent you.
If you didn't read yesterday's posting about Harold Bloom on Critical Mass, Erin O'Connor's must-read blog on the academy, take a look at it now.
This is what the blogosphere is all about.
Very interesting debate on John Cage going on over at Forager 23. I actually do like the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, of which I just burned a copy for a friend (they make great ballet music), but as for the later music, I'm with Stravinsky. When he first heard about 4' 33", Cage's "composition" consisting of four minutes and 33 seconds' worth of silence, he allegedly said that he looked forward to similar compositions of greater length from Cage.
On the other hand, there is one quote from Cage in my Almanac file, which I will jump the gun and share with you now: "Forced, nervous laughter takes place when someone is trying to impress somebody for purposes of getting somewhere." I wish I'd said that.
There is a whole room of Morandi up at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum right now as part of their permanent collection show, "Gyroscope." It's a large, cavernous, dark room with no natural light. Each wall is about 20-25 feet long...and has just one tiny, precious, divine Morandi on it. It's a heckuva installation.
I’m there, baby. What time does the next Metroliner leave?
P.S. Jazz singer Kendra Shank writes to say that she liked Karen Wilkin’s quote about Morandi: "For anyone who pays attention, the microcosm of Morandi’s tabletop world becomes vast, the space between objects immense, pregnant, and expressive." She adds that "the same could be said about Shirley Horn’s singing." Could it ever….
I’m pleased (and not a little surprised) to announce that I answered most of my e-mail last night. Mind you, certain replies were a bit concise, but they were all heartfelt. As you can see below, I will be answering some of your letters in public.
Note also that we have our first guest blogger today, East of Ouest, who writes from New York. Other guests are waiting in the wings. Yes, I like the sound of my own voice, but I always wanted to sing with a backup group, and my plan is for "About Last Night" to feature guest bloggers from several cities.
Still more new features will be rolled out over the next few days, including a couple of additional boxes in the right-hand column. We aim to please!
Pardon my redundancy, but if you like "About Last Night," please tell all your art-loving friends to visit www.terryteachout.com. This could be the start of something biggish. Conversely, I'm interested in hearing from you about high-quality arts blogs not already linked in the right-hand column (they don't have to be 100% arty, but the content should be reasonably art-'n'-culture-oriented). I'd like to spread the word about them, too.
A couple of months ago, I hung a poster over my front door, a reproduction of a still life consisting of three boxes, a cup, and a jug, all floating in a neutral-colored void. The painter’s name appears nowhere on the poster, which came from a still-life show at Washington’s Phillips Collection, my favorite museum. Ever since I put it up, at least one visitor per week has asked me who did the painting. You wouldn’t think so plain an image would attract so much attention—I have far more eye-catching items on my walls—but there’s something about it that speaks to a certain kind of person.
Not to keep you in suspense, but the painting in question is a 1953 oil by Giorgio Morandi called, simply, "Still Life." Most of Morandi’s paintings are called "Still Life," and most of them look a lot like this. (This isn’t my poster—it’s another of my favorite Morandis, painted in 1946 and now hanging in London’s Tate Modern.) Morandi was born in Bologna, Italy, in 1890, and died there in 1964, and he spent most of his seemingly uneventful life arranging and rearranging a dozen or so boxes, cups, jugs, bottles, and pitchers on a tabletop, and painting them over and over again. Sometimes he made etchings of his carefully arranged objects, and from time to time he painted a landscape. That’s about all there is to say about him, really, except that he was a very great artist, which is more than enough to say about anybody.
What makes Giorgio Morandi’s paintings so special? To begin with, most people don’t seem to find them so. Though Morandi is renowned in his native Italy, he is unknown in this country save to critics, collectors, and connoisseurs. It’s easy to see why. His art is too quiet and unshowy, too determinedly unfashionable, to draw crowds. It creates its own silence. "Curiously, these deceptively modest paintings, drawings, and prints seem to elicit only two responses: extreme enthusiasm or near-indifference. And yet, this is not surprising, since Morandi’s art makes no effort to be ingratiating or to put itself forward in any way….For anyone who pays attention, the microcosm of Morandi’s tabletop world becomes vast, the space between objects immense, pregnant, and expressive."
That quote is from Karen Wilkin’s Giorgio Morandi. Wilkin is one of America’s finest art critics (as well as a damned good freelance curator), and her profusely illustrated monograph makes the case for Morandi far better than I could ever hope to do. What I wish I could do is tell you to go right out today and look at a dozen Morandis, but you can’t, unless you happen to live in Bologna, in which case you can go to the Museo Morandi and look at them to your heart’s content. Most major American museums in America own a Morandi or two, and sometimes they even hang them. The Phillips often has one of its two oils on display, and in recent months I’ve seen Morandis in Princeton and St. Louis. But I’ve never seen one in New York, except for the reproduction in my living room. Somebody in this country is collecting them—Morandi’s etchings are way out of my modest price range—but it clearly isn’t MoMA or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Barring a quick side trip to Bologna or Washington, your best bet is to purchase a copy of Giorgio Morandi. I’ve given away several copies as presents. Only last week, I gave one to a friend who noticed my Morandi poster and asked about it. Should that ring the bell, you can buy a poster of your own by going here. You will then be officially enrolled in the International Society of Morandi Fanatics. We don’t have meetings—we just trade occasional e-mails about what’s hanging where. Feel free to advise me about domestic Morandi sightings. And if any of my wealthy readers are feeling moderately generous, a gift of a Morandi still-life etching would not go unappreciated.
A reader invited me to post "some words on your working life as a critic." To this end, he submitted the following questionnaire:
Does having to write about something ever diminish the pleasure you take from it? No, but knowing I have to write about it first thing tomorrow morning sometimes does. Taking notes at a performance takes away part of the fun, so I try to do it as infrequently as possible.
Do you read, listen to music, sitting, lying down? I read lying down and listen sitting up.
Do you write in the morning, evening? Full, empty stomach? Take coffee? I usually start writing shortly before the deadline. Prior to Monday, I generally managed not to write at night (at least not very often), but that went out the window as soon as this blog went live. Stomach contents don’t seem to matter. Except for the odd mocha frappuccino, I rarely drink coffee other than to be sociable.
Do you ever work in an, ahem, merry state? Surely you jest, sir!
Do you worry, prolific as you are, that you won't get all around your subject? Jeepers, why worry? Nobody ever gets all around his subject, least of all me.
Do you, did you ever consciously imitate any style? Oh, Lord, yes. In fact, I once wrote an essay about this very subject, which will be reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader, out next spring from Yale University Press.
Who are your critical influences? Originally Edmund Wilson, more recently Edwin Denby, Joseph Epstein, Clement Greenberg, and Fairfield Porter. I would be happy to be a tenth as good as any of them.
What do you try to do in a review? Not to be cute, but I try to write pieces that are (A) cleanly written enough not to give my editors any unnecessary trouble and (B) personal enough that they sound like me talking. Beyond that, I leave it to the muse.
Do you have an idea of what you're going to write before you do it? Usually, but rarely more than the title and the first few sentences. On occasion, though, I just sit down and wing it. (So far as I know, by the way, there’s no correlation between the length of time I spend writing a piece and its quality.)
How many words a day? It depends on what’s due. If absolutely necessary, I can manage 2,500 polished words between sunrise and bedtime. In the immortal words of James Burnham, "If there’s no alternative, there’s no problem." But I try not to write that much in a single day. It’s not exactly compatible with having a life.
Do you revise? Endlessly—but I hope it doesn’t show.
Cross a sadistic act with a fetching young victim and you may end up with great art. (Think Tosca. Madama Butterfly. Otello.) Take the possibility of a sadistic act, introduce your fetching young victim, and you frequently end up with great reality TV. It’s the sadism that we can’t get enough of. Both a college-aged friend and my 82-year-old father tune into Trading Spaces not to revel in renovations completed for lunch money, but in hopes that Hildi will lose control again and glue hay on the walls. Someone could cry. That’s the point.
The basic premise of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,
snooty Bravo’s maiden voyage into the gritty world of reality TV, brims with cruel potential. The five gay gentlemen of the panel (one each in charge of grooming, food and wine, culture, interior design, and fashion) pounce upon one hapless straight fellow each week, determined to make him…well, possible, if not downright fabulous.
The results? Mean-spirited, entirely bitchy bantering, tempered by a constant undercurrent of genuine sweetness. Will and Grace, unscripted, and every bit as addictive. (Although I think my dad may give this one a miss.) If you’re willing to buy into the notion that gay men are simply superior beings, you’ll be hard pressed to resist such tidbits as "He has a kosher kitchen. I wonder if he has a kosher closet—like it’s all Isaac Mizrahi?" But Queer Eye is a poseur as far as reality TV goes. From its engaging we’re-secret-agents comic-book opening credits to the closing "Queer Eye Hip Tip for the Day," it’s nothing more (or less) than feel-good TV.
Next up in Bravo’s attempt to corner the gay reality-TV market: Boy Meets Boy, whose producers’ premise is that some of the 15 single guys their bachelor will meet are really straight. It sounds awful. It sounds wonderful. It sounds like a hit.
The Maria Schneider Orchestra is coming to the Jazz Standard this weekend for its first Manhattan club date in far too long. Schneider, who studied with Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer, which is sort of like having studied with Picasso and Matisse, is the most gifted jazz composer of her generation, and her band cooks in a very big way. The personnel will fluctuate slightly from evening to evening, but that’s all right, since it allows for surprises. Here’s one: Clarence Penn, whom I recently decided is my favorite jazz drummer, will be playing with the band for the first time ever on Saturday. (A Brazilian friend of mine recently described Penn as "the most Brazilian drummer born in the U.S.") There will be others.
Three sets on Friday and Saturday, two on Sunday. The music starts at 7:30 each night. You might be able to get in without a reservation, but don’t count on it.
Greetings. As Mr. Sondheim says, I'm still here, though slightly underslept. In the words of one of the gazillion e-mails I've received since opening for business on Monday, "Do you realize that once you start blogging, you cease to have a life?" That's what a new blogger likes to hear at 1:18 in the morning as he wonders whether he remembered to put in all the serial commas.
Many interesting and useful comments have materialized in my mailbox, and I am taking them all seriously. Please don't hesitate to tell me what you think, what you'd like to see more of (or less of), what I did wrong (or right), etc.
Finally, an announcement. As promised on Monday, you can now reach "About Last Night" by going to www.terryteachout.com. No, you don't have to change your bookmark, the original URL is still valid and will remain so, but the new and improved address is a lot easier to remember, as well as to share with your friends. Think what they're missing!
If this is your first visit, thanks for coming. If you've been here before, thanks for staying. And now, if you'll pardon me, I have new links to test....
Difficult, is it not, to know the effect of one’s literary efforts. My sense is that H. L. Mencken’s literary reputation is much lowered after the printed discussion of your Mencken biography—and yet I believe that you have great admiration for Mencken and showed it in your book. Does Mencken’s reputation deserve to be lowered? I rather doubt that it does. My sense is that you were trying to straighten some things out—Mencken’s anti-Semitism, among others—and a coarse public (intellectuals among that public) coarsely took the information you provided to disqualify Mencken. Not sure I have any interesting explanation for all this, but I wonder if some of the problem doesn’t inhere in biography itself.
I’ve been thinking about the same thing, and coming to roughly the same conclusion. I don’t think it’s a biographer’s job to be an excuse-maker, much less a hagiographer. I thought Mencken was big enough to be written about honestly, flaws and all, and I certainly didn’t write The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, my most recent book, in order to take him down a peg or two. I admired him when I started writing it, and I still do, with strong reservations but nonetheless wholeheartedly. Many reviewers agreed with me, and nearly all of those who didn’t thought I treated him fairly and left room for the reader to make up his own mind—which was exactly what I had tried to do. So far as I know, the only people who slammed The Skeptic in a snarky way were a handful of extreme Mencken buffs certain their idol could do no wrong (several of whom made a point of posting their opinions on amazon.com, for which I was somewhat less than grateful).
All this notwithstanding, I fear my friend is right. At least in the short run, Mencken’s literary standing does seem to have been diminished by the publication of a balanced biography that pays proportionate attention to his dark side. Meaning…what? The easiest answer, of course, is that Mencken did deserve to be taken down a peg or two, and I accomplished the feat in spite of myself (which doesn’t reflect very well on me, does it?). Or perhaps, as my friend suggests, there is indeed something in the nature of biography that necessarily diminishes its subjects (not exactly a comforting thought, since I’m about to start writing another one).
More likely, the problem is that most people simply find it hard to take men as they are—to live with the uncomfortable but undeniable fact that we are all indissoluble mixtures of good and bad, wise and foolish, generous and selfish. "I do not believe," Somerset Maugham wrote in Don Fernando, "that there is any man, who if the whole truth were known of him, would not seem a monster of depravity; and also I believe that there are very few who have not at the same time virtue, goodness and beauty." (That might make a good warning sticker for the cover of the paperback of The Skeptic.) You’d think we’d have figured that out by now, but when it comes to the people we admire most, I’m not sure anybody really knows it, not in his secret heart.
I know, I know, hybridization is the hallmark of post-postmodern art, but lots of people still stubbornly insist on disliking works of art they find difficult to pigeonhole. I suspect that’s why Hollywood Homicide slipped through the cracks so quickly, and I know it’s why Mary Foster Conklin isn’t nearly as popular as she ought to be—she’s not quite jazz, not quite cabaret, and not even slightly worried about it. She sings what she wants the way she wants, and if you don’t get it, somebody else will. Me, I think she’s the best cabaret singer on the East Coast (Wesla Whitfield being the best cabaret singer on the West Coast—they don’t sing a whole lot of cabaret in between coasts), so I made sure I was at Danny’s Skylight Room last week for the opening of "Caught in the Trance: The Songs of Matt Dennis," Conklin’s first single-composer show ever.
You know Matt Dennis, even though you don’t think you do. He wrote the music for "Angel Eyes," "Everything Happens to Me," "Let’s Get Away From It All," "The Night We Called It a Day," and a half-dozen other blue-chip standards that get sung all the time. Conklin sang them at Danny’s, but she also left plenty of room for such lesser-known gems as "That Tired Routine Called Love," "Where Am I to Go?," "Compared to You," and "Blues for Breakfast" ("No coffee, please"). In between tunes, she talked about Dennis and his lyricists, wittily and charmingly and never excessively. She brought along an amazingly hot band led by pianist-arranger John di Martino, whose dapper, Shearingesque arrangements were unfailingly appropriate. I don’t think I’ve ever heard tastier drumming on a cabaret gig than that supplied by Ron Vincent. There was even a printed program!
As for Conklin herself, I can’t do any better than quote from what I wrote about her in "Second City" a couple of years ago: "Mary Foster Conklin…started out as an actress, and her style is precisely balanced between jazz and cabaret. Scratch her witty tough-girl-from-Jersey patter and you'll find a sensitive artist (but not frail!) with a wide-ranging, boldly colored voice and an open ear for offbeat material."
Conklin and her band will be returning to Danny’s July 23 and 24 for two more performances of "Caught in the Trance." Both shows start at 9:15.
"All right, Looney Tunes fans, you've finally got what you've been waiting for—the folks at Warner are getting ready to put out their first DVD releases from their substantial animated holdings, starting with The Looney Tunes Golden Collection, a four-disc box featuring 56 all-time classics, and we can expect commentaries, archive materials, and lots more. Also on the 'toon slate is the two-disc The Looney Tunes Premiere Collection, which will offer 28 shorts with the debuts of Warner's major animated characters."
I kind of hate to admit how thrilled I was to see this posting. (Well, no, I don't.)
Both sets hit the street Oct. 28. Have I said yippee yet?
Film Forum is showing MGM musicals this week and next, and Singin’ in the Rain is playing Thursday through Saturday. (Betty Comden, who co-wrote the screenplay with Adolph Green, will be on hand to answer questions following the 7:30 show on Thursday.) Believe it or not, it was pouring down rain the last time I saw it at Film Forum, and my companion and I were both soaked to the skin by the time we finally got seated. Did we care? Not after the first five minutes or so.
If you’ve never gotten to see Gene Kelly dance on a big screen—well, a reasonably big screen—now’s your chance. Astaire he wasn’t, but he did just fine the way he was.
"Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally, unhappy. But the world as it stands is no illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of a night; we wake up to it again for ever and ever; we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it. We can welcome experience as it comes, and give it what it demands, in exchange for something which it is idle to pause to call much or little so long as it contributes to swell the volume of consciousness. In this there is mingled pain and delight, but over the mysterious mixture there hovers a visible rule, that bids us learn to will and seek to understand."
Thanks for the mail! Please don't stop writing, but give me a day or two to open all of it. I wasn't expecting to hear from so many readers, and while I couldn't be happier, I do have to write a new bunch of postings for tomorrow.
I promise to get back to each and every one of you, sooner or later or somewhere in between. You're the best.
Oh, yes, one more thing...tell your friends about "About Last Night." The more, the merrier.
I’ve seen a whole lot of Pilobolus Dance Theatre over the years, but familiarity has yet to breed contempt, which is why I was sitting on the aisle at the Joyce Theater last night, watching with delight as they performed two new works, "Star-Cross’d" and "Wedlock," and two old standbys, "Walklyndon" and "Day Two."
As always, I was happy (but no longer surprised) to see that much of the crowd consisted of New Yorkers who don’t make a habit of going to dance concerts. Pilobolus’ light-hearted style, an unabashedly sexy combination of dance, gymnastics, and performance art, appeals not just to dance buffs but to audiences of all kinds. You don't have to know anything about dance to revel in a piece like "Day Two," in which the dancers take their curtain calls while spinning and sliding crazily across a water-covered stage. The setting is pure Pilobolus, a hot, steamy jungle of the mind inhabited by six all-but-naked people who enact a series of mysterious rituals apparently intended to propitiate the god of fertility. At the end, the stage floor seems to buckle and the dancers suddenly rip through it, an effect as exhilarating as the launch of a rocket.
But is it really dance? Even Arlene Croce, a longtime admirer of the troupe, insisted on calling Pilobolus "a company of acrobatic mimes rather than dancers," and the distinction is more than mere hair-splitting. What Pilobolus does is not ballet (though its members frequently fly through the air) and not quite modern dance (though they usually perform barefoot). The group's movement vocabulary is designed not to show off the body in motion but to exploit its sculptural properties in order to create theatrical illusion—hence the trompe l'oeil effects that are Pilobolus' trademark.
Arguments about the definition of dance are about as productive as arguments about the meaning of life. Yet this ambiguity is part of what makes Pilobolus' work so interesting. The elusive beauty of the company's sleight-of-torso tricks, combined with a consistently imaginative use of music (much of it popular) and a generous touch of slapstick (if cream pies were cheaper, Pilobolus would throw them), also has much to do with its accessibility. When the curtain goes up and a half-dozen handsome dancers come running on stage and start tying themselves into exotic knots and strange, almost-familiar shapes, only a hopeless prig would worry about whether the results are really, truly dance.
Alison Chase’s "Star-Cross’d," announced as a "premiere-in-progress," turned out to be a lovely exercise in seemingly plotless lyricism with a show-stopping opening tableau: the lights come up on five dancers who appear to be floating high above the stage, upside down. (Presumably the Shakespearean angle will become clearer as the piece continues to take shape.) First viewings of unfinished works tend to be deceptive, but "Star-Cross’d" already looks like a keeper to me. Jonathan Wolken’s "Wedlock," by contrast, is a suite of eight short vignettes about relationships, some jokey and others serious, fun to watch but not nearly as compelling as "Star-Cross’d." As for the classics, "Walklyndon," a zany bit of Ernie Kovacs-like pantomime danced (so to speak) in silence, is as infallibly funny as ever, while "Day Two," the company’s signature piece de facto, continues to cast its inscrutable spell. Renee Jaworski, the company’s resident blonde, was slightly injured, so Rebecca Jung, my all-time favorite Pilobolus alumna, came back to dance her old part in "Day Two." It was pure pleasure to see her striking face and strong, shapely legs and feet again after an absence of several years.
This is the last week of Pilobolus’ annual month-long run at the Joyce, and all three programs will be seen at least once more between now and Saturday night. (For a schedule, go here.) I’ll be back on Saturday afternoon. When it comes to Pilobolus, once is never enough for me.
In between essays, articles, and reviews, Joseph Epstein writes short stories, 18 of which have been collected in Fabulous Small Jews (Houghton Mifflin). It’s an odd book—odd, that is, if your idea of what a short story should sound like is based solely on the output of those dewy-eyed authors who learned their craft in expensive creative-writing programs.
Epstein, by contrast, is homemade and middle-aged, and for all his undeniable highness of brow, he has taken as his subject matter the lives and loves of a class of people who rarely figure in contemporary American fiction. His stories are set in Chicago and inhabited almost exclusively by Jews—but not just any Jews. As one of his characters explains, "In our neighborhood, politics, modern art, and psychotherapy played no role whatsoever. Fathers were too busy with their work as salesmen, owners of small businesses, or one-man law practices. Their horizons ended with making a good living and being excellent providers. As for their sons, most of the boys I knew in grade school and high school went on to the University of Illinois, where they majored in business; the rest, a small minority, aimed at dental or medical school." Such are the folk of whom he writes.
If you’re bored already, Fabulous Small Jews might not be for you, but I think you’ll be surprised by how quickly Epstein’s divorce lawyers, upper-middle-class businessmen, and high-school teachers cast their spell. A few bad eggs notwithstanding, most of them are basically decent men whose lives are much more than half over, playing against the clock and trying to make the best of their variously bad situations. Being Jewish, they view the world with a briny blend of humor and disillusion, and he sums them up skillfully and with unsentimental affection.
These tales are the opposite of trendy. Instead, they partake of what might be called the journalistic virtues. Epstein knows how to get a story moving right from the opening bell: "’Apart from your brother,’ my father used to say, ‘money is your best friend.’ He said it to me early, and he said it more than once." (Did you notice that the second sentence scans?) His eye for detail is just about infallible: "At the Wasserburgs’ house on the lake, on the North Shore in Glencoe, amid the Matisse, the Motherwells, the Fairfield Porter, and the large Frankenthaler, he approached her."
Most of all, Joseph Epstein knows the territory, and the people who work it. If you don’t, now’s your chance to pay them a visit. Should you find yourself on or near the Upper West Side of New York tonight, you can do it in person: Epstein will be answering questions and reading from Fabulous Small Jews at 7:30 at the Barnes & Noble at 82nd and Broadway. You buy it, he'll sign it.
In case you’re wondering, the title comes from "Hospital," a poem by the acutely underrated Karl Shapiro: "This is the Oxford of all sicknesses./Kings have lain here and fabulous small Jews/And actresses whose legs were always news." (To read what Epstein wrote about Karl Shapiro, go here.)
Am I the only person to have spotted the social significance of Roz Chast’s Cremaster-bashing back-page cartoon in the June 9 issue of the New Yorker? (It’s not on line, alas, but it’s definitely worth looking up.) Back in the days of Harold Ross, the New Yorker wasn’t above publishing cartoons that made fun of abstract expressionism, but ever since Jackson Pollock became God, they’ve been careful not to make that kind of mistake again—until now. Chast chronicled a visit to the Guggenheim Museum by a frazzled-looking lady who made no bones about being utterly befuddled by Matthew Barney’s much-ballyhooed Cremaster Cycle: "I do not understand this at all…I must be a complete idiot…I’ll reread the brochure…No help there…I’ll just stare at the art until something comes through."
To her infinite credit, Chast didn't play both sides of the street, which would have been all too easy to do. Instead, she suggested what I take to be her own jaundiced opinion of the fawning critical reaction to the Cremaster Cycle, for the funniest panel in the cartoon showed our frazzled lady gazing at a jumbo wall label whose text reads as follows: "Matthew Barney blah blah blah blah blah Cremaster blah blah blah blah blah blah referencing blah blah metaphor blah blah narrator blah blah blah differentiate blah." (Over her head floated a puzzled thought balloon: "Maybe I should reread this explanation.")
I loathe the modish usage of the word "subversive," which more often than not is code for "PC," but I do think there is something quite genuinely subversive about the fact that Roz Chast, of all people, felt free to make fun of Matthew Barney in the New Yorker, of all places. Or could it be that I didn’t get it? Maybe I should reread this cartoon….
Jazz vocalist Julia Dollison is appearing tonight at Chez Suzette, a theater-district bistro that regularly books good singers. I’ve called Dollison "the real right thing, a deeply musical virtuoso with an airy, luminous voice, an astonishingly wide vocal range, and a bracing taste for challenging material." (To read the rest of what I wrote about her in the Washington Post, go here.) She’ll be doing duets with Ben Monder, Maria Schneider’s wildly original guitarist. The first set starts at 8:30.
The run of Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons has just been extended one last time, to August 3.
Here's what I wrote about it in the Wall Street Journal: "I don't begrudge Vanessa Redgrave her well-deserved Tony for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but simple justice compels me to add that the best actress currently appearing in New York is neither on Broadway nor a woman. It’s Jefferson Mays, the star of Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife, off-Broadway’s latest dispatch from the wilder shores of gender identity, in which Mr. Mays plays Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an East German transvestite with more than one secret under her skirt. Mr. Mays’ bull’s-eye performance as the mousy, fussy Charlotte is amazing enough, but when you consider that he is also playing 40-odd other roles—for I Am My Own Wife is a one-man show—it borders on the miraculous. Not since Ruth Draper has a lone actor portrayed a stageful of characters with such elegantly exact delineation and control."
"Al Shriver was one of those many people who have no distinguishing talents or abilities. They are faces in group shots of Times Square at midnight on New Year’s Eve. In trying to climb above the others, they go from little self-inflicted irregularities to the extreme of placing bombs in public places."
Here I am, finally. I’ve been talking about starting an arts blog for the past couple of years, but I never got up the nerve to do the dirty work (i.e., the computer-geek stuff). So when artsjournal.com kindly offered to do it for me, it took me about three seconds to say yes.
If you already know my stuff, "About Last Night" will be familiar to you. It’s a daily offshoot of "Second City," the monthly column I write for the Washington Post about the arts in New York City. (To read my last Post column, go here.) I’ll report on out-of-town events from time to time—I see a lot of things in Washington—but I plan to concentrate on New York City, the place where I live and where I spend most of my spare time going to theaters, concert halls, art galleries, and nightclubs. I can’t think of a better place in the world from which to write a blog like this, though I do get arted out every once in a while. (You’ll hear about that, too.)
"Second City" deals only with the performing and visual arts, whereas "About Last Night" will also cover books, film, and television, as well as offering commentary on what other people write about the arts. But the premise is still pretty much the same: this is the diary of a working critic who happens to cover all the arts, not just one or two.
Why a blog? I take intense pleasure from every kind of art there is—music, dance, literature, theater, paintings and sculpture, movies and TV. So can you. That’s why I’m writing "About Last Night." I want to encourage you to follow your curiosity wherever it leads you, the same way I do. I believe deeply that all art is one, and that all the arts are accessible to everyone. I hope you’ll treat this blog as a daily opportunity to widen your horizons.
If you don’t know my stuff, you can read about me by clicking on the appropriate link in the top box of the right-hand column, where you can also read about the various books I’ve written and edited, and buy copies if the spirit moves you. Whenever possible, I will be posting links to the essays, articles, and reviews I write about the arts for magazines and newspapers. (Look in the right-hand column under "Teachout Elsewhere" for a sampling of my recent pieces.) You can use the other links in my daily postings to buy and/or find out more about the things I see, hear and read.
You can access this blog two ways, by going directly to my URL or visiting my host, artsjournal.com. If you came here the first way, click on the artsjournal logo at the top of the page and look at the rest of the site—I read it every morning, and so should you.
In addition to the URL that brought you here, you will be able within a day or two to access this blog by going to www.terryteachout.com. (I'd hoped to have that easier-to-remember URL operational today, but it's not quite ready yet. Apologies. I'll let you know as soon as it's available.)
One last thing: please tell your friends about "About Last Night." While you’re at it, tell me what you think of it. I long for your e-mail, and plan to post it regularly.
I hear there are places to live that are almost as much fun as New York City, but I wouldn’t know—I live here, and I’m not going anywhere.
One reason why I'm sticking is that last Thursday, Luciana Souza sang with the New York Philharmonic on the Great Lawn of Central Park, just a five-minute walk from my front door, before a crowd of…oh, I don’t know, maybe two or three million. It sure looked that big from where I was sitting, anyway. (Allan Kozinn guessed 50,000 in the New York Times, but who's counting?) In any case, Souza ought to be singing in front of multitudes, because she’s the most exciting jazz singer I’ve run across in ages. The catch, if you want to call it that, is that she isn’t really a jazz singer, or at least not quite exactly one. Souza, who now lives in New York, comes from Sao Paulo, Brazil, and her style is a rich, volatile brew of Brazilian pop and American jazz, impossible to categorize and irresistible to hear.
So what in the world was she singing with the New York Philharmonic? Why, Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo, of course, a wonderfully subtle exercise in Spanish local color with a part for a mezzo-soprano with peasant blood in her veins. Most classically trained mezzos make it sound too formal, or—worse yet—like a caricature of flamenco. Not Souza. Her singing, at once coolly poised and earthy, with a chesty vibrato that grabs you by the heart and squeezes, is the voice Falla must have heard in his dreams. Yes, she uses a microphone, meaning that prissy purists will want nothing to do with her (though she couldn't very well have sung in Central Park without one), but I'm the furthest thing from a purist, and I doubt there’s been a performance quite like this one since Argentinita recorded the piece with Antal Dorati and the Ballet Theatre Orchestra for Decca back in the Forties (and why, pray tell, has that performance never been reissued on CD?). Souza performed El amor brujo earlier this year with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony, and if somebody doesn’t haul the lot of them into a studio right away, somebody is dumb.
Should Falla strike you as excessively fancy fare for an outdoor pops concert, I can only say that the New York Philharmonic has been known to pull some fast ones in Central Park. A couple of years ago, for example, Audra McDonald sang the Brecht-Weill Seven Deadly Sins outdoors with the Philharmonic (in the W.H. Auden-Chester Kallman English-language version, thank you very much). I was there, agog and then some, which gives me an excuse to mention McDonald and Souza in the same breath. Even though they don’t sound a bit alike, they still have a lot in common, for neither one of them loses any sleep worrying about labels—instead, they sing whatever they want and make you like it. To call them "crossover" artists is to trivialize their boundless curiosity and resourcefulness. I think of them as citizens of the musical world, at home wherever they go, be it concert hall or cabaret or the great outdoors.
I had my fingers crossed all afternoon, checking the weather every couple of hours and wondering when the skies would fall. Instead, the temperature fell, and by the time I got to my seat it was preposterously balmy. The gnats were out in force, flying in funnel-cloud formation with orders to kill, but they picked a new target at intermission and left the rest of us to enjoy the sunset. Stretched out at the rear of the Great Lawn was the midtown skyline, bouncing light off the low-lying clouds, with the Chrysler Building peeping between the high-rises on Central Park South like a six-year-old boy trying to push his way through a crowd of six-foot-tall grownups in order to see the passing parade a little better. The surrounding sky was grayish-purple, and the effect was so exquisite that I would have been perfectly happy to turn my folding chair around and face the wrong way all night long, except that I wouldn’t have been able to see Souza’s spectacular rust-red-to-die-for dress.
Did I mention that the Gruccis were kind enough to set off fireworks as an encore, accompanied by a parkful of oohs and aahs? I felt as if I were looking at the biggest painting in the universe. (This one, to be exact.) And all for free!
Yes, it was disgustingly humid all week long, the orchestra needed another rehearsal, and I won't be surprised if I have a nightmare or two about those gnats…and none of it mattered one tiny bit. Nights like this are why you live in a preshrunk apartment and pay outrageous rent and grope around to make sure your wallet's still there every time you get off a crowded subway car. Feel free to remind me the next time you catch me griping about New York.
Gerald Nachman's Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s (Pantheon) is a narrative history of the post-Catskills standup comedians of the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras, starting with Mort Sahl and ending with Bill Cosby. It’s a surprisingly thick book, and surprisingly serious, too, though I’m surprised that Bob Gottlieb, the normally sharp-eyed editor, didn’t give it a few more nips and tucks. The chapters on Sahl, Tom Lehrer, Shelley Berman (I’d wondered what happened to him), Woody Allen, and Mike Nichols and Elaine May are especially good. No footnotes, and Nachman sometimes lapses into uncritical enthusiasm, but it’s still a solid read, good enough to make you curious about ex-headliners you’ve never heard of, or can just barely recall from childhood memories of The Ed Sullivan Show.
I smiled to see so many of these Formerly Hip Comics complaining about the frequency with which young comedians make use of what now appears to be the most popular 12-letter word in the English language. (They don’t seem to think much of David Letterman, either.) I look forward to seeing what tasteless outrages Chris Rock is bitching about when he’s 64.
I have a friend whose messages on my answering machine invariably begin, "I guess you're out at some nightclub." Contrary to widespread opinion, I don't see everything the same night it opens. In fact, I didn't get to Playwrights Horizons' production of Theresa Rebeck's Bad Dates until yesterday afternoon—the very last performance. It took me long enough, but I'm glad I finally made it.
The play itself is no great shakes, a sort of monositcom about a no-longer-young single mom who plunges back into the dating scene after long absence. What made it special was Julie White's performance as Haley, the ditsy, doe-eyed jolie laide of a certain age whose tales of woe occupy an unchallenging but agreeable hour and a half. That's a long time to hold an audience, especially without an intermission, but White pulled it off with breathtaking ease. In an odd sort of way, the very slightness of the material made it easier to concentrate on her acting, which was so natural and transparent that you just know she sweat blood over it. She was alive from top to toe—I could write a hundred words about the way she used her feet. Too bad you can't go see her (though maybe you already did, and I'm the last person in town to catch up with her), but I'm sure she'll be back on stage any minute now, and next time around I'll catch her first night instead of her last afternoon.
I just bought a copy of John Marin’s 1921 etching Downtown. The El, and it’s a beauty—a nervous cubist spiderweb that captures some of the sheer excitement of this crazy city in which I insist on living. It’s already taught me a lesson, which is that the ultimate test of the quality of a work of art is whether you can look at it every day without getting bored or irritated. So far, so good.
I never thought I’d be able to afford a Marin, but this one is a fluke, reprinted in 1924 in a special edition of 500 copies as a premium for New Republic subscribers, meaning that surviving impressions are comparatively easy to find and thus a hell of a lot less expensive. I’ve been trying to imagine a modern-day counterpart of such an offer, without much success. (Perhaps O could offer its subscribers tubes of Vaseline signed by Matthew Barney?)
When I first moved to Manhattan, nearly two decades ago, I’d see etchings and small lithographs by well-known artists hanging on the walls of the apartments of older middle-class New Yorkers, and say to myself, "Gee, that is so cool." I innocently supposed such things were simply part of the New York package, something you did when you got old enough, like drinking coffee or getting married. I’m old enough now (to put it mildly), but I notice that New Yorkers of my generation are no more likely to own inexpensive high-quality art than they are to go to the ballet. If you’re rich, you buy rich people’s art, which too often means expensive signatures; if you’re not, you don’t buy anything at all. I wonder what happened to us. Could it be it that baby boomers and Gen-Xers are less interested in art? Or do we not know that you don’t need a lot of money to own something beautiful, so long as you don’t care whether it’s trendy?
Whatever the reason, Downtown. The El now hangs on the south wall of my living room, and I look at it lovingly every time I pass by, marveling at the chain of coincidence that brought this exquisite little specimen of prewar American modernism into my home. I’m lucky to have it—and lucky to have wanted it. I hope somebody else will want it just as much, someday.
Benny Carter was one of the last living links to the golden age of jazz. Born in 1907, he made his first records in 1928, remaining active as a performer well into the Nineties, when I heard him at Iridium in what I gather was his last nightclub gig in Manhattan. (Amazingly enough, he was still playing quite well.) Though he's best remembered as the suavest of alto saxophonists, Carter was no less distinctive as a composer and arranger. I also loved his tasty trumpet playing, a hobby he occasionally indulged in public, if never often enough. His lucid, balanced style and self-contained personality lacked the overt charisma that brings popularity to great artists—he was too much the gentleman to impose himself on his listeners—but connoisseurs and colleagues knew him for what he was, and rejoiced in his gifts.
If Carter made a bad record, I haven't heard it, but Further Definitions, the 1961 album that teamed him with Coleman Hawkins and Jo Jones, two of his peerless contemporaries, captures him at close to his absolute best. I listened to "The Midnight Sun Will Never Set" when I got the news of his death in Los Angeles last Saturday. It seemed a proper way to say goodbye.
"We must find out what we can about this place we’re living in—this place in time—but we’ve got to be awfully careful, it seems to me, never to make ourselves too perfectly a part of it. Modishness is the sure sign of the second-rate. We’re finally to be judged not by the degree of our involvement in the mainstream, but by our individual response to it."
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