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Those Carefree Days That Fly

2441 Haste ave atque vale

Twitter handed me a shock yesterday afternoon, and from an unexpected source. The Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive [@BAMPFA] posted this item:

BAMPFA fire tweet

"Haste/Telegraph" rang a bell, so I launched a quick search and turned up this story from the Daily Californian:

As of 2:45 p.m. Saturday, the fire was still technically burning, according to Gil Dong, deputy fire chief for the Berkeley Fire Department. Dong said this is the largest fire — which has now gutted the building and burned for nearly 17 hours — he can remember in the Berkeley area since the East Bay Hills fire in 1991. Dong and city spokesperson Mary-Kay Clunies-Ross both said the building is structurally unsound and could collapse. Clunies-Ross said the intersection at Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street will be closed for at least a week.


Flames engulfed a building at the corner of Telegraph and Haste — which is home to Cafe Intermezzo, Raleigh’s Bar and Grill and Thai Noodle II on the ground level — late Friday evening and early Saturday morning during a fire that took firefighters more than six hours to contain. The roof of the building has collapsed and firefighters will stay on the scene all weekend to knock out any hot spots that may occur, according to Dong.


The fire broke out at the apartment building at 2441 Haste St. just before 9 p.m. Friday....

Also, a gallery of photos of the blaze, and this video:

I dwell on this for only one reason. During my senior year at the University of California (1977-78), that apartment building—the Sequoia Apartments, to give it its proper name, built circa 1935—was Home.

The photo at the top of this post, slightly processed and filtered for an added air of nostalgia, is of the front door of the building. I took it about seven weeks ago, on October 1, on a visit to Berkeley with my still-best pal from those college days, Rick Coencas. It was only the second time that I have been back since I graduated in 1978. To circle back to the Twitter item that began this, we were in Berkeley to see the Kurt Schwitters exhibition then running at the Berkeley Art Museum. Rick took this photo of me, standing in that doorway, squinting a bit into the overcast glare of an East Bay autumn morning:

Moments before that picture was taken, a then-current resident of the building arrived and entered. We spoke with him briefly as I stepped out of his way. He noticed we were about to take a photo and I identified myself as a former tenant of the place. He marveled that the building had been an apartment as far back as the late '70s and that such aged beings as we could exist, and we parted. I do not know his name or anything else about him, other than that he has surely lost his own place there, and perhaps has lost whatever amounted to everything he owned.

I have lost only the physical site of memories and snippets of the past by this fire, hardly comparable to the losses of the most recent occupants of the Sequoia, but the destruction of that building has been lingering with me overnight far more persistently than I would have expected. Why, I wonder, should I be so affected by the destruction of a place that I lived in for fewer than nine months, and that more than three decades ago? 

I think that the answer lies largely in this fact: That apartment at 2441 Haste is essentially the only place that I have ever lived alone.

I lived at home until I went off to college. My first two college years were spent in the Cal dormitories, the third in an apartment shared with three fellows I had met in the dorms. Within days of graduation, I had entered into my first marriage, and I have shared a home with my current beloved/spouse (and our sons) for the last 25 years. For those final terms at Berkeley, I was truly on my own in a sense that I have never been before or since, living in an upper floor studio apartment that featured an actual Murphy bed on a pivoting section of wall that also served as a closet door. 


Paradise. Lost.

This is a "personal" blog, not a "confessional" one. It would be boring, and occasionally creepy I suspect, if I recounted the intimate details of my life in that apartment. There is nothing particularly scandalous or unusual to report, as these things go, but it was a concentrated course in what conventionally falls under the rubric of Growing Up. Looking back under the influence of this past weekend's fire, it seems to me that I did a good deal more Growing Up while living on Haste Street than I had ever done before, and more than I have done in the much longer period from then to now. I may have gained all manner of experience and technical knowledge and such in later years, but I often feel that my emotional maturity advanced mightily in those nine months and has rather plateaued ever since.

I am not generally one to swan about, mooning over the past, but the sudden loss of that place has sent me off in that direction in a way that revisiting the place itself, while it was still standing, never did or could. What once was home is now a sort of fiery madeleine, carrying me back unto the irretrievable days of yore.

You really do not, it seems, know what you have got until it is gone.

In that studio apartment, there was a former walk-in closet, with a window and desk built in, that served me as principal workspace. Much of my best work was done in that little room, in the hours between midnight and five in the morning on the day an assignment was due. Poetry of dubious quality was written in there, impetuous youthful schemes were hatched, delusions of grandeur were entertained, and occasional [sic] glasses [sic] of wine or sherry were drunk. Among the clippings and such taped to the wall was a William Hamilton New Yorker cartoon of two earnest and preppy young people, obviously English majors akin to myself, with one saying to the other: "I can never remember whether Robinson Crusoe is seminal or pivotal." 

As Thanksgiving (US) approaches, some portion of my thoughts will be with those who lost much last Saturday night, but another portion will linger over what seems more than ever to have been, whether seminal or pivotal, a central and critical period in my life. I am plentifully grateful for my current lot, but a part of me will always miss those bright college days and that very particular, now extinguished place. Hail, and farewell.

To close, a good if only tangentially relevant song: "What we lost in the fire we gained in the flood," whatever that may mean. 

The Mynabirds - What We Gained In The Fire


Ignorant Armies Go Bump in the Night
[Bresnick: Caprichos Enfaticos]

Caprichos enfaticos

All right, then: time for a snap quiz. Ready?

Name a piece of "classical" music explicitly inspired by the visual arts that is not either Pictures at an Exhibition or Rothko Chapel.

Yes? Mathis der Maler? Cheeky: get out.

Right: there are surprisingly few of them. Really surprisingly few. As in: so many fewer than one would expect, that it is surprising. I am surprised, even if you are not. 

However short the list of VizArt-inspired music may be, it has now grown, impressively, by one.

Martin Bresnick's Caprichos Enfaticos—recently released through Bang on a Can's Cantaloupe label in a recording with pianist Lisa Moore and percussion quartet Sō Percussion—is a direct musical offshoot of Goya's Disasters of War (Los desastres de la guerra), the suite of 80 etchings derived from the experience of the Napoleonic wars in Spain. Shot through with horror and despair, for Spain and for humankind generally, individual segments of the Disasters can also surprise with their mordant humor or Goya's penchant for supernatural grotesquery. Simultaneously bleak and bumptious, Caprichos Enfaticos is a fitting descendant of those harrowing, brilliant pictures.

The composer describes his Caprichos as a piano concerto, with the role of the orchestra played by the dizzying battery of percussion, tuned and otherwise, at the command of Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, and Jason Treuting. In eight movements and running just a shade over thirty brisk minutes, the structure of the piece derives from references to specific etchings from Los desastres and to phrases or ideas used by Goya, and from the farándula, or farandole, "a chain dance [says Bresnick's program note] popular in Provence, . . . often in 6/8 time, with a moderate to fast tempo. In modern Spanish, a farándula is a company of actors." There is an antic air of the commedia dell'arte around this piece, though it may more appropriately be thought of as commedia della morte.

It all begins innocently enough, almost childishly, with a "Farándula simple" played on marimba, xylophone and the like. Simple it may be, but it soon lurches with increasing urgency toward the macabre. The piano enters in the second movement, "Farándula de charlatanes –  No saben el camino (Farandole of charlatans – They don’t know the way)", strutting its self-importance as the percussion continues to caper skeletally about. The military arrives in "Estragos de la guerra (Ravages of war)", as the piano's attempts to play a sombre Satiesque theme are repeatedly crushed beneath the martial discipline of large drums.

Next on the scene: the worthless politicians, boisterously hopping and chattering, pointlessly pointing every which way in their "Farándula de políticos – Contra el bien general (Farandole of politicians – Against the common good)." The large drums return for "Farándula de populacho (Farandole of the rabble)," sounding now less like well-drilled marchers and more like cascades of cannon fire. Appropriately, given how little the surrounding forces are concerned for them, the general population's movement is the shortest in the piece. 

Goya - strange devotion
Goya's most eery qualities come to the fore in the final three movements. "¡Extraña Devoción! (Strange devotion!)" (illustrated above) is fitted out with the trappings of 19th century Gothic romance: muttering voices, bells, the clanking of chains down seemingly empty corridors, the piano wandering lost in the sepulchral haze. The approach to the tomb seems complete with the "Farándula de creyentes – Nada. Ello dirá (Farandole of believers – Nothing. It will say)," the pictorial namesake of which adorns the CD jacket: the listener is left in a cavernous dark, water dripping from the ceiling, a harmonium musing mournfully. When it seems there can be no further descent, and with a suddenness reminiscent of the last-moment rescue in Poe's "Pit and the Pendulum," the concluding "Farándula doble (Farandole double)" bursts in, as the entire ensemble reprises the skewed dance tune with which the piece began, its false bonhomie recognizable now as a sort of Iberian totentanz.

From hopelessness and misery, Goya was able to derive great and frightful art. From Goya, Martin Bresnick has derived a pocket concerto that honors its source while resonating in our own more mechanized but no less brutalized age. 

Bresnick: Caprichos Enfaticos - Estraga de la guerra (Ravages of war) by So Percussion


Disclosure: Generally, when I write about music, I have paid my own way, i.e., bought the tickets or the CD or the download, or whatever. This is a case in which, I received an advance review copy. The provenance of the CD had no bearing on my opinions of it. This being my personal blog, if I didn't actually hold the views of the piece that I have expressed above, I wouldn't have bothered to write or to post them. Fair enough, FTC?