Reader Poll: Electronic Debussy versus Original–Syrinx, Sunken Cathedral, & Snowflakes are Dancing

See poll at bottom to vote.

Today I’d like to present three pieces by Debussy that I heard for the first time after moving into the French House, at Indiana University, in 1975. The inhabitants of the French house included several language majors, a number of musicians, some journalism students, and a number of other interesting characters of various ethnic, sexual, national and racial groups. Our two story dorm shared a common area with the Spanish House, who for the most part seemed more interested in Latin culture than, us francophiles. However, I enjoyed the mix of people, being exposed for the first time in my life to such diversity. This is where I learned the value not just of simple demographic mix, but rather the value of including different perspectives, ideas, experiences into the dialogue of human interaction. It made for a rich environment.

Music in the 1970 ranged all over the place from the psychedelia of the Grateful Dead, the Disco of Donna Summers, the satiric almost Weil and Brecht-like political and social satire of Frank Zappa to the burgeoning nihilism of Punk Rock. There was also a lot of cross pollination and breaking down of genre-barriers. Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin and Weather Report were fusing Jazz and Rock and Funk and World Music. Rock bands like Kansas and Yes were considered classically inspired since they used violins and had classically trained musicians (Rick Wakemen, for example.) With the advent of cheaper and cheaper synthesizers, even Classical Music was pushing the envelope with artists like Tomita doing covers of Debussy. Tomita, a Japanese went almost even further than Walter/Wendy Carlos (of Switched on Bach), not only doing note for note covers of Debussy, but also creating soundscapes with these new instruments.

Tomita came out with an album entitled, Snowflakes are Dancing, in 1974 that contained Sunken Cathedral, Claire de Lune and Dancing Snowflakes. I wanted to do a side by side comparison of the original version with Tomita’s version and ask you which you preferred.

For some reason I had it in my mind that Tomita also did a cover of the piece for flute entitled Syrinx, but I cannot find it online.

After listening to the original and the Tomita Cover of these pieces, please answer a poll question on which you prefer. Thanks.

Sunken Cathedral (original)

Sunken Cathedral (Tomita)

Snowflakes are Dancing (original)

Snowflakes are Dancing (Tomita)

Here’s the original Syrinx. If someone can find an electronic version of it, please let me know.

Syrinx

Heres’s the poll:

Johann Sebastian Bach: Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring (Naturally Bach)

Bach’s birthday is March 31.  He’ll be 331 years old.  In his honor, here’s a striking video I saw last year on a blog.  It’s quite pleasing.  Below it are a number of other arrangements.  Tell me which you prefer. Poll at bottom of this post.

Jesu is actually the last movement of Bach’s Cantata BWV 147–Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life). Written in his first year in Leipzig for the Mass that celebrates the Visitation of Mary by the angel announcing she’d be giving birth to the Messiah.

The German title for this piece is Jesus bleibet meine Freude which means “Jesus shall remain my gladness.” The more accepted English title comes from a piano transcription by Dame Myra Hess:

Piano

Here is a version for orchestra and chorus, which you might find a bit bombastic:

Orchestra with Chorus (Auf Deutsch)

I kind of like this version, which is simpler, using just four instruments:

String Quartet

Probably the nicest is the original scoring for 4 soloists, a 4 part chorus, and according to Wikipedia, “a festive trumpet, two oboes (oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia), two violins, viola and basso continuo including bassoon.”

So which do you prefer?


An interesting chronology of Bach’s life can be found here.

Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto in E Major, Op. 8, Number 1 (Spring)

Happy Spring! Spring is my favorite season. Here, in DC where I live, it’s a bit slow in coming.  The cherry blossoms around the tidal basin and along the Potomac River haven’t yet opened.  So for the next few posts, I’ll be writing about pieces with a Spring theme.  I’m going to start with the eponymous concerto from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.


So what can you say about one of the most overplayed pieces of classical music of all times? Sure, it’s uplifting; sure it has a catchy tune; sure it captures wonder and joy of natures reinvention of itself in March. Oddly enough, I didn’t buy a copy of it until my mid 30s, and that was a used vinyl LP at a church sale. You don’t really need your own. Just wait until the 20th of March and tune to your local classical radio station and you will hear it. It’s kind of like that copy of “Dark Side of The Moon” in your basement. Eventually the geriatric “Classic Rock station will give it a spin.

Written in 1725, when Vivaldi was 47, it represents the work of a “man in full.” Vivaldi wrote the music for a group of four sonnets. These concertos are interesting because they expand the role of the solo instrument, in this case the violin. The first movement of Spring starts out with a joyous burst of energy, which has passed into the collective conscious now, probably through its over use in TV commercials. The second movement is a Largo, which I find curiously sad for a work about Spring. Maybe he’s trying to convey the changeability of the weather. Maybe at 47, Vivaldi is ruing his own lost youth. Maybe he trying to capture the mystery of the flowers pushing up through the earth and the green that gradually starts to erase the grey. The last movement sounds very mature as the season stabilizes and takes us into Summer.

To every thing, there is a season, and to Spring belongs the blush of youth on a young girl’s cheek, the happy gamboling of the newborn lamb in verdant meadow, and the quivering voices of pseudo-intellectual, adolescent boys writing love poems to the prom queen. In high school, I felt torn apart. Under the tutelage of the M**** family–which had three pretty daughters, by the way–I strove to turn myself into an intellectual. I disdained rock music; I read Dostoyevsky; I studied books on Picasso, Chagall, and Miro; I fell in love with and botched my dates with a number of girls. At the same time, I felt like I was on the rack, plagued by physical desire. For example, I did not bemoan the wasted life of one of the schools prettier girls, when a swim team mate got her pregnant. Instead, I envied him and rued not having been the father.

Now that I have two daughters of my own, I lament that our society has strayed so far from any logical (and responsible) way of raising its young. “Primitive” cultures don’t waste their youth this way. Children grow up at their parents’ side and not only do they apprentice the life skills and trades they need, they also learn how to be adults. “Adolescence” I suspect, rose out the isolation of children from their parents when universal education was adopted. In high schools, youth have more interactions with their peers than with adults. At most they have 50 minutes a day with any one adult, and for the rest of their time they are working out their pecking order and values from interactions with their peers. It seems like we as a culture have thrown our hands up and said Malthus was right, we give up. I’m not advocating a return to family values, but I do think it’s important for children to have longer, more healthy interactions with adults (uncles, aunts, civic leaders), during adolescence. If not, they will continue to spin their wheels unproductively (and sometimes fatally) when “adult-hood” is thrust upon them upon graduation.

Maybe there is a lesson in Vivaldi’s life. He was trained for the priesthood, but instead took a job as violin master at the Pio Ospedale della Pieta in Venice. This was a home for sick and orphaned children. Imagine what a role model he was. He organized a lot of concerts of his own music which brought in money for the work of the hospital. He was staggeringly prolific: wrote hundreds of concertos for the violin alone, 49 operas, and countless other works. Oddly though, after his death he faded into obscurity but was rediscovered in the early 1900s. I think I heard recently that the corpus of his work hasn’t been completely catalogued.

Here is the poem to Spring for which he wrote this piece:

Spring
Spring has arrived, and joyously the birds
now welcome her return with festive song,
and streamlets, by soft airs caressed, are heard
to murmur sweetly as they course along.
Casting their inky mantle over heaven,
thunderstorms, her chosen heralds, roar;
when they have died away to silence, then
the birds take up their charming songs once more.
And now, upon the flower-strewn grass subsiding,
with leafy branches rustling overhead,
the goatherd sleeps, his faithful dog beside him.
By festive sound of rustic bagpipes led,
nymphs and shepherds dance beneath the shining
canopy of spring with sprightly tread

Download MP3 or Buy CD of Vivaldi: The Four Seasons

Pachelbel: Canon in D

In my last entry, Paris and its medieval quarter, the Marais, took the stage. In 1977, the point at which I’ve arrived in my autobiography, the Marais was just emerging from a slumber, that whole area above the Hotel de Ville, getting a shot in the arm with the opening of “Beaubourg.” “Le Centre George Pompidou” its formal name, this huge gallery, library and cultural center looked like a huge, brightly colored petroleum refinery that had fallen from the sky. Its exteriorized ducts, beams, glass-encased escalators are color-coded to reflect their function: blue for air, green for fluids, red for communication, and yellow for electricity.

The “Centre’s” Lego-like mein clashes frightfully with the high gothic church, St-Merri, that stands opposite the south end, across the Place Igor Stravinski. Begun in the 9th Century, and remodeled over the years, the church’s interior now is a showcase of the German Baroque, which was all the rage in the 17th Century, around the heydey of today’s composer, Johann Pachelbel. One can imagine the works of this composer, the teacher of Johann Sebastian Bach, performed here by a small ensemble for a royal patron.

Here is how I came to know Pachabel’s most famous piece, “The Canon in D.”

Paris is known as “The City of Lights.” The kleig lights along the Seine that come on at sunset, illuminating the facets of The Louvre, Notre Dame, the Pont Neuf, and the Tour Eiffel, do indeed turn the place into a wondrous shimmering diamond bracelet. When living in Paris, though, visiting places like Beaubourg, the Cinematheque, and the countless other little cinemas around the city, I realized it could also aptly be called, “The City of Movies.”

Hollywood has all but ironed out every wrinkle that might give a film a sense of the unique, experimental, and especially the artistic. Go to your Netflix and try to find a Jean Renoir’s “Grande Illusion.” You’ll quickly discover that for us Yanks, movie are purely escapist “entertainment” that appeal to the visceral and rarely to the intellectual.

But in Paris, people still consider a film a work of art. For that reason, on any given week in Paris, you can see a screening a film from virtually any decade and in any style from most any country.

What’s more you could take your pick of the venue, be it large theatre, a small screening room at the “Cinemathque” located at the Trocadero Palace across the river from the Eiffel Tower, or in one of the countless tiny “cafe cinema” where you could bob out at intermission for an espresso, a vin blanc, or a Dubuffet. Of course by now, Paris probably has the large google-plexes that show all the latest Vin Diesel, Tom Cruise, or Bruce Willis blow-em-up. And I have to admit, in 1977, the larger theatres were playing “Jaws III.” Yet I remember that Herzog’s latest film, “Heart of Glass” a ponderous film critical of the rise of the industrial revolution and the resultant destruction of worker’s intellectual abilities–was heralded and given wide release in the big movies houses as well.

But, at the same time, there were so many little film houses the only way you could keep track of them was to buy the weekly “Pariscope” magazine which listed every film. Being a film buff, I would comb through every issue looking to find some classic film or the latest release by Herzog, Renais, Fassbinder, Bertolucci or Wenders. These were the artists whose work I had come to love at Indiana University, and here in Paris I could watch them to my heart’s content.

Not that I only watched European films. Once I found a small place on the Left Bank that every night for as long as I was in Paris showed “Little Big Man” at seven p.m. And in a tiny little cinema, I watched “Dr. Strangelove.” The only Yank in the crowd, I laughed heartily, the only one understanding the culturally specific humor and the puns embedded in such character names as General Bat Guano. It was heaven.

The semester before I had left for Paris, Herzog’s “Nosferatu” had premiered in the States, and it took my breath away. In Paris, I was able to see a good deal of his earlier works, the most affecting one being “The enigma of Kaspar Hauser.”

The film concerns the story of Kaspar Hauser, a young man who’d been kept chained in a barn by his father, (we suspect) who early one morning mysteriously clothes Kaspar and takes him to the center of the nearby town, where he leaves the feral man standing in a public square.

The town people discover Kaspar and he is taken to the smartest man in town, an 18th century scientist of the enlightenment. This man, fueled by Rousseau’s notion that “all men or born free, it is society that puts them in chains, takes the young man under his wing. It turns out that he runs a little asylum for the mentally ill, but he is a pioneer in that he treats his patients with love and kindness. He teaches Kaspar to talk, read, play and appreciate music.

After a while, the results he has gotten makes Kaspar famous and the rich people of the time come to visit and eventually one gives the doctor a large sum of money saying that he will take care of him. He does, but he also trots Kaspar out at his parties, almost as a kind of dancing bear.

One day, the man who abandoned Kaspar returns and kidnaps him. He takes Kaspar to a field where he bashes him over the head and leaves him for dead. The town’s people find him and take him back to the kindly scientist, where he expires. The film’s subtitle ominously enough was “Every man for himself and God against all.”

The film overflows with ideas and is pregnant with symbolism. One of the most affecting parts for me was the role of the father. He deprives the son of every intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual experience and then shoves him out into the world. When the son’s reputation eclipses his father’s, the father murders the son.

But aside from these weighty themes, the film remains a senusal feast for the eyes and ears as well. The opening scene shows the father, shot from behind and overhead, carrying Kaspar over his shoulder through a chest-high field of wheat. A stiff wind blows the wheat into wild pattern, while on the soundtrack, Pachelbel’s Canon in D provides the perfect accompaniment. It reminded me of a similar scene in Japanase film called “The Bailiff Bansho.” I wonder if Herzog was quoting that earlier film.

Some people might consider this piece hackneyed. It constantly appears in commercial and was even sampled in the 1990s by a girl’s pop/hop group. I must confess that I rarely ever reach for it, yet it doesn’t make me sick hearing it again and again. In fact, it’s like an old friend. And I really can’t complain of its use in a commercial. After all, I started listening to classical music because Warner Brothers created an entire Bug’s Bunny cartoon around “The Overture to the Barber of Seville.” Would you rather they used Marilyn Manson to sell cars?

Marin Marais. Sonnerie De St. Genevieve Du Mont De Paris

I chose today’s piece to celebrate a neighborhood in Paris, called the Marais, where I spent a lot of time during a semester of my senior year abroad in Paris in 1977.   The piece was written by the 18th Century French composer, Marin Marais.  Le Marais is a section of Paris on the Right Bank that starting in the 13th century was the fashionable place to live for the upper crusties.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a large number of Ashkenazy Jews settled there and it became a kind of garment district.  My friend, a budding Canadian painter named David Maes, house sat there for a while.  In all honesty, I hadn’t heard this piece when I lived in Paris. It came to me via a friend, who’d heard it in a film called “Tous Les Matins Du Monde,” which was about the life of the composer.

I chose it for three reasons. First, because of the composer’s last name, which makes me wonder whether it was an alias he adopted because of living in that neighborhood. According to one guide book I have, the Marais was the cultural heart of Paris during the reign of Louis XVI. My second reason for choosing it has to do with the work’s name. The “sonnerie” is a rythmic and melodic peal of bells. Thus the composer was trying to imitate the sound of the bells from a particular church in Paris. That church was St. Genevieve Du Mont which lay behind Shakespeare and Company on an eponymous street that ran down from the Sorbonne to the Rue des Ecoles. One of the Vietnamese restaurants where David and I used to eat sat on that street. Finally, I chose the piece because it is, simply, quite beautiful. It is a kind of canon built on a four beat melody that has a kind of self-propelled dynamism that carries you along. The lead instrument is the viola da gamba, a smaller cousin (and precursor) of the cello on which Marais was a virtuoso.

Marin Marais Biography

Cleanliness and Godliness in the Marais

Like most Americans, I am obsessed by cleanliness and daily feel compelled to have a morning ablution in the shower before braving the world. A French friend of mine recently told me that like her compatriots, she did not share that same obsession and showered only once a week.  I wonder, therefore, if things have really changed that much since 1977 when I was living in Paris. Back then, out of necessity, people conserved water and electricity, and the bookstore where I stayed, Shakespeare and Company, only had a shower in a small cupboard under the stairs that also served as a Turkish (i.e., squatting) toilet. The alternative were dank and smelly public showers where for a fee you could go and worry for about a half hour about being robbed or picking up some horrible foot disease.

Thus, when I returned to Paris from my two-week hitchhiking trek to Barcelona the day before Easter, I made a beeline to the apartment where my friend, the painter, David Maes lived, in the Marais. David hailed from Montreal, and his father had given him a letter of introduction to two famous Canadian painters before he arrived. One of them painted trompe l’oeuil murals on the sides of buildings. The other was a successful portrait painter and had been commissioned to paint Pierre Trudeau’s portrait. While the painter was in Canada, he asked David to live in his flat. This was not just to take care of it, it was also to keep an eye on his lover, the other artist, who was dying of cancer and lived upstairs. The latter was a grumpy old man with a large beard and an even larger, overweight cat that lurked about the place. David had told me before I left for Barcelona that the flat had a nice bathroom with a real tub and I was welcome to use it when I returned.

What a flat it was! The Marais at the time one of the most historically intact neighborhoods in Paris. It dates from the middle ages when the Knights of the Templar drained a swamp (Marais=”Swamp” in French) and built an outpost for themselves on the present Square Du Temple starting in the 12th Century. It is a maze of winding narrow streets lined by half-timbered medieval buildings. When David lived there in 1977, it was a working-class neighborhood with a large Jewish population and significant number of Algerians and Vietnamese.

David’s friend’s apartment building, which dated from the 13th Century, sat on the corner of a tiny street called Rue Pecquay in the heart of the Marais.  I was back there a few years ago and made a little pilgrimage.
_IGP0058_2 _IGP0061_2 _IGP0063_2

It had a very organic-looking twisting stairwell that wound up to the two flats. David’s was on the first floor and the dying painter lived on the third. The two artists had completely furnished the apartments with antiques and architectural details that they had bought at the Marche aux Puces (the flea market.) David’s flat was one huge room with a 12 foot-high ceiling supported by massive chestnut beams about 3 feet wide. The walls were covered with a green fabric, the fireplace had an ornately carved mantle on which sat a life-sized terra cotta bust looking like something by the 18th century sculptor Houdon. A huge mirror with flaking silver reflected light from the one floor-to-ceiling window that was draped with dark red and gold velvet drapes. An old pianoforte separated the back wall of the apartment with its wall of cabinets and kitchen area from the main part of the room that served as parlor, bedroom and studio. David’s easel was perched by the window and looked over the narrow Rue des Blancs Manteaux.

David greeted me at the door, a bit surprised to see me and then laughing when he caught sight of the towel I carried under my arm. “So how was Barcelona and Inge?” he asked. “No wait,” he said. “First take your bath and then we’ll talk.” He led me to the bathroom which was on the second floor and shared by the two apartments. When I entered the room, I gawked. The two painters had painstakingly covered the wall with a dark, reddish-brown false marble pattern. They had found gold plated spigots for the sink and bath. They had built a recession into the ceiling and then painted a wonderful, mock-baroque trompe l’oeuil scene looking up into heaven, complete with angels and cherubim. This was pretty astounding but even more wonderful in my present condition was the tub. It was a full six-feet long and about three feet deep. It sat on wonderful lion-claw legs. David left and I filled the tub and climbed in. As I floated in the luxuriously deep and warm water, I gazed up at the ceiling and savored the spirituality of the moment. “This,” I thought, “is as good as it gets.”

Scrubbed and dried, I joined David in his studio and we cooked dinner and I told him about my trip to Barcelona. He commiserated with me on the Sphinx-like Inge. He confessed he had had a crush on her, too, and like me couldn’t understand how she wouldn’t go for sensitive “artistic” types like us. I believe I had brought a bottle of white Burgundy and we sat up talking about art and literature and politics, eventually getting drunk and laughing about Inge’s intensity. I told him how she had once gone into an existential fit of despair at the sight of a dead pigeon that had been run over by a car.

David and I clowning around in Paris and Montreal in 1977

David and me clowning around in Paris and Montreal in 1977

david1

From that point on, my friendship with David was cemented. He often dropped by Shakespeare and Company after a day of painting and we would go out and eat couscous in cheap Algerian or Vietnamese restaurants nearby. Sometimes he would invite a group of us “tumbleweeds” back to his flat for an artistic soiree. Yes, that was the life—to be young in Paris and feel that you were capable of being great.

As it turns out, David work was being exhibited in a small gallery the last time I was there (summer 2012) in the Marais.  I got there too late to go in, but peered at the pictures through the window.

David's work on the wall next to the bust in a gallery in the Marais, July 2012

David’s work on the wall next to the bust in a gallery in the Marais, July 2012

David in his studio

David in his studio

One of David's recent works.

One of David’s recent works.

Peter Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major

This wonderful violin concerto by Tchaikowsky is considered equal to the great ones of Beethoven and Brahms.  It’s supposedly technically difficult, which might be one of the reasons a contemporary critic, Eduard Hanslick, lambasted the Violin Concerto as a musical composition “whose stink one can hear.  Written during the period after he broke up with this wife, Tchaikowsky originally dedicated it to the violinist,  Iosif Kotek, with whom the composer had an intense relationship.  His homosexuality was something he wrestled with and even called his “shameful vice,” and the attitude of the time caused him to get married twice, both of which marriages ended badly.  Still this period produced this masterpiece, his opera Eugene Onegin, and his Fourth Symphony.  Gives one cause to think about what his life might have been like had gay marriage been legal at the time.

This piece has nothing to do with my entry, today, which describes my visit to Barcelona in 1977, with two friends, Chris and Inge, and about whom I’ve written in earlier posts.

Holy Week in Barcelona (1977)

After Inge left, Chris and I explored Barcelona as we tried to figure out what she had meant to us. Chris hadn’t gotten too emotionally bound up in her. A tall, ebullient, Nordic-American with strawberry blond hair and blue eyes, he’d spent the last several months jumping from bed to bed across most of Europe. He loved life and the sexual liberation he’d found in Europe and was happy now to be in Spain, a country with a warmer climate and striking people. Chris talked about his adventures openly. Perhaps this is what attracted women to him—they knew he’d be an enthusiastic lover and would not hang around moping afterward.

Which is the kind of person I was—a moper. I had invested a lot of emotional energy trying to woo Inge and her departure to Majorca left me hurt and feeling abandoned. Still, Chris and I had a lot of fun together. We decided to spend the rest of the week in Barcelona, after which I’d return to Paris by train and he’d go south to Valencia.

It was Holy Week, and as the city prepared for Easter, things quietened down and the city seemed to take on a more spiritual feeling. On Maunday Thursday, we set out to visit the cathedral, which lay in the medieval part of the city. Until then, we’d spent most of our time near the port and in the lower class, workers’ parts of town. The area around the cathedral was called the Gothic Quarter and had a totally different feel to it. It rose up from the Ramblas on a low hill. The streets were narrower and I seemed to remember the buildings being stucco and half-timbered, with elaborate leaded glass windows. As we neared the center of the quarter, we noted more and more people, dressed in black streaming in that direction. I think we stopped somewhere for a coffee and as we stood getting our bearings, a frail, shrunken old Spanish widow, dressed in a long black coat and holding a missal, shuffled by. I stared at her for a moment—from under her coat, two little toothpick-thin bowed legs shifted back and forth. She looked a bit like an automaton—her eyes seemed kind of glassy, like some force was pulling her in the direction of the cathedral.

After a while, Chris and I started off the way the woman had gone. The street ran under the wooden loges and covered passageways that connected the buildings on either side. The way was paved with tuffa, the volcanic rock of the Mediterranean region, and it was worn smooth by the feet of the pilgrims over the centuries. We turned a corner and the street started to rise more steeply. I looked up and there was the little black widow, still shuffling along, missal in her hand. We were about 20 feet behind her when she suddenly slipped on the smooth pavement and fell flat on her face. What was odd, though, was that her little stick legs continued to shuffle back and forth as she lay there. She looked a bit like a beetle that had been flipped over on its back, its legs flailing to try to right itself. Chris and I ran to help her up. When we got her back on her feet, she did not even acknowledge up, but instantly continued on her way to the cathedral.

The square in front of the cathedral was filled with people carrying candles and when we went in, the church was ablaze with them as well. Since I had lived in Paris, for me Notre Dame was the cathedral by which I measured all others. So, snobbishly, I didn’t think so much of the place. It seemed smaller and more morose than Notre Dame. One thing that struck me, however, was how much more the Spaniards worshipped the Madonna than the French. In a little side chapel, there was a shrine to the Virgin Mary. A statue of her stood behind a large iron grill-work door, which was firmly locked. All over the bars, people had hung votive offerings, the first time I’d ever seen this practice. With bright red ribbons, they had tied little silver images of arms, legs, eyes, and stomachs with a prayer to the Virgin to heal that afflicted body part.

By this time in my life, I had revolted against the Catholic church, but there was always something that drew me to the mystery and the rituals of the religion of my youth. There was something touching about these little votive offerings. They demonstrated a faith—a belief they had a direct relationship to God. There was no cleric middle-man, in terms of a religious authority. Back then, I thought this demonstrated weakness—I was an existentialist, after all. I believed in the teachings of Jean-Paul Sartre who said: “you are what you do,” and I felt that anyone could do anything. A good humanist, I believed man was the measure of all things and that God was irrelevant. Of course I believed in Freud and the notion that we were all driven by base instincts, which we had to master through intellectual self-inquiry. Nowadays, I see that spirituality and prayer are also valid ways to heal oneself. Our intellectual inquiry has only begun to scratch the surface of the complexity of the human mind and spirit. Men are now working on computers that will mimic human behaviors, thoughts, and eventually emotions. But, so what if someone doesn’t stop along the way to ask, what does it mean to be human?

As I said, Chris and I had some good times together in Barcelona, but on the Saturday we parted ways, promising to write eachother and keep in touch. After he left, I walked to a tobacconist and bought a pipe and a pouch of shag to pretend I was Jean-Paul Sartre. Then I went to the train station and bought a ticket for Paris. On the train, I sat in a compartment with an old man, who wore a little blue beret and a threadbare green coat. I spoke a little Spanish, back then and we managed to carry on a simulacrum of a conversation. He was a farmer from up around Figueras, who was returning home after having spent the week with his daughter who lived in Barcelona. I wanted to see what he had thought of Franco—whether he had a been a fascist sympathizer or had communistic sympathies. He seemed a bit nervous about speaking freely—perhaps that’s what came of living in a police state. Yet at one point he pulled out a girlie magazine and slapped it on my lap. “You couldn’t buy those under Franco!” he declared triumphantly. I was surprised. Was that all that free speech meant to him?

Pablo de Sarasate: Fantaisie de Concert sur des motifs d l’opera “Carmen”

Perhaps it is fitting to choose a piece for today based on music that comes from an opera about a love triangle. (Please see my article below about visiting Barcelona in 1977.) Composed in 1883, eight years after Carmen’s disastrous premier and after its revival in Paris, the Fantaisie. is one of those pieces designed to show off virtuoso violin playing. It is full of incredibly high, almost ethereal harmonics and complicated double stops that almost chill you to the bone. Then there are the devilishly fast passages with bouncing bows and rapid pizzicatos that seem capable of generating sparks.

Gaudi’s Gaudy Architecture

The main reason I wanted to visit Barcelona in April of 1977 was to see first-hand the works of the Art Nouveau architect, Antonio Gaudí. His surrealistic buildings captivated me the first time I came upon them in an art history book in college. Gaudí’s work seemed to be a last reaction against the straight lines and harsh angles of the cold machine age. Gaudí on the other hand, incorporated organic and naturalistic shapes into his buildings, some of which looked as if they were melting, others as if they would start sprouting tendrils. Gaudí was able to bring his visionary design to light because of a wealthy patron name Guell, and created for him a palatial dwelling, a public park, and several apartment buildings. Indeed, Gaudí’s presence is such an integral part of Barcelona that had he not lived, I am sure it would not have given us the likes of Picasso, Dali, and Miro. So, on our excursions out, I dragged my traveling companions, Inge and Chris, to various parts of the city where Gaudí had created his fantastic buildings and public spaces. My first goal was to locate the Casa Mila, an apartment building that has an undulating, organic façade and looks kind of like a big, bloated puff-ball mushroom. It appears in a number of art history books, and it had shown up in a film by Michelangelo Antonioni called “The Passenger” which I had seen the year before. In one scene in the film, Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider go onto the roof, which has white, surrealistic chimneys decorated with brightly colored stones and tiles. I wanted to see if we could do the same. We found the Casa Mila in a fairly nice part of town. It is in the shape of the letter “L” and we ducked into the bottom of the short leg into the main courtyard just as it started to rain. This courtyard had been covered over and the misguided owners had carved up the interior space in an attempt to create a number of little trendy boutiques, but which were quite hideous. One was full of late 1970’s disco gear and I seem to remembers a silver mannequin with a black afro wig, 6-inch platform shoes, a blue cape and a black feather boa. We eventually found a long sweeping stairway that followed the interior wall of the courtyard up to the next level. I looked up and saw that Gaudí had covered the ceiling with wild and colorful frescoes. Unfortunately, they hadn’t been maintained and they were now flaking and peelings. They could have been “The Last Supper” for all you could tell. I wondered what the hell the condo association was spending its money on if not the upkeep of the building. We took an elevator to the top floor and emerged, completely amazed at what we saw–there didn’t seem to be a single straight line in the place. The wall curved gently around the inner courtyard and the floors and door frames were all made of a lovely, honey-colored wood. The walls were creamy stucco. We wondered around the floor passing a number of locked doors. Eventually we found ourselves back where we started but there was a change: one of the doors that had been closed was now open. I pushed it open a little further and looked in. It was dark but when my eyes adjusted, I saw it was a stairwell leading upward. I stuck my head in and a drop of water struck my forehead. I looked up and saw these ghostly shapes suspended above me. They were sheets. It was wash day, and because it was raining, someone had hung their laundry in the stairwell because they couldn?t put it up on the roof. I persuaded Chris and Inge to follow me, and we emerged onto the roof. It was grand! It looked like Gaudí had sculpted the rooftop out of meringue. He had created a tiled walkway that leads around the outside of the L-shaped building. This walkway went up and down like a huge roller coaster. The walls were white and inlaid with colored glass and semi-precious stone and Gaudi had built a continuous low bench into the wall that ran round the perimeter. Though it was blowing rain, we felt like kids in a giant playground and we peered over the walls looking for various landmarks. We spotted Gaudí ‘s church, La Sagrada Familia, in the distance, his Parque Guell, the port and the Luna Park to the south.

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After coming down to the street, we ducking into a bar/restaurant and ordered a tortilla and my usual Campari and soda. At the bar, I notices they sold cigars and when I went up to investigate realized they were Cuban. I asked the barrista what they called them and she said “puros.” I bought one of these fat, thick stogies and lit it up, much to the disgust of Inge and Chris. Inge announced that she was going to leave for Majorca in a day or two and Chris and I looked each other. Back in Paris, I had tried to form a romantic relationship with this dour, self-abusing, German existentialist. We had long deep discussions and part of me thought she might be my soul mate. Then Chris, the free spirit from California, came along and they instantly bonded. Chris and I were staying in Shakespeare and Company and we all hung out together, so I was invited along to Barcelona, though I felt a bit of a fifth wheel. Now Inge was announcing that she was off to Majorca and she did not invite either of us along. After lunch it stopped raining and we continued on our way in search of the next Gaudí building. As we walked, I puffed my puro pensively and looked at the buildings, the streets and the sidewalks, trying to get a feel for the city. Suddenly a pattern in the sidewalk caught my attention. I looked carefully and realized the sidewalk was made up of molded tiles with an intricate, interlocking pattern. They reminded me a bit of those morphing tile patterns of M. C. Escher, in which black birds flying one way interlock with white birds flying in the opposite direction. When I pointed this out to Chris and Inge, the latter said that she had read in her guide book that Gaudí had designed these tiles as well.

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Seeing these tiles tickled me. First, because I liked the idea that Gaudi had been able to turn his ideas into reality and change the physical environment around him to fit his visionary dreams. Second, these tiles represented a connection with Spain’s Moorish past. Islam is an iconoclastic religion and artistic representations of people were forbidden. Artists therefore turned their talents filling spaces with visually interesting organic forms and curlicues. Eventually these became more and more abstract and became into repeating tile patterns that covered unused space. Think of the Blue Mosque or Arabic calligraphy. The Moors had conquered Spain and brought their artistic traditions with them, which showed up in these tiles of Gaudí. Eventually, we found Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, the roof of which he designed in the shape of a giant multi-colored dragon. It has the most wonderful facade, the apex of Art Nouveau.

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Later we went to the Parque Guell, which has two cascading stairways, between which Gaudí created a fantastic, dragon-shaped fountain that crawls down the hill and belches water to greet the visitors as they enter the park.

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These works show how the freer Gaudí became to do what he wanted the more organic and fantastic his works became. He became so engrossed by his work that he turned into a long-haired hermit, who often slept in a shack on the building sites for his structures. A day or two later, Chris and I woke early and met Inge, whom we escorted to the port and the ferry that took her to Majorca. Afterwards, Chris and I sat around planning what to do next. He decided to go south to Valencia and me back to Paris. Palm Sunday was coming in a few days, however, and I persuaded him to remain so we could see a few of the spectacles leading up to Easter, and so we spent the next few days exploring the city, eventually becoming friends and trying to deconstruct what had happened between us and Inge. But more on that later.

Manuel de Falla. El Amor Brujo

I have heard this piece many times in my life before, but I never knew its name until just a few years ago. However, you can tell immediately that a Spanish composer penned it. Two of the most famous dances from it are “The Dance of Terror,” and “The Ritual Fire Dance.” Falla studied in Paris and was part of a circle of composers that fell under the influence of Debussy, Ravel and Dukas. Like Albinez, the Spanish musicologist, Pedrell, encouraged Falla to incorporate Spanish themes and tunes.  “El Amor Brujo” premiered in Barcelona in 1915, and it evokes memories of my visit to that city in 1977, which I describe below.

As he matured, Falla became a reclusive and intensely religious. Stravinsky once describe Falla as being “the most unpityingly religious person I have ever known-and the least sensible to manifestations of humor.” And it is odd that he would compose a work called El Amor Brujo, (Love, the Magician), the music for a one act ballet. Falla briefly sided with Franco during the Spanish Civil War, probably because of the anti-religious sentiments of the communists. However, those sentiments continued under Franco and the monarchy was overthrown, Falla went into exile in Argentina where he died in 1946.

Here’s the wikipedia entry on it. Wiki

Burning Love in Barcelona

If you stood at the bottom of Las Ramblas in Barcelona and looked up toward the foothills, to the right lay the working class and artisanal neighborhood, where our pension sat, and to the right you had the poorer sailors’ quarter. The farther up the Ramblas you walked inland from the port, the neighborhoods became more middle class and prosperous. In 1977, my two fellow hitchhikers, Chris and Inge, and I made two excursions to the maritime quarter–once to visit a Romanesque church during the day, and the next time to visit a Flamenco club that same night. When we visited the latter, we were swindled and nearly got shot.

Our trip to the church took us down even more winding and narrower streets than in our own quarter. The farther we walked the air became cooler and the noise of the Ramblas died out. The buildings seemed to take on a Moorish feel– geometric tiles decorated the white stucco walls. Some of the apartments had wonderful door-sized gates made of hammered iron, wrought into intricate curlicue patterns.  It began to rain.

We finally found the church, which sat in a small plaza. It had the thin narrow windows with half round tops that typify the Romanesque style. I don’t remember much about the inside, but I immediately fell in love with the cloisters. It was only about 20 feet across but the columns showed off exquisite workmanship. Some were carved into elegant twisted rope designs and other had bits of glass and stone set into them. For some reason, certain buildings or places resonate with me and make me feel as if they give off a kind of mystical or spiritual emanation. Perhaps the rain had something to do with it. The stones of the unkempt interior courtyard were overgrown with grass and it looked vaguely tropical with a small palmetto and a few papyrus plants potted in a small pool. There were no modern sounds, no lights, no air conditioning and it as if this scene had not changed for over a thousand years.

Somehow when we left the church, we became disoriented and found ourselves quite lost in the maze of streets. The more we walked, the farther we seemed to get away from modern Barcelona and again I had the sense of going back in time. At one point we turned a corner and found ourselves at the top of a long, narrow, dirt street. It teemed with people, so we started walking down it, thinking it must lead to Las Ramblas.

Something soon began to look odd about the street. First off, the people on the narrow sidewalks turned out to be for the most part middle-aged men. So too it seemed that mostly men made up the people standing in the middle of the street, though they were younger, and some looked like sailors. Next the windows of the shops along the street held a strange type of ware-things like hot water bottles, long rubber tubes, and what looked like huge rubber syringes or turkey-basters. The men on the side of the street would call to those walking along. Sometimes a younger man would walk over, they would exchange a few words, and the two would then disappear into the entrance or up an exterior stairway. It took a while, but finally the penny dropped–we had wondered into a street full of bordellos. This street, however, had none of the glamour of the red light districts you read about in Amsterdam. The whole place seemed like something out of a Fellini movie, and if a grotesquely huge woman had emerged dressed in a bearskin, I would not have shown the least surprise. No one approached us as we hurried down the street and found our way back to our pension.

I wish I could say that was the most traumatic experience we had in Barcelona, but it wasn’t. But that is for another day.

Isaac Albeniz. Suite Espagnole

Keeping on my last post’s subject of Albinez, I have chosen his Suite Espagnole today. Albinez originally wrote this in 1886 as a set of three pieces each with the name of a Spanish province. His publisher added eight more pieces after the composer’s death from a much later opus number, and so the entire suite paints sound portraits of 11 regions. Albinez quite deftly wove the Spanish folk melodies into quite sumptuous and evocative works. One of them is called “Catalonia.” (Barcelona was the capital of Catalonia in the heart of Basque territory.)

This piece takes me back to my first visit to Barcelona in 1977, where I hitchhiked with two friends. Tall plane trees lined Las Ramblas, the main boulevard that bisects Barcelona on its way down from the hills to the port. I seem to remember my guidebook likening Las Ramblas to the Champs-Elysees in Paris. The comparison was weak–in 1977 when I was there, Spain was just awakening from the economically depressed decades under fascism, and there were no Cartier, Bulgari, or Gucci boutiques around. But the Ramblas had something going for it that the Champs-Elysees would never have–it was designed for people and not traffic. The wide, raised pedestrian walkway ran through the middle of the street and the single lanes of traffic ran along its edge. This created what was effectively the longest plaza in the world. On this vast playground sat benches, newsagents, and small cafés. Pigeons and people strutted, sat, did little courtship dances or just sunned themselves in the clear green light that filtered down through the leaves of the plane trees.

The Ramblas had a nice feel to it, and business seemed to be picking up, though the people still looked a bit threadbare. Cinemas advertised the old-fashioned way–they commissioned local sign painters to build portable placards that they could bring in at night. I believe some version of Jaws had just come out and the sign in front of one of these theatres had been cut into the shape of a huge shark and painted in lurid colors–the long sharp teeth dripping with crimson blood.

I never told my parents this, but I almost got killed on the Ramblas. Since Franco had died just the year before, people were finally starting to demand more and more freedoms. Every day the papers carried stories of bombings by Basque separatists.

One day as I was exploring the city by myself investigating an old church near the port, I thought a nice drink at a café on the Ramblas would do me just fine. I emerged onto the Ramblas very near a subway station. I had a strange sensation and noticed that it was dead quiet. I looked to my right. A crowd of protestors stood glaring in my direction. I looked to the left. A crowd of riot police, swaddled in riot gear and bulletproof vests and armed with carbines and tear gas launchers glared back. I stood right in the middle. A few of the police were looking down into the mouth of the subway. Shards of glass lay on the pavement. The cops decided to run down the steps. As soon as they started, the protestors began to jeer at them. Immediately, the police rushed out guns drawn. I heard a “pop”; the police had started firing and canisters of tear gas arced through the air toward the protestors who had already begun to throw rocks. I did not stick around to find out who won.

I would like to say that was the only time I was concerned about my personal safety in Barcelona, but it wasn’t. However, I don’t want to imply that it was a scary or dangerous city. Over the next few posts, I will let you decide.

Joaquin Rodrigo: Berceuse de Printemps

Every once in a while,  you hear a piece that stops you dead in your tracks.  This happened one night while I was eating dinner and Pandora was streaming works on my “Gymnopedies for Piano” channel.

Pandora seemed to have lost its edge and sold out to advertisement.  Sometimes in the midst listening to a stream that was clearly in one genre, I’d be jolted by a song that was from a completely different one.  It took me a while to figure out that it was because my daughter and I shared the same Pandora account and she’d add channels of hip-hop, rap, and other artists.  So I created a new account and got back to my uninterrupted, sedate works.  Then I noticed that sometimes, in a stream, Pandora would eventually end up playing the same works over and over.  So that’s why it surprised me today when it suddenly kicked out “Berceuses de Printemps.”  It also surprised me for two other reasons.  First, I didn’t know Rodrigo composed for piano.  We’ve all heard his “Concierto de Aranjuez” about a gazillion times, so that was new for me.  Second, I was stunned by its sheer, unadorned beauty.  Rodrigo’s life spanned nearly the entire 20th century and he studied with Paul Dukas in Paris before returning to his native Spain.  So this piece sounds like it was influence by Debussy or Ravel.  It’s an utter joy, so please take a moment to give it a listen.

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