About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City (with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, September 15, 2006
TT: Shakespeare, straight up
This week my Wall Street Journal drama column is devoted in its entirety to an account of my recent visit to the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, where I saw Othello, As You Like It, and Macbeth:
In theater, seeing is believing, and the best way to learn about 17th-century theatrical performance practices is to watch a Shakespeare play acted on a modern re-creation of an Elizabethan-style stage. The most famous of these is the replica of Shakespeare’s own open-air Globe Theatre that was built on the banks of London’s Thames River in 1997. The U.S. is home to a half-dozen such houses, including the indoor theater at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and the open-air theaters that I saw earlier this year at the Oregon Shakespeare and Utah Shakespearean Festivals. Most of the American replicas, however, are variously modernized structures that incorporate such anachronistic devices as theatrical lighting. If you want to see the real thing—and to see it used in a convincing way—the place to go is Staunton, home of the American Shakespeare Center, whose performances are given in a dazzlingly exact re-creation of the Blackfriars Playhouse, originally built in London in 1596….
To pass through the lobby doors into the 300-seat auditorium is like jumping into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and setting the controls for 1600, with some allowances made for fire safety. Actors and audience are lit by the same electric chandeliers—there are no spotlights—and if you’re fortunate enough to hold a ticket for one of the 12 “Lord’s Chairs” placed on either side of the stage, you’ll be close enough to the players to reach out and touch them.
All this would be of purely historical interest were it not for the high quality of the ASC’s fast-moving productions, which are authentic (no sets, no scene breaks) but not antiquarian. The company consists of 11 mostly young men and women who perform in a cheerfully eclectic mishmash of period and modern dress. They speak their soliloquies and asides straight to the audience, and the uncomplicated stagings give the impression that you’re seeing the play itself, naked and self-sufficient….
No free link, but you can read the whole thing by buying today’s Journal or—better yet—going here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to the complete text of my review. (If you’re already a subscriber, you’ll find it here.)
ELSEWHERE: To read what Mr. My Stupid Dog wrote about the same performance of Othello I attended, go here.
In my next “Sightings” column, to be published in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, I take a second look at last week’s much-discussed announcement by the Metropolitan Opera:
Following extensive, groundbreaking negotiations with its three largest unions, the Metropolitan Opera announced plans today that will revolutionize the live electronic distribution of its productions. In an historic first for any major performing arts institution in this country or abroad, this season the Met will use advanced distribution platforms and state-of-the-art technology to attract new audiences and reach millions of opera fans around the world. Beginning on December 30, the Met will transmit six of its performances live in high definition into movie theaters in the United States, Canada, and Europe that have been equipped with high-definition projection systems and satellite dishes. In addition, over 100 live performances will be broadcast either over the internet or on digital radio….
Naturally, the movie-house broadcasts got the headlines—but the real news was buried in the fine print. The Met, it turns out, is on the verge of making a major move into the brave new world of online, on-demand music. To learn what Peter Gelb has up his sleeve, pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal, where you’ll find my column in the “Pursuits” section.
"You're television incarnate, Diana: indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy."
I often have occasion to write or speak about the new media and their effects on our culture, and I find myself repeating the same basic concepts over and over, sometimes fluently and sometimes fumblingly. For this reason, it occurred to me today to distill them into a soundbite:
The common culture is dead, and the middle class is busier than ever before. Consumers under forty—and, increasingly, under fifty—want what they want when they want it.
As a result, the old-fashioned mass-media model of top-down, one-size-fits-all journalism and entertainment is becoming obsolete. One-way broadcasting is out. Two-way narrowcasting is in.
That means online, on-demand media content transmitted directly to portable devices via user-friendly interactive interfaces that simultaneously maximize and simplify consumer choice and participation.
If you’re not already doing this, or figuring out how to do it, you’re asking for trouble.
I think that covers everything, don’t you?
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 14, 2006 | Permanent
TT: Waiting for Teachout
If you read my Wall Street Journal drama column, you know that in addition to Broadway and major off-Broadway openings, I review theatrical performances throughout the United States. I’m the only drama critic in America who does so on a regular basis, and it’s made me a passionate believer in the significance of regional theater. As I wrote in my “Sightings” column back in June:
When a museum in Los Angeles or Philadelphia puts on a major exhibition, nobody in the world of art assumes it to be second-rate merely because it doesn't travel to the Metropolitan Museum. The same thing ought to be true of a theatrical production. That's why the time has come for American playgoers—and, no less important, arts editors—to start treating regional theater not as a minor-league branch of Broadway but as an artistically significant entity in and of itself. Take it from a critic who now spends much of his time living out of a suitcase: If you don't know what's hot in "the stix," you don't know the first thing about theater in 21st-century America.
How do I decide which out-of-town companies to visit and what shows to see—and how might you go about persuading me to see your company?
When I first started attending theatrical performances outside New York, it was on an ad hoc basis not too far removed from throwing darts at a map. I started with Chicago because it’s where Our Girl lives, followed by Washington, D.C., to which I routinely travel three times each year to attend meetings of the National Council for the Arts. Every time I saw a show I liked, I looked up the director’s bio, made a note of the other companies with which he’d worked, checked out their Web sites, and put them on my list. I did the same thing with actors who impressed me.
Once the Journal decided to cover regional theater in earnest, I became more systematic in my information-gathering process. I started with the members of the League of Resident Theatres, the thirty-one winners to date of the Tony Award for regional theater, and the various companies and summer festivals participating in the NEA’s Shakespeare in American Communities project. I combined these overlapping rosters into a single list, then visited and bookmarked the Web sites of all the companies on it, later adding dozens of others that I discovered by combing through the online database of the American Theater Web.
How did I winnow the resulting list to a manageable size? Here are the standards I used:
• No amateurs, please. I only review professional companies. I’m also more likely to review Equity productions, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule, especially if I’m already coming to your city to see another show.
In addition, I don’t review dinner theater, and it’s unusual (but not unprecedented) for me to visit children’s theaters or companies that produce only musicals.
• Web sites matter—a lot. More often than not, your site will be my introduction to your company. You don't have to cram it full of cutesy-pie bells and whistles, but the smarter the design, the greater the chance that I’ll give it a second glance.
Two words to the wise:
(1) Sound bites = death.
(2) If you can't spell, hire a proofreader.
For more tips on what I look for in a theatrical Web site, go here.
• You must produce a minimum of three shows each season… This doesn't apply to summer festivals, but it’s comparatively rare for me to cover a festival that doesn’t produce at least three shows a year.
• …and most of them have to be serious. I promise not to put you on my drop-dead list for milking the occasional cash cow, but if you specialize in such regional-theater staples as Tuesdays With Morrie, the collected works of Larry Shue, and anything with the word "magnolias" in the title, I won’t go out of my way to come calling on you, either.
I’m looking for an imaginative, wide-ranging mix of revivals of major plays—including comedies—and newer works by living playwrights and songwriters whom I admire. Some names on the latter list: Alan Ayckbourn, Nilo Cruz, Horton Foote, Amy Freed, Brian Friel, Adam Guettel, A.R. Gurney, David Ives, Michael John LaChiusa, Warren Leight, Kenneth Lonergan, Lisa Loomer, David Mamet, Martin McDonagh, Itamar Moses, Lynn Nottage, Austin Pendleton, Harold Pinter, Oren Safdie, John Patrick Shanley, Stephen Sondheim, and Tom Stoppard.
I also have a select list of older plays I'd like to see that haven’t been revived in New York lately (or ever). If you’re doing The Beauty Part, The Cocktail Party, The Entertainer, Hotel Paradiso, Man and Superman, Present Laughter, Rhinoceros, Six Characters in Search of an Author, The Skin of Our Teeth, The Visit, What the Butler Saw, or anything by Jean Anouilh or Terence Rattigan, drop me a line.
• Been there, done that. As a rule, I don’t cover new or newish plays I’ve previously reviewed in New York, especially if I panned them. The chances of my coming to town specifically to see your production of Bad Dates or Rabbit Hole are well below zero—though I might drop by if I’m going to be in the area for some other reason.
• April is the cruellest month. Many Broadway shows open between the middle of March and the middle of May, in time to qualify for that year's Tony nominations. During that period, I have neither time nor space to review out-of-town openings, no matter how enticing they may sound. On the other hand, I'm usually looking for interesting shows to review in late December, January, the first half of February, the second half of May, June, and September.
• I group my shots. It isn’t cost-effective for me to fly halfway across the country to review a single show. Whenever possible, I like to take in three different productions during a four- or five-day trip. (Bear in mind, though, that they don’t all have to be in the same city. In October, for instance, I’ll be seeing two shows in Seattle and one in Portland, Oregon.) If you’re the publicist of the Podunk Repertory Company and you want me to review your revival of The Glass Menagerie, your best bet is to point out that TheaterPodunk just happens to be doing Our Town that very same weekend. Otherwise, I’ll probably go to San Francisco instead.
Remember, too, that I write about all the arts, and on occasion I can be lured to your show by the additional prospect of seeing an important non-theatrical cultural event during my stay.
• Send me no paper. I prefer to receive press releases via e-mail, and I don't want to receive routine Joe-Blow-is-now-our-assistant-stage-manager announcements via any means whatsoever.
• It pays to advertise—if you do it right. I’m flying to Chicago next week to see two shows. One of them is being put on by a company of which I’d never heard prior to January, when I picked up a copy of its well-written, stylish-looking flier in the lobby of Chicago’s Court Theatre, one of my favorite regional companies. I went to their Web site, liked what I saw, and decided to pay them a visit. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
As of today, I’m watching the Web sites of 146 theater companies in the continental United States. So far I’ve visited thirty-three of them. Keep these simple rules in mind and you, too, could move from column A to column B.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 14, 2006 | Permanent
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 gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week. (Note the rare absence of asterisks!)
Outside. Gazebo, waterfall, crickets. Late at night. No planes. At this time of night you can hear the whine of the highway in the distance. I wonder if it’s one of those sounds no one ever heard before the car was invented, just as the sound of the internal combustion engine was probably unique when the first one was fired up. All these sounds, waiting to be born….
It’s remarkable how fast we forget sounds, and how quickly we recall them—when I was digitizing old VHS tapes, I realized I’d forgotten the series of labored sounds that preceded a show. The thick clunk of the tape dropping in the slot, the perfunctory whine of the tape queuing up, the pained inhalation of the motors as they rolled the spindles. It was the sound of Brave Modernity in 1984, and a tiresome reminder of old technology twenty years later….
You could take any scholar of the Twenties back in time, put him on Twenty-Third street at eleven p.m., and he’d pick out the vehicles, the buildings, the mode of dress, and most of the slang; if he heard a song waft from an apartment above, he might know what it was. If he picked up a newspaper, he might know a tenth of the names on the front page. But none of the names in the back, I’d guess. And then someone would walk past and mention a bar he’d never heard. Down the street there would be a sound—barrels rolling down a staircase? Lumber unloading? If you go an inch beyond the stratum of things we know, the mysteries are as quotidian and innumerable, and lost. The past is the unrecovered country.
I think if you actually found yourself in a silent movie theater in 1926, your first impression wouldn’t be the architecture or the clothing or the candy or the conversation; it would be the way things smelled. No one knows what the Twenties smell like.
This wonderful posting reminded me of one of the things that sets film apart from live theater: it has an unparalleled capacity to recreate the past. It's the closest thing to a time machine that we have.
I thought about this the other night while watching one of my favorite movies, Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy. Here’s part of what I wrote after Our Girl and I saw it for the first time in a Chicago theater six years ago:
Contrary to whatever you may have heard or read, Topsy-Turvy is not simply, or even primarily, a backstage movie about the partnership of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and the making of The Mikado. It is, rather, a scrapbook of Victorian life, a miraculously evocative attempt to suggest the tone and texture of what it felt like to live in London in 1885.
This latter emphasis explains why so many smart filmgoers of my acquaintance have disliked Topsy-Turvy: it is not plot-driven. We know, after all, that librettist and composer will finally overcome their differences and that The Mikado will be a hit, so instead of trying to trump up false suspense, Leigh ambles from vignette to vignette, interested not in the plot but the scenery. We stroll into the office of Richard D'Oyly Carte, and notice with surprise that he has a telephone on his desk; we accompany Sullivan to a Paris bordello, and gaze with wonder upon the elaborate decor. We dine in Victorian restaurants, sit in Victorian living rooms, peer into Victorian rehearsal halls, go backstage at the Savoy Theater and watch a prop man shake a piece of sheet metal to simulate the sound of thunder. Detail is piled on imaginatively recreated detail, and at film's end you feel that you have entered a lost world, peopled with real people who behave in plausible ways….
Theater can do wonderful and irreplaceable things—but not that.
ELSEWHERE: To read an exceptionally fine Salon interview with Mike Leigh about the making of Topsy-Turvy, go here.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 13, 2006 | Permanent
“I think some young people want a deeper experience. Some people just wanna be hit over the head and, you know, if then they [get] hit hard enough maybe they'll feel something. You know? But some people want to get inside of something and discover, maybe, more richness. And I think it will always be the same; they're not going to be the great percentage of the people. A great percentage of the people don't want a challenge. They want something to be done to them—they don't want to participate. But there'll always be maybe 15% maybe, 15%, that desire something more, and they'll search it out—and maybe that's where art is, I think.”
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 13, 2006 | Permanent
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
TT: Overheard (in both directions)
• Heard at the gym today:
TRAINER So, I had my birthday party at this bar downtown where they have half-naked girls who breathe fire—and they hustle you!
CLIENT (shaking his head) That’s entertainment.
• I mentioned the other day that Mr. My Stupid Dog and I recently went to see Othello together at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia. Since then he’s posted a two-partaccount of our evening, which includes this description of me:
His face suggests that he is open, frank and pleasant, but not altogether easy to peg. The bearing suggests a little of Felix Ungar, a little of Oscar Madison, frequently both at once. You wouldn't take him for a Missourian right away (although he has written extensively about his small-town upbringing), but you wouldn't think him a native New Yorker either: There is something about him that always seems betwixt and between, though never in a disquieting or uncomfortable manner. His Southern accent can fade in and out as the situation dictates….
I don’t know how I look to other people, but that’s definitely what I see in the mirror. Could it be that I know myself? Or am I just good at playing myself?
posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 12, 2006 | Permanent
TT: Repent at leisure
When the White House asked if I'd be willing to sit on the National Council for the Arts, one of the things that briefly gave me pause was the length of my paper trail. The FBI investigated me prior to the announcement of my nomination, and they wanted to know whether I’d ever done, said, or written anything that might embarrass the president. What made this question funny—sort of—is that I’ve been a professional writer since 1977, during which time I’ve been more or less closely associated with four different newspapers and God only knows how many magazines. (Let’s not even think about the blog.) No doubt I wrote something that might embarrass the president. What’s more surprising is that I’ve written so few things that in retrospect embarrass me.
It’s not that I haven’t changed my mind about anything since 1977. I have, many times, and when I do I try to be as open and honest about it as possible. I was having lunch with one of my Wall Street Journal editors just the other day, and he mentioned that he’d especially liked this passage from last week’s drama column:
I got off on the wrong foot with August Wilson. I wasn’t living in New York when he was in his prime, and “Gem of the Ocean,” the first of his plays that I saw on Broadway, struck me as self-consciously poetic to the point of flatulence. It wasn’t until the Court Theatre’s revival of “Fences” in Chicago this past January that I finally understood what all the fuss was about….
My editor said he liked it when the critics who wrote for him didn’t pretend to omniscience. I feel the same way, and even more so when it comes to fits of outright stupidity. One of mine was a 1995 Daily News review of the Lincoln Center premiere of Mark Morris’ L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato in which I called it "impressive in its seriousness, stunning in its inventiveness—and, ultimately, disappointing in its emotional flatness.” This was a willfully wrongheaded judgment that I have since publicly retracted, with parsley.
It thus occurs to me that I really ought to say something in this space regarding the only piece reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader about which I’ve had second thoughts—of a sort. In 2001 I published an essay in the Sunday New York Times called “The Myth of Classic TV” (they called it something else, but I restored my original title when I put it in the Teachout Reader). In it I wrote:
As it happens, only thirteen episodes of The Sopranos are aired each season, and the series is expected to have a fairly limited run. More typical is St. Elsewhere, which ran for 137 consecutive episodes, each of which grew organically out of its predecessors. Such long-running series can only be experienced serially, which for all practical purposes means during their original runs; once they cease to air each week in regular time slots, they cease to be readily available as total artistic experiences, and thus can no longer acquire new viewers, or be re-experienced by old ones. This is why there is no such thing as a “classic” TV series: we never see any series enough times to know whether its overall quality justifies the multiple viewings which are the hallmark of classic status. (Needless to say, I’m not talking about those fanatical cultists who have seen each episode of Star Trek a hundred times and can recite the dialogue from memory. To them, my heartfelt advice is: get a life.)
Some think The Sopranos will break this iron rule of ephemerality. I understand that a great many videocassettes of the first thirteen episodes have been sold, presumably to latecomers who weren’t subscribing to HBO in 1999 and wanted to find out what they’d missed. But if you aren’t already watching The Sopranos, you’re probably not going to start now, unless you’re prepared to sit through reruns of 26 additional episodes between now and next March, when the fourth season begins. Nor are even rabid fans likely to watch The Sopranos from beginning to end more than once. Who has the time?
Since I wrote those words, the DVD has replaced the videocassette, innumerable TV series of the past have been released either in their entirety or in large chunks, and the most popular of these box sets rank among the hottest items on the home-video market. Nevertheless, I persisted until very recently in thinking that the success of TV series on home video was a fad, and that such box sets would end up gathering dust on the shelves of countless collectors, not unlike the innumerable copies of Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization that found their way into the homes of members of the Book-of-the-Month Club a generation ago.
I now know I was wrong, not least because other bloggers, among them Our Girl, have told me so. What I don’t understand is why I was wrong. More than most critics of my generation, I’ve been conscious of and sensitive to the effects of technology on culture. (That’s why this blog exists.) Along with “The Myth of Classic TV,” the Teachout Reader contains “Life After Records,” a lengthy essay in which I sum up several years’ worth of thinking on the subject of how the new media will affect the recording industry. So far as I know, I was the first mainstream music critic to predict the coming of downloadable music, and as any number of my artist friends will testify, I was among the first to tell them to launch Web sites, start blogs, check out ArtistShare and satellite radio, and look into iTunes and podcasting. Whatever the opposite of a Luddite is, that’s me.
So why did I fail to foresee the explosion of interest in TV series on video? I don’t have an easy answer to that one, but I suspect I made the biggest mistake a cultural critic can make, which is to confuse himself with the public at large.
I stopped watching series TV midway through the run of The Sopranos, in large part because I was spending so many of my nights on the town, first as an all-purpose critic-boulevardier for the Washington Post and later as the Journal’s regular drama critic. On occasion I’d take a short-lived interest in a new show, but I was never willing to make the commitment of time necessary to keep up with any series on a week-to-week basis, and when full-season DVD collections came along, I was no more inclined to spend thirteen-hour chunks of my life working my way through them.
The only times I immerse myself in series TV are when I visit Our Girl in Chicago and spend a rainy Sunday immersing myself in her latest TV-related enthusiasm, whatever it may be. Over the years the two of us have gorged ourselves on day-long marathon viewings of Freaks and Geeks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, and House, all of which I took seriously and enjoyed hugely. Alas, I was never able to stick with any of them for more than a few weeks after returning to New York. I had too many other things to do.
I still think I’m “right” about series TV, but to be right, as Franz Kline said to Frank O’Hara, is “the most terrific personal state that nobody is interested in.” The fact is that lots of smart people feel otherwise. Just last week, for instance, Our Girl linked to a very smart posting by Peter Suderman in which he took issue with a recent essay Mark Steyn wrote for The Atlantic. Steyn claimed in his piece that I was right about classic TV:
Indeed, the more “classic” your show, the more ephemeral it is. Getting into Ovid or Gregorian chant is a piece of cake next to getting into thirtysomething fifteen years on. Conceivably, one might find oneself in a motel room unable to sleep at four in the morning and surfing the channels come across St. Elsewhere. But they made 137 episodes of multiple complex interrelated plotlines all looping back to Episode 1: if you’ve never seen it before and you stumble on Episode 43, who the hell are all these people and what are they on about?
To which Suderman replied:
Steyn is certainly correct to say that shows like Homicide don’t lend themselves to the trivialities of syndicated kitsch. The bland background hum required for good afternoon cable and late-night channel surfing isn’t really a good mix with the drawn-out ambiguities and complexities of these shows. And if cable reruns were all we had, then that would be that.
But television, especially of the HBO variety, is becoming more novel-like, and DVD box sets are allowing us to approach these shows in a way that preserves—even enhances—their novel-like aspects. Binge-watching these shows in commercial free, multi-episode gulps is a perfect way to experience the "multiple complex interrelated plotlines" that Steyn sees as a flaw in regular broadcast viewing. The rise of the DVD medium means that a show like Homicide, which, as with an excellent novel, provides both an accurate portrayal of a place in time and a gripping narrative populated by scads of well-crafted characters, is no longer consigned to the wastelands of syndication.
So...who’s right? In the very long run, I suspect I am. No matter how “novel-like” Homicide may seem to be, there’s simply too much of it to embrace in the all-absorbing way we embrace a novel.
To return once more to my original essay:
Hill Street Blues was the first TV drama I ever went out of my way to see, and were there world enough and time, I might even consider watching the first few dozen episodes again. But while I still remember how much I liked Hill Street Blues, I can’t recall much else about it—only a few isolated moments from two or three episodes—whereas I could easily rattle off fairly complete synopses of, say, Citizen Kane or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or whistle the exposition to the first movement of Mozart’s G Minor Symphony. To qualify as a classic, a work of art must first of all be good enough to make you want to get to know it at least that well. Will any TV series ever be good enough to fill that exalted bill?
I don’t think so—but for the moment, I’d say I’m outvoted.
ELSEWHERE: I wrote a piece about Freaks and Geeks for the Sunday New York Times in 2001. It's not in the Teachout Reader, but you can read it by going here.
UPDATE: Peter Suderman replies—and very interestingly, too.
posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 12, 2006 | Permanent
“Music gazes at its listener with empty eyes, and the more deeply one immerses oneself in it, the more incomprehensible its ultimate purpose becomes, until one learns that the answer, if such is possible, does not lie in contemplation, but in interpretation. In other words, the only person who can solve the riddle of music is the one who plays it correctly, as something whole.”
Theodor Adorno, The Relationship of Philosophy and Music (courtesy of Think Denk)
posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 12, 2006 | Permanent
• “Tragedy, as you know, is always a fait accompli, whereas terror always has to do with anticipation, with man’s recognition of his own negative potential—with his sense of what he is capable of.”
Joseph Brodsky, “On Grief and Reason”
• “Tragedy is like strong acid—it dissolves away all but the very gold of truth.”
D.H. Lawrence, letter to James T. Boulton (April 1, 1911)
• “Now, the more I distrust my memory, the more confused it becomes. It serves me better by chance encounter; I have to solicit it nonchalantly. For if I press it, it is stunned; and once it has begun to totter, the more I probe it, the more it gets mixed up and embarrassed. It serves me at its own time, not at mine.”
Michel de Montaigne, “Of Presumption”
• “The memory of most men is an abandoned cemetery where lie, unsung and unhonored, the dead whom they have ceased to cherish. Any lasting grief is reproof to their forgetfulness.”>
Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian
• May memory restore again and again
The smallest color of the smallest day:
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.
Delmore Schwartz, “Calmly we walk through this April's day”
As I trolled the Web in my Milwaukee hotel after dinner, I ran across this fugitive fantasy spun by my favorite blogger during choir practice:
These notes we sing are like a little community of people, and you can't hold a person too tight for fear of extinguishing their creative impulses—their musical "movement" and direction, if you will. Yes, let them go, let them wander and explore. The best you can do is offer guidance, sustain them somehow, and give shape to their meanderings. Dear Palestrina. If I had to live in a piece of music...well, it couldn't get any better than that.
Like Jack Benny, I'm thinking it over. If I had to live in a piece of music...but exactly what might that mean? It's a complex, oddly self-revealing fantasy, one that necessarily entails something not unlike an act of synesthesia. Would I be a constituent part of the piece in question—a chord, say? Or would the piece as a whole be the world in which I lived, going to and fro and walking up and down in it? I can think of some chords I'd like to be (the first chord of the "Eroica" Symphony), as well as a few of the other kind (Le Sacre du printemps, anyone?). Still, it's a lot easier to imagine a piece of music as a physical environment—a room, a house, a neighborhood.
The top five pieces of music I wouldn't want to live inside:
Conversely, a Palestrina mass would surely be very nice indeed, austere yet tranquil, while a Mozart divertimento would doubtless be equally pleasing in a different way, like an elegantly apppointed room. (Actually, I know just what that would feel like, because I've seen George Balanchine's Divertimento No. 15.) Recent experiments suggest that middle-period Copland might be satisfying, too. But if we're talking the long haul—a life sentence—then I'd definitely opt for something in A major by Schubert. Is there a piece of music more redolent of solace than the A Major Rondo, D. 951? If so, I haven't heard it....
But now I've got to go see a play! Catch you later.
• On Wednesday night I was in Madison, dining with the divine Ms. Althouse (who is not only great fun but knows how to pick a good restaurant) and watching a preview of Madison Repertory Theatre's production of Rembrandt's Gift, a new play by Tina Howe.
• I got up this morning, checked my e-mail and the "About Last Night" referral log, and discovered that a blogger I'd never heard of has been reading my Wisconsin postings and thinks they're "vapid and cloyingly precious," not to mention "lower-middlebrow." Interested in knowing exactly what sort of writing the blogger in question thought was worth reading, I spent a few minutes looking over the self-written "serialized blog novels" he'd posted elsewhere on his site, an experience I commend to all connoisseurs of unpublished fiction.
• I spent the next couple of hours driving around Madison in search of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, of which I found several. Then I headed back to Spring Green, checked into the same motel I occupied two nights ago, and took a well-deserved nap.
• This evening I went to see American Players Theatre's production of Ferenc Molnar's The Play's the Thing, performed in an English-language version by none other than P.G. Wodehouse.
• On Saturday it's back to Spring Green for performances of Macbeth in the afternoon and Candida in the evening.
• On Sunday I'll be seeing one last play, Tartuffe, then spending the night in another Wright house, the Seth Peterson Cottage.
Forgive my terseness, but I really did just get back from the theater and am longing to shed my clothes and crawl into bed! You won't be hearing from me again until Monday, and by now I expect you can see why. I'm still having fun yet, but I'll be more than ready to head for home come Monday afternoon. I'll post that day and possibly on Tuesday as well, but I'll definitely be taking Wednesday and Thursday off, about which more later. For now, have a nice weekend.
(By the way, I'm not in today's Wall Street Journal, which is why there's no drama-column teaser this week. I'll be back at the same old stand as usual next Friday.)
I belong to the last generation to have grown up without VCRs. Born in 1956, I was raised in a small town that had one movie theater. The only "arty" films I saw in high school were 2001: A Space Odyssey and Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. The nearest public TV station was in St. Louis, just beyond the range of our rooftop antenna—this was before the invention of cable TV—so it wasn't until I left home to go to college that I saw any old movies other than an occasional Saturday-afternoon John Wayne….
I'm sitting in a Madison hotel room that looks out on Lake Mendota, so tired from Wednesday's wanderings that I can barely see straight. You'll have to wait until tomorrow for a fuller account of my adventures, but I do want to say something now about my visit to Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright's home and headquarters. I spent most of the morning and afternoon walking the grounds, escorted by Keiran Murphy, one of Taleisin's resident archivists and historians. Keiran was kind enough to serve as my tour guide for the day, though calling her that would be like calling Hilary Hahn a fiddler. Never in my life have I been given a more sensitive and comprehending tour of anything, anywhere. Listening to her talk about Wright and looking at everything she pointed out, I felt as if my eyes had opened to twice their normal size.
At the end of the day, Keiran and I stood together on a hill overlooking Taliesin, gazing at the house and the vast, all-encompassing view beyond it. (You can see the foot of the hill at the right-hand edge of this photo.) For a moment I didn't trust myself to speak.
"I guess you get used to everything," I finally said, "but I don't see how anyone could get used to seeing this every day."
"Oh, you do," Keiran replied. "Most of the time, anyway. Except when the wind and sun and humidity are just right. When everything is right." She paused. "Then it's so beautiful, it hurts."
"Such beauty as hurts to behold," I said, thinking of the first line of a poem by Paul Goodman that I love:
Such beauty as hurts to behold
and so gentle as salves the wound:
I am shivering though it is not cold
and dark as in a swoon.
She nodded. We stood in silence for a little while longer, clinging vainly to the passing moment.
"I guess we'd better go back to the world," I said at last.
"I guess we'd better," she said, and we walked down the hill to the house.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 8, 2005 | Permanent
TT: So you want to see a show?
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated each Thursday. 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.
BROADWAY: • Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter, strong language, one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex)
• Chicago (musical, R, adult subject matter, sexual content, fairly strong language)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, implicit sexual content)
• Fiddler on the Roof (musical, G, one scene of mild violence but otherwise family-friendly)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene)
• Sweet Charity (musical, PG-13, lots of cutesy-pie sexual content)
• 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)
(Source: Simon Callow, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu)
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 8, 2005 | Permanent
"To be right is the most terrific personal state that nobody is interested in."
Franz Kline (quoted in Frank O'Hara: Standing Still and Walking in New York)
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 8, 2005 | Permanent
Wednesday, September 7, 2005
TT: One is a wanderer
On Tuesday I awoke an hour ahead of the alarm clock, wrenched from fitful sleep by the unbelievable but nonetheless self-evident fact that I was lying in the master bedroom of the Schwartz House in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, designed in 1939 by Frank Lloyd Wright. Unwilling to waste another slugabed moment, I rolled out of bed and started prowling through the house in my bare feet, stopping just long enough to switch on my iPod and portable speakers and resume the completely unscientific experiment I'd begun the night before. What kind of music sounds best in a Wright house? Should the occasion ever present itself to you, I recommend Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring and Piano Sonata, Samuel Barber's Summer Music, and Pat Metheny's Bright Size Life.
At ten I heard an unfamiliar buzz. Realizing after a startled instant that it was the doorbell, I ran sixty-three feet from one end of the house to the other and opened the door for Gail Fox, a Two Rivers art historian who has spent the past couple of decades documenting the Schwartz House and knows more about it than I know about George Balanchine. We spent three lively hours touring the house and grounds, in the course of which she proved to be an enthusiast of the very best kind, irresistibly voluble and eager to answer the most arcane questions I could think up. Then I packed my bag, tucked the key under the doormat for the next occupant, and hit the road for Spring Green, home of American Players Theatre, which I'll be seeing later in the week, and Taliesin, Wright's home and headquarters, which I'll be touring today.
Having no more appointments for the rest of the day and nothing left to do but find a place to eat, I slipped off the interstate and drove along two-lane highways to Spring Green, passing through a dozen friendly-looking villages with such quaint names as Sauk City, Lodi (Just about a year ago I set out on the road/Seekin' my fame and fortune, lookin' for a pot of gold), and Prairie du Sac as I listened to Lee Wiley, Erin McKeown, and Peter Pears' recording of Schubert's Winterreise (suitable music for a solitary wanderer). It occurred to me toward day's end that I ought to be lonely, having spent the preceding five hours driving by myself down near-deserted roads, but by then the late-afternoon sun had dipped far enough in the sky to cover the cornfields with a glowing yellow blanket, and all at once my heart swelled with gratitude. How beautiful the world is, I thought, and how lucky I am to be in the midst of it! It was the first time I'd felt that way since Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans.
Now I'm sitting in a nondescript motel room in Spring Green, listening to Count Basie's Jive at Five and digesting the heart-attack special I consumed an hour ago at a steak house up the road. It's been a week since I last slept a full night, and I don't have to be anywhere until ten in the morning, when I'm expected at Taliesin. From there I'll head over to Madison to dine with Ann Althouse and see the Madison Repertory Theatre. That will put an end to my tranquil interlude—but not before I pay a long-deferred visit to the land of dreams.
See you tomorrow.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 7, 2005 | Permanent
TT: This is Louisss, Dolly!
Jerry Jazz Musician, the online magazine, interviewed me at length this month about Hotter Than That, my Louis Armstrong biography-in-the-making:
I guess you could call me an intellectual, although I don't write just for intellectuals, or in a sense even for intellectuals. I just write for people, for folks, and while this Armstrong book—like the Mencken book before it—will be the product of a lot of scholarly inquiry and knowledge and thinking, I want the end product to be something that my mother can read. I want to explain Louis to her in the light of all of the technical things that I know about him, but I want that technical superstructure to be completely disassembled, packed and put away. In the end, the book should be a story, the story of a remarkable man, totally accessible to the reader who is not a musician, scholar or intellectual, but who simply wants to learn about him….
(Source: Edward McPherson, Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat)
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 7, 2005 | Permanent
"Words lead us into clichés not involved with the order of art making or the visions which are the artist's references. Art comes from dreams and visions and not verbal philosophies."
David Smith, notebook entry, 1954
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 7, 2005 | Permanent
Tuesday, September 6, 2005
TT: I guess you'll have to dream the rest
I'm on the road today, freshly embarked on a week's worth of wandering in Wisconsin, reviewing plays and visiting buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Right at this moment, I'm sitting in the Schwartz House in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, one of the three Wright houses available for short-term rental to the general public. To be exact, I'm sitting at the built-in desk in the nook shown in the top two photos, listening to Appalachian Spring on my iPod, clicking away at my iBook, and trying to persuade myself that I really do need to go to bed. It didn't occur to me when I arranged to spend the night here that I might find it too exciting to get any sleep....
I'm writing about this trip for The Wall Street Journal, so I mustn't give the whole show away for free, but I'll share a little taste with you: contrary to anything you may have heard or read about Wright's houses, this one is comfortable. Incredibly so. Who knew?
I think I'd better sign off now, since I have a very long day ahead of me. I'll do my best to check in tomorrow night, but don't be shocked if I drop off the scope for a day or two.
I've written quite a bit in this space about Brian Friel's 1964 play Philadelphia, Here I Come! Currently being revived off Broadway by the Irish Repertory Theatre, it's the raucously funny, intensely poignant story of an angry young Irishman, his talkative alter ego, and the aging, uncommunicative father who can't put his feelings for his son into words.
If you live too far from New York to see the Irish Rep's superlative production, there's an alternative: Friel adapted his play for the screen in 1975, and the film version will be telecast Sunday, September 18, at 10:30 a.m. EDT on Trio. The effect is very different from that of the stage play: film, being an essentially realistic medium, lends itself less well to the portrayal of such fantastic devices as an imaginary alter ego visible only to the audience. Still, the essence of the play remains intact, and the fact that the film was shot on location in Ireland lends a different kind of "authenticity" to the results.
For more information on the telecast, go here. To order Philadelphia, Here I Come! on DVD, go here.
"I thought, on the train, how utterly we have forsaken the Earth, in the sense of excluding it from our thoughts. There are but few who consider its physical hugeness, its rough enormity. It is still a disparate monstrosity, full of solitudes & barrens & wilds. It still dwarfs & terrifies & crushes. The rivers still roar, the mountains still crash, the winds still shatter. Man is an affair of cities. His gardens & orchards & fields are mere scrapings. Somehow, however, he has managed to shut out the face of the giant from his windows. But the giant is there, nevertheless."
Wallace Stevens, notebook entry, 1904 (courtesy of Paul Moravec)
At the moment I'm somewhere en route from Washington, D.C., to here. Yes, you'll be hearing all about it in due course, but for now, content yourselves with this capsule version of my recent explorations in the blogosphere:
INTERVIEWER: And the function of the editor? Has one ever had literary advice to offer?
NABOKOV: By "editor" I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to "make suggestions" which I countered with a thunderous "stet"!
There is no need to define “blog.” I doubt there ever was such a call to define “newspaper” or “television” or “radio” or “book”—or, for that matter, “telephone” or “instant messenger.” A blog is merely a tool that lets you do anything from change the world to share your shopping list. People will use it however they wish. And it is way too soon in the invention of uses for this tool to limit it with a set definition. That's why I resist even calling it a medium; it is a means of sharing information and also of interacting: It's more about conversation than content so far. I think it is equally tiresome and useless to argue about whether blogs are journalism, for journalism is not limited by the tool or medium or person used in the act. Blogs are whatever they want to be. Blogs are whatever we make them. Defining “blog” is a fool's errand.
A new film written and directed by playwright/screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan will likely begin filming in September.
Variety reports that Lonergan's "Margaret" will be filmed in New York with Scott Rudin, Gary Gilbert and Sydney Pollack serving as producers. Anna Paquin has signed on to the project, and negotiations are currently underway with Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, J. Smith-Cameron and Jeannie Berlin.
"Margaret," according to the industry paper, concerns "a Gotham teen, her actress mother and the girl who tries to make amends for her complicity in a terrible traffic accident."
Lonergan's stage plays include The Waverly Gallery, Lobby Hero and This Is Our Youth. He also wrote the screenplays for "Analyze This," "You Can Count On Me," "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle" and "Gangs of New York."
I can't wait.
• Speaking of good playwrights, Mr. Superfluities is smart about why Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? still makes Broadway audiences squirm:
Virginia Woolf, in its unforgiving portrait of the illusions that support a long-term relationship and the hostility and envy that give the American, educated, professional upper-middle-class its fuel, is a glance into a mirror. If you're going to take your wife or girlfriend out for dinner and a show, you may be better off with something other than Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Now that Broadway is an amusement park rather than the locus of an art form, it provides escape (even excellent, thoughtful, well-crafted examples of escape like Doubt), not inward-turning dissection….
• Mr. Alicublog (who really ought to meet Mr. Superfluities) goes to Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year-Old Virgin and draws a similarly sharp-witted distinction about one of my favorite actresses:
In Being John Malkovitch Catherine Keener's character is a delightful surprise; in Virgin the woman Keener plays is earthy, quirky, and sweet—that is, a compilation of descriptive terms for the Catherine Keener persona, all of which I adore, but which add up to considerably less than a character….
(The last movie I watched before the levees broke, by the way, was Living in Oblivion. Ooooh, is she ever good in that.)
• Speaking of movies, Lileks has fun with a film noir…
• …while Mr. Rifftides shows what George Balanchine and John Coltrane had in common.
• Ms. Killin' Time Being Lazy just introduced me to Cat and Girl, a webcomic “drawn” by a twenty-six-year-old wit from Brooklyn. I smell a major addiction coming on, if not a print-media essay.
• Finally, Mr. Outer Life rhapsodizes as only he can on his Favorite Restaurant:
And that's all it was to me, that place with the best pastrami sandwich, until a few years ago when it became so much more: My Favorite Restaurant. I remember the day well, it was lunch, on a Saturday, the crowd waiting for a table spilling out into the parking lot, as usual, and while waiting I read a newspaper review posted on the window. This deli, sandwiched between a tile store and a dive bar in a non-descript strip mall across from some tenements in the middle of the sort of dystopic suburban sprawl that causes your average New Urbanist to wail and gnash his teeth in despair, was, according to the critic, not only the best deli in the city, it was one of the best restaurants.
Now I know what you're thinking, because it's exactly what my wife thought, namely, that seeing it so highly-rated is what elevated my esteem for it, but that's not quite the way it happened. No, I resolved, on reading that review, to branch out, to try something other than the Number One pastrami sandwich, for what struck me more than the review's conclusion was the review's long list of do-not-miss items, items I'd somehow managed to miss.
No one who hasn't written a book can know what it feels like to see it set up in type for the first time. Your own manuscript, however neatly printed it may be, simply isn't the real thing. It's homemade, and looks that way. You can edit it as painstakingly as you like, but you still don't know what your words will sound like in your inner ear until you see the thing itself. It's unnerving, half scary and half thrilling, to pull the proofs out of their package and start riffling through them, pretending to look for typos (and sometimes finding them) but mostly just gazing raptly at each page, feeling your half-forgotten sentences and paragraphs quiver to life….
A few weeks after 9/11, I wrote an essay for Crisis about where I was and what I did that day. This is part of it.
* * *
"Get up, son," my mother said, tapping softly on the door of the bedroom of my childhood home in Missouri. "An airplane hit the World Trade Center." I came awake a split-second later, my head full of memories. For years, I had wondered when the long arm of terrorism would strike again at New York. I thought of a sunny Saturday morning back when I was living in an apartment house on a hill north of the city. A small earthquake shook the building as I lay sleeping, and the groaning of the old walls woke me. I heard a soft whir through the open window, the rustle of the leaves on the shaken trees. It’s a car bomb, I told myself, unable for one stunned moment to conceive of any other possibility.
All these thoughts flew through my mind in the time it took me to pull on my pants. Then I trotted to the living room, there to behold the coming of the new age.
It came, as St. Paul told us it would, in the twinkling of an eye, and now we were all changed. Even as I slept, I had unknowingly acquired a new identity: I awoke to find myself a stranded man, unable to return to New York to share whatever its fate might be. Of course I had it easy, far more so than most of the thousands of other Americans who had been caught short on that bright Tuesday morning. Some of them were in the air, others in strange hotel rooms, but I was holed up with my mother in the small town where I had spent the first eighteen years of my life. My brother and his family lived just three blocks away. As exiles go, mine was to be both comforting and comfortable—and brief. But it was an exile all the same, and with every passing minute it grew harder to endure.
Merely to write those last few words is an unfamiliar sensation. To be an adopted New Yorker is to know innumerable people who visit their families as infrequently as they can, who live in New York because it is as far away from the scenes of their childhood as it can possibly be. Some have broken with their parents, others with their past, a few with themselves, if such a thing is possible (which I doubt). I am not one of them. Long before I first heard it, I knew the truth of the old Jewish saying, "Anywhere you go, there you are." Even though I now eat sushi and happily give directions to mystified tourists searching in vain for Times Square or the Empire State Building, I have never tried to be anyone other than my small-town self, or to be from anywhere other than Smalltown, U.S.A. I left a quarter-century ago to make my way in the world, but I always come back once or twice a year, if not more. New York is where I live: it is not my home.
So, at any rate, I had thought. But as I sat transfixed before the television, watching the scenes of now-imaginable horror repeated incessantly, first from one camera angle, then another, I knew I wanted above all things to fly to the city whose tallest buildings had been raped by faceless worshippers of a god who does not exist, a god who smiles complacently on evil and calls it good. Then came the now-conceivable news that Manhattan had been cut off from the mainland—all bridges were closed, all subways stopped, all planes grounded—and I knew I had finally cast off the last mooring from my home port and set sail for parts unknown, suspended between the beloved past and the invisible future.
For two days, phone service to Manhattan was hit or miss, mostly the latter, and I couldn’t even get a busy signal for anybody south of Fourteenth Street: a shrill mechanical voice always told me to call back later. My laptop computer was in New York—I’d finished a book the week before and had gone to Missouri determined to do no more work for a few days—so e-mail was out of the question. All I could do was gape at the TV, which I did for hours on end, and pray, which I did not without ceasing but in half-articulate spurts that gushed out on the rare occasions when I was able to tear my eyes and mind away from the unfolding story. Then, one by one, the dead phones came back to life, and by Friday I knew that all the people to whom I was close were alive. That was the day when the National Cathedral in Washington was filled with the sounds of prayer and music—the first day I was able to weep.
Five days after the World Trade Center crumbled to dust, my brief exile ended and I flew back to the place that I now knew to be my earthly home. As the plane descended, breaking the cloudless, transparent air, I gazed with terror and awe on the sight of lower Manhattan, into which a huge black hole had been burned, and heard in my mind’s ear an old camp-meeting hymn that Merle Travis used to sing: I am a pilgrim and a stranger/Traveling through this wearisome land/I got a home in that yonder city, good Lord/And it’s not, not made by hand.
That Thursday, I went to Lincoln Center to hear the New York Philharmonic perform Brahms’ German Requiem in memory of the dead of September 11. Manhattan was gray—a slate-gray, solidly overcast sky that spat rain off and on all afternoon. By early evening, the air was heavy with humidity, the worst possible weather for a musical performance: strings go limp, singers go flat. Broadway was clotted with yellow taxis, none of them vacant, many flying small American flags. I arrived a little before seven, together with hundreds of other people, virtually all dressed in black or gray. Huge flags hung from the balconies of the New York State Theatre, the Metropolitan Opera House, and Avery Fisher Hall, the three houses that frame the plaza. The lobby was full of hastily printed signs reading ALL BAGS WILL BE SUBJECT TO SEARCH and long lines at the security checkpoints through which we had to pass in order to reach the escalators. One woman was carrying a shopping bag that contained a cardboard box. "What’s in the box?" asked the guard, noncommittally. "Two bottles of wine," she replied. Then he broke out in a huge smile. "No drinking in the aisles!" he told her, wagging his finger, and we all laughed.
Inside the auditorium, every seat was full save for those occupied by the TV cameras broadcasting the performance. The lights went down, and out of of an unquiet hush the first notes of the first movement materialized so softly that for a moment, I wasn’t quite sure the orchestra had started to play. New Yorkers are the noisiest audiences in the world, and I heard a modest amount of coughing, as well as a single cell phone that went off midway through the second movement, spreading a quick ripple of dismay. For the most part, though, the only thing I could hear in the pauses was the sound of people softly crying. The young woman sitting next to me had never heard the German Requiem before, and she was overcome by the way in which Brahms set the familiar Bible verses, now made so freshly poignant by our still-raw memories of the week just past: Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted…Lord, teach me that there must be an end of me…The souls of the righteous are in God’s hand, and no pain touches them…For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come…O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Afterward, she told me, "I imagined that all those voices were angels rising out of the towers as they collapsed."
At the end, Kurt Masur, the conductor, lowered his hands slowly. The stillness that followed seemed to last for minutes, though it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. No one clapped—no one would have dared. Then Masur stepped down from the podium and joined hands with the soloists, and they vanished into the wings without a word.
My old friend Tim Page, the classical music critic of the Washington Post, came to New York last night to cover the opening of New York City Opera’s new production of Richard Strauss’ Daphne. We hadn't seen one another in months, so we had lunch at Good Enough to Eat today. Like me, Tim is a man of many interests, and in an earlier part of his life he developed a passion for Dawn Powell, one which eventually led him to write her biography and edit her letters and diary (which he discovered) and the Library of America’s two-volume set of her comic novels.
Tim is, in other words, the Big Powell Guy, and seeing as how I’m a Little Powell Guy—the first essay in the Teachout Reader is about her—he saw fit to bring me a stupendous present this afternoon. He handed over a manila folder inside of which was a tattered but still intact pen-and-ink caricature of Martha Graham drawn by none other than Powell herself. It’s a Thurberesque full-length portrait in reddish-brown ink, captioned "Martha Graham: Analysis in Wonderland." Modern-dance buffs will immediately recognize the inverted triangle before which Graham is standing as the set piece Isamu Noguchi designed for Frontier, choreographed in 1935. The expression of loony anguish on Graham's face, by contrast, is all Powell and a yard wide.
Needless to say, I nearly fell out of my chair when Tim presented me with this wonderful souvenir of one of my favorite writers. It was especially appropriate because I already own a Graham-related piece of comic art, an assemblage made for me by Paul Taylor. Not long after 9/11, I wrote an essay for the New York Times called "The Importance of Being Less Earnest" (it’s also in the Teachout Reader) in which I poked fun at the humorlessness of such iconic figures of modern dance as Graham and Isadora Duncan:
What Duncan sowed was soon reaped by a generation of modern-dance choreographers for whom humor was, to put it mildly, a superfluity. To flip through Edwin Denby’s collected reviews of dance in New York in the Thirties and Forties is to be struck by how dour he makes their dances sound. Though he made a point of being fair, he also believed deeply in the inestimable value of lightness, and so it is instructive to watch him grapple with Martha Graham, whose clenched-hair psychological dramas did so much to shape the emotional landscape of dance in postwar America. (When Randall Jarrell wanted to spoof modern dance in Pictures from an Institution, he made up a perfectly plausible-sounding piece called The Eye of Anguish, not realizing that Graham had used that same title four years earlier.) On one occasion Denby described her company as "bold about being earnest, but timid about being lively," which neatly sums up what many balletomanes find unsympathetic about Graham’s painfully sincere art.
I contrasted their portentousness with Taylor’s miraculous ability to say dark things with a light touch:
It’s surprising (well, no, it isn’t) how many dance buffs are still suspicious of Taylor, mainly because his work, though serious, is never ponderous. Having seen a lot of art of all kinds since September 11, I’m impressed by how many of the things that spoke to me most strongly, from Urinetown to Ghost World to the exhibition of Ben Katchor’s "picture stories" currently on display at the Jewish Museum, were either wholly comic or partook of the sweet-and-sourness found in Paul Taylor’s best dances.
Taylor danced with the Graham company for a number of years, by the end of which he was thoroughly fed up with her high-minded self-importance. What I wrote about her in the Times obviously tickled his funnybone, for he put together a Joseph Cornell-like shadowbox incorporating a clipping of my piece, which had been illustrated by an old picture of Duncan. On the clipping Taylor mounted a butterfly, and on top of that he placed the business end of a rusty old flyswatter. He titled it "Gotcha Both," put it in an envelope, and sent it to me. "Gotcha Both" now occupies an honored place in the Teachout Museum, and I plan to hang "Martha Graham: Analysis in Wonderland" below it as soon as it comes back from my framer.
I’m especially pleased by the juxtaposition because it happens that I also made admiring mention of Dawn Powell in "The Importance of Being Less Earnest":
Small wonder…that the children and grandchildren of Isadora, Martha Graham foremost among them, dominated native-born American theatrical dance for so long. They were right at home, particularly during World War II, when American culture, already sick unto death from the political pieties of the Thirties, came close to choking on its own high-mindedness. Dawn Powell, a cruelly funny woman who had no use for such nonsense, skewered the spirit of the age in her 1942 novel A Time to Be Born: "The poet, disgusted with the flight of skylarks in perfect sonnet form, declaimed the power of song against brutality and raised hollow voice in feeble proof. This was no time for beauty, for love, or private future…This was a time when the artists, the intellectuals, sat in cafés and in country homes and accused each other over their brandies or their California vintages of traitorous tendencies."
How delightful to own a pair of art objects in which two great American artists are brought together with one degree of separation—and how fitting to have acquired the second at a moment when all of us who live in Manhattan are thinking about that dread day three years ago when we thought we’d never laugh again. Three months later, I wrote "The Importance of Being Earnest," which ends with these words:
Then, too, there was George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which received its long-overdue [American Ballet Theatre] 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....
Of course there is a parallel case to be made for earnestness: surely it is people like Isadora Duncan who make the world go round. But who would want to go along for the ride if they also made all the art? Henry James, that wittiest of serious men, underlined the point in an 1893 letter to his friend Edmund Gosse. The occasion was the publication of "A Problem in Modern Ethics," John Addington Symonds’ agonizingly earnest pamphlet calling for a change in public attitudes toward homosexuality. "I think," said James, "one ought to wish him more humour—it is really the saving salt. But the great reformers never have it." No, they don’t, but the greatest artists do, and never more than when falling skyscrapers threaten to make us lose sight of the crooked shape of man, absurd and preposterous and—yes—beautiful.
What a blessing it is to be able to enjoy the life-renewing lightness of such great artists as James, Balanchine, Powell and Taylor. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that, but if I do, I’ll simply cast an eye on "Gotcha Both" and "Martha Graham: Analysis in Wonderland" and—I hope—smile again.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 9, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Do it yourself
Russell Reich, co-author of Notes on Directing, writes:
As long as self-publishing remains a viable and potentially lucrative
alternative for many writers, I’m having a hard time hearing Gal Beckerman bemoan the standard failures of
publishers and the publishing industry as a whole.
For writers who are already willing to take some responsibility for their
book's design, marketing, and even editing, the additional work required for
a self-published book (printing, fulfillment) is relatively benign as long
as you believe in what you're doing and hire good people to help. When I
co-authored, designed, and published my own book,
I felt that no setback during the process ever rose above a level of minor
inconvenience; I was simply having too much fun to let printer glitches or a
few bumpy legal negotiations bother me much.
I had a number of reasons to go the independent route. One was speed. When
you go to a traditional publishing house, you're lucky to have a book on the
shelf within a year of the contract, even with a completed manuscript. But
my co-author was elderly and ailing; it was vital to me that he hold a
finished book in his hands and I didn’t know if I had a year to gamble.
(He’s fine.) I also had a clear idea about the object I wanted to create, but no good
publisher was going to give a first-time author like me full reign over all
editorial, design, and packaging choices. I believed in what I was doing
and didn't think a publisher, in this circumstance, could do anything
other than muck up my plan while grabbing a hefty share of my profits. So I read a
couple of books about self-publishing, joined the Publisher’s Marketing
Association, and got to work.
Yes, I have to do my own marketing—that would be the case even if I hadn't
self-published. Yes, I have to manage my book as a business, but it's my
baby and having my own finger on the pulse of the market for it is a joy.
When it no longer is a joy, THEN I can shop it around to publishers at what
are likely to be much better terms, since by then it will be a proven
There was a time commitment involved in self-publishing the book and a
personal investment of about $15,000-$20,000 to cover the vendors who helped
me create it. But look at the return numbers: instead of a 7-12% royalty,
I'm making close to a 50% margin on every book sold. I made back my initial
investment on my first printing of 2,500 copies within nine months (thanks,
in part, to kind endorsements like yours). We're now on to our third printing.
But even if I had been wrong about my book and it flopped, the experience
and exercise of investing in myself and in what I believed would have been
enough, which is why I took the risk in the first place.
I recognize the value and resources that established publishers can provide.
They're a good choice for those who have not the time, means, or inclination
to self-publish or who truly believe they've got a potential international
blockbuster on their hands. For everyone else, why not self-publish? I
wonder about the extent to which insecurity among writers—a fundamental
disbelief in their own work—leads them to pursue a publishing contract not
for the book's sake, but for the approval of others that the contract
represents. If their book truly expresses something of personal value and
significance, a failure to self-publish strikes me as a self-betrayal.
The bottom line is, if you believe in your book, there's relatively little
standing in the way of your realizing your dream. In some cases, however, it
appears that complaining about your publisher holds its own rewards.
I can’t add anything to that. I’ve never heard the case for self-publishing by serious writers put better—and as Web-based technologies make it easier and cheaper, Russell Reich’s prophetic words will become even more relevant.
(I might add, by the way, that I praised Notes on Directing in The Wall Street Journal as follows: "Though it’s meant for use by theatrical professionals, not playgoers, I have never read a clearer, more straightforward description of the craft of directing, and the layman who longs to know what happens in a rehearsal—or what ought to, at any rate—will find it informative and illuminating.")
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 9, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Look out, Cleveland
A reader from Cleveland writes:
Glad to hear you took in our museum. How cool. It's also heartening to hear your still-warm regard for the "smaller" places in the US (and really, what place is "bigger" than NYC?). Most of the people I know who've moved on to big cities develop a contempt for any place less populated (including their own birthplace). I suppose it must always exist within them, but snobbishness of this kind makes little sense to me as location does not make the man.
As a change of pace and in hopes it will be an exercise you'll enjoy, how about a little classical music advice? Borders is running a 4-for-3 sale and I was browsing the classical music section. I was at a loss. I have works from the most well-known composers, but that's about it. How about your thoughts on the 5 essential classical works of the 20th century? Please expand the time frame if current constraints make the list unworkable.
I did indeed take in the Cleveland Museum of Art, one of America’s half-dozen greatest museums, a fact of which many American art lovers don’t seem to be aware, perhaps because of its comparatively modest size—34,000 objects, compared to the two million owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If the Met is an encyclopedic museum, then Cleveland is a one-volume desk encyclopedia.
What makes the Cleveland Museum so extraordinary is the jaw-dropping connoisseurship with which those 34,000 objects were chosen. Instead of collecting in depth, Cleveland's curators, like their counterparts at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum, opted for quality over quantity, and time and again they hit the bull’s-eye. When I visited the abstract expressionist gallery last Tuesday, for instance, it contained paintings by William Baziotes, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, sculptures by David Smith and Isamu Noguchi, an Alexander Calder mobile, and a Joseph Cornell box—the whole history of abstract expressionism summed up in fourteen objects, all on display in a single room. Except for the Krasner, each one was of the highest possible quality. The whole museum is like that, more or less.
As for my correspondent’s request for advice, it happens that Time magazine asked me four years ago to pick (anonymously, alas) the greatest classical-music composition and opera of the twentieth century, plus two runners-up in each category. A year before that, I’d written a series of articles for Commentary called "Masterpieces of the Century" in which I drew up "a counter-canon of 50 major works." Based on those two lists, here are five essential twentieth-century classical works, with links to my favorite recordings of each piece:
Note, by the way, that I omitted "the" from my reader’s original specification. I don’t claim that these are the essential works—to pick five such pieces would be an impossible task. Essential, though, they most definitely are, and unimpeachably beautiful to boot.
Dissenters, start your engines!
UPDATE: Courtesy of the "About Last Night" referral log, may I share an exceptionally (albeit unintentionally) funny posting
I know what Terry Teachout does for a living and what his interests are but his description of how he spent the last nine days does not inspire confidence that he is all that interesting: art museums in Cleveland and Buffalo. No doubt two cities known for its cultural contributions to America.
I especially like the grammatical elegance of that last sentence.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 9, 2004 | Permanent
"I don’t want to sound falsely naďve, but I often wonder why people get married. I think perhaps they dislike being alone more than I do. Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I’m not fond of company. I’m very fond of people, but it’s difficult to get people without company. And I think living with someone and being in love is a very difficult business anyway because almost by definition it means putting yourself at the disposal of someone else, ranking them higher than yourself. I wrote a little poem about this which was never collected so perhaps you never saw it. Do you know it? ‘The difficult part of love/Is being selfish enough/Is having the blind persistence/To upset someone’s existence/Just for your own sake—/What cheek it must take.’ End of first verse. ‘Then take the unselfish side—/Who can be satisfied/Putting someone else first,/So that you come off worst?/My life is for me:/As well deny gravity.’ There is a third verse, but that’s the gist of it. I think love collides very sharply with selfishness, and they’re both pretty powerful things."
Philip Larkin, Required Writing
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 9, 2004 | Permanent
A: Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, co-founder of HDNet, and star of the new ABC series "The Benefactor": "I started the blog because I was tired of giving in-depth responses to a media question only to have the result be what the reporter or columnist intended to write and I was just fodder to help them make their point. With the blog, I can present my position on a topic in its entirety and not have to worry about how they condense a two-hour conversation into 500 words."
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 8, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Wait just one minute
I've just read the Columbia Journalism Review piece that first Maud, and then Terry, linked to today. I'm left with mixed feelings. I don't doubt that certain factors make the process of publishing a book today regrettably frustrating for most authors, and unsuccessful for many: the sheer volume of books being published and, of course, book publishers' pesky need to make money. I sympathize with Stacy Sullivan's plight, but I'm not certain she's the ideal poster child for suffering midlist writers. Her situation as described in Gal Beckerman's article seems to a considerable degree self-created.
You see, there's this little thing in publishing called a contract. When signed, it confers obligations on both parties. The most important obligations of the author are (a) timely delivery of the manuscript and (b) delivery of a satisfactory manuscript. For most publishers, "satisfactory" will mean publishable, at the very least, but probably a sight better. If either of these basic obligations isn't met (and they often aren't), a publisher may renege on a contract (but they seldom do).
It's well known that deadline extensions are handed out by book publishers like peanuts by flight attendants. It's relatively rare for a book to be cancelled for late delivery; if one is, there's a good chance the publisher has some underlying motive. For instance, if you're an author whose acquiring editor has left your publishing house, you'd best be damn sure to meet your deadline, and in style. The staunchest thing standing between a missed deadline and a cancellation is the house's investment in the book, which most commonly means the personal investment of the editor, i.e., the person who took it upon herself to jump through x number of hoops in order to persuade skeptical bosses to part with their investors' money in return for the mere promise of a book. In general, that person no more wants to see the book cancelled than the author does, and so most authors are on safe ground counting on extensions. As an editor, however, one might understandably hope to know earlier than a month before deadline—this is when Sullivan "realized" that she wouldn't be able to complete more than half of her manuscript—that an extension is needed.
The other pertinent thing to say about deadlines is that precisely those functions of a publishing house that can help a book find its audience, and that Sullivan found wanting at St. Martin's—marketing and publicity, cover art and book design—are sensitive to them. Many of these departments start their work on a book far ahead of publication and rely on firm production schedules and season lists. It's no small deal when a book drops off a list and gets pushed back to the next season.
But, as I said, late delivery is both the most common and most forgivable of contractual breaches in the book publishing business. Delivery of a satisfactory manuscript can be another story. Again, one is usually on pretty safe ground here, since it can be difficult for a publisher to legally prove that a manuscript is so subjective a thing as "unsatisfactory." A really good, pugnacious agent can pretty readily cow an editor into gritting his teeth and publishing the thing, unless it's an all-out total disaster. But guess what? If you miss your deadline and deliver something unsatisfactory—let alone unpublishable, as Sullivan readily admits the 600-page rough draft she delivered two years after her original deadline was—the publisher can walk away scot-free. Think "unpublishable" is too strong a word for what Sullivan turned in? She doesn't; she pulled it out of production (a really big deal, like pulling up the rail in front of a freight train gathering steam) in order to get it into the shape in which she should have delivered it in the first place.
At the publishing house that used to employ me, we once received a manuscript several months late, and we weren't happy with it. It was by no means unpublishable—in fact, it was a political-personal autobiography that was soon published by another house in much the same form and that now, many years after the fact, is selling like hotcakes. But it was not what the proposal had led us to expect, not the book we wanted to publish, and the missed deadline gave us the out we needed without our having to address the thorny question of what's "satisfactory." So from a certain perspective you could argue that St. Martin's bent over backward for Sullivan. She left several doors open for them to duck out of, but they paid her advance and published a book whose fortunes, it is compellingly argued here, were already hobbled by its untimeliness. It seems audacious of her to complain about the publisher's lackluster efforts on behalf of a book she delivered two years late, 100% too long, and in a rough enough state that she didn't want it out in the world with her name on it. She admits she was "naive," but nowhere in the CJR piece does she seem at all abashed by how unseriously she appears to have taken her promises to St. Martin's. Well, there's naive, and then there's unprofessional.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, September 8, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Advice to young authors
Supermaud linked this morning to "The Education of Stacy Sullivan," Gal Beckerman’s story in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review about a journalist who wrote a book about Kosovo, then was astonished that it didn’t become an overnight best seller.
Actually, that’s just my jaundiced take. Here’s Maud’s, which is a lot more fair:
Beckerman chronicles the many obstacles faced by journalist and debut author Stacy Sullivan in publishing and promoting Be Not Afraid, for You Have Sons in America, her nonfiction book. Sullivan’s story is familiar to me, mirroring those I’ve heard even from seasoned and extremely well-regarded novelists. The upshot: unless your book is seen as bestseller material, you’re on your own.
Editors no longer edit. The art department doesn’t care whether the exploding grenades on the proposed cover undermine the themes of your book. And your publicist is not going to lift even a pinky to help you, especially not if he or she is also responsible for promoting books written by star authors like, say, David Sedaris (or even, as in Sullivan’s case, Newt Gingrich).
All true, at least for the most part—but is it news? Not to me, or to anyone who's published a book in the past quarter-century or so. Poor Stacy Sullivan, on the other hand, seems to have been shocked beyond words by the facts of publishing life. Says Beckerman:
By the end of last year, the book was out of [Sullivan’s] hands and in print, at an initial run of 5,000 copies. By this point, she had long abandoned the illusion that her publisher cared about her book’s fate. "It’s your book," Sullivan now tells herself. "It’s not your agent’s, your editor’s, or your publisher’s. It’s your baby and you have to nurture it."
By all means read the whole thing here. You should—this piece is going to be the talk of the ’sphere, assuming it isn’t already. But as you read, allow a cynical old author with several books under his belt to offer a more realistic perspective on the way things work:
• Publishing is a business. It always was. It always will be. No reasonable publisher will buy your book save with the reasonable expectation of selling enough copies to earn back your advance, plus enough profit to keep the wheels turning. Hence the chief function of an agent is to get your editor to give you an advance large enough to make the bean counters feel they have a stake in the book’s success. The larger the advance, the more seriously your book will be taken by everyone involved in its publication. If you don’t get a good advance, it means the publisher doesn’t expect the book to sell well, and won’t act accordingly—and there’s nothing you can do about it. (Stacy Sullivan got $35,000, a dead giveaway that St. Martin's had only modest expectations for her book.)
• In my experience, Maxwell Perkins-style editing is a thing of the past. That's fine with me. If you aren’t capable of writing a book that's publishable in the version you submit to the publisher, you’re not a professional. I’m not talking about copyediting, the painstaking clean-up job in which a line editor makes sure your whiches and thats are all in the right places. That kind of editing is very much alive and well. All my books have been copyedited scrupulously, and they’re the better for it. But don’t assume that some magic-fingered editor is going to make your book a bestseller by rewriting it. Clean up your own mess. If you don’t trust yourself, ask a trusted colleague for advice. Then do your own editing, based on that advice. Write the book you want to see in print.
• The art departments of major publishing houses are busy with lots of books besides yours. Left to their own devices, they may or may not produce a relevant, attention-getting dust jacket. So roll up your sleeves and involve yourself in the process of designing your book. Get to know the designer. Don’t be a nuisance, but be clear and straightforward about what you think might be appropriate in the way of possible cover images. And don’t wait until the last minute: make sure you’re in the loop from start to finish. In my experience, you’ll be listened to, so long as you appear to know what you’re talking about. Arbitrary, whimsical advice will be ignored. Intelligent, informed suggestions will be heard and heeded, not just about the cover but about every aspect of the book’s design, right down to the choice of typeface. I’m neither rich nor famous, but all my books look exactly the way I wanted them to—or better.
• According to Gal Beckerman, publishers like "presentable" authors. That’s true—but you don’t have to have great hair in order to impress them. You do, however, have to be able to talk concisely and intelligently about your book under pressure (i.e., on a live radio broadcast). You also have to know how to give effective speeches and readings.
For road-tested advice on how not to sound like an idiot when talking about your book, go here.
• In-house book publicists are a mixed bag. I’ve had great ones and lousy ones. But no matter how smart or committed they are, they can’t work miracles. If you’re an unknown first-time author, they won’t be able to do much for you, no matter how hard they try. If you got a five-thousand-dollar advance, they won’t try very hard.
You can, of course, hire an outside publicist, and sometimes that helps—but be realistic about your prospects. Stacy Sullivan’s book is called Be Not Afraid for You Have Sons in America: How a Brooklyn Roofer Helped Lure the U.S. into the Kosovo War. Do you really think a publicist could have gotten her on TV?
• Print advertisements don’t sell books. (Neither do fancy book parties.) They make nervous authors feel better. Unless you're famous, your publisher won’t spring for an ad until after your book is selling. Live with it.
• The effects of book reviews on sales are unknown. They don’t hurt (assuming the reviews are good), but there are lots of other ways to sell a book. If you’re reading these words, for instance, you already know that the blogosphere has started to become a significant factor in the marketing of midlist books. Take advantage of it. Well before the publication date, register www.yourname.com, get a blog up and running, and use it to publicize your book.
• Don’t worry about the New York Times Book Review. It’s nice to be reviewed there and nicer still to get a good review, but far from necessary. I’ve never gotten a favorable full-length review from the Times Book Review for any of my books—and I’ve been writing for them for years! Be that as it may, I continue to crank out books, and publishers continue to publish them, so I must be doing something right.
I close with the Prime Directive of Writing a Book. Print it out, frame it, and place it in a prominent spot on your desk:
• Anyone who writes a serious book with the expectation of making a lot of money and/or becoming famous is a fool. If you can’t afford to write a book in your spare time for its own sake, you’re in the wrong business.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 8, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Eleven things I learned on my vacation
• Never look at great art for more than an hour at a time. After that, your eyes go numb. When that happens, take a lunch break.
• One museum a day is enough.
• Bring twice as many CDs and half as many books as you think you’ll need.
• Unless you’re driving an expensive car, don’t bother listening to classical music—the road noise will drown out the quiet parts.
• When staying at a bed-and-breakfast, don’t eat all of the first course, no matter how good it is. (If you do, you won’t be able to finish the entrée, which is usually even better.)
• Once you’ve spent three consecutive nights at B&Bs, spend the fourth at a roadside motel. You’ll appreciate the contrast—both ways.
• In Pennsylvania, all roads are under construction at all times.
• Anyone more than casually interested in Frank Lloyd Wright should invest in a copy of William Allin Storrer’s The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright: A Complete Catalog. This compact catalogue raisonné contains illustrated entries for all 433 pieces of "built work" by Wright, plus road maps showing how to find them. The maps are legible and accurate—I can vouch for them. In addition, they clearly indicate which buildings can be viewed from "publicly accessible property" (i.e., they can be seen from the street).
• When visiting a medium-sized city, make a point of dining at the museum café. Not only is the food good, but you can also eavesdrop on the staff—and the donors.
• If you're driving, either wear a long-sleeved shirt or put sunscreen on your left arm.
• Bring your own pillow. You’ll sleep better.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 8, 2004 | Permanent
"Whether you like it or not, when you’re sixty-two you’re fulfilled."
Burt Lancaster (quoted in Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life)
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 8, 2004 | Permanent
Tuesday, September 7, 2004
OGIC: Newly licensed
The first time I took a driving test (and right there you see where this story is headed), I hit another car while pulling out of the parking spot. Short test, short story. My second try was more successful, though requiring lots of tongue-biting on my part as the instructor lamely cracked wise about my "record."
As he mentioned earlier, Terry recently licensed me to contribute to this blog's "Top Five" feature (appearing in the right-hand sidebar), and without a road test. I find his faith touching, and without wrecking or denting anything have contributed a squib for Garden State, which was about ten times better than the coy television ads had led me to expect. I also discovered last night that Zach Braff is keeping a blog as part of the movie's official site; it's interesting and well worth a look.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, September 7, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Loosely wound
Where was I? It’s a long story, but I’ll tell you the good parts (there aren’t any bad parts).
To begin with, I was supposed to go to Chicago last week to hang out with Our Girl and cover a couple of shows for The Wall Street Journal, but my editors decided at the next-to-last minute that I should hold off until later in the season. Since I’d already cleared my calendar to make room for the trip, I found myself with a totally blank week on my hands, something that hadn’t happened to me since, oh, the Battle of Hastings. I briefly considered staying in Manhattan and telling all my friends I was somewhere else, but it didn’t take long for me to write that idea off as harebrained. Aside from the obvious problems, I didn’t relish the thought of being in town for the Republican Convention and its attendant chaos.
The more I thought it over, the more I began to suspect that the universe wanted me to improvise a vacation—something I’d never done. Longtime readers of "About Last Night" will recall that I took a week off last August to visit
Isle au Haut in Maine, scene of one of the prints in the Teachout Museum, and wrote an article for the Journal about what I saw there. But that was a work-related excursion, carefully planned for months in advance, and I am, as you all know, a degenerate workaholic whose hands start to tremble whenever he spends more than a couple of hours away from his desk. Could I possibly force myself to toss together a pack-and-go trip, unmotivated by anything other than the simple desire to get the hell out of town?
Duty whispered low, "Thou must," so I revved up my iBook. Two hours later I’d booked a rental car and gotten in touch with bed-and-breakfasts in Uniontown, Pa., Toledo, Ohio, and Buffalo, New York (all of which turned out to be excellent, by the way). The deed was done. Nine blissful days ago, I drove across the George Washington Bridge, singing along with Fats Waller as I watched the New York skyline shrink in my rear-view mirror. I was—to my ongoing amazement—off and running.
What did I do? I visited two Frank Lloyd Wright houses, Kentuck Knob in Pennsylvania (just a few miles down the road from Fallingwater) and the Martin House in Buffalo. In between I stopped at the Toledo Museum of Art, the
Cleveland Museum of Art, and Buffalo’s
Albright-Knox Art Gallery. All these places are far from my beaten paths—the only one I’d previously visited was the Cleveland Museum, where I spent a hasty afternoon several years ago—and the idea of seeing them in one fell swoop struck me as wildly adventurous.
Did I have fun? More than you can imagine. I plan to write about my cultural adventures during the week to come, but the best part might just have been the journey itself. Though I drove a lot—1,538 miles, all told—I did so in a leisurely, unhurried manner, taking back roads and scenic bypasses whenever I felt like it. (Five minutes after I pulled off the interstate at Albany, I saw a hand-lettered sign by the side of the road that said BULL FOR SALE.) I ate tasty breakfasts, feasted my eyes on Kentuck Knob and the Martin House, and looked at dozens of great paintings, including Frieze of Dancers, my all-time favorite Degas. I got lost in Pennsylvania for about twenty minutes, and a gust of wind blew a dollar bill out of my hand at an Ohio toll booth. Otherwise, nothing whatsoever went wrong.
I had such a good time that I stayed on the road for an extra day and night. Instead of coming back to Manhattan on Thursday, I called the Hudson House Inn, my Cold Spring retreat, from the road, and spent that evening dining in style on their front porch and gazing at Storm King Mountain from my favorite waterfront park bench.
I returned home on Friday afternoon to find three hundred e-mails in my private mailbox. You know what? I still haven’t answered most of them—and I haven’t even peeked at the no doubt burgeoning contents of my "About Last Night" e-mailbox. Instead, I’ve been taking it nice and slow, if not totally inert. I went to a press preview of Slava’s Snowshow on Friday night. On Saturday a friend called me up and suggested we spend the evening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which turned out to be all but empty, most art-loving New Yorkers still being out of town. We dined on wine and cheese, listened to four very good musicians play the Brahms G Minor Piano Quartet, strolled through the Childe Hassam retrospective, and congratulated ourselves on having had such a brilliant idea. (Actually, it was her idea, but I had the good sense to say yes.)
On Sunday I watched a Gary Cooper movie, Vera Cruz, on TV, then had dinner with another friend and went to see Garden State a second time. On Monday I ran a few low-grade errands, read a book, got a haircut, took a nap, ate sushi, and watched another Gary Cooper movie, Man of the West. Today I'm going to paint my first watercolor (about which more tomorrow, maybe) and dip a toe into my accumulated blogmail. I have no deadlines of any kind until next week. I’m so unwound that a puff of smoke could knock me over.
So, could I get used to this vacation stuff? I think I already have. Everybody says I look and sound much happier. And I know I'm going to do it again.
I brought with me on my amazing journey a short stack of music for all occasions, some of which is as yet unavailable to civilians. Dave’s True Story, the kinky postmodern lounge act I profiled in the New York Times a few years ago, sent a rough mix of The World in Which We Live, their next album (which is terrific), while Mary Foster Conklin, another of my Timesprofilees, supplied me with a live recording of her recent Lieber-and-Stoller show (ditto), which I wasn’t able to hear in person.
I also packed a four-CD set burned by a kind reader of "About Last Night" which contains the sixty-odd recordings I chose back in 1999 for a series of three Commentary essays collectively entitled "Masterpieces of Jazz: A Critical Guide." I’m hoping that some obliging publisher will invite me to turn the results into a fancy book-and-CD package (hint, hint!), but in the meantime, they made for classy drive-time listening.
In addition, I gobbled up ten commercially released CDs in the course of my voyage. It occurred to me as I returned to New York that they added up to a nicely eclectic list whose contents might be of interest to at least some of you, so here they are:
Attentive readers will doubtless have noticed that the "Teachout's Top Five" module of the right-hand column was renamed "The TT-OGIC Top Five" over the weekend. It hit me shortly before I left on my vacation that Our Girl in Chicago really ought to be putting in her two cents' worth, so I made the fix after I got back, and from now on Our Girl and I will have joint custody of the Top Fives.
As I write these words, each of the five current picks is "signed" at the end with my initials, but that will change as soon as Our Girl gets the hang of the coding and posts her first Top Five item, which will be signed "OGIC."
By the way, OGIC, thanks for minding the store while I was away. You rock, as always.
I’m out of here for a couple of days. Tonight I’ll be seeing the premiere of Ken Ludwig’s Shakespeare in Hollywood at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. (I’m reviewing it for next Friday’s Wall Street Journal), and on Saturday afternoon I’ll be giving the annual Mencken Day lecture at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library. Stop by if you’re in town—the Mencken Room, where Mencken’s private papers are stored, is open to the public from 10 to 5. I’ll be speaking at three o’clock and signing copies of The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken afterward.
Needless to say, none of this will interfere with the clock-like regularity with which "About Last Night" is published—24/5 as per always, unless I’m in Maine or jail. I’ll be here on Monday, and I’m here now with today’s topics, from functional to frivolous: (1) Of concert halls, museums, and fancy houses. (2) Is blog smog choking the Web? (3) A going-away party for a jazz giant. (4) The latest almanac entry.
Yesterday’s posting about Zankel Hall was picked up by my host, artsjournal.com, thus bringing me a heap of new visitors. (Hi, y’all.) Allow me to return the compliment. Click on the artsjournal.com logo at the top of this page and you will be magically transported to one of the best sites on the Web, a daily digest of news stories and commentary on the arts from throughout the English-speaking world (not to mention the host for a half-dozen wide-ranging arts blogs, of which "About Last Night" is but one). I look at artsjournal.com every morning. So should you.
Not to belabor the obvious…so I won’t. Have a nice weekend. Come back Monday—and bring a friend. (Whoops, I did it again!)
As I think about my first visit to Zankel Hall, and what I wrote about it yesterday, I’m struck by something that ought to be more obvious than it is: I took for granted that the architectural design of the hall ought to be of subordinate interest to its function. Beyond a description of the hall’s appearance and a succinct expression of my reaction to it ("I found the results to be attractive enough but somewhat sterile-looking, a typical exercise in safe concert-hall modernism"), I devoted myself exclusively to practical matters. How did the hall sound? Were the public areas comfortable? What about subway noise? Short of talking about the bathrooms (which I didn’t visit), I couldn’t have been much less aesthetic-minded than that.
I know what you’re thinking, and quite rightly, too: It’s a concert hall, for God’s sake. If the acoustics are lousy, who cares how it looks? Of course it isn’t quite that simple. The eye can fool the ear into thinking that an ugly hall "sounds" bad (this was part of the problem with Lincoln Center’s old Philharmonic Hall). Still, the basic premise holds true under most circumstances. First and foremost, a concert hall must sound good. After that, it must be congenial, meaning that going there should be a pleasant experience rather than an oppressive one. If the seats are uncomfortable, you won’t notice the acoustics—you’ll be too busy squirming. Once these enabling conditions are met, you start thinking about the visual appeal of the building, if then.
I mention all this because of the recent intramural squabble over the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, which some arts bloggers like and others loathe. Now I’m a dyed-in-the-wool aesthete who would dearly love to live in an exceptionally beautiful house and would willingly put up with a significant amount of nuisance value (i.e., leaky roofs) in order to do so…but not an unlimited amount. To put it as drastically as possible, I wouldn’t want to live in Fallingwater if it didn’t have indoor plumbing—and I might well think twice about it if there wasn’t a good place to hang my John Marin etching, either.
Clement Greenberg, the great art critic whom I not infrequently have occasion to quote, said something highly relevant in this connection:
There are, of course, more important things than art: life itself, what actually happens to you. This may sound silly, but I have to say it, given what I’ve heard art-silly people say all my life: I say that if you have to choose between life and happiness or art, remember always to choose life and happiness. Art solves nothing, either for the artist himself or for those who receive his art.
I think these words ought to be done in cross-stitch and hung in the homes of artists and art-lovers everywhere, if not necessarily in the living room. Art is not the most important thing in the world. Earthly beauty is not an absolute value. (Among many other things, it isn’t worth killing for.) I may disagree with City Comforts or 2 Blowhards about whether or not Frank Lloyd Wright was a genius, but I think we’re all basically dealing from the same deck when it comes to this larger question, and I suspect you are, too, whether you’ve thought about it or not.
If you haven’t, try it the very next time you find yourself sitting in a concert hall or theater. Sure, the very best auditoriums are both beautiful and functional. These two qualities need not be incompatible. But if you have to choose, and if the choices are mutually exclusive, there’s really no choice, is there? The trick is to keep them from becoming mutually exclusive—which is one of the many reasons why arts bloggers blog.
The two cultures which concern me are the one of people who carefully observe the built environment and the...what do I call it?....rest of our society. I haven't quite figured out how to term it but I know that there is such a lack of knowldge and sophistication as to be quite remarkable. And mind you, this is amongst otherwise very bright people, all of them alive and living inside the built world. Yet, to my ears, they seem blissfully unaware of it or if somewhat interested, then often somewhat lacking in knowledge, compared to their general knowledge of other aspects of society. At least that's my take. The built world is just a given, part of the background of their lives and over which, perhaps, they have so little control that understanding seems a pointless endeavor. I honestly don't know. But I find it interesting, appalling and a bit confusing….
Are many intellectuals scared of it because it is so vast and complex? Maybe all. And that, if I dare suggest it, is why we have starchitecture running riot: there are far too few intellectual police with the confidence to put such work in its proper place.
We don’t agree about everything, but about this we are in perfect sync.
I'm afraid that as blogs proliferate, the medium threatens to become as "oceanic" and inefficent as the myriad other venues on the net—and off. Not enough time is allotted to us in our lifetimes to paddle through this immense and ever-increasing expanse of random opinion. And I fear that the super-high SQ (Snark Quotient) threatens to trivialize the medium, sapping it of real serious intent. I suppose it may be contrary to the essentially free-wheeling nature of the medium, but is there a way to counteract "blog smog"?
I know exactly what my correspondent means, but I also think it’s in "the essentially free-wheeling nature of the medium" for arts bloggers (and all other kinds of bloggers, for that matter) to write whatever the hell they want and let their readers sort it out. This is, after all, a market, and a fairly efficient one, too. Given a certain amount of effort, it quickly becomes apparent which arts blogs are worth reading daily, which ones weekly, and which ones not at all.
Even more interesting is the fact that bloggers also tend to link to one another, meaning that we do the sorting, and my guess is that it is in this manner that the Web will gradually become less random and more accessible—through organic evolution rather than central planning, so to speak. It used to be widely said that what the Web lacked were "gatekeepers" who could sort through everything out there and tell the great unwashed public what was worth reading—sort of like, oh, print-media editors. But then the great unwashed public started noticing that more than a few of the existing print-media gatekeepers were doing a rotten job of keeping their gates, and shortly thereafter, the blogosphere started to pick up speed. Coincidence? I suspect not.
As for the snarkiness, well, I kind of like it, at least when it’s wicked clever, as Mainers say. "Serious intent," after all, comes under many different covers. I won’t blow the cover of my correspondent, but I will tell you that he is the very distinguished classical composer whom I mentioned
in this space a few weeks ago—the one who sings Emily Dickinson poems to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme at drunken parties, and who has also been known to emit the odd snarky remark from time to time.
Lest we forget, blogging is a fairly new phenomenon, one still in the process of finding its footing. Frankly, I think we need more arts blogging, not less. For openers, I know I’d love to read a blog about the daily life of a classical composer. Any takers?
A memorial service will be held this coming Monday in Manhattan for Benny Carter, the great jazz musician who died July 12 at the age of 95. It’ll take place at St. Peter’s Church (619 Lexington at 54th St.) starting at 7:30. The service is open to the public, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the joint jumps, albeit decorously—jazz musicians like to send one another off in style.
I have to give a short speech elsewhere in the neighborhood at almost exactly the same time, but I plan to drop by if I possibly can. You come, too.
I’m still here, and whatever was wrong with me yesterday isn’t today, thus allowing me to present you with a basically normal "About Last Night." All art, all the time, or at least on weekdays when my color is good—you know the drill.
Today’s topics, from queasy to comfy: (1) A quick peek into Manhattan’s newest concert hall. (2) A museological smackdown. (3) Bare naked ladies on canvas. (4) The Thurber wars. (5) The latest almanac entry.
Tuesday’s numbers for this site were the highest since I took a week off to go play on the cliffs of Isle au Haut. I attribute this solely to your industrious plugging (though I have no doubt that the adorable Megan McArdle helped!). Keep it up.
Whither www.terryteachout.com? It all depends on you.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 11, 2003 | Permanent
The future was yesterday
My most recent "Second City" column for the Washington Post (accessible in the right-hand column), a preview of the fall season in New York, started off as follows:
If you're a music lover—and it doesn't much matter what kind of music you love best—the big event will be the opening this month of Zankel Hall, the new 650-seat auditorium that Carnegie Hall has carved out of its basement.
Even before the New York Philharmonic announced its plans to leave Lincoln Center for Carnegie Hall, midtown Manhattan was greatly in need of a medium-size auditorium with good acoustics (Carnegie Hall seats 2,804, Weill Recital Hall 268). Assuming Lincoln Center doesn't try to block the Philharmonic's move, Zankel Hall will become an even more important addition to New York's surprisingly short list of first-class concert venues, since Carnegie Hall will suddenly find itself with an 800-pound gorilla as its principal tenant. An impressive roster of inaugural-season performers is guaranteed to keep the house humming, so all that remains is to find out what it sounds like. I'll be all ears at Wednesday's media preview matinee—watch this space for details.
Sure enough, I was there, but I don’t want to jump to any premature conclusions. I’ll be seeing a lot of Zankel Hall in the coming weeks and months, and will have plenty of time to get used to its idiosyncrasies. In the meantime, I do have a few preliminary observations:
Design. Zankel Hall is an old-fashioned shoebox (the most acoustically reliable shape for a concert hall) set inside an elliptical shell. The walls and floor are made of blond wood. The ceiling is an exposed lighting grid painted pitch-black—it feels as if you're sitting underneath a giant assemblage by Louise Nevelson. Though the modular stage area and seating allow for multiple floor plans, the basic arrangement is that of a traditional concert hall with a steeply raked parterre (the sight lines are excellent), two shallow rings, and a small balcony. I found the results to be attractive enough but somewhat sterile-looking, a typical exercise in safe concert-hall modernism.
Comfort. Since Zankel Hall is underneath Carnegie Hall, the space available for public areas is necessarily limited. At first glance, the main lobby, which wraps around the elliptical shell, felt cramped and claustrophobic, even maze-like (some of the ceilings seem almost as low as the ones in the first-floor lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House), and it appeared as if the crowd was having a bit of trouble getting in and out of the auditorium, though that may have been due to the unfamiliarity of the floor plan. Again, this is something to which we'll all have to accustom ourselves before drawing any conclusions.
In the seating setup used at the media preview, the parterre level of the auditorium had no center aisle and each row was about 20 seats long, meaning that latecomers will have to stumble over earlycomers, just as they do in the New York State Theatre. I hope the managers of the hall will try out a center aisle at some point.
Acoustics. Multipurpose concert halls are by definition acoustically impossible. Classical music requires long resonant times, pop music short ones. That's why symphony orchestras sound good in Carnegie Hall, whereas amplified jazz groups sound soupy and unclear. Zankel Hall, by contrast, is meant to be used by everybody from Emmylou Harris to the Emerson String Quartet, though it’s a safe bet that the acoustics will be more flattering to some kinds of music than others.
The first part of the preview program consisted of six widely varied pieces of classical music: "Shatter Me, Music," an a cappella vocal solo commissioned from John Corigliano for the opening of the hall; two piano-accompanied songs (one loud, one soft) by Richard Strauss; "Pagodes," a piano solo by Debussy; the slow movement of Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5 for soprano and eight cellos; and Concerto in slendro, a vest-pocket concerto by Lou Harrison for violin, two percussionists, and three keyboard players. Having listening to all these pieces, my snap reaction was that the hall seemed bright, clear, a bit dry, and distinctly bass-shy, a combination of qualities that I found to be unflattering to Renée Fleming's "heavy" lyric-soprano voice. (I doubt this is going to be a singers’ hall.) Emanuel Ax accompanied Fleming in the Strauss songs and played the Debussy, and his piano tone was plummy in the middle range. The sound in the Villa-Lobos was clinically clear. The Harrison, with its pingy, clangy, gamelan-like sonorities, came off best.
Kenny Barron and his marvelous quintet then played Miles Davis’ "All Blues" and Wayne Shorter’s "Footprints." The band, which was electronically amplified, sounded boomy and tubby, especially the vibes and drums. It’s impossible to know whether this was the fault of the hall, the sound system, or the engineer. At the very least, the folks who run Zankel Hall have not yet figured out how to use amplification effectively, which is a surprisingly common problem (I never cease to marvel at how awful the sound is in some of New York's pricier jazz clubs). Assuming the acoustics aren't at fault, there'll be plenty of opportunities to figure out and fix the problem—much of the first-season programming, after all, consists of jazz and pop music. For now, I'd strongly encourage jazz musicians who appear at Zankel Hall to at least try unplugging their amps and playing acoustically, and I don’t think it’s too early to suggest that drummers shouldn’t be miked at all.
The subway. If you’ve ever been to Carnegie Hall, you know that passing subway trains are clearly audible in the main auditorium (you can hear them on some of Toscanini’s recordings with the NBC Symphony). They’re much louder in Zankel Hall—in fact, they’re almost as noisy there as at the Village Vanguard, which is also located below street level. Though the noise never comes close to drowning out the music, it's definitely obtrusive in quiet passages. As a result, my guess is that the hall will prove to be unusable for recording and tricky for broadcasting (a notch filter might help).
By now I'm sure it's obvious that Zankel Hall didn’t make as favorable an impression on me as I’d hoped, but I long ago learned that first impressions of a new auditorium can be deceptive. What seems problematic on first hearing often proves less so later on (and vice versa). The public spaces, for example, may start to seem less cramped and the acoustics more ingratiating, especially once I’ve attended performances that make use of alternate floor plans. I mean to keep my ears—and eyes—wide open in the coming season, and I’ll be sharing my reactions with you.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 11, 2003 | Permanent
You don’t have to agree with Hilton Kramer (though I generally do) to appreciate his deadly bluntness, as in this report on his first visit to Dia:Beacon,
the new museum/palace/temple of minimalist art:
As for boredom, well, this was one of those attributes of Minimalism that its champions proudly acclaimed from the outset. "Boring the public," wrote Barbara Rose in her "ABC" defense of Minimalism, "is one way of testing its commitment. The new artists seem to be extremely chary: approval, they, know, is easy to come by in this sellers’ market for culture, but commitment is nearly impossible to elicit. So they make their art as difficult, remote, aloof and indigestible as possible. One way to achieve this is to make art boring." By this measure—both the boredom quotient itself and the scale of financial commitment to boredom as an artistic principle—Dia:Beacon’s achievement is destined to remain unrivaled for the foreseeable future.
Speaking as one who finds most minimalism of all kinds stupefyingly boring, I say, yeah! And then some.
Choosing solely among the products of HFOP (i.e., High-Falutin' Oil Painting), what would you choose as your favorite female nude?
O.K., I’m game. I stuffed this painting
In the Bag a couple of weeks ago, but it’s always worth mentioning.
Maud Newton (she's so cool) has posted links
to three recent reviews of The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom and Surprising Life of James Thurber (what a lame-o title!), including my own piece for the New York Times Book Review (also accessible in the right-hand column) and the "official" New Yorker review by Robert Gottlieb, who has metamorphosed in recent years into a highly impressive critic. Go here, scroll down to "No one goes there much anymore," and catch up.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 11, 2003 | Permanent
"How many intellectuals have come to the revolutionary party via the path of moral indignation, only to connive ultimately at terror and autocracy?"
Raymond Aron, The Opium of the Intellectuals
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 11, 2003 | Permanent
Wednesday, September 10, 2003
It must have been something I ate
The skies over Manhattan were preposterously beautiful last night, full of colors that looked as if Wolf Kahn had squeezed them out of a tube. Too bad I was in no mood to appreciate them, for my personal color was yellowish green. So please forgive this truncated edition of "About Last Night."
I’ll be back with something more ambitious tomorrow.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 10, 2003 | Permanent
Life's little frustrations
Guess what? I’m starting to open my e-mail again! (Or at least I was.) Here’s one I want to share, from a reader who went to see Turner: The Late Seascapes at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., which is a little bit too far off the beaten path for most New York art lovers:
I did do the crazy, quixotic thing Labor Day weekend—went up to W'mstown and back in a single day (Bonanza Bus Co. makes Greyhound look like Concorde, except that they do take a very scenic route through the Berkshires). The Turner show was really marvelous (why is it a truism of art shows that the work you most want on a postcard isn't available? there were two astonishing watercolors, one of which made me feel distinctly larcenous) and the Clark's own collection is surprisingly world class...
Aside from the good report on the show, I was struck by my correspondent’s observation about museum postcards, which tallies precisely with my near-universal experience. It isn’t true of permanent collections—I’ve had pretty good luck there—but whenever I go to a touring show, the museum shop never has a postcard of the painting I like best (unless the show is small enough to stack the odds in my favor). The only exception that comes immediately to mind was MoMA’s Jackson Pollock retrospective. I was knocked out by an uncharacteristically small 1946 painting (19 by 14 inches) called "Free Form," and sure enough, there was a postcard waiting for me in the gift shop—but the painting belonged to MoMA, so it didn’t quite count. (Nor is a link to this lovely painting to be found anywhere on the Web, at least as far as I can see, arrgh.)
Perhaps even more irritating, though, is when you spend an hour or two trolling the permanent collection, retire to the museum shop, and find a half-dozen postcards of the paintings you’d really like to have seen…none of which is currently on display.
Did I say arrgh?
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 10, 2003 | Permanent
"What do you mean, Yes, sir?"
"I was endeavouring to convey my appreciation of the fact that your position is in many respects somewhat difficult, sir. But I wonder if I might call your attention to an observation fo the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He said: ‘Does aught befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the Universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web’."
I breathed a bit stertorously.
"He said that, did he?"
"Well, you can tell him from me he’s an ass."
P. G. Wodehouse, The Mating Season
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 10, 2003 | Permanent
Tuesday, September 9, 2003
If it’s Tuesday, this must be "About Last Night." I decided to spend Monday afternoon catching up with the recent doings of some of my fellow arts bloggers, and it got out of hand. Hence today’s topics, from hither to yon: (1) Fallingwater is not the Guggenheim Museum, and vice versa. (2) There’ll always be an NEA. (3) The significance of snarkery (and no, this one isn’t about The Minor Fall, the Major Lift). (4) Speech Codes on Campus, or, The Case of the Twice-Gored Ox. (5) Who called me a gorilla? (6) The latest almanac entry.
Heaven only knows what I’ll write about tomorrow, but don’t you think your best friend will want to know, too? A simple e-mail alerting him/her/it to the existence of www.terryteachout.com will ensure his/her/its happiness forevermore.
"About Last Night" received 17,000 page views during the month of August. Let’s not stop there.
I weighed in
recently on the Great Frank Lloyd Wright Cyberspace Imbroglio, prompting this crisp response from the normally thoughtful City Comforts:
Teachout repeats the conventional thinking that FLW was a "genius" but then gets on to the interesting stuff: anecdotes about FLW's personality….my preference is that we would leave the poor tortured man alone and in peace and simply consider the merits or demerits of his work without the use of conclusory terms such as "genius."
Ah, yes, as opposed to inconclusory terms like "poor tortured man," right? I fear this isn’t quite good enough (aside from being the least little bit snippy). For openers, it isn’t merely "conventional thinking" that Frank Lloyd Wright was a genius—it is a long-standing and near-universal manifestation of the consensus of taste. And when I call Wright a "genius" in a very short posting, it’s a piece of shorthand intended to suggest my own considered view of the merits and demerits of his work.
Much of the recent wrangling has centered on Fallingwater, the Wright-designed Pennsylvania home whose roof leaks and whose unusual design required substantial ex post facto structural work in order to keep it from fallingdown. Of course I don’t know what it would feel like to live there, but Fallingwater—as well as many of the other Wright houses I’ve seen and in some cases toured—seems to me both remarkably and self-evidently beautiful. This says nothing about the no less self-evident structural unsoundness of the house’s design and original construction, but I don’t really think that’s relevant to the issue of its beauty. Is a great painting less great because it makes use of innovative but chemically unstable pigments that change over time?
As for the leaky roof, well, I think I’d be willing to put out the occasional bucket in return for the privilege of spending my days and nights in a house that looked like this. I know, I know, that’s a matter of opinion, but I dare say my opinion of Fallingwater is far more widely shared than that of Wright’s detractors, and not just by art critics, either.
On the other hand (there’s usually another hand, isn’t there?), I was sorely disappointed by "From Picasso to Pollock: Classics of Modern Art," the Guggenheim Museum’s ongoing exhibit of works from its permanent collection (it’s up through Sept. 28), and Frank Lloyd Wright was partly to blame, though not entirely. Let’s start with the description of the show posted on the Guggenheim’s Web site:
Featuring more than 100 works spanning six decades, this exhibition provides a unique opportunity to view the Guggenheim’s exceptional collection in great depth….Wright’s visionary building is presented as he intended: as a haven for spiritual and artistic contemplation. Baring the original ivory-colored, curved walls and allowing natural light to stream in from the oculus, the museum is once again, as the architect stated, "a space in which to view the painter’s creation truthfully."
The complete version of this statement rates a thorough fisking, but I’ll restrict myself to a few words about the Guggenheim’s exhibition policy, which has something to do with the fact that "From Picasso to Pollock" provided a "unique" opportunity to view the Guggenheim’s permanent collection in "great depth." And why, pray tell, should that opportunity be so unique? Because (1) the Guggenheim now regularly devotes most of its available space to temporary exhibitions of ephemeral interest (Matthew Barney, call your agent) and (2) the Wright-designed main building eats art. The attention-grabbing rotunda and inward-slanting walls pull your eyes away from the paintings on display as effectively as a fireworks display. If Wright really thought he was creating "a space in which to view the painter’s creation truthfully," he was as wet as the occupants of Fallingwater on a stormy day.
Me, I think it more likely that he meant to draw attention away from the art. After all, his houses, Fallingwater very much included, tend to do exactly the same thing. To me, that’s their one drawback: the visual statements they make are so powerful that they snuff out any possible competition. I can’t imagine a serious collector of art wanting to live in Fallingwater—which is perfectly all right, of course, so long as you don’t collect art. The Guggenheim is by definition a different story, a museum building so beautiful in its own right as to be paradoxically ill-suited to its intended purpose.
On the other hand (yes, there’s a third hand), the Guggenheim happens to be more beautiful than much of the art that it houses. It’s an odd collection, at once idiosyncratic and strangely lacking in absolute distinction, not at all like such indisputably first-class one-man shows as the Frick and Phillips Collections. The fact that so little of the permanent collection has been regularly displayed in recent years has tended to obscure that fact. "From Picasso to Pollock," by contrast, rubs your nose in the deficiencies of the Guggenheim’s holdings. Once I’d trudged all the way up the spiral, having looked earnestly at everything, I was struck by how few of the paintings I longed to take home with me (as opposed to taking them straight to the nearest dealer). Sure, there were a few treasures, including some luscious Brancusis and one of the Guggenheim’s zillion-odd Kandinskys, the show-stopping Black Lines, but after that, the pickings were surprisingly slim.
What kind of architect designs a museum that upstages the paintings it was built to display? A bad one? Or a supremely great one who knew he had to give the patrons something cool to look at? I never enter the Guggenheim without asking myself that question, which is a tribute, albeit something of a backhanded one, to—yes—the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Lileks, the King of Us All, pulls off one of his patented enharmonic modulations, side-slipping from politics to the arts in a half-beat:
It is more likely that a true unalloyed Democrat will be elected than a brass-tacks Republican. Get used to it. The number of people who want a particular Government program exceeds the number who want none. You want the NEA abolished? That will require two nuclear attacks on American soil. After the first the NEA will be more important than ever, as we sort out our feelings about the event through a nationally coordinated series of interpretive dances. After the second, the economy will be so far down the crapper-pipes that someone will point out that we shouldn’t fund the Mimes-for-the-Blind symposium when we really need the money for anti-radiation drugs.
As I always say after watching a Fred Astaire dance routine, I wish I could do that.
Have you seen Believer magazine's new weblog Snarkwatch? It's the latest manifestation of Dave Eggers' infuriated conviction that Anglophone literature is being destroyed by critics. The mission statement of Snarkwatch reads thus: "This is a place to record enthusiasms, mystifications, as well as disgruntled reactions to ‘critical activity.’ If you think a book was reviewed unfairly, or if someone missed the point; if you think a reviewer did a splendid job worth praising; if you know of a worthy book receiving no review coverage whatsoever. All categories of response are encouraged, and should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org."
All categories of response are encouraged—but, of course, the thing is called Snarkwatch, isn't it. We may infer from this what its content is likely to be: negativity will be brought up short, and the snarky served a dose of their own steaming snark. In truth, this implicit mandate only guarantees that Snarkwatch will be a reliable guide to the most electric, most passionate criticism.
Well said, Mr. Cosh, well said.
Several much-missed bloggers are up and running after late-summer hiatuses, including Moby Lives, the must-read site about the publishing business, and Critical Mass, at which (on which?) Erin O’Connor welcomes herself back with a short, sharp swipe at the dangerous vogue of campus speech codes:
It's the punitive wish of people whose self-righteousness is such that they can never imagine being on the wrong end of such a code themselves, and thus cannot imagine just how damaging—to the private self and to the public sphere—such attempts to regulate expressions of belief inevitably are.
You go, girl.
Banana Oil hadn’t posted for so long that I was on the verge of bumping him off "Sites to See" this morning. Then I gave the link one last click and—lo and behold—he turned out to be back in business again, writing about none other than…me. He says I’m "looking for the Grand Muckety-muck title in the CultureBlogosphere" and "swiftly becoming the eight hundred pound gorilla of culture blogging (and hey, any guy who writes a thick juicy bio of H. L. Mencken is okay in my book."
"Mens sana in corpore sano is a contradiction in terms, the fantasy of a Mr. Have-your-cake-and-eat-it. No sane man can afford to dispense with debilitating pleasures; no ascetic can be considered reliably sane. Hitler was the archetype of the abstemious man. When the other krauts saw him drink water in the Beer Hall they should have known he was not to be trusted."
A. J. Liebling, Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris
Get this: I took most of the weekend off! Instead of writing, which is what I usually do all weekend, I slept late, dropped into a half-dozen art galleries, went to hear Bill Charlap at the Jazz Standard, and—yes—got a little work done on Sunday. Nothing too serious, though: I spent the morning and afternoon indexing and proofreading the introduction and first 58 pages of A Terry Teachout Reader. (I’m doing my own index to save money so that I can buy another lithograph.) Did I mention that I didn’t write anything?
For those of you wondering when I’m finally going to get around to answering my mail again, here’s my reply: I want to thank you all for contributing to my improved mental health by giving me the weekend off. (Pretty clever, huh?) But I didn’t forget about you, and here’s the proof, from ridiculous to sublime: (1) What I didn’t read on my summer vacation. (2) "In the Bag." (3) An insufficiently celebrated jazz trumpeter brings an all-star group to town. (4) The latest almanac entry—with a twist.
"About Last Night" expects that each man will do his duty, and women, too. Tell everyone you know about www.terryteachout.com this week. Fill the air of cyberspace with tidings of aesthetic comfort and joy.
As some of you will recall, I’m judging a literary award this year, and as a result, I’ve had to spend much of my spare time reading books chosen for me by other people (which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy them). This weekend, though, I took a busman’s holiday and treated myself to a pair of books that I read solely and only because I wanted to read them.
The first, George Jacobs’ Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra (HarperCollins), the ghostwritten autobiography of Frank Sinatra’s valet, is a piece of lowbrow trash, though I will freely admit that I gulped it down in a single sitting, pausing only to perform necessary bodily functions, and not always even then. I read it partly for the dish value (which is considerable), but mostly because it sheds a strange half-light on Sinatra’s artistry. He was and is one of the unsolved mysteries of American culture, a man of limitless vulgarity who made art of the utmost sensitivity, and the more I learn about his life, the more puzzled I am by the fissure in his soul that made it possible for him to record albums like Only the Lonely, then go out and do the things Jacobs describes with seemingly unselfconscious relish in Mr. S.
Because Jacobs had no understanding of Sinatra the artist, his book supplies a shockingly lucid portrait of the dark side of a double man. Perhaps not surprisingly, it barely hints at the existence of the other Sinatra, the self-conscious introvert whose record collection consisted mostly of classical music and who sang the great American popular songs as tenderly as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sang Schubert. I hope somebody will get around to writing a book about that Frank Sinatra, and I’ll read it with equal attention, but I'd never make the mistake of supposing that the sensitive Sinatra was the "real" Sinatra. Both Sinatras were real, which is why the man they comprised was so endlessly interesting—and, I suspect, ultimately unknowable.
The second book, John Updike’s Just Looking: Essays on Art, is a paperback reissue by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts of a 1986 collection of fugitive essays about the visual arts by a famous novelist for whose books I’ve never much cared. Still, it’s always interesting to see what a distinguished artist (and Updike is nothing if not distinguished) has to say about a medium not his own. I wish more such folk would write this kind of "amateur" criticism, which more often than not turns out to be surprisingly good. Philip Larkin, for example, was both a very great poet and an eccentric but hugely entertaining jazz critic.
While Updike isn’t that good, his occasional ventures into art criticism are both readable and not infrequently illuminating. By coincidence, he writes in Just Looking about a painting by Fairfield Porter that I just saw for the first time, Cliffs of Isle au Haut. If you’ve been keeping up with the blog lately, you’ll remember that I went to Maine last month in search of the actual cove portrayed in that painting. (Porter used it as the basis for a 1975 lithograph of which I own a copy.) Here’s what Updike had to say about it:
From the Abstract Expressionists Porter learned boldness, the boldness of broad monochrome expanses and of loaded brushstrokes. Often he defines a tree’s structure by slashing into its mass with daubs of the background color. Sunlight explodes with terrific violence at the windows of his hushed interiors. In Cliffs of Isle au Haut (a canvas that seems to borrow some of the color-by-number texture of Welliver’s landscapes), a spiky blob as opaquely black as anything in Kline or Motherwell overspreads the foreground without "reading" as the natural phenomenon it undoubtedly was. The two children’s heads peeping over the lichenous rocks restore us, however, to Porter’s domestic world.
Time again for "In the Bag," the game that challenges you to admit what art you really like. The rules: you can put any five works of art into your bag before departing for a desert island, but you have to decide right this second. No dithering—the death squad is pounding on your front door. No posturing—you have to say the first five things that pop into your head, no matter how silly they may sound. What do you stuff in the bag?
I received the following e-mail last week from jazz trumpeter Marvin Stamm:
I just wanted to let you know that my group, the Marvin Stamm Quartet, will be performing for four evenings, Sept. 10-13, at Birdland. The group will include Bill Mays, piano; Rufus Reid, bass; Ed Soph, drums; and special guest John Abercrombie on guitar. Sets will be at 9:00 and 11:00 p.m.
In all my years of playing, this is the most exciting and musical group I have ever been a part of. Though I am always right in the middle of things when we play, the creativity of these gentlemen never fails to astound me. It is really something to hear. While we tour quite a bit, this is the first time we have had the opportunity to appear in a major New York City jazz club as a group. I hope all of you will come hear this group play. I guarantee a great evening of music for us all!
I concur, and then some. Stamm is a musician’s musician, one of those brilliant players who are universally admired by their colleagues but unknown to the public at large. I haven’t heard his quartet in person, but I did hear a live CD privately recorded at a recent gig, and it blew me out of my shoes. I was so impressed that I wanted to do a print-media profile of Stamm and the group to promote this gig. Alas, it fell through, so the least I can do is let all of you know that starting on Wednesday, Birdland is the place to be.
"For I am convinced that good adverse criticism is the most difficult thing we have to do. I would advise everyone to begin it under the most favourable conditions: this is, where you thoroughly know and heartily like the thing the author is trying to do, and have enjoyed many books where it was done well. Then you will have some chance of really showing that he has failed and perhaps even of showing why. But if our real reaction to a book is ‘Ugh! I just can't bear this sort of thing,’ then I think we shall not be able to diagnose whatever real faults it has. We may labour to conceal our emotion, but we shall end in a welter of emotive, unanalysed vogue-words—‘arch’, ‘facetious,’ ‘bogus,’ ‘adolescent’, ‘immature,’ and the rest. When we really know what is wrong we need none of these."