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Transfigured Knight [Updated at Last]

Oh goodness gracious sweet merciful Muses.

Tristan_photo_3 That a man might experience a full performance of Tristan und Isolde for the first time and emerge with his sense of life unaltered is possible, but I cannot imagine it to be common.  As with Wallace Stevens' blue guitar or certain massive bodies in space, things as they are are changed by being near to it, and when the performance is as fully realized as that of the Los Angeles Philharmonic last night words may be altogether inadequate to the task of expressing just what has happened -- appropriately enough for a work in which words tell us almost nothing and the music tells almost everything.

Duties of my practice preclude a full report at this moment, so this post will grow over the next few days as I add bits,pieces, clods and dollops to it.  To sum it up in advance: Last night's Tristan und Isolde, as conceived and performed under the rubric of The Tristan Project, was without a doubt the most all encompassing and exhilarating evening I ever expect to spend in a concert hall.

Oh goodness gracious sweet merciful Muses.


Director Peter Sellars and video artist Bill Viola have been giving pre-concert talks throughout this run of performances, and they are marvels of passionate intelligence.  Peter Sellars in particular, in his summaries of what and how and why each act is as it is is riveting, with ideas and passions and connections flying in from all directions and all told so compellingly that the listeners are held as by a story round the campfire.  [He holds one idea about Tristan that is, to my mind, completely wrong, but as it did not manifest itself in any external way in performance, we'll let it pass.]  The sessions from the three nights in which one act of the drama was coupled with a work of Debussy have been made available for listening or download from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's UpBeat Live page.  (Scroll down to April 12, 13, and 14 for Acts 1, 2, and 3, respectively.)  For convenience sake, I have also uploaded them at the links below:

UPDATE [050207 1423 PDT]:

The Tristan Project will make its New York debut this evening.  For the occasion, I have finally got round to updating this post with a more extensive overview of the experience here in Los Angeles.  Given that the additions have proven to be very long, and given that they will be of interest only to a very few, I have exiled them to the continuation of this post.  Those who care to can click on through:

Continue reading "Transfigured Knight [Updated at Last]" »


Last month, when I was initially getting myself excited over The Tristan Project, I ran across Robert Hughes' cracking essay for the Guardian on the current exhibition (through July 22) at London's Victoria & Albert Museum, "Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design."  The entire article is up to the usual high standards of Mr. Hughes, but what caught my eye was the highlighted passage below which provides at least a tenuous connection between the surrealists and Wagner's doomed and transfigured lovers:

Fashion was sexy.  So was surrealism.  They were a natural fit.  Nobody ever called cubism sexy, or constructivism, or any of the other movements of the early 20th century except German expressionism, which did have its sexy moments - though not so very many of them.  But one of the core beliefs of the surrealists, as set forth by their leader, Andre Breton, was in l'amour fou, obsessional love, the kind of love that deranges the senses and tips those who feel it into a Lee_miller_a_la_marxhelpless vortex of appetite and feeling.  Surrealism had its own cast of star women, seemingly imperishable love objects, all dead now, whose images nevertheless endure thanks to the photos of Man Ray, George Hoyningen-Huene and others.  The most beautiful and desirable of them all was a first-rate photographer herself: the blonde American Lee Miller, who lived with Man Ray for a time in Paris and was one of the chief muses of surrealism.  Her lips can be seen floating in the sky like some wondrous UFO above the breast-like domes of the Paris Observatory in Man Ray's painting A l'heure de l'observateur.  Sometimes it can be difficult to share the past's enthusiasm for the sex-bombs of yesteryear, and Mae West, less a sex object than a parody of sexuality, is (at least for me) a case in point.  But Miller, one of the most gorgeous American beauties of the 20th or any other century, was a wholly different matter.

Lee Miller is second from the bottom in the photo above, in which she and, in descending order,  Marie-Berthe Aurenche, Max Ernst, and Man Ray appear to be auditioning to become the new Marx Brothers.  Today, the Guardian reports that the V&A will soon be hosting a show devoted to Lee Miller herself:

The exhibition will bring together famous images, original prints from private collections, and many never exhibited or published before.  They will include images from her early days in Paris, such as photographs of her at work in her studio taken by Man Ray, and extracts will be shown from Jean Cocteau's 1930 film, The Blood of a Poet, in which she starred.

Sensuous nude studies and glossy fashion images will hang with shocking images such as the dead body of an SS guard dumped in a canal from her period as the only woman photojournalist accredited to second world war combat areas.  Miller persuaded Vogue to carry long photo-features from Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, under the heading "Believe this".

The V&A show is tied to the centenary of Miller's birth and is described as the first comprehensive retrospective devoted to her and her work.  Sadly, there is no indication that the exhibition will tour outside London, let alone reach Miller's native land.


  • Some idea of Lee Miller's range as influence and artist can be gleaned from the site for "Surrealist Muse," a more intimate 2003 show that I am kicking myself for having missed at the Getty.  That page includes Miller's self-portrait in Adolf Hitler's bathtub, taken the same day as her photos of the liberation of Dachau.
  • Pablo Picasso painted a portrait of Lee Miller in 1937.  It is even less flattering than most of Picasso's portraits of women.  The left eye, taken on its own, is very lovely if you overlook that it is on the wrong side of the subject's nose.
  • I always enjoy it when my weblogular interests cross-pollinate, as in this example: One of the pivotal figures in "Surreal Things" is fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, and Elsa Schiaparelli is the maternal great grandmother of Fool musical favorite, Elvis Perkins.
  • Call me old fashioned, but I have to think that Lee Miller is more deserving of a large scale museum retrospective than the V&A's other muse of the moment, Kylie Minogue:

The exhibition shows Kylie's continually changing image, from 1988 onwards, starting with the overalls she wore as Charlene in Neighbours.  It also includes the infamous gold lamé hotpants worn in the video for 'Spinning Around' and the white hooded jumpsuit featured in the 'Can't Get You Out of My Head' video.

Link-a-Dink Ado

Preparing for a whirlwind cross-country weekend -- to a conference in Florida and back again within 48 hours or so, no doubt to feel on my return as though I had yet to depart -- is as good an excuse as any to post a few otherwise unrelated links:

  • I have added a pair of new or newish weblogs to the lists at the left.  Each is focused on music, art, culture, etc., in Los Angeles and environs, and each approaches the subject with a touch more focus and serious commitment than I bring to bear.
  • Out West Arts first came to my attention at the beginning of the month with a post on unexpected tension and violence in the concert hall:

    This isn’t the first time that I’ve seen classical music produce this reaction.  Last year I saw a fist-fight break out in the same hall in a crowd overwhelmed with brotherhood after hearing Beethoven’s Ninth (also with Salonen) and two years ago I saw a man threaten to kill another over a slight the latter had made to the former’s wife in the lobby of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion during the intermission of Der Rosenkavalier, of all things.  Maybe a dwindling audience for classical music isn't such a bad thing if we can just select who specifically gets dwindled in the transaction.

    Since then OWA proprietor Brian has attended the 3-night version of the LA Philharmonic Tristan Project, his reactions moving from awestruck speechlessness through quoting a prototypically outré Peter Sellars program note before subsiding in a more voluble but no less awestruck final assessment
  • I have the full-opera version of the Project on my own agenda for next Tuesday, and will no doubt post reactions here as part of my recovery regimen.  Meantime, I've been doing my homework by reading up on Tristan in Ernest Newman's classic text on The Wagner Operas.  It surprises me that this is the first time I have actually read that book, as my parents have had a copy on their bookshelf for literally as long as I can remember.

NPR's All Things Considered did a story on The Tristan Project last week.  I did not hear it, but the online version of the piece includes teensy-tiny streamable excerpts from Bill Viola's accompanying videos.

  • is a freshly launched project of "freelance writer and arch-dilettante Christian M. Chensvold," who is also a participant in, a site devoted to precisely that. 

In the brief existence of, the high point is unquestionably the long, salty interview with music critic Alan Rich, formerly of both Time and Newsweek (when High Art was still in their portfolio) --

AR: I was the last classical writer for Newsweek.  In 1987 I was in Houston covering the world premiere of John Adams’ 'Nixon in China.'  I filed my story, and got a phone call an hour later: They were killing it for a Bruce Springsteen feature.

-- and now of the LA Weekly.  Mr. Rich is at least as put out as I am over the excessive quantities of Puccini being programmed by LA Opera.

I still insist students read 'Cat's Cradle' if they want to find out how to shape a story that is in effect over when it starts -- how to arrange the elements of a story that even its narrator knows the ending of. . . .   It was in a Vonnegut book that I first read that great humanist/atheist/ dunnoist paradox I live by:  The universe is a safe with a combination lock, and the combination of the lock is locked inside the safe.

  • For your more folksy freaksy listening pleasure, via the POPTONES MP3 BLOG, the opening track from Relatively Clean Rivers, described by the Record Geek weblog as

    A very California record, this is full of lots of wide open spaces, jangly acoustic-guitar folk-rock tapestries, twangy, reverbed, Garcia-like electric leads, reedy vocal harmonies, and extended songs that achieve a stoned, dreamy feel....  I've read that only 500 copies were originally made and [leader Phil] Pearlman 'distributed' many of those just by discreetly depositing them around college campuses and record stores unannounced.

    A loose-limbed sublimity prevails:

From the same source, for those who prefer the ridiculous to the sublime, might I recommend erstwhile gentleman's gentleman and Winnie-the-Pooh narrator Sebastian Cabot's recitation of "Like a Rolling Stone"?  How did that feel, Mr. Zimmerman?

Whatever your tastes, enjoy your week's end.

Imus in Wonder Land

It's all the penguins' fault.  The whole Don Imus business was not a subject that was ever going to show up on this weblog but for my having had the mixed fortune this past Saturday night of watching George Miller's Happy Feet

As anyone knows who has seen that film, or its trailers, one of the central scenes is built around Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" (from his 1976 double album Songs in the Key of Life), and "I Wish" includes, in the second line of its first verse, one half of the epithet that resulted in such trouble for Don Imus.  Stevie Wonder's use of the term is, unlike that of Don Imus, clearly free of negative connotation; if anything, Wonder wraps it in warm waves of nostalgia.

The conjunction of current events, dancing penguins, and one of those tunes that you just can't get out of your head [MIDI link] has left me no choice: I simply had to take a run at crafting new, topical lyrics for Wonder's classic. 

Unlike some of my earlier forays in to topical light verse in which I have expressed my own opinions, this is a character piece: it is the imagined plaint of the fallen celebrity himself -- only funkier.  With apologies to the great and beloved Stevie, sing it if you know it:

I Mus’

Lookin’ back on when I
called those ladies “nappy-headed ho’s”
Causin’ such a rash o’
trouble to come knockin’ at my do’
I said "I was jokin’,
I didn’t mean a thing"
Never once suspectin’
the headaches it would bring

Howls for retribution
loudest from some former guests o’ mine
Critics all come pushin’
seein’ who can be the first in line
I said I was sorry,
tried to apologize
But that didn’t stop 'em
from whoopin’ my behind


I mus’ be fired
Taken ‘way my show,
I wish my show
Come back once more.
I mus’ be fired
Taken ‘way my show,
I wish my job
Come back once more
    Oh, I miss it so
    [d’doo, d’doo, d’doo-d’doo-d’doot-doot-doo…]

If I'd just been thinkin'
I'd have known enough to shush my mouth
[you nasty boy!]
Now I'm off the airwaves

in the north and east and west and south
It's so low and stupid
I see I was a fool
But when I was sayin' it
it made me feel so cool,


I mus’ be dim

Dumb don'cha know,
To say such things
Cost myself my show.
I mus’ be fired
Taken ‘way my show,
I wish my job
Come back once more...

Fade out.

P.S., Happy Feet?  A strangely and deeply unsatisfying film.  The more I think about it, the less I like it.  Even its many technical high points decline upon reflection.  And I say that as an admirer of George Miller, a big fan of Road Warrior, and one who thinks that the late Gene Siskel's finest hour may have been when he declared Babe: Pig in the City the best film of 1998.  These penguins' Academy Award serves to prove once again that you should never trust the judgment of show people.

Vonnegut Turn Deserves Another

In 1969, 60 cents would buy you a paperback edition of a book that Graham Greene declared, presumably when it was first published in 1963, to be "one of the three best novels of the year by one of the most able living authors."  The publisher's description on the back cover promised:

[The author], one of the most daring and irreverent of the new breed of writers called 'The Black Humorists,' has here concocted a delicious and irresistible fantasy about the end of the world -- replete with atomic scientists, ugly Americans, gorgeous Sex Queens, undertakers, God, Caribbean dictators, stenographers and a brand new method of making love.

One day in 1969, in the book section of a J. L. Hudson store in the suburbs of Detroit, one 13-year old boy was sufficiently intrigued -- although he had never before heard of the author and, I am reasonably certain, knew nothing as yet of Graham Greene or of co-blurber Terry Southern or of a book called Catch-22 to which this one was favorably compared -- that he bought it and read it and liked it a lot.  And the boy grew up and started a weblog, but he kept that book with him through the years, and here it is:


I admit it, I haven't read a new Vonnegut novel since the very disappointing Slapstick in 1976, but after picking up Cat's Cradle I as hooked.  Over the next two years, I tracked down whatever else of Vonnegut I could find, working backward to Player Piano and Sirens of Titan and Mr. Rosewater and Mother Night and the stories in Welcome to the Monkey House, and concluding with the then-new Dell paperback edition of Slaughterhouse-Five.  I was glued to my set in 1972 when NET [for you young people, that's the predecessor network to PBS] broadcast Between Time and Timbuktu, in which astronaut Stony Stevenson [William Hickey] was dispatched through the chronosynclastic infundibulum and found himself in a kaleidoscopic mashup of situations from previous Vonnegut books, and I snapped up a copy of Vonnegut's script as soon as I could.  (I would be grateful to anyone who brought about the rerelease of that program on DVD, as I recall it with great affection.) 

I still have that script, and my '69-'71 vintage copies of Sirens and Monkey House and Slaughterhouse and, as noted above, Cat's Cradle, and although it has been decades since I read him with any regularity, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., remains a fundamental influence on me.  Moreso than any other writer, he catalyzed my abiding fondness for satire and crystallized a healthy skepticism toward humankind and its follies in general, and toward the powerful and self-important in particular.  Vonnegut's writing was built on clarity and on  keeping each sentence as simple as it could be while still doing its job.  In the battle of clean and spartan prose I'd take Vonnegut over Hemingway any day of the week. 

So allow me please to join the chorus of praise for the late and admirable Kurt Vonnegut.  So long, and thanks for all the foma.


  • Vonnegut's passing may well breed a resurgent interest in Bokononism; prepare, friends, by studying The Books of Bokonon complete.
  • Kurt Vonnegut inspired one of the better "summarize the book songs" I know:

More Vonnegut-inspired music is referenced here and here.  I previously mentioned Vonnegut in connection with the band name of Sweet Billy Pilgrim.

Ursus Pugilisticus
[for Harry in Portland]

I'm stark naked, but I don't care
I'm going off into the woods, I'm huntin' bare

    -- Bob Dylan, "Honest With Me" [Love & Theft, 2001]


This is several years old, but reliably amusing and a favorite of a Friend to the North:

As I first discovered while preparing this post, there is a sequel.  Not quite so amusing, naturally, given that the element of surprise has been spoiled:

No ehgles were harmed in making these films.

This Year's Squirrel
(and a Tudor-Era Woman of Mystery)


Our now-traditional Easter Squirrel for 2007 is Han Holbein the Younger's portrait, ca. 1527, of A Squirrel with a Starling and Lady A Lady with a Squirrel and Starling.  As in 2006, the featured work depicts a Squirrel Enchained, although this one seems a bit more contented with his lot than last year's sad wee beastie.

This painting usually hangs in London's National Gallery, but I first stumbled upon it online earlier this year when it was on loan for the big Holbein show at Tate Britain.  (The Tate has been dropping its "H"es lately, having moved straight on from Holbein to Hogarth, with Hockney forthcoming.)

Unlike most Holbein portraits, the human subject of this one is not named, and there has been a good deal of perplexity over the years as to who this squirrelophilic woman might be.   A plausible theory was finally offered in 2004, when

a research associate at the University of East Anglia - David J. King - saw a photograph of the portrait in a catalogue to which he was contributing. 

He recognised the squirrel as the emblem of the Lovell family who lived in East Harling in Norfolk and was able to refer back to other uses of squirrels in the stained glass windows and the tombs in their parish church of St Peter and St Paul.  From there, a likely connection was suggested to Anne Lovell, the wife of the owner of the nearby Lovell estates.  At the time, the name of the bird and the town of East Harling had a similar pronunciation further implying that the starling was a clever visual pun.

The National Gallery assumes that Mrs. Lovell, if that is who she is, did not sit for her portrait with either the squirrel or the starling present.  Following the established artistic practice of his day, Holbein painted the two animals separately before Photoshopping them in to the final composition.

Happy Easter!


  • Researcher David King's own account of his curatorial sleuthing leading to the identity of the sitter is available here.
  • The Squirrel portrait first came to the National Gallery in 1992, and turns out to have been purchased in part with funds donated by J. Paul Getty.  As I discovered during last Sunday's visit, Mr. Getty's own establishment is currently playing host to another fine Holbein, the 1543 Portrait of Robert Cheseman and his falcon.  That portrait usually hangs in the MauritsHuis in The Hague, where it keeps very impressive company -- Girl with a Pearl Earring, anyone? -- among the top 10 works in the collection.  It comes to the Getty direct from its own prior loan to the Tate exhibition. 

The portrait of Mr. Cheseman contains no squirrels.  It is to be hoped that his falcon didn't, either.

Everything New Isolde Again


Attending LA Opera's Tannhäuser last month, I discovered that this month the Los Angeles Philharmonic will be revisiting The Tristan Project, the collaboration between the Philharmonic, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, director Peter Sellars, and video artist Bill Viola built around Wagner's Tristan und Isolde

The Project first launched here in 2004.  At the time, it consisted of three concerts, each comprising a performance of one of Tristan's three acts preceded by a 20th Century work influenced by Wagner.  The Tristan acts were accompanied by large screen high-definition video created by Viola.  Since 2004, the Project has traveled to Paris, where it was received rapturously by the New Yorker's Alex Ross, among others.  Now it returns to Los Angeles, with performances scheduled to begin next week.

Tristan_photo_2 Acts 1, 2 and 3 will be performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on April 12, 13 and 14, respectively, each preceded by a work of Debussy.  On April 18, Los Angeles receives what Paris has already had: a performance of the complete work; a second complete performance is scheduled on April 24 -- I have splurged on a ticket for that one -- before the Philharmonic heads out to Manhattan for a pair of complete performances at Lincoln Center in early May.

As described by Alex Ross above and by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp at artnet, the drama is not "staged" as such: the singers sing, but do little in the way of acting.  Los Angeles will get a fully staged version at the start of 2008, when LA Opera finally revives its much acclaimed 1987 production of Tristan, with designs by David Hockney.

In The Tristan Project, Bill Viola's video accompanies nearly the full length of the work, but does not attempt to depict the action in a literal sense.  It serves more as meditation, commentary or palimpsest on Wagner's themes.  In a New York Times interview in conjunction with the Paris premiere, Viola indicated that he first found the score so overwhelming that he could not devise any images to accompany it; instead, he turned his attention to the text, returning to the score only as a final stage when the resulting visuals were edited into appropriate conjunction with the music.

I will have a report of my own impressions later in the month.  Interested readers can obtain more information on the Philharmonic's website, here.


Why I Will Never Again Speak Ill of Harvard

One never knows what will turn up in the referrer logs, and this afternoon delivers a real treat.

Professor Harry S. [Terry] Martin III, who teaches the Art Law Seminar at, ahem, the Harvard Law School, maintains a list of Art/Law links and has graciously included this weblog among them.  (It is an interesting list for anyone interested in the interaction of art and law.  There are a number of sites linked that I have not previously encountered, and at which I will certainly be taking a look in short order.)

The link is certainly welcome, but I must confess that Professor Martin has given this Fool rather more credit than is strictly deserved.  Share my blushes at his description (emphasis added):

A fool in the forest - Influential blog among lawyers and cultural enthusiasts emphasizing art and culture with occasional law notes


Of course, the professor doesn't specify that I'm a good influence . . . .