" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness: Love

Ronald Coleman and Madeline Carroll in "The Prisoner of Zenda" -- the romantic paradigm.
Love, o love is sweetly flowing
On its banks are lilies growing
And the waters all bestowing
Love, love, beautiful love.

Come ye children, sweetly gather
Learn to bless and love each other
It will bind your hearts together in
Love, love, beautiful love.

 Shaker song

First of all, this not about filial or fraternal love. This is about the love you sign up for.

I had planned this to be to be a rollicking survey of my romantic relationships. After a short time, it became clear that would be sad, painful, and embarrassing. I have been a romantic fool.

In fact, if I look at it from a crazy, non-constructive way, my every romantic relationship up to the present one has been a failure. Which is how I looked at it. And, what’s even less helpful, the details of these failures are mostly locked away inside me. I learned little over a remarkably long period of time with a number of different beloveds.

I know nothing about women. Ask around. Particularly women. My conceptions of love were formed by poets and paper-heart makers, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. As far as I can tell, my ancestors felt brief urges of passion, mated, and then settled down into monochrome normality. (After they died, I found out about their deeply repressed, tragic emotional lives. Still waters, etc.) The particular example my parents set was not particularly comforting or helpful. As a kid, when I thought at all about girls I cued on love songs, romance films, and storybook endings. The peculiar cultural window I looked through made me model myself much more on Ronald Coleman than Peter Fonda. You can guess the results.

When I began grappling with the opposite sex (fortunately, at 15 I was 6’3” and weighed 150 lbs., which made it easy to fight off my advances), bliss and disaster alternated. My first love played the alto sax, which probably says a lot about my devotion to Art Pepper. She loved marshmallow crème, laughed at my jokes, and was a great kisser.

But I began a long tradition of finding someone who could bear the extravagant weight of my urgent, undeveloped, and unmitigated emotional demands. I was scrawny and needy, and socially retarded. No one could more theatrically misinterpret reality than I could, and still can. I could perform love, I could act the swain. I wrote poems, sang songs, acted like a clown, ached, fought, made love, burned with despair. But I still hadn’t a clue.

In addition, be narcissistic and bipolar impairs selection skills. For years I found myself involved with women who were dangerously unstable, coldly remote, or simply baffled and increasingly enraged by the gap between my occasionally charming initial self-presentation and the swamp of dysfunction I would unleash as soon as she relaxed. After which I would stagger away from the burning crash site, wondering what went wrong.

Wanting is a kind of thirst that is satisfied only shortly. In my case, it has been largely poisonous. Desire is theft. Love is music. And I can barely tell them apart. What’s love, then? Would true love prevail?

Approaching the 20-year mark of my (so far) successful second marriage – successful denoting purely that it is still in effect – I can say that I am just grateful I haven’t been beaten to death in my sleep yet. (A displaced paramour once pulled a gun on me, a unique and refreshing experience I wouldn’t recommend to anyone.)

After many years, it finally is what it is. Little is like we thought it might be, and we are very different than we imagined we might be. Life has ground away at us, revealing ourselves to each other as completely as two people can. We have seen the best and the worst of each other, and I think that if you can do that and not flinch, and keep looking into the other’s eyes, you have something.

Real love is forged by the demands of necessity. Real love mysteriously accrues as the years are lived together. It’s no musical, no slow-motion gambol at waves' edge. You have to be damn stubborn and endure.

At the same time, I am learning to let go of how I think things should be between us, of creating some kind of static template of relationship satisfaction. Developing, despite myself, some compassion.

And humility. Another annoying problem is that someone that close to you can call you on your shit. Every time. There’s no place to hide. And so, by dint of the constant erosion caused by being wrong, only over the course of the last decade have I learned that I may actually BE wrong at times and, even worse, that my wife is right. And of course, once one person might be right . . . you can probably see how trying this has all been for her, she’s explained it to me a thousand times.

Love is a verb that must be incessantly acted upon, never shifting from present to past tense. Infatuations just happen. Love is a job, and its own reward. The tiny pleasures and hard-won satisfactions of each day are the rewards of working together to create a life and a home together.

When I keep my head down and keep pushing through, somehow it works. It’s a closeness and peace that flares up protectingly when times are tough. It can’t be erased or taken from. It’s knowing who I can count on, and finally accepting that I can be counted on, too. Maybe that’s what love really is for me – knowing that I am capable of transcending my own selfishness and stupidity, at least with my single someone, at least some of the time.

Love isn’t a condition. It’s an action. It’s maddening, it’s complex, it’s contradictory, it’s earned.

Next time: Work

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

CULTURAMA: 12 great French composers

I don’t despise the French,

Allow me to apologize. I know it’s pretty standard to hate them. They’ve always been good to me, though – very tolerant of my gangster-film French and American enthusiasm.

I particularly love their classical music. Normally I don’t ascribe to the virtue of one nation’s culture over another, but something about their music is special. Maybe it’s the dynamic tension between the huge cultural institutions and oversight France produces, and the counterbalancing impulse not only to rebel against conventions, but to disregard them entirely. Keeps things fresh.

Sometimes this combination of gutsiness and playfulness can backfire, leading to thin, arch work that doesn’t resonate. Still, the batting average is pretty damn good, and the dozen listed here are consistently rewarding to hear.

Here’s a subjective list of my 12 favorites. Please note that there are many that almost made it, and are certainly worth listening to – Halevy, de Machaut, Delerue, Auric, des Prez, and more. I am counting out Chopin and Stravinsky – each has typed himself unmistakably as a son of his country of origin. AND there are many French composers that drive me NUTS – Gounod, Massenet, Rameau, Lalo, Lully, Ravel, Boulez . . .

So here we go.

Marin Marais (1656-1728)

Master of the viola de gamba, he was not afraid of complexity and dissonance, and created conceptual pieces such as “Le Labyrinthe,” “La Gamme,” and the “Tableau de l’Operation de la Taille.” A busy guy, he had 19 children. His life was horribly misrepresented in the film “Tout les Matins du Monde.”

QUALIFYING ANECDOTE: He hid under his mentor Sainte-Colombe’s special practice treehouse in order to steal his bowing moves. The little sneak.


Sonnerie de St-Genevieve du Mont-de-Paris
Suite from “Alcyone”
Le Labyrinthe

Francois Couperin (1668-1733)

Called Couperin le Grand to distinguish him from his musical relatives. It’s unknown whether this bothered them tremendously. An adventurous keyboardist who fused French and Italian styles and who vastly extended the expressive quality of the harpsichord. His work inspired Bach, Brahms, Richard Strauss, and Ravel.

QUALIFYING ANECDOTE: To sell some of his early sonatas, he packaged them under a fake Italian name – Italian composition was all the rage and a French composer of the time couldn’t get arrested. They were wildly successful.


Pieces de clavecin
Two Mass settings for organ

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

For some reason, most classical music lovers refer to the “three B’s” – Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. What about Berlioz? He was the first French Romantic. He invented modern orchestration (his ideal orchestra was 467 strong and included 30 pianos, 30 harps, and 12 cymbals); he was a masterful conductor; incredibly literate, a devotee of Virgil, Goethe, and Shakespeare, his criticism and memoirs are still instructive and enjoyable.

But somehow he squeezed “Symphonie Fantastique,” “Harold en Italie,” the song cycle “Les nuits d’ete,” “Messe solennelle,” “L’enfance du Christ,” “La damnation de Faust,” and the magnificent grand opera “Les Troyens” – the last so grand that it wasn’t performed uncut until 147 after its composition.

QUALIFYING ANECDOTE: Always falling in love, he basically stalked his first wife, actress Harriet Smithson, for years until she gave in. It didn’t work out. He planned to murder a fiancée that rejected him. Five years before he died, he wrote: “My contempt for the folly and baseness of mankind, my hatred of its atrocious cruelty, have never been so intense. And I say hourly to Death: ‘When you will.’ Why does he delay?” Not a happy guy.


Les Troyens
Symphonie Fantastique

Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880)

The funniest of all classical composers, Offenbach could mock anything and get away with it. He composed more than 100 comic works; his final work, “Les contes d’Hoffman,” was decidedly serious but still delightful.


Orphee aux enfers
Le belle Helene
Les contes d’Hoffman

Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

“Carmen.” That’s all you need to know. The birth of real passion and verismo in opera with an unforgettable and complex central figure.


Jeux d’enfants
Symphony in C

Gabriel Faure (1845-1924)

Although he is better-known for his somewhat fluffy “Requiem” and “Pelleas et Melisande,” his piano pieces are fascinating, as are his songs, and chamber pieces. His work is clear, unified, as graceful as falling water. He was a marvel at the organ, but despised it, and left behind no compositions for it.

QUALIFYING ANECDOTE: He lost a job at a regional church as its organist when he showed up to play for Sunday mass still in his evening clothes from the night before, having never gone to bed.


Chanson d’Eve
Piano Trio
Works for solo piano

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

“For better or worse Claude Debussy must be seen as perhaps the most influential figure in twentieth-century music.” – David Mason Greene. His ears, perched on his bumpy oversized head could hear what others could not, and got it down on paper.

QUALIFYING ANECDOTES: He was, according to Mary Garden, who originated the role of Melisande in “Pelias et Melisande,” a “very, very strange person.” His funeral procession moved through the abandoned streets of Paris during a German bombardment of World War I. He was played, oddly enough, by Oliver Reed in Ken Russell’s fanciful documentary “The Debussy Film.” His wife had previously been Faure’s mistress.


Images for orchestra
Etudes for piano
La Mer

Erik Satie (1866-1925)

A free spirit, he is still ahead of his time. His work, embossed with absurd titles such as “Cold Dreaming,” “Four Flabby Preludes,” and “Desiccated Embryos” was alternately brilliant deconstructions of staid musical forms, and new, unbound work that didn’t obey harmony, rhythmic pattern, or any other musical norm. Ravishingly beautiful.

QUALIFYING ANECDOTES: He purchased 12 identical gray corduroy suits, and simply rotated through them day after day. He made sketches of imaginary buildings and kept them in a filing cabinet. Some of his best compositions were found and published after his death – they had fallen behind the back of his piano and Darius Milhaud found them there after Satie’s death.


Works for piano

Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957)

Like many of the nationalist composers of his time – Bartok, Janacek, Kodaly, Dvorak, and Smetana – Canteloube was a much a musicologist as a composer, traveling and researching regional, vernacular music with vigor. His “Songs from the Auvergne” took nearly 30 years to compile and complete.


Chants d’Auvergne

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)

One of the most knowledgeable, conductors, and teachers in history, Boulanger was an incredibly gifted interpreter of music. She trained, among others, Copland, Glass, Gardiner, Quincy Jones, Carter, Barenboim, and Piazzola. In her own right, her delicate songs and chamber pieces are wonderful – and unjustly overlooked.


3 Pieces for Cello and Piano
Fantasy for piano and orchestra

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Absolutely true to himself, Poulenc could write both the most absurd and transgressive works (“Les mamelles de Tiresias,” in English “The Tits of Tiresias,” after Apollinaire, whom Poulenc met shortly before the latter’s war-wound-related death) and the most movingly spiritual (“The Dialogues of the Carmelites,” “Litanies a la vierge noire”). “I wanted music to be clear, healthy, and robust,” he wrote.


The Dialogues of the Carmelites
Les mamelles de Tiresias

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Still far ahead of us. His slippery, spiky, otherworldly journeys can drive you mad, but if you sit down and push through them, the listening will reward you. He could and did absorb Western and non-Western styles; like a sculptor, he subordinated the elements he needed and used them to create a singular voice. He was a masterful organist. His study of birds led to many of his most striking compositions, such as “Oiseaux Exotiques” and “Catalogue d’oiseaux.” He was imbued with a profound sense of God, and this intense spirituality permeated his meditations, such as his “Concert for the End of Time,” his nature studies such as “From the Canyon to the Stars,” and opera and oratorio such as his epic “Saint Francoise d’Assise.” He said, “I want to write music that is an act of faith, a music that is about everything without ceasing to be about God.”


Catalogue d’oiseaux
Des Canyons aux etoiles . . .
Saint-Francois d’Assise

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

CULTURAMA: "Much Ado About Nothing" at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival: Perfect fools

Comedy is hard. Shakespeare is hard. Therefore, Shakespearean comedy carries the highest degree of difficulty possible, for performers and audience members alike.

Luckily, Shakespeare’s comedies are, by and large, actually funny. It takes an astute director and ensemble to flesh out the promise of those gags and the real feelings couched in that antiquated language. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production of the romantic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” is blessed with that – and it’s triumphantly hilarious, one of the best shows they’ve staged in recent memory.

This show will cure anyone with Shakespeare-itis. You know if you’re afflicted – your eyes begin to roll back into your head when you hear iambic pentameter, doublets and hose give you the conniptions, and you fall into a narcoleptic coma well before the end of Act V.

Well, there are reasons the Bard is the Bard. He knows how to tell a story, he knows how to write dialogue, his characters are lively and intense. No amount of horrible English classes or other forced indoctrinations to his work will change that.

At CSF, everyone from director Lynne Collins down to the humblest supernumerary is focused on the same thing – making us laugh. They succeed splendidly. Collins has set her ensemble free: free to find the funny and work it. The dreaded Shakespearean language barrier is vaporized; you can follow the action with the same kind of relaxed clarity the players being to their performances.

The production is set in summery Spain in the mid-1930’s, a time when liberalism and conservative values warred bloodlessly, until the region tipped into civil war at the end of the decade. The warm, bright colors of Andrea Bechert’s attractive, straightforward set, anchored around a functional fountain in its center, give the proceedings a cartoonish flush.

The gist of the matter is love lost, found and confused. Geoff Kent and Karen Slack are perfectly matched as the witty, warring Benedick and Beatrice, two madcap personalities who are tricked into revealing their true feelings for each other. Neither is afraid to bend the play’s language, play with its rhythm, bring the audience into their confidence, or break up a speech with an apt bit of business or touch of physical comedy.

The play’s second, “serious” couple, Hero and Claudio are equally well-drawn by Caitlin Wise and Ben Bonenfant. The paterfamilias of the piece, Leonato, is played so adeptly and with such gravitas by Sam Gregory that he seems to gather the moral focus of the piece. Whether the trickster or the tricked as the plot demands, he radiates authority and emotion in clear and ringing tones.

Steven Patterson is just great as Don Pedro, the brother-in-arms of Benedick and Claudio. His rough-hewn, teasing soldier’s wit is pitched perfectly. The biggest surprise of the night is Michael Kane. He begins the evening as the peevish villain of the piece, Don John (his agonized melancholy is a great choice for the character) and then reappears, unrecognizably, as the affable, demented and stooped constabulary sidekick, Verges.

His crime-fighting partner is Chip Persons, as wonderfully daft a Dogberry as I can remember seeing. Clad in beret, luxuriant mustachios, and crossed bandoliers, he murders the language and the crowd with his stylized gestures and blissful ignorance.

It takes great diligence to strip away the layers of scholarship, and the intimidating reputation of Shakespeare, to get to the essence of his work and make a compelling show out of it. “Much Ado” does. Anyone who needs a laugh should snap up tickets for this show as soon as possible.