About Last Night|
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, May 5, 2006
TT: Bliss comes to Broadway
In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I bang the gong for one new show, The Drowsy Chaperone, and grumble about two others, Hot Feet and The Importance of Being Earnest:
At last—at last!—a new musical that is both utterly frivolous and entrancingly clever has opened on Broadway. “The Drowsy Chaperone,” an affectionate, encyclopedically knowing send-up of the who-cares-if-the-plot-makes-sense musicals of the ’20s, is funny, brainy, tuneful, concise (one hour, 40 minutes, no intermission) and performed with bewitching skill. You’ll love it even if you don’t know Jerome Kern from Jerome Robbins, though you’ll get more of the inside jokes, of which there are several thousand, if you do. Either way, “The Drowsy Chaperone” is deservedly destined for a long, profitable run….
Maybe I was simply grateful not to be seeing “Lestat” again, but “Hot Feet,” Maurice Hines’ dumbed-down, funked-up jukebox-musical version of “The Red Shoes,” turned out to be not quite as bad as I’d feared….
I couldn’t be more surprised to find myself saying so, but the Theatre Royal Bath/Peter Hall Company’s touring production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAM Harvey Theater, is a slow-moving bore….
No link. Buy the paper, or subscribe to the Online Journal by going here, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
I just finished reading Peter Richmond’s Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee. I wish it were better—it is, like most pop-music biographies, gushingly overwritten and musically underinformed—but at least it’s thorough, and when you finish reading it you’ll know a whole lot more about Peggy Lee than you did when you first picked it up.
I suppose it’s possible that some readers of “About Last Night” have never heard a Peggy Lee album. If you’re among them, try this one, which is a pretty good and fairly wide-ranging complilation of some of her best-known records. Among other things, it contains Lee’s greatest hit, “Fever,” about which I wrote for the New York Times four years ago, the Sunday after she died. I didn’t include this piece in A Terry Teachout Reader because it’s too short, but I like it anyway, even though I was fighting a frighteningly tight deadline and didn’t have any time for second thoughts. I hope you like it, too.
* * *
Peggy Lee taught me all about sex. I was twelve at the time, and had just made the earth-shaking discovery that my father’s record collection was of more than merely historical interest. This was in 1968, the year of the White Album, and I was still trying to figure out how to play “Rocky Raccoon” on my brand-new guitar, but I was also chewing my way through the selected works of Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee, whose recording of “Fever” was—shall we say—instructive.
Not that she was obvious about it, or anything else. If a Hitchcock blonde could have raised her voice in song, then Peggy Lee, who died last Monday at the age of eighty-one, would have sounded pretty much like that, cool and self-possessed and…amused. But even at twelve, I got the message, and then some: what the lady on the record had in mind was pretty much what I had in mind twenty-four hours a day, except that her point of view was more informed. That was when I realized my father knew a thing or two about music.
Thirty-four years later, I know a lot more about Peggy Lee, the English division of EMI having finally deigned to transfer the best of her albums to compact disc. I now know that “Fever” was the least of her. She was exquisite—there is no other word for her. She floated atop a rhythm section like a soap bubble on a warm breeze, never raising her alto-flute voice a decibel more than absolutely necessary in order to get the exact effect she intended. She was a smart singer, the very opposite of all the cruel jokes some jazz instrumentalists like to tell about the women with whom they so often grudgingly share a bandstand. She chose her material with painstaking care, writing some of the best of it herself, and when she sang a song, it usually stayed sung. Other people do “Don’t Smoke in Bed” and “I’ve Got Your Number” and “You Came a Long Way from St. Louis,” but when I hear them in my mind’s ear, hers is the voice I hear.
I know all that—and yet when I learned of her death, the first thing that popped into my head was a dirt-plain bass-and-drum riff and a soft, sly voice half-whispering “Never know how much I love you/Never know how much I care/When you put your arms around me/I get a fever that’s so hard to bear.” I didn’t need to go looking for that record on my shelves: it was burned into my memory, together with a mental picture of the beautiful woman who sang it. I remember how sure of herself she sounded, sure enough—and strong enough—to smile at the thought of playing with fire. Is this really what women are like? I wondered, and decided I’d better find out.
That’s quite a lesson to have learned from a three-minute single—but, then, Peggy Lee was quite a teacher.
When I was a boy, my father bought me a statuette of W.C. Fields. I liked it fine and managed to hang onto it for a number of years, though I remember wishing even then that he’d given me the Louis Armstrong statuette from the same series. They were made by a company called Esco (which still exists, as I recently discovered). Needless to say, the statuettes long ago became collectors’ items, but I forgot about them until I saw a photograph of the Satchmo model in Gary Giddins’ Armstrong biography. As soon as I saw it I knew I wanted one of my own, and the desire grew stronger when I started writing Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong.
A Satchmo statuette turned up on eBay the other day, and I bought it on the spot. Those who know what Armstrong looked like in the flesh won’t need to be told that it is an extremely faithful depiction of the way he appeared on stage, with only a slight, self-evidently affectionate dash of caricature added by the anonymous artist. (It’s considerably truer to life than the po-faced, hyper-respectful Armstrong statue erected a few years ago in New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong Park.) It turns out that Esco's Satchmo is coveted by collectors of black memorabilia, and I can see why: I’ve never seen a rendering of Armstrong that did a better job of conveying his irrepressible joie de vivre.
I've placed my latest acquisition on the corner of my desk, where I expect it to fill me with inspiration from now to the day next March when, God willing, I finish Hotter Than That and ship it off to Harcourt. No, it isn't art, not in the Teachout Museum sense, but it does make me smile, for which there is ever and always much to be said. As I wrote in my last "Sightings" column for The Wall Street Journal, apropos of the so-called "Mozart effect":
Maurice Ravel put at the head of his Valses nobles et sentimentales this lovely epigraph by the French poet Henri de Régnier: “…the delicious and always new pleasure of a useless occupation.” Ravel knew that in the end it doesn’t matter whether or not art is “good” for you, so long as it gives you pleasure.
Even in the most elegantly decorated of homes, there should always be room for a little bit of fun. This is mine.
Thursday, May 4, 2006
“In Hello, Dolly! the movements and the jive with the audience clapping—aw, it’s all in the fun. The people expect all that from me—coming out all chesty, making faces. That’s me and I don’t want to be nobody else. They know I’m there in the cause of happiness. And I don’t worry what anybody thinks. There’s an old saying. ‘I’ll be the horse’s head—and you be yourself.’”
Louis Armstrong, interview with Richard Meryman (Life, April 15, 1966)
TT: Procrastination meme
Courtesy of the ever-readable Little Professor, here goes nothing:
• I am getting ready to go downstairs and catch a cab that will take me to a midtown recording studio, where I’ll be taping an episode of a new radio show hosted by John Pizzarelli.
• I want a Morandi etching.
• I wish I lived by a river, a lake, or the sea.
• I hate cell phones used in inappropriate places and fashions.
• I love my family, my friends, my work (and the art it requires me to consume), and the Teachout Museum.
• I miss my home town.
• I fear death. (Why beat around the bush?)
• I hear the faint sound of traffic on Columbus Avenue and the soft purr of my iBook.
• I wonder if the weather will be nice when I take a couple of days off next week and head for one of my Secure Undisclosed Locations.
• I regret not having spent more afternoons in Central Park.
• I am not quite as patient as I wish I were.
• I dance under no circumstances whatsoever.
• I sing in tune, but in an uninteresting bass-baritone voice.
• I cry fairly often, usually for no good reason.
• I am not always considerate (though I try to be).
• I make with my hands the occasional omelet.
• I write in a near-micrographic hand that my friends claim is attractive-looking. (To me it looks like a scrawl.)
• I confuse…er, nothing that comes immediately to mind, though I find that the names of good friends slip my mind from time to time. Such is middle age!
• I need to take a shower and eat a little something before I head for the studio. (It might also be a good idea to put on some clothes.)
• I should start writing the sixth chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong—but not yet!
• I start reading more books than I finish.
• I finish writing Hotter Than That eleven months from now (D.V.!, D.V.!).
• I tag Our Girl, of course.
OGIC: Adolescence is a foreign country
My review of David Mitchell's Black Swan Green appeared in last weekend's Baltimore Sun. I loved it, here's why:
The time is 1982 in the English Midlands, the era of Margaret Thatcher, Chariots of Fire, the Falklands War, and Talking Heads. Jason Taylor is about to turn 13 when the novel opens, and at the mercy of the mob of Wilcoxes, Redmarleys and Broses. In an adolescent jungle where hardness reigns, Jason is heartbreakingly soft. He's plagued by a capricious stammer he personifies as an inner villain called Hangman, who wreaks gleeful havoc with his confidence. He doesn't know what certain popular epithets favored by his peers mean and is afraid to ask. He unfashionably cares about people, beauty, and, worst of all, poetry. If his peers knew this, he recognizes, "they'd gouge me to death behind the tennis courts with blunt woodwork tools and spray the Sex Pistols logo on my gravestone." So he writes poems under a pseudonym and publishes them in a local journal.
It's convenient for Mitchell that Jason is a budding poet and an instinctive naturalist to boot, a sort of English Wendell Berry in the making. Jason's poetic leaning makes plausible all kinds of verbal flourishes and fine observations that might otherwise be a stretch coming from a 13-year-old. But Mitchell takes the liberty and makes the most of it; in fact, one of the most striking and beautiful things about his novel is the entirely plausible and disarming way in which Jason's voice blends the resourceful and calibrated expression of a poet - "some way-too-early fireworks streaked spoon-silver against the Etch-A-Sketch gray sky" - with the occasionally colorful but essentially rote slang favored by a kid. The rich hash that results is, on just about every page, ordinary and extraordinary and ravishing.
Though Mitchell is best known for his previous novel, Cloud Atlas, he began building a following with his earlier books Ghostwritten and Number Nine Dream. Black Swan Green both cements and complicates his reputation as a painstaking formalist and a writer's writer. On one hand, it is narrated more traditionally than any of the previous works, and dwells, more conventionally, on the inner life of a single character. Black Swan Green is an unapologetically realist novel and a hugely satisfying one. On the other hand, for all the naturalism of its effect, the book is every bit as elaborately stitched together as Mitchell's more formally showy books. It has intricate patterns to reveal that might not surface on a first reading.
The whole thing can be read here. As you see, I found the novel generally excellent. But it also found an inside track to my heart in its preoccupation with Alain-Fournier's enigmatic 1913 wonder of a novel Le Grand Meaulnes—a book that, if read at the right age, permanently enters the bloodstream. I read it as a high school senior, which seems to have been just young enough. Reading Alain-Fournier's and Mitchell's novels together would be a very cool small-scale reading project for the summer, no matter one's age.
For a smart dissenting view on Mitchell's novel, see Jenny Davidson's generous-minded but ultimately lukewarm assessment at her blog Light Reading.
TT: So you want to see a show?
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. (No, there aren't any asterisks this week!)
• Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Awake and Sing! (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes June 11)
• Bridge & Tunnel (solo show, PG-13, some adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes July 9)
• Chicago (musical, R, adult subject matter and sexual content)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter and implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
• The Lieutenant of Inishmore (black comedy, R, adult subject matter and extremely graphic violence, reviewed here)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes July 2, reviewed here)
• Sweeney Todd (musical, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
• The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here)
• I Love You Because (musical, R, sexual content, reviewed here)
• Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
• Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)
• Defiance (drama, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here, closes June 4)
TT: Below the radar
Many of you who read yesterday’s posting about Pandora, the new Web-based streaming-audio “music discovery service,” have already written to tell me that you tried it and liked it, for which much thanks.
One well-informed reader, however, told me quite a bit more:
i just figured out how pandora got itunes and amazon to let them run wild. it's genius really and i've used the same strategy in marketing projects for corporations.
pandora gets to use whatever it wants (within limits, of course) and in exchange, they are feeding demographic data to itunes and amazon. if you don't sign up, the demo data is raw. in other words, itunes learns what types of music is favored with other types as well as mismatches. this helps them market to those who download.
so, for example, if you download prez, you may be interested to learn that a stan getz disc was also favored by most people who dug prez. it gets better. those who do sign up is where the real action is. when you log in and indicate what you like and dislike. in short, you are telling itunes and amazon exactly what terry teachout likes.
so, when you log in at itunes or amazon, cookies read it's you and itunes and amazon tempt you with stuff you may have listened to and liked or similar stuff that the data says you should like. it's brilliant. the end user gets free music, pandora gets ad revenue and a percentage of each vote from itunes/amazon and itunes/amazon get database gold.
not bad eh?
Not bad at all—though I’m sure that certain readers will bristle at the thought of such data being mined without their explicit permission, even if the process does lead to their musical horizons being expanded for free.
To these people I say, Better disable your cookies and hide in the root cellar! That’s the future of marketing, cultural and otherwise, and unless you go off the new-media grid altogether, you can’t escape it. For better and worse—in proportions that have yet to be made fully manifest—it’s already here.
UPDATE: Another reader writes:
I tried it. I wasn't happy. Not because of the choices, but because
they didn't know even one of the people/groups I was suggesting to
give me any choices. Granted, these were not your usual American
bland artists, they were Belgian, French, Quebecois, Algerian and
Lebanese. And not one of the 15 made it into their list.
Still, it seems to me that if you're even slightly adventurous, you
might not do so well with this service because it won't give me (for
example) someone like Liane Foly or Rachid Taha that I might enjoy.
Given the diversity of musical tastes and cultures here, I'm surprised
that they're not broader in selection.
TT: A clock without a key
I take six pills a day and a seventh every other day. If I don’t, I’ll die, not right away—my cardiologist says I’m in great shape—but considerably sooner than I’d like. I don’t resent so modest a regimen, especially since I know lots of people who have to take two or three times as many pills as I do. When I think about it, I’m mainly grateful that six and a half pills a day, plus regular exercise and a sensible diet, are all it takes to keep me out of a coffin, at least for the present. Nevertheless, I'm having a certain amount of trouble adjusting to the fact that I've joined the ranks of those who can no longer take their health for granted.
For years I abused myself, though not in any of the more immediately devastating ways. Overwork and overeating were my tipples of choice, and whenever I indulged to excess, I simply laid off for a couple of days, after which I became my normal self once again. Or so I thought. Like most of us, I preferred to ignore the signals of impending doom that were starting to show up on my screen with increasing frequency, and on the morning when the roof fell in
and I was forced to call an ambulance in order to save what was left of my life, it had been at least two years—maybe more—since I’d last seen a doctor of any kind.
In short, I used to think I was bulletproof, and now I know I’m not. The best I can say is that I somehow managed last December to dodge a bullet aimed at my heart, and should I stop following doctor’s orders, the next one will almost certainly hit its target. So I take my pills twice a day, and each time I do, I hear the words Remember you must die in my mind’s ear.
Dame Muriel Spark, who died a couple of weeks ago after a long and artistically fruitful life, wrote a remarkable novel in 1959 called Memento Mori. It’s about a group of old people who, for no apparent reason, start to receive anonymous telephone calls from a person who says “Remember you must die” to them, then hangs up. The novel tells how each of the recipients of these mysterious calls is affected by them. Toward the end one of the characters makes the following remark, which has been much on my mind of late:
If I had my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practise, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.
I don’t think my life was insipid prior to last December, but I’m pretty sure that I was taking large parts of it for granted, and I know I’d been abusing the work I love, in much the same way that a drunkard abuses the nectar that once added savor to his daily rounds. Yes, there were times when I pierced the veil and awoke to what Mr. Anecdotal Evidence calls the thisness of things, but those times were too rare, perhaps in part because I took for granted that I would be around for a long time to come.
Needless to say, I hope and expect to be around for a very long time to come. But twice a day, just like clockwork, I open my medicine cabinet, take out my seven-day pillbox, and swallow the tablets that remind me, whether or not I care to be reminded at that particular moment, that my clock, just like yours, is running down. I know there will always be stretches of my life that I take for granted—that’s in our nature—but until I die there will also be those twice-daily visits to the medicine cabinet to warn me, if I care to listen, that the night cometh, when no man can work. Or listen to music, or take a walk in Central Park, or linger over dinner with a friend and talk idly and happily about nothing in particular.
That’s a good thing to keep in mind, if not exactly a comforting one.
Wednesday, May 3, 2006
"He was a prisoner of his belief in realities rather than appearances. He had never cared what anyone thought of him, only what he thought of himself."
Brian Garfield, Hopscotch
OGIC: Guess who?
Here's a pop quiz. What well-known actor is being discussed by his director in this excerpt from a current interview?
On some level, when he’d say, "Ah, that’s a wonderful idea," and get that smile on his face, I’d think, "Oh boy, he hates my guts."
But I’d tell him what I wanted, and he’d do it instantly. He’s incredibly accomplished.
I'll publish the answer, with a link, before bed tonight. In the meantime, send your guess. I'm curious whether the degree of difficulty will prove to be what I suppose.
TT: The future, ahead of schedule
I’ve been playing with Pandora, the new Web-based streaming-audio "music discovery service." Based on a week’s worth of hands-on experience, I’ve decided that (A) it works and (B) it’s going to be a Very Big Thing.
To use Pandora, you start by inputting the name of a pop artist or song that you like. This creates a “station” that you can “tune in” on your computer at will. The station then plays a record by that artist, followed by similar-sounding songs by different artists. You respond in turn by telling Pandora whether or not you like each song it plays. At any time you can input additional artists or song titles, which automatically increases the size of your station's playlist. The more information you supply about your tastes, the more accurately Pandora can analyze them and select new songs you’re likely to enjoy.
How does Pandora work? It has access to 300,000 songs available through iTunes and amazon.com (you can use either service to purchase the songs you hear). According to Pandora’s Web site, these songs have all been analyzed in the following manner:
We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or "genes" into a very large Music Genome. Taken together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song—everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony. It's not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records—it's about what each individual song sounds like.
Over the past five years, we've carefully listened to the songs of over 10,000 different artists—ranging from popular to obscure—and analyzed the musical qualities of each song one attribute at a time. This work continues each and every day as we endeavor to include all the great new stuff coming out of studios, clubs and garages around the world.
Believe it or not, this isn’t just hot air. When I “asked” Pandora why it was playing The Band’s “Look Out Cleveland,” for instance, it responded as follows: “Based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features country influences, a subtle use of vocal harmony, mild rhythmic syncopation, acoustic rhythm piano and mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation.” All true. Of course, it was also playing "Look Out Cleveland" because I’d already told Pandora that I liked The Band, but the very next song it played, Albert Lee’s “The Victim,” contained the same musical features, and I liked that one, too.
Once I’d inputted the names of a dozen artists and given thumbs-up and thumbs-down responses to the songs Pandora was playing in response, it became clear to me that the analytic algorithm it uses to choose new songs was sufficiently sophisticated to second-guess my musical tastes with an accuracy that bordered at times on the eerie. As I write these words, Pandora is playing me Frank Sinatra’s live recording with Count Basie of “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Why? Because it features “swing influences, smooth vocals, romantic lyrics, a horn ensemble and” (wait for it) “acoustic guitar accompaniment.” Sure enough, Freddie Green’s rhythm guitar is very prominent in the mix on the Sinatra-Basie recording of “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Needless to say, that’s not a detail a casual listener would be likely to notice, but it happens to be one of the aspects of this particular recording that I find most engaging.
All this points to the accuracy of another claim made by Pandora:
Together our team of thirty musician-analysts have been listening to music, one song at a time, studying and collecting literally hundreds of musical details on every song. It takes 20-30 minutes per song to capture all of the little details that give each recording its magical sound—melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, lyrics...and more—close to 400 attributes!
Allowing for a certain amount of what Joseph Epstein calls “blurbissimo,” I’d say this self-description is more than mere self-praise.
Pandora is a two-tiered system: you can use it for free by agreeing to listen to occasional advertisements, or you can skip the ads by paying a very reasonable fee. I’m not sure the company has started selling air time yet—I’m a free user, and I have yet to encounter any commercials—but presumably ads will start to appear as soon as a sufficiently large number of listeners are using the service. I can already tell you, though, that should I find them obtrusive when that time comes, I’ll definitely subscribe.
What I find most attractive about Pandora is that it offers the best of two worlds. I like choosing my own music—that’s why I have three thousand songs on my iPod—but when you do that, you’re never surprised by what you hear. Shuffle play is a way of getting around this problem, but only within a realm of choice predetermined by you; satellite radio offers a much greater degree of surprise, but only within one musical genre at a time. Pandora, by contrast, allows you to mix genres at will. By telling Pandora that I like (for starters) Louis Armstrong, The Band, Count Basie, Donald Fagen, Robert Johnson, Lyle Lovett, Nancy LaMott, Erin McKeown, Aimee Mann, Pat Metheny, Nickel Creek, and Luciana Souza, I’ve ensured that it will play a very wide variety of music—but never anything I know I don’t like. Radio Teachout plays no heavy metal or hip-hop. Within the parameters I’ve specified, though, it is constantly surprising me, usually in good ways—and when it plays something I don’t care for, I simply give that song a thumbs-down, thus ensuring that I’ll never hear it again.
Like blogging, Pandora is easier to experience than it is to explain, so I suggest you give it a hands-on try, bearing in mind that you’ll need to spend twenty minutes or so interacting with the program before it knows enough about your taste to start making intelligent music choices. Don’t let that throw you: the Pandora interface is both user-friendly and fun to use. My guess is that within a half-hour or less, you’ll be addicted.
A couple of years ago I came to the conclusion that terrestrial radio, as conventional broadcast radio is now known, was doomed, at least in its historic capacity as a mass medium for the dissemination of recorded music. Judging by this story, I’d say I was right on target. After spending a few days playing with Pandora, I now think the demise of music-oriented terrestrial radio will come even sooner than I expected. What’s more, I think Pandora could conceivably threaten the emergence of satellite radio as a major player on the home-music scene (unless some genius at XM or Sirius figures out a way to make satellite radio interactive, which seems highly improbable).
Yes, these are strong words, but wait until you’ve tried Pandora before you dismiss them as technophilic hype. I have no doubt—none at all—that it’s the most potentially significant music-delivery system to come along since the introduction of iTunes and the iPod. You heard it here first.
UPDATE: Sarah tried Pandora, and is impressed.
Tuesday, May 2, 2006
"The future is inevitable and precise, but it may not occur. God lurks in the gaps."
Jorge Luis Borges, “Creation and P.H. Gosse”
TT: Alone in a crowd
Everybody likes Paul Klee. He is the most approachable of the major modernists, I suspect because his paintings are not only modest in scale but contain the kind of verbally paraphrasable content that makes them easily describable, if not explicable. (They are in fact utterly and wonderfully mysterious.) You don’t have to know anything about art to talk about a Klee painting. All you have to know is the title: Magic Garden. Ancient Sound. Twittering Machine. What’s not to get—or to like? Yet for all his accessibility, few have questioned his stature, not even the notoriously picky Clement Greenberg, who at first thought Klee provincial, “an eccentric but respectable bourgeois,” but ended up deciding that he was “major…in his funny way. In a pamphlet I called him a keinmeister [small master]. But he’s major all the same.”
The Neue Galerie, which I last visited five months ago in the company of my favorite blogger, is currently putting on a retrospective called “Klee and America,” mounted in collaboration with the Menil and Phillips Collections. It consists of paintings and works on paper drawn from American museums and private collections. That’s a smart idea. Klee has long been widely collected in this country, with good reason, though there was a time when many dismissed his art as the scribblings of a lunatic. Take a look at what Time wrote about the first American exhibition of Klee’s work to be held after his death in 1940:
Last week Manhattan’s Buchholz and Willard Galleries gathered together the largest Klee exhibition ever placed on view. The 100-odd drawings and canvases in the exhibition ranged from mad, wire-worky diagrams to basket-textured abstractions….All had a look of quiet, pastel-shaded insanity. The show was posthumous: short, sharp-faced Artist Klee had died at his Swiss home four months before. It was also posthumous in another sense. To the red-cheeked, goose-stepping Nazis who after 1933 scrubbed individualism from Germany’s art galleries, Paul Klee had been the most degenerate of degenerate artists. Some day history will have to decide whether Hitler was right—about Artist Klee.
Times have changed, and "Klee and America" is drawing noisy crowds, not of blockbuster magnitude but obtrusive nonetheless, especially seeing as how Klee’s intimate, confidential art all but begs to be viewed in silence. The Phillips Collection, which owns a goodly number of Klees, usually hangs them together, a half-dozen or so at a time, in a small side gallery that is invariably quiet, just as it should be. Perhaps that’s the best way to look at a Klee, short of actually owning one—and it strikes me that it would be frightfully immodest to own more than one or two. I read on a wall panel at the Neue Galerie that Clifford Odets, the left-wing playwright who wrote Awake and Sing! and Waiting for Lefty, owned sixty Klees at one time in his life. Somehow that strikes me as vulgar, not to mention incongruous.
I should also mention that the Neue Galerie is piping music into the galleries where “Klee and America” is hanging, a practice for which vulgar is not even close to the word. Yes, I like Schumann’s Carnaval, but I’m damned if I know why anybody thinks the paintings of Paul Klee profit from being viewed with Carnaval playing in the background.
To be sure, "Klee and America" is marvelous, very well chosen and by no means too big for its britches. Even so, I was distracted by the talkative crowd and the canned music, and so I walked briskly through the show, lingering longingly in front of four or five extra-special paintings. Then I went back downstairs, bought a copy of the excellent catalogue, and hit the road. I crossed Fifth Avenue and plunged into Central Park, where I spent a blissful hour wandering through the Ramble and down the bridle path. It never ceases to amaze me that you can be alone in Central Park, not just at odd hours but pretty much any time you want, simply by departing the main thoroughfares and heading down an unbeaten path.
I thought about Klee all the way home, where I opened my mailbox and found a review copy of Nancy King's new CD (about which more below). I popped it in my stereo and plopped down on the couch with the “Klee and America” catalogue, all alone and happy to be.
* * *
“Klee and America” is up at the Neue Galerie (86th St. at Fifth Ave., closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays) through May 22. For more information, go here. To purchase the catalogue, go here.
After closing in New York, "Klee and America" will travel to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (June 16-Sept. 10) and the Menil Collection in Houston (Oct. 6-Jan. 14).
* * *
UPDATE: A reader writes:
I LOVED the Klee, but LOATHE the Neue Galerie. It had such potential. However they have made it such an unpleasant place to experience art. There are too many guards and they are WAY too intrusive. I was once stopped THREE times in one visit and told to display my little badge more clearly by three different guards. Also, they don’t just look in your purse/bag, they root around in it. My handbag and I are rarely as threatening as we seem to be on Fifth and 86th.
The trick, I’ve found is to go a half an hour before closing. The guards are busy with text messaging their afterwork plans and other visitors are unwilling to fork out the admission price for 30 minutes. But the music, well, no way around that. When I was there, they had looped the overture to The Magic Flute. How many times in a row can you listen to that and not succumb to museum-rage?
Apply hammer (A) to head (B) of nail (C).
TT: Words to the wise
• If you’ve been following the latest plagiarism scandal and feel the need for a bit of historical context, I strongly recommend that you read Stolen Words, Thomas Mallon’s 1989 study of literary plagiarism, which is not only full of fascinating stories but (like all of Mallon’s books) wonderfully well written to boot.
• Jazz vocalist Nancy King
and nonpareil pianist Fred Hersch
are performing together May 9-11 at the Jazz Standard. It’s a CD-release gig: MaxJazz is about to release a live album recorded at their last Jazz Standard engagement.
Hersch is, of course, a known and much-admired
quantity, but King, who lives and works in Oregon, is virtually unknown save to her colleagues and a small but ardent band of admirers. I only know about her because she performed at the wedding of a musician friend of mine a couple of years ago, and blew me right out of the water. She is a major, major talent deserving of the widest possible recognition, a warm-voiced contralto whose gifts are nicely summed up in Hersch’s liner notes for Live at the Jazz Standard:
I second all that, fervently.
Nancy King epitomizes to me what real jazz singing is all about: fearless risk-taking; a pround connection with the words she is singing; using the many colors in her voice to put a new spin on old chestnuts; a flawless harmonic sense; off-the-hook improvisational skills; and complete openness to interplay. Add to the above her amazing sense of swing and rhythm (and the wisdom and experience that comes from more than more than forty years of singing) and you have one of the greatest jazz singers ever.
For a little taste of Nancy King’s singing, go here and click on any of the links. Then go here and place an advance order for Live at the Jazz Standard, which will be released on May 9. Then go to the Jazz Standard and hear for yourself.
Monday, May 1, 2006
"He has found his style, when he cannot do otherwise."
Paul Klee, diary entry (1908)
TT: Lost artist
Cy Walter, who died in 1968, specialized in a style of popular piano playing for which there has never been a satisfactory name. Because he and others like him spent most of their lives working in the lounges of high-priced hotels, most people now refer to their kind of music as “cocktail piano,” which is accurate as far as it goes but fails altogether to suggest the elegance and technical wizardry of Walter’s own playing.
I suppose one might call it “cabaret piano,” since he was closely associated with singers like Mabel Mercer, whom he accompanied with exquisite taste, and it’s certainly no coincidence that he figures so prominently in the pages of James Gavin’s Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret. Walter himself didn’t much care for labels, but when pressed he would call himself "a specialist in show tunes." For my part, and even though I don’t much care for neologisms, I like to think of the genre in which he worked as “New Yorker music.” Needless to say, the New Yorker I have in mind is the one founded and edited by Harold Ross, a rough-hewn newspaperman from Colorado who by some miracle of grace contrived to bring into being the most sophisticated magazine in the history of American journalism. It didn’t survive him for long, at least not in its original form: William Shawn took it in directions that proved alien to Ross’ tutelary spirit, and today’s New Yorker, for all its virtues, is greatly different in tone and approach from the magazine Ross edited between 1925 and his death in 1951.
Among many other things, Ross’ New Yorker promoted the kind of music performed by the artists chronicled in Intimate Nights. Rogers Whitaker, who covered cabaret (though it wasn’t yet called that) for the magazine, loved Walter’s piano playing and plugged him regularly in the "Goings On About Town" section. Alec Wilder, a New Yorker-endorsed songwriter who also wrote wisely and well about American popular song, contributed a set of liner notes to one of Walter’s albums in which he remarked that “anyone who has heard his own songs played by Cy immediately has a greater respect for his own work.” That is one hell of a compliment, and there were plenty of equally illustrious folk inclined to echo it. The mailing list of fans to whom Walter sent postcards announcing his gigs (it’s preserved in his papers) includes Tallulah Bankhead, Leonard Bernstein, Marlon Brando, Katharine Cornell, Lynn Fontanne, Elia Kazan, Frank Loesser, Agnes De Mille, Arthur Miller, Cole Porter, Jerome Robbins, and Tennessee Williams.
Walter recorded extensively from the Forties on, but until now none of his albums had ever been reissued, meaning that his name is virtually unknown today save to those lucky New Yorkers who once upon a time heard him live. Now Shellwood, an independent record label in England, has produced the first Cy Walter CD, a compilation of the pianist's Liberty Music Shop 78s called The Park Avenue Tatum. All twenty-eight tracks are show tunes, among them “Begin the Beguine,” “Body and Soul,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Liza,” “’S Wonderful,” and medleys from such half-remembered Broadway shows as Jerome Kern’s Very Warm for May, Cole Porter’s Panama Hattie, and Richard Rodgers’ By Jupiter.
Except for the last two cuts, on which Walter is joined by Gil Bowers, all of the performances on The Park Avenue Tatum are unaccompanied piano solos, though the casual listener could be forgiven for suspecting that there might have been a second pianist lurking in the shadows of the studio. Peter Mintun’s superb liner notes reprint a 1940 thank-you note that Richard Rodgers sent to a friend who had given him a copy of one of Walter’s records:
Who are these fellows, Cy and Walter? For you’re certainly not going to stand there and tell me one man plays all that piano. I resent the whole experience, anyway. Here I’ve been yelling with pain at the way the “stylists” kick hell out of [my] original harmonies and you have to send me a record that stinks with style and still manages to leave all the harmonies intact. Further, I have never heard better taste. Why don’t you leave a man and his hates alone?
It’d be hard to describe Walter’s style more wittily, or exactly, than that. He plays a song the way the songwriter wrote it, embedding the tune in a richly textured accompaniment from which it shines forth like a well-lit, well-framed painting. Though his playing often recalls the similarly virtuosic style of Art Tatum, his good friend and favorite pianist, Walter rarely indulged in the iridescent substitute chords Tatum loved to pull out of his hat, nor does his playing swing the way Tatum’s did. He generally sticks to bouncy, danceable medium-brisk tempos, and his most staggering feats of technical prestidigitation, unlike Tatum’s, are tossed off with the unobtrusive discretion of a gentleman’s gentleman: you can listen and marvel if you like, or you can sip your drink and chat.
Such playing is typically appreciated more by musicians than critics, who are so put off by the imagined taint of commercialism that they too often throw out the baby with the bathwater. It didn't surprise me, for instance, that Ethan Iverson, who plays piano with The Bad Plus, that quirkiest and least predictable of jazz bands, should have sent me an e-mail in response to the posting of last week in which I mentioned that Shellwood had offered to send me a review copy of The Park Avenue Tatum. “I have heard Cy Walter solo,” he wrote, “and it was amazing. You will be glad to get that one!” It figured that Iverson, who blithely disregards stylistic pigeonholes in his own bedazzlingly eclectic playing, would appreciate Walter. No, he wasn’t a jazzman, at least not in the ordinary meaning of the word—but who cares? As any number of wise musicians have been credited with saying, there are only two kinds of music, and Walter’s was the good kind.
Rogers Whitaker called cocktail piano “a minor art, but one of the more important ones.” I like that, and I like The Park Avenue Tatum enormously, not just because it’s so beautiful but because listening to it fills my mind’s eye with fetching pictures of a classier world, the same great good place that is chronicled in Intimate Nights, Rick McKay’s Broadway: The Golden Age, and The Complete New Yorker. My older friends, the ones who rail against rock and roll whenever you give them half a chance, are forever telling me how much nicer New York was in the Forties and Fifties. Me, I love it just as it is, especially when I saunter into the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room or stroll into a Broadway theater and plant myself on the aisle, notebook in hand. Every once in a while, though, I catch myself thinking, Yes, I have the greatest job in the world—but I still wish it was 1947 again. That’s how listening to Cy Walter makes me feel.
* * *
To purchase The Park Avenue Tatum, go here.
TT: Everywhere you go, there we are
I’ve been peeking at the “About Last Night” world map, which shows that in recent days we’ve been visited by readers from the following places:
• Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
• Urmston, Trafford, United Kingdom
• Parow, Western Cape, South Africa
• Yehud, HaMerkaz, Israel
• Vaihingen an der Enz, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany
• Gilan, Keyhan, Islamic Republic of Iran
• Merville Subdivision, Rizal, the Philippines
• Jordanville, Victoria, Australia
• Franco da Rocha, Sao Paulo, Brazil
• Bovolone, Veneto, Italy
• Jaipur, Rajasthan, India
• Seoul, Seoul-t’ukpyolsi, Republic of Korea
Hello out there! Come back soon! (And forgive the missing diacritical marks!)
Friday, April 29, 2005
Ah, there ain't no gentlemen
To open up the doors
There ain't no ladies now,
There's only pigs and whores
And even kids'll knock ya down
So's they can pass
Nobody's got no class!
Fred Ebb, “Class” (music by John Kander)
In case you've forgotten, or haven't been paying attention, the brainy and beauteous Our Girl in Chicago, who has a new job that's keeping her busy all the way from Monday to Friday, is now occupying the "About Last Night" blogger's chair on weekends, while I devote myself exclusively to chronicling the life, times, and dietary practices of Louis Armstrong. I don't know what she's got planned for this weekend, but I know it'll be good, so come take a peek.
As for me, I'll be back on Monday, probably neither rested nor refreshed, though I do plan to engage in a whole lot of cool activities when not whacking away at the old iBook. To be perfectly honest, I'd rather stay in bed, but duty calls. In the meantime, be sure to look in on OGIC while I'm doing the town.
(By the way, Girl, I miss you!)
TT: Wrong guy, nice try
Here's how busy I am: I almost forgot to post the weekly teaser for my Friday Wall Street Journal drama column. Yikes! Fortunately, I came to my senses at half past midnight, possibly because I'd been listening to a live recording by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony of Sibelius' Fourth Symphony, an experience not altogether dissimilar to having a bucket of ice water dumped over your head on a really hot day.
Now that I'm reconnected with my cerebral cortex, please allow me to draw your attention to my reviews of A Streetcar Named Desire and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, both of which are definitely worth seeing, albeit for very different reasons:
Most of the people I know who've seen (or heard about) the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which opened Tuesday at Studio 54, agree that John C. Reilly, who plays Stanley Kowalski, should have played Mitch instead. Nor do I beg to differ: Mr. Reilly is one of the best actors around, but he looks and sounds like a natural-born nice guy, just the kind of fellow who in real life might well make the mistake of falling for a loosely screwed dame like Blanche DuBois. That's Mitch all over, whereas Stanley is trouble on a stick, a walking, talking phallus who's as likely to knock a girl down and rape her as give her a lecture on the vices and versas of the Napoleonic Code. A Stanley who lacks the hard edge of sexual threat can't be right, no matter what else he has to offer.
Mr. Reilly, with his smiling eyes and bulbous clown nose, is all wrong as Stanley. But because he's also a smart, thoughtful artist with lots and lots to offer, he finds things in the part that previous actors, Marlon Brando included, have hitherto failed to suggest. Do you remember, for instance, what Stanley does for a living? No? Well, he's a traveling salesman—and Mr. Reilly brilliantly conveys his glad-handing, back-slapping side, an aspect of his character that's easy to overlook. He's also desperately, even abjectly in love with Stella (played to prize-winning perfection by Amy Ryan), and Mr. Reilly nails that, too. Never do you doubt that he'd do anything to hold onto his similarly obsessed wife. If this be miscasting, then Mr. Reilly, for all his inescapable limitations, makes the most of it….
I don't have any kids of my own, but I think I know a good time when I see one, and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” now playing at the Hilton Theatre, has fun written all over it. For openers, there's that car, a $1.4 million racer that, uh, flies. (I know, I know, it isn't really flying, but the illusion of flight contrived by designer Anthony Ward is jaw-droppingly persuasive.) There's also a flying villain, fancy sets, two confetti drops, and—not least—a high-octane cast led by Raúl Esparza as Caractacus Potts, the eccentric inventor who put the bang bang in Chitty Chitty….
No link. (You knew that.) Buy a copy of today's Journal to read the whole thing, of which there's oodles more. Or go here to subscribe to the Journal's online edition, the best bargain in newspaper journalism. Either way, you can't miss.
TT: Too much information (and that's just tough)
Until last week I hadn't peered into Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (familiarly known in Shakespearean English as Remembrance of Things Past for reasons known only to Proust's first translator, C.K. Scott Moncrieff) since college days, save to check the odd quote from time to time. Don't ask me why, but when I flew my Upper West Side coop for a couple of days of silence and sunshine by the Hudson River, I tossed the first installment of the Modern Library's 1934 two-volume omnibus edition of A la recherche into my shoulder bag. I cracked it open as I sat by the river, and since then I haven't looked back.
No sooner did I return to Manhattan than I was filled with an irresistible desire to listen to the piece of music that is the real-life model for the imaginary sonata by M. Vinteuil with whose “little phrase” the narrator of A la recherche is obsessed (and which is the subject of today's almanac entry). If you've read George Painter's biography of Proust, you know what it is. If not, read on, bearing in mind that Reynaldo Hahn, the musician referred to below, was Proust's lover:
Reynaldo's traditionalism was no doubt salutary for himself, but would only have been disastrous for Proust: it could never have led to the invention of Vinteuil. To please Reynaldo he did his best to like Saint-Saëns: he wrote two articles in Le Gaulois of 14 January and 11 December 1895, in which, however, his attempts at praise only succeeded in displaying his reservations. “Saint-Saëns uses archaism to legitimise modernity; he bestows upon a commonplace, step by step, through the ingenious, personal, sublime appropriateness of his style, the value of an original creation…he is a musical humanist,” says Proust very truly. And yet, it was from Reynaldo's tuition and from the charming, meritorious but secondary music of Saint-Saëns, that the “little phrase” of the Vinteuil Sonata took its beginning.
It was perhaps at Mme Lemaire's, and played by [Eugène] Ysaÿe (“his rendering is splendid, majestic and luminous, with admirable form,” wrote Reynaldo in his diary), that Proust first heard the Saint-Saëns Sonata in D Minor for violin and piano. His imagination was captured by the chief theme of the first movement, a mediocre but haunting melody whose only musical merit is its simplicity, and whose fascination comes from its very banality, like that of a popular song or dance-tune, and its incessant repetition….Afterwards, in Reynaldo's room at 6 Rue du Cirque, with its enormous stone fireplace, or in the dining-room at 9 Boulevard Malesherbes, Proust would say: “Play me that bit I like, Reynaldo—you know, the 'little phrase.'” So the little phrase of Saint-Saëns became the “national anthem” of his love for Reynaldo, as Vinteuil's became that of Swann's love for Odette.
I yield to no one in my admiration for Painter's skills as a biographer, but as a music critic he left something to be desired. For this reason, I suggest you listen Saint-Saëns' D Minor Violin Sonata and try hearing for yourself what Proust heard in it. Alas, Jascha Heifetz's zephyr-swift, supremely aristocratic recording is currently out of print, but this version ought to be quite serviceable. (The “little phrase” is heard for the first time about a minute and a half into the first movement.) I put it on as soon as I got back from Cold Spring, and I've been listening to it ever since.
Would that Eugène Ysaÿe himself had recorded the “little phrase,” but his recordings all date from 1912 and 1913, back when nobody thought a whole violin sonata was worth waxing. He did, however, record 15 short encore pieces, four of which are included on a two-CD anthology called The Great Violinists: Recordings from 1900-1913. The sound is dim and Ysaÿe himself was rather past his prime, but they still offer a treasurable glimpse of the immensely characterful playing of a legendary turn-of-the-century artist.
While we're on the subject of Proust-related recordings, I delight in telling you that Reynaldo Hahn also cut a double handful of ancient, scratchy 78s on which he can be heard singing, among other things, some of his own songs, all of them sung to his own deft piano accompaniment. He had a small, throaty baritone voice that didn't amount to much, but listen to his 1909 performance
of “Offrande” (the text is by Verlaine) and you'll hear what I can do no better than to describe as the quintessence of all things French. Alan Blyth conveys its quality nicely:
Hahn's dry, evocative baritone runs through the song rather more quickly than one would expect; I cannot make up my mind whether that is because he wants it to be heard as a single, trancelike supplication to the loved one with many phrases taken in a single breath, or whether his frail voice simply could not sustain it at a slower pace. I incline to the former view. Whatever the reason, it is a reading that is so haunting that repeat performances are imperative, like the need to drink yet another glass of a dry eau de vie.
By the way, you'd probably better get used to hearing way the hell too much about Proust for at least the next couple of weeks. I'm totally immersed, and happy to be. To be sure, it's kind of strange to be revisiting A la recherche at the same time that I'm working on my Louis Armstrong biography, but the six-degrees-of-separation game will take you from Marcel to Louis in two easy steps, by way of Armstrong's friend Bix Beiderbecke…but I'll save that one for another day.
Thursday, April 28, 2005
“When the least
obvious beauties of Vinteuil's sonata were revealed to me, already,
borne by the force of habit beyond the reach of my sensibility, those
that I had from the first distinguished and preferred in it were
beginning to escape, to avoid me. Since I was able only in successive
moments to enjoy all the pleasures that this sonata gave me, I never
possessed it in its entirety: it was like life itself. But, less
disappointing than life is, great works of art do not begin by giving
us all their best. In Vinteuil's sonata the beauties that one
discovers at once are those also of which one most soon grows tired,
and for the same reason, no doubt, namely that they are less different
from what one already knows. But when those first apparitions have
withdrawn, there is left for our enjoyment some passage which its
composition, too new and strange to offer anything but confusion to
our mind, had made indistinguishable and so preserved intact; and
this, which we have been meeting every day and have not guessed it,
which has thus been held in reserve for us, which by the sheer force
of its beauty has become invisible and has remained unknown, this
comes to us last of all. But this also must be the last that we shall
relinquish. And we shall love it longer than the rest because we have
taken longer to get to love it.”
Marcel Proust, A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff)
TT: Waving goodbye
Here's Rick Brookhiser in the New York Observer:
Terry Teachout has a lively arts blog called "About Last Night" (www.terryteachout.com), in which he reviews the passing scene and his own life. When he is not doing these things, he urges artists and other readers to get with the Internet age. We are slow learners, so he can sound like the sergeant-major barking orders at the native levies. But since he is always interesting and often right, these exhortations to obey our online overlords are worth reading, too.
Mr. Teachout linked a speech by Rupert Murdoch to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, on the future of daily newspapers. Mr. Murdoch owns more newspapers than you do, so his opinions on the medium are not an idle thumb-suck….As I read it, Rupert Murdoch was being polite. What he was telling his colleagues was: Newspapers are dead.
Newspapers were more than the particular paper you read. They were part of the dawn, with toothpaste, coffee and trying to find the right sock. You got a rape and a war, weather and box scores, James Reston or Jimmy Breslin. If you read The Times, you got "Reports From Greenland Are Unclear." If you read the tabs, you got "RIPS OUT HEART, STOMPS ON IT." Now that's all gone. Now, three or six times a day, you get Glenn and Jonah and Mickey and Andrew and Drudge and Debka. You get Page 3 and hyper-Catholics, Bush Lied and Iraq the Model, hobbits in prehistoric Indonesia and elephants who foresaw the tsunami. You definitely do not get Thomas L. Friedman. If you need to, you can check a line in Blackstone's Commentaries or The Duke of Earl. It's like channel surfing, only there are thousands more channels and you spend even less time on any of them. It all takes 15 minutes, and after a meal or a trip to the water cooler, you do it all again….
Read the whole thing here. Then go here for Jay Rosen's up-to-the-minute survey of the “instant literature” on the mainstream media's “big digital migration.” It's a must.
Remember how things feel right this minute. You're watching a revolution in progress.
TT: A week in the life
THURSDAY: Up early for breakfast with Laura Lippman, who's in town for the Edgar Awards. Spend remainder of morning working on dummy layout for new Wall Street Journal capsule-review box. Lunch with Naomi Schaefer Riley to celebrate publication of her first book, God on the Quad (I helped!). Spend afternoon and evening frenziedly writing 10,000-word essay for Commentary about future of blogging, due next Monday. (It was supposed to be the first half of a two-part 7,000-word essay due this Monday, but my editor developed an acute case of folie de grandeur when I turned in the first installment, and now I'm tied to the tracks of the next issue.) Write, code, and post tomorrow's Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser, along with witty reminder that Our Girl in Chicago now blogs on weekends only. Try to remember to take walk, look at Teachout Museum, read more Proust, call Mom in Smalltown, U.S.A., and go to bed no later than midnight. Do not hang by thumbs.
FRIDAY: Spend whole day frantically trying to polish off Commentary essay ahead of schedule, thus making it possible to spend weekend working on first chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong (which I rashly promised to deliver by hand to my editor at Harcourt over lunch next Thursday). Nap as needed. Meet newest friend (in whom I am well pleased) for dinner and preview of Broadway transfer of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Be sure to tell her how megacool she looked on TV the other night.
SATURDAY: Brunch with out-of-town jazz friends, followed by matinee preview of Glengarry Glen Ross, followed by as much writing as I can stand.
SUNDAY: Finish Commentary essay if it's not already done (if not, why not?). Otherwise, spend morning working on Hotter Than That. Cross fingers and pray that press preview of Sweet Charity takes place as expected this afternoon (it still hasn't been confirmed!). Catch Dena DeRose's first set at the Jazz Standard (see below). Blog if possible. If not, post unapologetic link to this posting.
MONDAY: D-Day at Commentary. Spend morning working on Hotter Than That and afternoon writing Wall Street Journal book review from scratch. Dinner in neighborhood, followed by in-house movie with visiting friend from deepest Brooklyn (viewing options include The Lavender Hill Mob, Sherlock, Jr., and The Palm Beach Story).
TUESDAY: Write Wall Street Journal theater column for Friday. If Sweet Charity preview took place on Sunday, catch train to Washington, D.C., to see Shakespeare Theatre's production of The Tempest. Otherwise, spend afternoon working on Hotter Than That, followed by evening preview of Sweet Charity (in which case this week's drama column will get written and filed tomorrow instead of today).
WEDNESDAY: Return to New York (if not already there) and finish first chapter of Hotter Than That. Suicide is not an option!
THURSDAY: D-Day No. 2. Go to bed after lunch. Stay there. Do not go out for dinner. Do not answer phone. Do not surf Web. Do not blog.
TT: Words to the wise
• I just got back from Birdland, where Gary Burton is appearing with his new quintet through Saturday. If you took my advice and bought their brand-new CD, Next Generation, you won't need any further urging to go. Burton is, as ever and always, one of jazz's most thoughtful and creative virtuosos, and he never fails to surround himself with high-class sidemen. Teenage whiz-kid guitarist Julian Lage, for instance, has come a long, long way since I first saw him with Burton a year ago: he's now officially a monster. (For those of you who don't speak jazz, that's a good thing.)
This was, by the way, the first chance I've ever had to watch Burton play vibes up close and from the front. Seeing him manipulate his four mallets at something approaching Mach 2 is like chatting with a member of a more highly evolved species, which is why I found it oddly comforting when he accidentally dropped two mallets on the floor midway through his solo on Lage's “First Impression.” It made me feel, oh, maybe one-tenth of one percent less clumsy than usual. It also reminded me of George Bernard Shaw's suggestion to the young Jascha Heifetz (probably apocryphal, but it's the sort of thing Shaw would have said to Heifetz) that he play at least one wrong note every night before going to bed “because the gods are jealous of perfection.” Me, too.
• Dena DeRose, one of my favorite singer-pianists, opens Friday at the Jazz Standard for a three-day run. She, too, has a new CD, A Walk in the Park, on which she demonstrates the tremendous growth in her singing since she first hit Manhattan a decade or so ago. Her sidemen for the album and the gig are Martin Wind and Matt Wilson, to whom the cognoscenti need no introduction. I'll be there on Sunday.
P.S. Both clubs have good kitchens. Take advantage of them.
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
“If, however, despite all the analogies which I was to perceive later
on between the writer and the man, I had not at first sight, in Mme.
Swann's drawing-room, believed that this could be Bergotte, the author
of so many divine books, who stood before me, perhaps I was not
altogether wrong, for he himself did not, in the strict sense of the
word, 'believe' it either. He did not believe it because he shewed a
great assiduity in the presence of fashionable people (and yet he was
not a snob), of literary men and journalists who were vastly inferior
to himself. Of course he had long since learned, from the suffrage of
his readers, that he had genius, compared to which social position and
official rank were as nothing. He had learned that he had genius, but
he did not believe it because he continued to simulate deference
towards mediocre writers in order to succeed, shortly, in becoming an
Academician, whereas the Academy and the Faubourg Saint-Germain have
no more to do with that part of the Eternal Mind which is the author
of the works of Bergotte than with the law of causality or the idea of
God. That also he knew, but as a kleptomaniac knows, without profiting
by the knowledge, that it is wrong to steal. And the man with the
little beard and snail-shell nose knew and used all the tricks of the
gentleman who pockets your spoons, in his efforts to reach the coveted
academic chair, or some duchess or other who could dispose of several
votes at the election, but while on his way to them he would endeavour
to make sure that no one who would consider the pursuit of such an
object a vice in him should see what he was doing. He was only
half-successful; one could hear, alternating with the speech of the
true Bergotte, that of the other Bergotte, ambitious, utterly selfish,
who thought it not worth his while to speak of any but his powerful,
rich or noble friends, so as to enhance his own position, he who in
his books, when he was really himself, had so well portrayed the
charm, pure as a mountain spring, of poverty.”
Marcel Proust, A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff)
TT: Up to the nanosecond
Last night I tuned in the CBS Evening News, that cobwebby bastion of Old Media, and what did I see? A segment on podcasting featuring none other than the Lascivious Biddies, whose new CD, Get Lucky, sports liner notes by none other than…yours truly.
Memo to posterity: I soooo knew them when.
UPDATE: To view the story, go here. (Jeepers, but Bob Schieffer looks his age....)
TT: Eleven perfectly lovely records
• Benjamin Britten, Nocturnal after John Dowland (played by Julian Bream)
• Frank Sinatra and the Hollywood String Quartet, “With Every Breath I Take” (from Close to You)
• Paul Dukas, Villanelle (played by Dennis Brain and Gerald Moore)
• James Taylor, “Something in the Way She Moves” (remade for Greatest Hits)
• Franz Schubert, Rondo in A Major, D. 951 (performed by Artur and Karl Ulrich Schnabel)
• The Byrds, “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue” (from Ballad of Easy Rider)
• François Couperin, Les baricades mistérieuses (played by Igor Kipnis)
• Stan Getz and Bob Brookmeyer, “Who Could Care” (from Stan Getz/Bob Brookmeyer, Recorded Fall 1961)
• Emanuel Chabrier, Idyll (performed by Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony)
• Luciana Souza, “Doce de Coco” (from Brazilian Duos)
• Stephen Sondheim, “Fear No More” (from the original-cast album of The Frogs)
Why eleven, you ask? (You did ask, right?) Because I've decided to strike a blow against ten-item lists. Down with arbitrary limitations! My next list may contain seven items, or thirteen....
TT: Entry from an unkept diary
I noticed the other day that I'd stopped taking time off on weekends. No, it's not that I'm in the vise-like grip of an obsession: it's that my weekly routine gradually changed without my quite realizing it. Now that I'm a working drama critic, I usually see press previews of Broadway and off-Broadway shows on Saturday and Sunday, making it all but impossible for me to get out of town (save by complicated prior arrangement) or do much of anything else. Of course this doesn't preclude my knocking off for a couple of days in the middle of the week, but since I've never in my life had a job that required me to work on weekends, I'm finding it hard to get used to thinking in terms of taking, say, Wednesdays and Thursdays off. My recent trip to Cold Spring was a step in the right direction, but the fact that I hadn't been there since November says something unpleasant about my continuing failure to adjust to the rhythms of my new life. More often than not I spend the entire week writing and going to other performances, then glance at my schedule on Friday night and suddenly remember that I'm not done yet.
An old friend of mine used to take every Friday night off without fail. He'd come home from work, retire to his study, eat dinner from a tray, and spend the whole evening listening to his huge, meticulously organized collection of 78s, through which he worked his way in strict alphabetical order every few years. No matter what else was happening in the world, however dire it might be (or seem to be), he shut the shop down one night a week and disappeared from the world. I spent many Friday nights with him in the last two years of his life, and I enjoyed them not only because he was a great listener, but also because spending the evening with him prevented me from spending it in an aisle seat or a noisy nightclub, or at my desk.
In the years since my friend died, I've never had a night of the week I could always call my own, and though I have countless excuses for my inability to do as he did, I know it's really my fault—just as it's my fault that I'm writing this paragraph when I know I should be snuggled up in my loft, reading Proust in preparation for a good night's sleep. Perhaps my first novel will start like this: For a long time I used to go to bed really, really late....
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
“It is glory—to have been tested, to have had our little quality and cast our little spell. The thing is to have made somebody care.”
Henry James, “The Middle Years”
Time once again to upend the bag and pour out a pile of v. cool and/or amusing links.
• Michael Blowhard on the mysterious profession:
Actors generally don't know who they really are. They find a center only when they pour themselves into the container of a "character"; they become most fully who they are when they turn themselves into someone else. Actors are often charming and gifted creatures, but they'll drive you crazy too. An actress might say one thing at 8 a.m. and then say something completely contradictory at 4 p.m. She wouldn't be bothered by this because in both cases she's been true to her feelings of the moment—and because being "true to the moment," whatever it happens to be, is what being an actor is all about. Men in romantic relationships with actresses often find these women a terrific turn-on—the passion! The excitement! The responsiveness! Yet the men often spend a lot of time scratching their heads in bewilderment too, wondering if anyone's truly home….
This has not been my experience with actors, but I know plenty of people who beg to differ. Maybe I've just been lucky. (Or not.)
• Mr. Alicublog finally catches up with Sideways (what kept him?), and has some objections mixed with praise:
So what's good? Mostly stuff that (forgive me) ripens over the course of the film. The dramaturgy is wicked smart. For example, throughout most of Sideways I wondered, what do these two guys see in each other? They spend most of the movie savagely attacking each other's actions and motivations. Good friends may do that, of course, but underneath it all you expect to see traces at least of the ties that bind.
Payne was subtle about this—maybe over-subtle. The big clues came late: the attack at the golf course, and especially Miles' reclamation of Jack's wallet. After these the rest of their relationship, and the whole movie, made more sense. Jack may seem like a heedless horndog and Miles a volatile lush, but each has a strain of madness that the other can enjoy, if only because it's different and thereby more exciting to him than his own….
• Mr. Thinking About Art has had it up to here, or maybe there, with theory:
What in the world does it add to the art viewing experience of 99.9% of the general public? Not much, I think. Certainly there is a place for theory in our academic institutions and surely contextualizing art among all the various -ism's is valuable. But Jerry Saltz's piece blasting Damien Hirst is a perfect example of why theory in art criticism and reviews in mostly useless. Give me Saltz's 885 words without theory any day of the week. Saltz's article actually means something to me. I can feel his experience of Hirst's work. I can connect to his opinion. I can sense Saltz's emotional response to the work.
Anyone can learn art theory if they wish. I'd venture a guess that if you took 100 art historians and asked them to write a theory-based critique of Hirst's show, you'd get 100 very similar writing samples. It's not unique like economic theory isn't unique. We can all learn it. For me, econometrics is much more exciting and insightful. You can use some theory and techniques, but without some creativity and a personal approach, you'll get stale results. Art for me is the same way and it's why I write my reviews from a personal, opinionated viewpoint. Some may say, "We've all got opinions!" And my response would be, "That's the point!" We don't all have knowledge of theory….
• Guess who?
Confession time: We've never been able to finish, or even get half of the way through, a novel by Saul Bellow. Maybe it's the language, which seems a bit overdone to us. Maybe it's how discursive and repetitive the books are. Maybe the alleged revolution that he brought to the writing of the American novel has already been so thoroughly absorbed that we're unable to appreciate how groundbreaking it truly is. In any event, we're prepared to admit that the fault must lie with us: Enough of the people we admire and respect claim him as a genius; perhaps he's the sort of writer that demands more attention be paid than our usual reading style (naked on the couch, a flask of bourbon at our side, Motorhead's Orgasmatron blasting from the hi-fi) allows….
• Admirers (and non-admirers) of Truman Capote will have a field day with the Lawrence Journal-World's elaborate package of freshly reported stories commemorating the 40th anniversary of the publication of In Cold Blood. Here's the beauty part: they were all written by college students. Print-media journalism may not be dead after all….
• Supermaud stumbles across a copy of another of my beloved books, the Viking Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald. (I wonder why it went out of print?)
• “Heather,” the semi-anonymous California pianist who blogs at in the wings, one of my current faves, describes what it feels like to turn pages for another pianist:
The requirements for this duty are straightforward enough: make yourself invisible, make sure you never turn too early or too late, make sure you never turn two pages at once, make sure to turn back pages when repeats are taken, and make sure to turn ahead to codas. Considering how long I've been reading music, page turning ought to allow me the lucky opportunity to study the pianist's technique, from fingering to pedaling to words muttered under the breath, but really, my levels of attention and perception rise near to performance level when I take that seat. And damn but I forgot how fast the second and fourth movements of Fauré's C minor piano quartet move! Stand up. Reach across. Flip. Sit down. Stand up. Reach across. Whew!...
BTDT, Heather. Way.
• Speaking of pianists, Michael Kimmelman, an amateur pianist who has also been known to write about art, has an essay
about William Kapell in The New York Review of Books that's a must:
Was there any greater American pianist born during the last century than Kapell? Perhaps not. Certainly he was the most famous American-born player until Van Cliburn. He was a jukebox star during the 1940s, thanks to his performance of Khachaturian's Piano Concerto, a noisy showpiece that Kapell came to resent, in the way that Rachmaninoff came to loathe his own Prelude in C-sharp Minor.
He was also a stereotype of a native New Yorker: bright, brash, tactless, competitive, funny, cocky, and thin-skinned. He could be exceptionally generous and also nasty. He was a nervous, obsessive person—and meticulous (he kept a diary to record, down to the minute, how long he practiced each piece, toting up the numbers month after month)….
• Oh, just in case you were wondering, the Mozart Effect is a fraud.
• Needless to say, quite a few people have sent me this (which doesn't make it any less funny).
• Greg Sandow, my fellow artsjournal.com blogger, talks sense:
You can't blame people as individuals for not liking the music you think they should like. Or at least you can't blame them without understanding why they feel the way they do. This becomes quite a conundrum, I think, because abstract expressionist painters (whose style might be more or less analogous to atonal modernist music) have a much easier time with the public. People like their work. As I've mentioned many times in many contexts, there were lines around the block when MoMA had a Jackson Pollock show. So why doesn't music work that way?...
• Tobi Tobias, another artsjournal.com colleague, offers a close reading of Rock of Ages, Mark Morris' new dance, that leaves me with nothing more to say (which puts me in a hell of a spot, since I have to say something about it later today!). Here's a snippet:
This year, the Mark Morris Dance Group brought no brand-new, grand-slam work to its annual season at BAM. The sole novelty was a piece that had its premiere last fall, way west, in Berkeley, California. But it's a honey. Rock of Ages, set to the adagio movement of Schubert's Piano Trio in E flat, is a small, quiet dance that, like meditative deep breathing, expands the consciousness until it seems to reach the deepest feelings and an ever-widening understanding of how the world works.
Its population of four, plainly dressed, enters one by one from the four corners of the stage, briefly converges at the center of the space, then moves on (though a pair pauses briefly, side by side), each person simply continuing along the diagonal path prescribed by his or her first step. The ending reiterates this action, which is clearly the simple message of the dance: We exist alone; we meet when we occupy a common space; we interact in passing, our identity left essentially unaltered; we part-because it is only natural that we should….
• In related news, Maccers makes a major dance-related discovery:
Anyway, someone please remind me next time I am plugging in credit card numbers into websites that I don't like the story form of dance. I like abstract. And short skirts. Let me see the legs.
Me, too, mostly, except when otherwise.
• Spam, spam, spam:
RE: I NEED YOUR URGENT ASSISTANCE PLEASE
Dear Mr. XVI,
I am Alrick Mohammed Bwalugari, the son of the late Nigerian Los Angeles Head of Sacristans who died on the 6th of June 1999 while in active services. Following the sudden death of my father, Usher Bullem Shitika, the present Diocean Government has thrown my family and I into a state of utter confusion, frustration, and hopelessness, much like the state your detractors are in. I have been subjected to inhuman physical and physiological torture, like being forced to listen to the Protestant hymns and hippy folk tunes and being forced to view liturgical dancing girls….
• Finally, here's a truly great time-waster. Warning: I soooo defy you to blow less than five minutes on it….
TT: Entries from an unkept diary
• A good friend of mine is friendly with the significant other of a person to whom I gave a bad review the other day. (Sorry to be so roundabout, but I don't want to leave any tracks.) Shortly thereafter, my friend made the mistake of mentioning to her friend that we were friends, whereupon—as Lester Young used to put it—she felt a draft. I was sorry to hear it, but glad she told me. Too often those who do what I do for a living overlook the fact that we're writing about real people. We should never forget, or be allowed to forget, that we are capable of causing hurt and doing harm. Even the famous have feelings.
• My colleagues are forever encouraging me to make embarrassing taste-related revelations along the lines of the treasurable fact that Lionel and Diana Trilling were Kojak fans. (This reminds me to report the stop-press news that Sir John Gielgud liked Cheers, in part because he found Ted Danson sexy.) Alas, I never seem able to oblige, not because I'm unwilling but because I simply can't come up with anything sufficiently uncultivated on the spot. So when I thought of a good one the other day, I resolved to pass it on to you at the earliest opportunity: two of the very first songs I downloaded from iTunes were Blue Öyster Cult's “Before the Kiss, a Redcap” and “I'm on the Lamb (But I Ain't No Sheep).” Those were the only Blue Öyster Cult songs I wanted, but I definitely wanted them.
TT: One of these days
I haven't read my blogmail for the past few days. I won't read it for the next few days, or at least not until I finish writing my three remaining print-media pieces. It's nothing personal, I swear. I promise to read it all and get back to you all, sooner or later.
(O.K., later. But not too much later.)
Monday, April 25, 2005
"The port from which I set out was, I think, that of the essential loneliness of my life—and it seems to be the port also, in sooth, to which my course again finally directs itself! This loneliness (since I mention it)—what is it still but the deepest thing about one? Deeper, about me, at any rate, than anything else; deeper than my 'genius,' deeper than my 'discipline,' deeper than my pride, deeper, above all, than the deep counterminings of art."
Henry James, letter to W. Morton Fullerton (1900)
I moved to New York twenty years ago this month. It never occurred to me as a young man that I would someday live here, and I'm still capable of being taken aback by the improbable fact that I do. Just the other day I was riding across the Brooklyn Bridge in a cab, and as I glanced out the window at the skyline of lower Manhattan, the city suddenly looked strange to me, as if I'd never seen it before. Perhaps you can never feel completely at home in a city to which you move at the ripe old age of twenty-nine.
I celebrated my twentieth anniversary as a New Yorker by slipping out of town for a few days—an appropriate gesture, I think, since Manhattan, for all its myriad wonders, has a way of getting on your nerves after a couple of months' worth of continuous exposure. As I sat on a park bench by the Hudson River, basking in the sunshine and idly turning the pages of Du côté de chez Swann, I caught myself thinking about how different the world was when I came to New York. Among other things:
• The World Trade Center was still standing.
• So was the Berlin Wall.
• I was using the first VCR I'd ever owned.
• I hadn't bought my first CD player or fax machine.
• I had yet to use a personal computer, much less buy one.
• Cell phones didn't exist.
• None of my books was written. (For that matter, none of the pieces collected in the Teachout Reader was written.)
• I'd never seen a ballet by George Balanchine (not counting The Nutcracker) or a painting by Pierre Bonnard.
• Our Girl in Chicago was still in high school—and three of the people whom I now number among my closest friends weren't yet old enough to go to grade school.
Since then, my life has undergone countless other changes, a few of them fairly dramatic. I buried a parent and a best friend. I became a drama critic, and acquired a niece. I was investigated by the FBI, voted on by the Senate, and sworn in by a Supreme Court justice. I started a blog. And I began to think of myself as a New Yorker, which some might say was the biggest change of all.
What surprises me most, though, is that I don't spend all that much time thinking about such things. Some, yes—I'm as susceptible to unexpected attacks of acute nostalgia as any other middle-aged guy—but for the most part I tend to be preoccupied with the next piece I have to file and the next show I have to see. What I wrote about Balanchine a year ago is in many ways true of me as well:
Of all his oft-repeated refrains, the most familiar was Do it now! “Why are you stingy with yourselves?” he would 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.” His ruthlessly practical approach to running a dance company was rooted in the hard-won knowledge that his next breath might be his last. He worked within the means available at the moment, using them to the fullest, never wasting time longing for better dancers or a bigger budget: “A dog is going to remain a dog, even if you want to have a cat; you're not going to have a cat, so you better take care of the dog because that's what you're going to have.” He ran his private life along the same lines: when he had money, he spent it lavishly, on himself and others, and when he didn't, he lived frugally. “You know,” he said, “I am really a dead man. I was supposed to die and I didn't, and so now everything I do is second chance. That is why I enjoy every day. I don't look back. I don't look forward. Only now.” This dance, this meal, this woman: that was his world.
Perhaps my tendency to live in the present is merely a phase I'm going through. My impression is that most people grow increasingly preoccupied with the past as they grow older. It may be that my work helps to anchor me in the present moment, and I'm sure that living in New York and spending so much of my time in the company of younger people have had a similar effect. But whatever the reasons, I mostly like my life, and most of the time I like it very much indeed, which is why I enjoy sharing bits and pieces of it with you.
Marcel Proust, in whose imagined world I am currently immersed, assures us that happiness “serves hardly any other purpose than to make unhappiness possible.” He might be right, but I prefer to think otherwise. At least for the moment, I propose instead to cast my lot with Justice Holmes, who in old age told an old friend,
I was repining at the thought of my slow progress—how few new ideas I had or picked up—when it occurred to me to think of the total of life and how the greater part was wholly absorbed in living and continuing life—victuals—procreation—rest and eternal terror. And I bid myself accept the common lot; an adequate vitality would say daily, “God, what a good sleep I've had,” “My eye, that was dinner,” “Now for a fine rattling walk”—in short, life as an end in itself.
Of course I hope I can do a bit better than that, but at the very least I'll gladly aspire to accepting the common lot. Today I'll do my best to write a piece, take a walk, call my mother, read a couple of dozen pages of Proust, and spend a few minutes looking at the Teachout Museum. If at day's end I've accomplished all these things, I'll go to bed content—and if I haven't, I'll do the same. Like the cops say, Rule No. 1 is to go home alive at the end of your shift. Every day is a victory over the abyss.
See you tomorrow.
TT: Bark and the world barks with you
For those who've been elsewhere of late, we're batting around
the possibility of coming up with a more striking name for the mental disorder known as “clinical depression.” One reader wrote to remind us that Winston Churchill referred to his own depression as “the black dog,” and a couple of classicists obligingly translated that homely phrase into resonantly medical-sounding Latin.
Now my brother writes:
The phrase you wrote about a few days ago, "black dog”: Truckers use that term when they have been on the road, usually past their legal hours, too long. It's when you start to haze over and the white line dashes start to take on the appearence of two eyes in the head of a black dog. Patrick Swayze starred in a movie with the same title.
I think we may be onto something here….
TT: This, that, the other thing
In case you didn't see her announcement last Wednesday, Our Girl in Chicago has a new job and two full hands. In order to maintain her sanity, she's decided to post mainly on Saturdays and Sundays (though you shouldn't be too terribly surprised if she should poke her head in on the odd weekday), meaning that "About Last Night" now returns to its former status as a full-service 24/7 blog.
As for me, I'm back from my brief holiday on the Hudson River and reasonably raring to go. Take a look at the right-hand column and you'll find new stuff here and there (including a fresh pair of Top Fives). I've got four Old Media pieces to write this week, so I don't know how much blogging I'll be doing between now and Friday, but I'm sure there'll be more than there ought to be. Watch this space and marvel at my irrepressible logorrhea.
Sunday, April 24, 2005
OGIC: Visible books
I wrote a review recently (it's not yet published) of Kevin Canty's Winslow in Love, a novel about a poet. I was struck by how readily I accepted that the novel's protagonist Winslow was a good poet, even though I couldn't read his poetry; I became interested in the question of how Canty got me on board using only indirect evidence of Winslow's talent. The most direct way, but perhaps the most foolhardy (even if Canty were a poet as well as a novelist), would have been to let the reader actually read Winslow's poems. It surprised me how few books I could think of, among the many books about writers out there, that use this device. I thought of two: Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, which isn't about the poem's author but its critic, and A. S. Byatt's Possession, which is also more about the scholars studying the poets whose work appears than about the poets themselves. There must be more, I thought. So, as you may remember, I opened the question up to the readers of About Last Night.
The flood of email that followed, supplemented by blog posts at Tingle Alley, Critical Mass, and Sheila O'Malley, was gratifying. As I posted back then, it soon became clear that John Irving's The World According to Garp was the widely-read, well-known book I should have thought of. But many others were also mentioned:
Boris Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago
Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad
David Markson, Springer's Progress
Carol Shields, Swann
Richard Flanagan, Gould's Book of Fish
Jorstein Gaarder, Sophie's World
Honore de Balzac, Lost Illusions
Stephen King, The Dark Half
Stephen King, Misery
Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds
Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift
Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides
Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
Jasper Fforde, Thursday Next series
Anthony Burgess, Enderby tetrology
Paul Auster, Oracle Night
J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello
Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
Tobias Wolff, Old School
Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys
Andre Gide, The Counterfeiters
Philip Roth, My Life as a Man
Percival Everett, Erasure
Elliott Baker, A Fine Madness
Wyndham Lewis, Self-Condemned
Stephen King, The Body
George Gissing, New Grub Street
Booth Tarkington, Penrod
Lydia Davis, The End of the Story
James McCourt, Time Remaining
Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs
Cathleen Schine, Rameau's Neice
Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers
I can't vouch that all of these fit the description, since I've read only a few of them. (To clarify the description, I was thinking of writing with professional aspirations, not diaries or letters, which are far more common; epistolary novels have a healthy body of criticism all their own.) A couple of correspondents had further thoughts on the device that I thought worth sharing. Aaron Haspel from God of the Machine echoed my own thinking on the subject, but more eloquently:
Most novelists have more sense than to try to recreate their characters' work. The recreation usually proves a disappointment, especially if the writing character is supposed to be a great genius, as he so often is. It's tough enough to write well in your own voice, let alone in someone else's. This is why in Franny and Zooey Salinger wisely confines himself to Seymour Glass's juvenilia. Pale Fire succeeds because John Shade is a mock-genius and the 999-line poem is a burlesque.
It's certainly a giant risk. For all but the most skilled and imaginative authors, writing a character's writing is probably the quickest way to destroy that character's credibility as a writer. If you really succeed at producing a sustained sample of good fictional writing, you expend the toil of writing, say, a book and a half for the credit and recompense of writing only one. And you risk leaving your readers high and dry; if the book-within-the-book is all that great, they may feel cheated not being able to read the whole thing. Perhaps it's for this reason that Irving gives us a short story by Garp, something reproducible in its entirety. My friend Joshua Kosman, classical music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, is extremely edifying not only on Garp, but on the topic at large:
The obvious example is John Irving's The World According to Garp, which not only includes a complete piece of Garp's fiction, but makes it the basis of his entire career as a writer. It's a pretty daring stunt, I always thought. Think about it: Young Garp sets out to become a writer, and first makes his name with a short story called "The Pension Grillparzer." Thereafter his career has some ups and downs, and he has periodic crises of confidence, etc. But whenever he's in doubt, someone will say to him, "But look—you're an amazingly good writer! After all, you wrote 'The Pension Grillparzer'! So don't give up!" In other words, the entire notion of him as a writer is predicated on his having turned out this one terrific short story. And Irving includes in the novel the entire text of 'The Pension Grillparzer,' and—it's incredibly good. Whew!
In fact, I have a category I collect of narrative works that conform to this pattern. It's a very small and select list. The criteria are: 1) The work contains within it another work, either complete or in part, that is actually created and displayed, not merely described. 2) The artistic success of the inner work is essential to the plot of the outer, and 3) the artistic judgment that is required by the outer narrative is in fact correct (i.e., 'Pension Grillparzer' really is as good as the characters in The World According to Garp all think it is).
The founding members of this class are Garp and Wagner's "Die Meistersinger," which is about a guy who wins a singing prize contest by inventing a song that somewhat conforms to and somewhat transcends the rules of the medieval singing guild. You actually hear the song being created line by line, and damned if it isn't every bit as phenomenal as the plot of the opera demands. There was a third work in this category, but I've forgotten now what it is.
One that notably doesn't make it, by the way, is Woody Allen's Crimes & Misdemeanors. You may remember that he plays a filmmaker whose career is going nowhere and who's very bitter about it. And late in the film, you actually see a piece of the film that the character has been working on all this time—and it's horrible! But of course since it's Woody Allen, who clearly can't distinguish between good films and bad ones, there's no way to know whether that's intentional or not.
Anyway, to return to the original query: Another example, but less on point than Garp is Steven Millhauser's wonderful first novel, Edwin Mullhouse. Dunno if you've ever read it, but it's a sort of Pale Fire-esque thing about two eleven-year-old boys, one of whom is writing the biography of the other. Edwin's magnum opus, a novel called "Cartoons," isn't actually reproduced, but there's about a 10-page description of it that is breathtaking.
Wow—we can only hope that Joshua's full-length article about the phenomenon will eventually appear! He's thought about this a lot more than I have. To answer his question, I haven't read Edwin Mullhouse, but I've enjoyed some of Millhauser's other books. Little Kingdoms contains one of my favorite short stories, "Catalogue of the Exhibition," which tells the chilling gothic tale of a fictional Romantic-era painter's life and loves through the sole means of catalog descriptions of his paintings. Millhauser makes you really "see" the paintings, rendering his story roughly the visual equivalent of the novels listed above.
Finally, a commenter at Tingle Alley showed me the way to the wonderful Invisible Library, a site that seems, sadly, not to be actively updated any longer. It provides an extensive catalog of "books that only appear in other books," and a generous list of related links and references. Among the latter is a link to Max Beerbohm's essay "Books within Books," which provides me with the epilogue for this very long post:
I am shy of masterpieces; nor is this merely because of the many times I have been disappointed at not finding anything at all like what the publishers expected me to find. As a matter of fact, those disappointments are dim in my memory: it is long since I ceased to take publishers' opinions as my guide. I trust now, for what I ought to read, to the advice of a few highly literary friends. But so
soon as I am told that I "must" read this or that, and have replied that I instantly will, I become strangely loth to do anything of the sort. And what I like about books within books is that they never can prick my conscience. It is extraordinarily comfortable that they don’t exist.
Saturday, May 1, 2004
OGIC: Look at Me
The turning point of Agnès Jaoui's film Look at Me (in French, Comme un image or "Like a picture") is easy to miss. It occurs in a split second while Jaoui's character Sylvia drives home from a party with Lolita, a young singer she's been coaching. Lolita isn't a professional, and Sylvia has been reluctant to give her time beyond what she spends with the group Lolita belongs to—they're talented amateurs preparing a concert together, and the implication is that Sylvia is a high-level professional coach who is doing them something of a favor. The work isn't truly interesting to her, but she feels it's a good cause, to a point. When Lolita presses her for individual practice time, Sylvia demurs—until she discovers that Lolita's father is Étienne Cassard, a famous author whom her literary husband, and apparently all of France, reveres. Introductions are made, and before you can say "the bees in their hive," the two women are on their way to a weekend in the country with Étienne, his young wife, Sylvia's husband, and sundry relations and hangers-on.
The first evening, Lolita takes Sylvia along to a nearby party where she's going to meet up with her on-again, off-again boyfriend Matheiu. Mathieu dances with her, then sneaks off with a prettier, thinner girl. From a distance, Lolita sees them together, and the increasingly sympathetic Sylvia sees Lolita see them. Driving back to the house, Lolita vents about finding out Mathieu for just another in a long train of people who have used her to get to her father. Sylvia immediately recognizes herself in the description, and we see her see it in the briefest flicker of a shadow across her features. It comes as an unpleasant but—since she's decent—not an unwelcome revelation. They have become friends by now anyway, but Sylvia knows she only gave them the chance to because Lolita is Étienne's daughter. From here on out the friendship takes on another dimension.
In this interview, Jaoui discusses her film in terms of the kind of social power Étienne holds and wields ruthlessly. In various ways, the weaker characters in the film buckle under that power. The movie, by this light, is about how the stronger characters learn to resist. There's something flattening about this approach, though. It doesn't begin to suggest the degree of feeling in the film, most of it emanating from Marilou Berry's passionate Lolita. She can't get to her father's heart; the most he could be said to do is tolerate her. Her singing, which is very beautiful and at which she's ultimately triumphant, is a pursuit undertaken largely to impress and attract him, as well as to emulate him and his writing. But he just keeps ignoring her, with exceptions for those times when he needs love. He calls her "my big girl" and tries unconvincingly to pass it off as a term of endearment.
The story ends perfectly to my mind, with Sylvia instrumental in getting Lolita where she needs to be. The reluctant help Sylvia gives her with her singing in the first half is mirrored by the support she gives her as a friend and advocate in the second. My companion had quibbles with the ending, the kind of quibbles that start great conversations. And enough in the ending is left ambiguous or left to the imagination to make such post-film conversations not just possible but almost necessary. This useful ambiguity, as well as the way the action revolves around the uneven skill and progress with which various characters read the crisscrossing social dynamics at play (some, of course, never get it and never will), make the movie a very Jamesian affair. I loved it.
Friday, April 30, 2004
"I exhort you to restrain the violent tendency of your nature for analysis, and to cultivate synthetic propensities. What’s the use of virtue? What’s the use of wealth? What’s the use of honor? What’s a guinea but a damned yellow circle? What’s a chamber-pot but an infernal hollow sphere? The whole effort of your mind is to destroy. Because others build slightly and eagerly, you employ yourself in kicking down their houses, and contract a sort of aversion for the more honorable useful and difficult task of building well yourself."
Sydney Smith, letter to Francis Jeffrey, April or May, 1804
TT: A word from our sponsor
It's been a while since I mentioned that "About Last Night" is made possible by our host, artsjournal.com, the award-winning daily digest of arts journalism here and abroad.
Each day, artsjournal.com posts links to and abstracts of important English-language news stories and commentaries about all the arts, gleaned from magazines and newspapers throughout the world. And in addition to "About Last Night," artsjournal.com also hosts other 24/7 blogs whose authors cover specific art forms: dance, architecture, music, the visual arts, and more.
Long before Doug McLennan, the founder and mastermind of artsjournal.com, invited me to launch "About Last Night," I'd become a daily visitor to his site. It's indispensable reading for anyone who wants to keep up with the arts in America and elsewhere. Doug doesn't stick to the obvious sources (although he has those covered, too). In addition, he posts a dazzlingly eclectic mix of other links, not a few of them from publications you've probably never heard of, or at the very least see only sporadically.
If you read "About Last Night," you'll want to make artsjournal.com a regular part of your daily Web troll. To go there, click on the artsjournal.com logo in the upper left-hand corner of this page. To visit artsjournal.com's other blogs, scroll down to the "Other AJ Blogs" module in the right-hand column (it's just below our blogroll, "Sites to See") and click on whatever catches your eye. You'll be glad you did.
TT: A real fortune cookie
For those of you familiar with my all-or-nothing work habits, the fortune I extracted from last night's pre-ballet cookie will likely make you smile:
Don't just work hard, work smart.
I'm trying! I'm trying!
TT: Jump first, ask questions later
Today’s Wall Street Journal drama column is a triple-header. First up, Jumpers, about which I had nothing but great things to say:
Most playwrights of ideas are content to play with the ideas of others. Tom Stoppard has his own, and in "Jumpers" he serves them up with plenty of hot pepper on the side. Imagine a Broadway show in which a beleaguered professor of moral philosophy agonizes over the existence of God. Then stir in a pin-striped totalitarian sharpie, a half-witted police inspector, a half-crazy musical-comedy star (that’s the professor’s wife), a mute secretary, a jazz trio, eight acrobats and—oh, yes—two murders. That’s "Jumpers," the frightening farce currently being performed by the National Theatre of Great Britain at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in a revival directed with coruscating flair by David Leveaux....
Next is Raisin in the Sun, a generally outstanding revival that has, alas, a gaping hole smack dab in the middle:
Not to keep you in suspense, but Sean Combs, the Rapper Formerly Known as P. Diddy, can’t act, though he does what I suspect is his best in the revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s "A Raisin in the Sun" playing through July 11 at the Royale Theatre. Not only does he remember all his lines, but he even manages to insert a touch of emotion here and there. Alas, Mr. Combs hasn’t the foggiest idea of how a thirtysomething father from the Chicago ghetto circa 1950 might have looked and sounded. Instead, he portrays Walter Lee Younger as a proto-rapper—blustery, adolescent and phony to the core. That he should have the gall to make his Broadway debut alongside Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald suggests that his capacity for embarrassment is insufficiently developed….
Last and most definitely least, Bombay Dreams:
It won’t be enough if "Bombay Dreams" flops—I’d like to see it removed from the Broadway Theatre with bulldozers at high noon. Not since "Urban Cowboy" have I endured a show so irredeemably stupid as this backhanded "tribute" to the musicals churned out in boxcar lots by "Bollywood," the Bombay-based Indian film industry. Their simple-minded scripts and drop-of-a-turban production numbers are said to be charming, but you couldn’t prove it by "Bombay Dreams," a mishmash of tuneless tunes, vapid lyrics, dull choreography, and pointlessly expensive sets (including a sunken on-stage fountain) that put me in mind of an Elvis Presley movie with a billion-dollar budget….
No link. Go buy Friday’s Journal. (And yes, Aaron, it only costs a dollar, nyaah nyaah nyaah!)
Thursday, April 29, 2004
Thursday wasn’t nearly so busy as Wednesday: I wrote a speech in the morning, met Maud for lunch, then came back home and blogged a bit. (My scheduled nap slipped through the cracks.)
• As for the evening, I just got back from seeing New York City Ballet dance
George Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer. It was the first time I’d seen NYCB since writing All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, and the first time the company has danced Liebeslieder Walzer in several seasons. Here’s what I said about it in the book:
New York City Ballet toured the Soviet Union in 1962, the first time Balanchine had been there since his defection thirty-eight years before. "Welcome to Russia, home of the classical ballet," a Soviet official told him as he stepped off the plane in Moscow. "Thank you," he replied without missing a beat, "but America is now home of the classical ballet. Russia is home of the old romantic ballet." But that didn’t mean he had turned his back on the romanticism of his youth. Liebeslieder Walzer (1960, music by Brahms) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962, music by Mendelssohn), for example, were both profoundly romantic in every sense of the word—as well as formally innovative.
Liebeslieder Walzer is set not in a sky-blue void but a candle-lit ballroom where four aristocratic-looking young couples in evening dress spend an hour waltzing together, accompanied by the four singers and two pianists with whom they share the stage. The couples are entangled in subtly differing ways (one of the women, for example, appears to be older than her partner-lover), though there is no plot or Tudor-style "acting" to give away their intimate secrets. Romantic ends are achieved by modern means: all you see are the setting and the steps, with everything else left to the imagination. The dancers drift outdoors into a moonlit garden and the curtain falls for a breathless moment. When it rises again, the ballroom itself is flooded with moonlight, the women are wearing tutus and toe shoes, and the decorous ballroom dancing of the first act is replaced by the heightened gestures of ballet. At the end, the women reappear in their party gowns, and the couples listen in stillness to the last waltz, whose words, sung in German, are by Goethe:
Now, Muses, enough!
You strive in vain to show
How joy and sorrow alternate in loving hearts.
You cannot heal the wounds inflicted by love;
But assuagement comes from you alone.
"The words ought to be listened to in silence," Balanchine wrote, surely thinking of the joys and sorrows of his own complicated life.
The costume change midway through Liebeslieder Walzer is a stroke of fantasy as stunning in its quieter way as the climactic flying lifts of The Four Temperaments. Balanchine revealed its meaning to Bernard Taper: "In the first act, it’s the real people that are dancing. In the second act, it’s their souls." But more than a few members of the ballet’s earliest audiences, bored by its unending succession of "love-song waltzes," would slip out of the theater during the pause between acts. In an oft-told anecdote that may or may not be true, Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein were watching a performance together. "Look how many people are leaving, George," Kirstein moaned, to which Balanchine replied, "Ah, but look how many are staying!" Today, though New York City Ballet now performs Liebeslieder Walzer only infrequently, it is loved by connoisseurs for what Arlene Croce has called its "persistent note of melancholy and tragic remorse," and there are those, myself included, who regard it as their favorite Balanchine ballet of all.
That isn’t a bad description of Liebeslieder Walzer, but reading it immediately after having seen the ballet is somewhat disheartening. To capture the smallest part of its mystery and complexity would have taken me at least a chapter, which I didn’t have to spare. In any case, few things are more futile than trying to describe a Balanchine ballet in words, least of all this profound meditation on romantic love. All I really hoped to do was make the reader want to go see it, which you can do on Saturday and next Tuesday at the New York State Theater. (Go here for details.)
The program also included Symphony in C, about which I last had occasion to write in a piece about a performance by American Ballet Theatre that I saw only a few short weeks after 9/11:
Then, too, there was George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which received its long-overdue ABT debut. Few other modern artists working in any medium have had Balanchine’s uncanny ability to transport the attentive viewer into a better-ordered universe of romance and grace—and humor. So it was with Symphony in C. As the curtain rose for the ten thousandth time on that familiar stageful of women in white tutus poised before a blue backdrop, one felt the world snap back to normal again—just what all the pundits had been assuring us would never happen. It put me in mind of a poem by Edwin Muir, "Reading in Wartime," that makes the case for sonnets about skylarks: "Boswell’s turbulent friend/And his deafening verbal strife,/Ivan Ilyich’s death/Tell me more about life,/The meaning and the end/Of our familiar breath,/Both being personal,/Than all the carnage can,/Retrieve the shape of man,/Lost and anonymous."
I guess that isn’t dance criticism, but I like it anyway, if only because it brings to mind an evening that meant a great deal to me at the time.
• Now playing on iTunes: Ernie Wilkins’ "The Jazz Connoisseur," recorded in 1961 by Harry James and most recently available as part of Jazz Masters: Harry James, a Verve anthology of James’ MGM recordings. I was introduced to this up-tempo swinger by a musician friend who several years ago underwent a life-threatening operation that left him partly paralyzed. He later told me that listening to "The Jazz Connoisseur" as he lay in his hospital bed helped give him the courage to carry on. I can’t claim to know exactly what he meant—I’ve never been that sick—but I do know a wonderful big-band performance when I hear one, and this definitely fills the bill.
TT: As others skewer us
Apropos of God of the Machine's wicked parody of one of my more breathless contributions to "About Last Night" (scroll down), is there anything more frustrating than ransacking your failing memory for the source of a half-recalled quote? That's what I've been doing ever since I got back from lunch with Supermaud (who says hi). At last, the coin dropped, and I went to my shelf of art books, took down N. John Hall's Max Beerbohm Caricatures, turned to page 15, and hit the jackpot:
As Edmund Gosse told a fellow writer whom Max had just caricatured: "I feel it my duty to tell you that something has happened to you that sooner or later happens to us almost all. Max has got you. We don't like it and you won't like it, but you must pretend you do. You can console yourself at any rate with the thought that it will give uncommon pleasure to your friends."
What threw me off the track was that I wrongly remembered this letter as having been sent by Gosse to Henry James apropos of "The Mote in the Middle Distance," the James parody in Beerbohm's A Christmas Garland ("It was with the sense of a, for him, very memorable something that he peered now into the immediate future, and tried, not without compunction, to take that period up where he had, prospectively, left it"), which also contains eerily exact parodies of G.K. Chesterton, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells. I chased that hare in vain for a good ten minutes, though I did find this highly relevant footnote in Simon Nowell-Smith's The Legend of the Master: Henry James as Others Saw Him:
Gosse told Siegfried Sassoon that James had roamed round the room discussing, "with extraordinary vivacity and appreciation, not only the superlative intelligence of the book as a whole but 'The Mote in the Middle Distance' itself, which he had read in a self-scrutinizing bewilderment of wonder and admiration."
As you may have gathered, I love parody and caricature, and it's one of my medium-sized regrets that I have no gift for either (though I can do adequate impersonations of a few of my friends). Alas, I find it impossible to get inside another person's prose style. I once tried to write a parody of a Jeeves novel in the style of Bright Lights, Big City. That was actually a pretty good idea, conceptually speaking, but I stalled out halfway through the fourth sentence, so it went unwritten, and the only thing I can remember about it now is that the very first word was, of course, "you."
This incapacity is all the more vexing because I believe parody to be one of the most powerful and illuminating forms of criticism. Some of Kenneth Tynan's most brilliant drama reviews were parodies, including his double-edged skewering of William Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun, which he rewrote in the style of Our Town:
Well, folks, reckon that's about it. End of another day in the city of Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Nothin' much happened. Couple of people got raped, couple more got their teeth kicked in, but way up there those faraway old stars are still doing their old cosmic criss-cross, and there ain't a thing we can do about it. It's pretty quiet now. Folk hereabouts get to bed early, those that can still walk....
I wouldn't kill to be able to do that, but I might be willing to maim.
TT: We are amused
From God of the Machine:
As of this moment, God of the Machine is being read in twenty-five time zones. Hello Madagascar! (In what Guinness has certified as a new world record, it is being misunderstood in twenty-four of them.) We celebrated our 1,500,000th unique visitor and 10,000,000th page view, and that's just this afternoon. (How do I know this? I counted, every one of them.) I'd love to write more, but my wine column's due for The Spectator, Car and Driver is simply insisting that I take this damn Lamborghini out for a test drive, my agent needs to discuss the movie rights to my New York Review of Books piece on Proust's influence on Balanchine, I'm already running late for my date with Uma Thurman, and Gisele Bundchen's holding on the other line. Gisele so hates to be kept waiting.
V. funny. In fact, that’s the best "About Last Night" parody I’ve seen since Mr. TMFTML gave us the blunt end of the stick last September. Alas, Uma hasn’t called back yet, but Maud awaits. See you by the swimming pool….
UPDATE: A reader writes: "Please remind God of the Machine not to forget the bespeckled bare-breasted groupies in cheerleader skirts camped outside on your block reading Samuel Johnson, just waiting for a glimpse of you taking out the garbage every morning."
That'll be the day.
TT: This, that, the other thing
First of all, it's nice to have Our Girl back!
Secondly, the spam count in the "About Last Night" mailbox is octupling, so let me remind you:
(1) I never open e-mail with a blank subject header.
(2) If I'm chewing through a lot of spam, I don't always open e-mail whose subject headers are so oblique or obscure as to make no obvious sense to me.
Help me out here—be clear.
Finally, don't be surprised if I fail to post anything tomorrow beyond an almanac entry and my regular Friday Wall Street Journal theater teaser. I'm feeling signs of incipient burnout, compounded by acute schedule overload. (The speech got written, though.)
Whenever. And thanks for stopping by. See you soon.
Wednesday was a very, very long day. I wouldn’t have skipped a moment of it, not for anything in the world.
• I woke up at five-thirty to find my as-yet-unwritten Wall Street Journal review of Jumpers, A Raisin in the Sun, and Bombay Dreams rattling around in my head. It seemed pointless to try and go back to sleep, so I climbed down from the loft, booted up my iBook, and started writing. The piece was slow going—Jumpers isn’t easy to sum up in four paragraphs, which was all I could spare—but I finally got it written.
• Midway through the first draft, I took a break and picked up my copy of Fairfield Porter’s Broadway from my framer. It turned out that the upper right edge of the print had been slightly damaged in transit, which saddened me. But once I carted it home and hung it over the mantelpiece, I found that the flaw didn’t bother me all that much, especially since the frame is so handsome—the photo the dealer sent didn’t do it justice. Every time I walk into the living room, it’s as if I see A Terry Teachout Reader writ large on the wall. I wonder how long it’ll take before the association fades and I start to see Broadway solely as a work of art in its own right rather than a beautiful symbol of the pride I feel in my new book. Maybe never—and that’ll be all right, too. In any case, I'm hopelessly in love with the latest addition to the Teachout Museum. For the moment, my other prints have receded into the background, and I now find myself staring at Broadway for minutes at a time, drinking it in.
• With Broadway safely hung, I sent off my Journal review, read and corrected the proofs of my Commentary essay, and checked in with the editor of my Washington Post column, which runs in Sunday's paper. (He had a few last-minute suggestions, all of which I gladly took.) Then I ran downstairs, hailed a cab, and hurtled across Central Park to watch Maria Schneider
and Bob Brookmeyer
rehearse tonight's concert at the Kaye Playhouse (go here for details). I can’t be there—Thursday is the only night I can see New York City Ballet dance George Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer
this season, and it could easily be several years before they do it again—so I talked my way into the sound check instead. I’d never before had the privilege of watching Brookmeyer rehearse his music with a big band, and it was fascinating to watch him put Schneider’s players through their paces on Celebration, the four-movement suite they’ll be performing tonight.
• Back home again to return phone calls, check my accumulated e-mail, and read another half-chapter of W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson. (Incidentally, Erin O'Connor linked to what I wrote yesterday about the experience of revisiting one of my favorite biographies. Take a look—I like what she had to say.)
• Dinner with an out-of-town friend, then down to the Village Vanguard to hear Jim Hall’s eleven o'clock set. Hall is my favorite living jazz musician, and I’ve never heard him play guitar other than wonderfully well, but this performance was memorable even by his own rarefied standards. Maybe it was because he’ll be recording live on Friday and Saturday, or because Lewis Nash, the drummer, was in awesome form—I would have sworn he was channeling Shelly Manne. Whatever the reason, I’ve never heard Hall, Nash, or Scott Colley play better. "That’s exactly how I’d want to play all those instruments, if I could play any of them," a singer friend told me afterward. What she said.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the set was that nobody played above a mezzo-forte all evening long. Even under the best of circumstances, the Vanguard can be an exasperatingly noisy place, but I didn’t hear a single stray peep out of the enthralled crowd. It was a night of whispered confidences and sweet surprises. I’m going back on Saturday, and I’ll be taking Sarah, who’s in town for the week. She’s in for a treat—to put it mildly.
Now that I’m home at last, I’m starting to feel the cumulative effects of the long day. I wish I could sleep in, but I have to haul myself out of bed in the morning and finish writing a speech before I head downtown to lunch with Supermaud. I suppose this whole week has been too much of a great many good things—but is that really possible? I’m not so sure.
I can’t remember the last time it occurred to me to quote William Saroyan (he isn't exactly a favorite of mine), but a half-remembered line of his popped into my mind as I climbed the stairs of the Vanguard an hour or so ago: "In the time of your life, live—so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it." And that’s what I did on Wednesday: I lived.
UPDATE: This inverted axiom just occurred to me: The unlived life is not worth examining.
Wednesday, April 28, 2004
Terry's going to fall flat on the floor, I think, when he sees that I've actually posted. Breathe, Terry. Get a glass of water. In your shock, you neglect to notice I have stolen your category. Here I am, though I'm not sure how much more you'll see of me before next week. I have a stiff schedule the next day and a half, followed by what will no doubt be a panicky sprint to the airport to catch a flight to Washington for a bridal shower. And perhaps to make the acquaintance of a blogger or two.
The other night I saw the Italian import I'm Not Scared, which is rated super-fresh over at Rotten Tomatoes.* I wasn't crazy about it, though, and couldn't really put my finger on the reason. As usual, someone else has said it better than I could. Stanley Kauffmann's review hits the nail on the head, and the lack of purpose he points to made the film feel, to me, just the slightest bit prurient. The movie tries to be both a crime story and an evocation of the sensations of childhood, especially the uneven nature of children's understanding, the way they can see certain aspects of the adult world only foggily but others more clearly than adults. I often like this sort of crossover film that's reflective or introspective as well as action-packed, but here the results just come out feeling vaguely exploitative. I get the feeling it was a better book.
*Attention Jon Stewart! Those aren't asterisks, sweetie, those are smashed tomatoes.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, April 28, 2004 | Permanent
"When Goldsmith said, 'We have a claim upon you,' Johnson replied, 'I am not obliged to do any more. No man is obliged to do as much as he can do. A man is to have part of his life to himself.' Though he is quite justified, he is plainly uneasy in his own conscience as he continues to rationalize; and when Boswell, instead of dropping the matter, says, 'I wonder, Sir, you have not more pleasure in writing,' there is the testy response: 'Sir, you may wonder.'"
W. Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson
Tuesday, April 27, 2004
TT: Consumables (and the consumed consumer)
Tuesday was the second busiest day of a rocky week: I wrote two pieces, went to an appointment in between, then headed south for a Broadway preview from which I only just returned. Today will be even busier: I have to write my Wall Street Journal column and a speech, go to an afternoon rehearsal, meet an out-of-town visitor for dinner, then take a cab to the Village Vanguard to hear Jim Hall (you come, too). Things will ease off a bit after that, but I’m still double-booked through next Monday, my day off. That’s my life, and though I’m not really complaining—it’s nice to be wanted—anybody who tries to get me to do anything on Monday is looking for t-r-o-u-b-l-e.
Enough said. Here’s what’s been happening on the art front:
• I saw a press preview of Bombay Dreams, which opens Thursday at the Broadway Theatre. I’ll be reviewing it in Friday’s Journal.
• I watched the first part of The Letter, William Wyler’s 1940 film version of Somerset Maugham’s short story. It’s not bad, and Bette Davis (of whom I’m not usually a fan) was quite good, but I’d rather read Maugham than watch him, so I switched off after Davis spilled the beans to her stiff-uppah-lip lawyer.
• As I mentioned the other day, I’m currently rereading W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson, something I do every year or two. For me, Johnson is the most sympathetic figure in all of English literature, and the courage with which he climbed out of the abyss of failure and depression has helped nudge me through more than one dark patch of my own life. Not only is Bate better than Boswell when it comes to this particular aspect of Johnson’s psychology, but his biography is a masterly piece of writing for which no stylistic apologies of any kind need be made. Would that all academics wrote so lucidly. A friend of mine who studied under Bate at Harvard assures me that his Johnson class was better than the book, but I wouldn’t know—I didn’t go to Harvard, or even Yale! All I can tell you is that I’ve read Samuel Johnson at least ten times since it was published in 1977, and profited from it every time, this one included.
• My copy of Fairfield Porter’s Broadway, the color lithograph reproduced on the cover of A Terry Teachout Reader, was delivered today. It proved to be even more beautiful than I expected (and my expectations were high). Alas, the print came loose from its mounting tape in transit, but a quick trip to my framer should set things right, and then I’ll hang it over my mantelpiece. If I wasn’t so busy, I’d invite a few select friends over for a hanging ceremony! I’m having lunch with Supermaud on Thursday, so maybe I can lure her uptown to take a peek.
• Now playing on iTunes: "Rapunzel," a sinuously hip bebop line by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen (that’s Steely Dan to you) performed by nonpareil tenor saxophonists Pete Christlieb and Warne Marsh on Apogee, their Steely Dan-produced 1978 duet album, now available on CD for the first time with three previously unreleased bonus tracks. I’ve loved this record ever since I first heard it a quarter-century ago, and wondered why it never made it onto compact disc. Now it has, and I’m ecstatic. "Rapunzel," by the way, is a contrafact of "Land of Make Believe," a song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, of all people. Three words to the wise: buy this album.
And so to bed. I’m bushed. Don’t be surprised if I maintain radio silence on Thursday. I promise to get back to you as soon as things calm down a bit. Not only do I have a hatful of links crying out to be posted, but I want to write a few heartfelt words about Carolina Ballet’s remarkable dance version of Handel’s Messiah, which I flew down to Raleigh to see immediately after finishing my Balanchine book but haven’t had time to blog about other than in passing.
All this and more once the clouds roll by! Meanwhile, I’m still hoping that Our Girl will feel like coming out and playing one of these days….
TT: All circuits are busy
Sorry, but I'm swamped: too many deadlines, too many appointments, too many performances. Instead of blogging, I'm going to bed at a reasonable hour so that I can get up at an unreasonable hour (for me) and write another piece. I'll be back as soon as I can.
In the meantime, set your sights on the right-hand column, scroll down to "Sites to See," and visit some of those cool blogs thereunder.
Monday, April 26, 2004
"She liked to think of herself as a straightforward person. 'People always know where they are with me,' she would say rather smugly; it never occurred to her that people might not always want to know such things."
Barbara Pym, No Fond Return of Love
TT: On the up and up
As of this moment, "About Last Night" is being read in thirteen time zones worldwide.
A message to everyone out there: Tell your friends about us. We don't advertise. Instead, we count on you (and our fellow bloggers) to spread the word. This blog isn't just for New Yorkers, or big-city types in general. It's for everyone, everywhere, who's interested in the arts...and tonight it's being read more than halfway around the world.
Thanks for visiting. Next time, bring a friend.
"Some years ago I attended an evening of mime by Marcel Marceau, an elaborate exercise in aesthetic purification during which the audience kept applauding its own appreciation of culture and beauty, i.e., every time they thought they recognized what was supposed to be going on. It had been bad enough when Chaplin or Harpo Marx pulled this beauty-of-pathos stuff, and a whole evening of it was truly intolerable. But afterwards, when friends were acclaiming Marceau’s artistry, it just wouldn’t do to say something like 'I prefer the Ritz Brothers' (though I do, I passionately do). They would think I was being deliberately lowbrow, and if I tried to talk in terms of Marceau’s artistry versus Harry Ritz’s artistry, it would be stupid, because 'artist' is already too pretentious a term for Harry Ritz and so I would be falsifying what I love him for."
Pauline Kael, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Sunday was an all-guitar day, almost. After writing a piece in the morning, I did the following:
• I went to hear the John Pizzarelli Trio play a benefit matinee at New York’s P.S. 9, two blocks from my front door. Also on the bill were Tony Tedesco on drums (he plays on Pizzarelli’s latest CD, Bossa Nova, out this week from Telarc) and Jessica Molaskey on vocals (Mrs. John Pizzarelli to you, and a warm, charming singer in her own right). Doubling as MCs and guest artists were two small Pizzarellis, one of whom attends P.S. 9 and the other of whom is an alumnus thereof. I’ll be writing more about the concert in my Washington Post column this coming Sunday, so for now I’ll say only that I had a ball.
• From there I came back home and watched the rest of Panic in the Streets, which was excellent. (Next up, The Letter or Brute Force, depending on how much time I have and how cynical I feel.)
• After a quick pre-prandial nap, I went down to Le Madeleine to eat dinner and listen to Gene Bertoncini's regular Sunday-night solo guitar gig. Again, I’ll be writing about it in the Post, but I’ll take this opportunity to plug his latest CD, Acoustic Romance, which is as good as it gets.
• I haven't read a word all day. I did, however, place an absentee bid on a Hans Hofmann lithograph, which I suppose can be called an art experience.
Now I’m back home again and headed for bed. No gigs Monday—I’ll be spending the entire day writing a Commentary essay on the state of the Broadway musical. That ought to keep me out of trouble until Tuesday. Then I'll write two more pieces, one due on Tuesday and the other on Wednesday. In addition, I'll be out every night through Saturday.
Some blogging may occur in the interstices of this frenzied activity, or not. It all depends. Doesn’t that make you feel secure? (Come back, OGIC, all is forgiven!)
Sunday, April 25, 2004
TT: Words to the wise
Maria Schneider sent out this e-mail today:
I am very excited for our next Hunter College concert. It’s happening this Thursday, April 29th. We’re featuring my teacher and friend, the great Bob Brookmeyer. There will be a pre-concert discussion starting at 6:45 p.m. The concert begins at 8:00. The Kaye Playhouse is located at the corner of 68th Street and Lexington. Call for tickets: 212-772-4448. There is a student price, so students should inquire about that.
If you teach in the area, PLEASE, do pass the word to your students and friends. This is a rare treat to have Bob perform in New York and to listen to him speak about music. One half of the concert consist of my music featuring Bob (including Anthem, which I wrote for Bob, but has never been performed in New York), and for the other half, I am giving Bob my orchestra to play his marvelous music conducted by him. We will be playing Celebration Suite which was recorded by Bob’s New Art Orchestra featuring Scott Robinson. Scott will be playing it this Thursday.
I hope you will come and spread the word to your friends. It should be a special night.
It should indeed. Regular readers of this blog don’t need to be reminded of what I think of Maria Schneider and Bob Brookmeyer. The opportunity to hear them both on the same bill is…well, I’m not quite sure what to call it. Epochal, maybe. So if you’re anywhere near Manhattan on Thursday, go.
For more information, go here.
"Never play a guy at his own game; nobody makes up a game in order to get beat at it."
Charlie Goldman, quoted in A. J. Liebling, The Sweet Science
I’m coming up on one of my four-deadline weeks. The difference is that after what I went through finishing the Balanchine book, I’m not eager to strip any more of my gears with overwork. Theater-wise, this is the busiest time of the season—every producer in town is trying to open a show in time to be eligible for the Tony Awards—so I’m seeing three plays a week on top of my usual hectic performance-going schedule. That’s why I decided not to blog yesterday (and kept my promise, glory be!), and it’s why you won’t be hearing much from me today, either.
Nevertheless, I do have enough steam in the boiler to let you know what I’ve been up to lately. To wit:
• I saw a press preview of the new Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, starring Phylicia Rashad, Audra MacDonald and Sean "Formerly Known as Puffy" Combs (what’s wrong with this picture?), which I’ll be covering in Friday’s Wall Street Journal.
• Courtesy of the Fox Movie Channel and my trusty digital video recorder, I watched the first part of Panic in the Streets (1950), a noirish Elia Kazan film in which Richard Widmark plays a totally good guy, a health inspector trying to keep New Orleans from being decimated by an outbreak of pneumonic plague. It’s pretty good (though I don’t know when I’ll have time to see the rest of it), but I can’t get over the sheer strangeness of Widmark’s being on the side of the angels. Like Dan Duryea, he’s one of those black-and-white actors who seems to have a crack down the middle, and I keep waiting for him to slap a dame around.
• Today I embark on my biennial rereading of W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson, my favorite modern biography. No special reason—I just looked at my bookshelves yesterday, hoping that a spine would cry out to me, and all at once I thought that it’d be good to spend a little time with my hero, Dr. Johnson.
• I showed the Teachout Museum to a friend yesterday, the same one with whom I’d just seen A Raisin in the Sun She had an interesting and unexpected reaction: "I don’t even like modern art, but I like this." Even more surprisingly, she was especially taken with Joan Mitchell’s Tree, a multicolored abstract-expressionist lithographic portrayal of…a tree. (No matter how many times they’ve looked at my prints, I always ask my guests which one they like best today.)
• Now playing on iTunes: David Rose’s "Our Waltz," played in the manner of Ahmad Jamal’s "Poinciana" by George Shearing and the Robert Farnon Orchestra (it’s on How Beautiful is Night). Not a few of my jazz-loving friends find Shearing’s orchestra-accompanied albums to be just this side of kitschy, but this one is iridescently soothing.
And now, if you’ll be so kind as to excuse me, I’m going to get breakfast, write a review (not of breakfast!), then go see the first of two performances, one or more of which will likely find its way into my Washington Post column next Sunday. Watch this space for details.