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October 2011
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December 2011

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?


Dead Bride Story
[Roméo et Juliette, Los Angeles Opera]

John Adams was not the first to compose an opera based on news reports and current events. Charles Gounod, to take an earlier example, is generally believed to have drawn inspiration for his Roméo et Juliette from an article he read in a discarded copy of La Cronaca di Verona newspaper that the wind blew beneath his café table on a Parisian spring afternoon in 1865. Here is a translated excerpt:

Teen Tomb Twosome Spark Calls for Reform

Demands for action are growing as activists, experts and ordinary citizens cite ready access to poisons and daggers as a major contributor to last night's double suicide of Juliet Capulet-Montague, 16, and Romeo Montague, 16, in the family mausoleum of the Capulets.

"Poisons and daggers are not toys," says Professore Fabrizzio Sforza del Destino, spokesperson for the Citizens League for the Public Safety of the Public. "There can only be trouble when at-risk youth can find poisons and daggers discarded and laying about on any given piece of furniture around the house. Parents need to consider the messages they are sending, and to clean up after themselves more regularly."

The Professore called again for the immediate adoption of emergency regulatory and registration provisions that have been proposed by the League repeatedly over the past four years. The draft legislation includes a new provision—"Juliet's Law"—imposing fines or imprisonment for failure to report the presence of either poisons or daggers within 100 feet of an unaccompanied minor.

Authorities continue to seek answers to the many questions raised by this latest tragedy. Investigators indicate that Ms. Capulet and Mr. Montague had recently met at a so-called "ball," in an upper echelon neighborhood of the city. Having nothing better to do on a Saturday night, and finding poisons and daggers readily to hand, the couple embarked on a whirlwind 24 hours of spumante-fueled cuddling, traditional marriage, random violence, and eventual death. The Coroner's preliminary report indicates the presence of poisons and daggers at the death scene. 

In a potentially related development, Church officials have acknowledged that popular local youth counselor Friar Lawrence has been placed on paid administrative leave. The Capulet-Montague tragedy is the third such incident in the past six months. All of the dead teens are believed have frequented Friar Lawrence's popular "Second Story" mentoring program.

Sources close to the investigation have suggested that Lawrence is a person of interest in connection with a suspected dagger and poisons distribution ring. The Church has declined comment on those suggestions, citing the existence of an "ongoing investigation."


RJb2029-1 tomb
Roméo et Juliette (1867) is just the sort of opera that I generally shun. It may be sung in French, but for all intents and purposes it is an old-fashioned Italian bel canto piece, blithely ignoring the musical and dramatic advances that had already been achieved by the like of Wagner and Verdi. Its plot is no more than an excuse for a bit of spectacle and a series of showy arias, all surface and sentiment. (West Side Story, which good as it is is still just a Broadway musical, is a vastly more sophisticated take on this material than Gounod cared to attempt.) The characters are paper thin, no more than names and stock types. The music is there to be pretty and to push the expected emotional buttons. It is the operatic stuff that actually sells tickets, rather than the stuff of depth, thought and drama. And much though it chafes at my pretentious core to say it, at what it tries to do it largely succeeds. 

Los Angeles Opera is currently reviving its 2005 production, directed by Ian Judge. That premiere run featured Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon as the lovers, and they were received as a hubba-hubba sensation. Here, Vittorio Grigolo and Nino Machaidze assume the title roles.

RJb3114-1 snuggling

Ms. Machaidze is lovely to look at, possessed of abundant charm, and sings Juliet's high-flying arias as well as one could ask, but she has an innate quality of sultry sophistication that is almost too adult for the part. The quality that is an obstacle here was used to far greater advantage in last season's Turk in Italy, in which she was an entire delight.

Vittorio Grigolo, on the other hand, has no difficulty whatever with the unbound adolescent swagger of Romeo. This is his show, in the end. He, too, has every vocal skill the part requires in abundance, his tenor enveloping some real power in a tone smooth as butter. For those to whom such things are important, he gets his shirt off on several occasions and looks great doing it, which is to say that he looks like the Teen Adonis that Romeo should ought to be. He is a big, dangerous puppy of a Romeo, meaning well but unable to contain his more irresponsible urges.

RJb4242-1 - knife fight
Director Judge keeps the story moving briskly. He has probably directed more productions at Los Angeles Opera than anyone else over the past two decades, and one of his hallmarks is to keep things as interesting around the edges as in the foreground. Something is always going on, or some telling detail or attractive aesthetic touch is being rolled out. The fight sequences have real speed and snap, and a sense of actual danger unusual in an opera house. Judge's fondness for gratuitous nudity is not, in this case, on display.

The production is immeasurably helped by John Gunter's set design. The action is set in Gounod's era, rather than the Renaissance, and the city of Verona has been recreated as in effect a giant 3-dimensional blueprint: lines, uprights, arches, towers, innumerable staircases, but no walls. The pieces are immense, but easily moved into new configurations, speeding the transition from scene to scene. It is even nicer to look at than the principals, which is saying something.

There is strength in the supporting cast as well. I don't often single out the Chorus at LA Opera, because I tend to take for granted that they will be reliable when called on. (Also, my little sister is a long time chorus member.) I do not recall when they have sounded better than they do in this production: rich, supple, with admirable clarity over the full range of volumes.

Standout individual supporting players include Museop Kim as Mercutio, particularly in the paean to Queen Mab; Vitalij Kowaljow, formerly LA Opera's Wotan, as Friar Lawrence (from Freyer to friar!); and Vladimir Chernov as old Capulet, a spritely fellow who would really prefer to forget family rivalries for the sake of a good party.

Three performances remain through November 26.

Rjb2018 - ball 

Photos by Robert Millard, used by kind permission of Los Angeles Opera.


Swans Down
[Gregory Spears - Requiem]


The elves of Rivendell and Lórien had no need of a Requiem mass. This circumstance arose in part because they were well-nigh immortal and in part because they were, well, elves. But if the need had arisen, their Requiem would likely have sounded very like Gregory Spears' Requiem.

No, no, no. That is a silly conceit. Let it go, and begin again—


Ezra Pound's famous edict to the artists of modernity was "Make It New." His own approach to that edict was to dig in to vastly old work, such as that of the medieval Provençal troveurs, and to bring it to light in a way that might speak to a contemporary head and heart.

Gregory Spears' Requiem, releasing next week on New Amsterdam, Makes It New. 

Spears takes old, old elements—stories of bird-girls, the woody sound of the recorder, the sharp ping of the unpedaled Celtic/troubador harp, the Latin Requiem Mass—and by dint of focus and attention, brings them to speak to us and compels us to listen to them. It is a riveting, unexpected and unearthly piece that creeps under the skin and occupies the inner space where mystery dwells. It lingers well beyond its relatively brief 36 minute length. At its end, one is certain of having been somewhere, but the returning traveler would be hard pressed to explain the place to those who haven't gone themselves. 

Requiem was not composed for any religious occasion, but to accompany a dance performance: a piece entitled "Hen's Teeth" created by choreographer Christopher Williams and premiered by Dance New Amsterdam in 2010. "Hen's Teeth" in its turn was based in part upon an old Breton tale, "Pipi Menou and the Flying Women."

In the tale, the shepherd Pipi Menou discovers three swans that, when they alight, become beautiful young women. He tricks them, first, into taking him to the stronghold of their father, a magician, then persuades them to smuggle him into the house in a basket, in which he lies hidden during the day. The basket is conveniently located next to the room of the youngest and most appealing daughter, whose favors Pipi enjoys by night. When the jealous older sisters threaten to reveal all, Pipi and his beloved supply themselves with jewels and escape, Pipi clinging to her back as, reswanned, she flies away. In some versions, the swan-damsel converts to Christianity and they live happily ever after; in some, their children are eventually stolen back from them by the vengeful forces of magic.

Not, we can agree, the conventional material of a Requiem.

The seven sections of Spears' Requiem interweave segments from the traditional Requiem mass with excerpts from a Breton telling of the Pipi Menou tale as collected in the 19th century. We are in a realm where magic and faith shade into one another, as further exemplified in Spears' third textual source: a neatly ambiguous 16th century poem—is the love of which it sings carnal, spiritual or both?—by Jean-Antoine de Baif whose speaker compares her(?) self to a "swan of purity," singing most beautifully as it languishes and dies.

And the music? Six singers—two sopranos, three tenors, a bass—are accompanied by a spartan ensemble of recorder, two harps (one ancient, one modern), electric organ, and viola, though long stretches are a capella. Several centuries' worth of harmonic practice are on display; the leaps from one to another have a remarkable organic quality. Requiem feels balanced and suspended within itself in much the same way as Feldman's "Rothko Chapel," but with somewhat more melody and incident joined to the rigor and austerity of its meditations. 

Beautifully recorded in the reverberant space of New York's Corpus Christi Church, Requiem is attuned to some deep, immersive sense of time and spaciousness that transports the listener well beyond the ordinary. Utterly unexpected and highly recommended by this Fool.


Value-Added Content: A Flickr set of performance photos from "Hen's Teeth"—caution, some of those birds are topless—can be found here.

I recommend acquiring Requiem the old-fashioned way, as a physical CD. Not only will that provide you with access to the texts, its packaging will allow you to admire the reliably elegant design and typography skills of DM Stith.

Requiem can be streamed in its entirety via the player below. The eerily gorgeous final section, "Postlude," is available as a free download here.


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. In this case, 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?