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.

Isaac Albeniz: Iberia Suite

Albeniz spent the last years of his life traveling and teaching between Barcelona, Nice and Paris. It was the culmination of a strange life. He had started out as a prodigy, learning the rudiments of piano at the age of one and giving his first performance at the age of four. His father first commercially exploited him but then took him to study in Paris with the teacher of Debussy and Bizet. He eventually ran away and supported himself by playing the piano, dressed as a musketeer–backwards! That is, he would stand with his back to the piano and play with the backs of his fingers.

When he was twelve, he stowed away on a ship bound for Buenos Aires and then eventually made his way (supporting himself playing piano in vaudeville) to Cuba, the United States, San Francisco before returning to Europe. There he performed in London, Liverpool and Leipzig. When he was 15 (15!) he decided to take music more seriously and though he couldn’t sit still long enough to study, he did meet and come under the influence stylistically of Dukas, Lizst and d’Indy. Eventually he met another composer and musicologist, Felipe Pedrell who exposed Albeniz to the complexity and richness of folk music, and that spurred him on to becoming a composer. He stuck with the piano most of his life though he did make a financial arrangement with a rich wannabe librettist (an English banker) to write music for his terrible operas. His piano music was considered extremely complex for the time and he seemed to have picked up the Impressionist tendency for color.

The Iberia Suite is probably the composer’s best known piece. It consists of twelve portraits of Spain which are rich and lush and evoke the feel of the land and its people. Leopold Stokowski orchestrated a number of the pieces in Iberia after the composer’s death. The most well known is called “Triana,” arraged here for orchestra.

My Iberian Adventure

I chose Albeniz’s music to accompany my story about my hitch-hiking adventure to Barcelona in March of 1977, to which I return today. As you might remember, three of us–Ingeborg, Chris, and I–had thumbed our way down from Paris and arrived a few days before Palm Sunday.  Inge, being a wealthy German whose currency was very strong in those days, found herself a room in a hotel. Chris and I settled for the more modest alternative–a pension near the train station. We would explore the city on our own in the mornings, rendezvous for lunch or dinner, and swap stories of what we had discovered.

The three of us were quickly taken by the charm of the city, which derived more from its homogeneity than its cosmopolitanism. Since Franco had only died the year before, Barcelona was slowly awakening from a long slumber, like a sleeping beauty, which had preserved it in a state that must have resembled that of pre-war Spain.

The pension where Chris and I stayed sat on one street of the narrow maze that comprised the oldest part of the city, which lay near the port. In the center of this quarter sat an old 13th century (if my memory serves me correctly) cathedral. It was huge and had delicate soaring vaulted arches to rival those of Chartres. The church, however, was empty, a legacy of the anti-church sentiments of the communists who turned churches into stables and barracks during the Spanish Civil War, which they lost. The stones back then were worn and honey-colored and shafts of brilliantly colored light filtered down from the stained glass windows and lay in splotches on the floor.

Near the church stood a small bar that Inge had found and where we used to meet in the afternoon. She liked it because a group of young students and poets hung out there whom she eventually befriended. On our first visit there she pointed out the group who sat at a table in the corner window. She motioned to the young man who sat at the head of the table–he was a slight dark Spaniard, who parted his hair in the middle and wore the brocaded vest and tight black trousers of a matador. “Manoleto” I remember hearing someone say, (or perhaps I just thought it) when we saw him, and instantly I thought back to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

I liked the little bar because, like all the bars we found in Barcelona, it was dead cheap. You could get an almost full tumbler of Campari and ice for about 50 cents. They would plop down a large glass bottle of seltzer, wrapped in a metal cage to keep it from exploding. They also served a type of tapas that consisted of pickled vegetables and fish over which the barrista would dump about a quarter cup of hot sauce. In the mornings we would go along for breakfast which consisted of some sweet roll accompanied by a café con leche. They take a tall thick glass, add about a third of a cup of sweetened condensed milk and then fill it the rest of the way with espresso.

This part of the city pleased me a lot–it was very lower working class, though most of the people were probably descended from the sailors and longshoreman since we were so near the port. It had a bit of seediness to it–we’d see the occasional used hypodermic lying about, but I never felt threatened there. After roaming the streets we found a wonderful little worker’s restaurant where you could eat hearty food and quaff wine for a pittance. I remember ordering a plate of lamb kidneys and onions and vino tinto. The wine came in little glass flasks, which had a spout on the side. You drank it by holding your thumb over the hole in the top, tilting your head back, opening your mouth, and then removing your thumb. A thin jet of wine would then arc across the ether and, if your aim was good, land on your tongue. Each meal ended with a huge Valencia orange whose thick pith had its own pleasing flavor. Once I made the mistake of going to the bathroom in the restaurant and fortunately only had to micturate–next to the commode the proprietor had stuck a number of small pieces of pages from magazines, neatly torn into rectangles, over the sharpened end of a bent coat hanger. This was the toilet paper.

Surprisingly, this quarter housed two artistic Meccas–the Galerie Maeght, and the Picasso Museum. The Maeght Foundation had made its money on all the big artists of the century–Picasso, Miro, Calder, Dali, etc.–and their gallery was filled with works of these artists. Picasso had spent his first 14 years in Barcelona, I believe, living in this neighborhood. The Picasso museum, located in an old 16th or 17th century palazzo, therefore mostly housed the artist’s early works. Inside, crystal chandeliers hung from gilded, coffered ceilings. This contrasted with the paintings themselves, which took my breath away. Here were sketches and oils that demonstrated how Picasso, by his early teens, had developed his technique to rival that of El Greco, Caravaggio, Reubens and Rembrant.

Once he had mastered his medium, he then turned his eye from the traditional religious and aristocratic subjects and directed it on the life of the workers and peasants of the streets of Barcelona. One picture focused on a bar fight he witnessed between two campesinos who had come to town and gotten drunk. Picasso had caught the emotion and blur of arms in a masterful way that reminded me of Goya. Seeing a man killed at such a young age must have had an impact on the boy-artist.

Being in Barcelona had a profound impact on me as well (or so I’m discovering as the sights and sounds come back to me after 36 years). Chris and I were a bit confused at Inge’s behavior. I had thought she was sleeping with him but then she did not invite him to stay with her in her hotel and she would only meet up with us during certain parts of the day. One day she announced that she had booked passage on a ferry to Majorca, which was to leave in few days.

During the days, Chris and I roamed the streets and he would fill me in on the latest trends in pop culture. One day we stopped in a bar for a drink after plodding through the hot dusty streets. Every bar at that time had a televison, since most people couldn’t afford their own, and that was how they drew in clientele. On the tube that day was some horribly-produced variety show in black and white with a plump, peroxided tart in a sequined dress belting out a pop song. Chris went over to the juke box and started looking at the songs.

I ordered two drinks and then heard Chris shouting: “Patti Smith! Patti Smith! Look they have Horses on this juke box! I can’t believe it.” I had heard of Patti Smith about two years before–she was a kind of poet/rock and roll artist who worshipped Arthur Rimbaud, but I had never listened to her music. Chris put his money in the slot, punched the numbers, and the music that came out was like none I had ever heard. The words told an odd story about a boy who gets raped in front of his high school locker and sees a vision of horses thundering along a beach. “Things are different in California” I remember thinking to myself.

Chris was good company. We went to the local bullfighting arena (it was off season) and took a tour of the museum. It had a bust of Manoleto and I posed Chris and the old guard in front of it. Sometimes we found ourselves in our pension reading in the evenings. It had a nice collection of books left by travelers. I found a copy of two plays by Arthur Miller–“View from a Bridge” and “The Crucible”–in French! I devoured these and savored this tri-cultural moment and the fact that a boy from rural Indiana had come so far.

Sonata in G Major, K 146 (L 349)

On October 26, 1685, Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples, Italy. He is considered the father of modern piano playing as he invented the crossing of hands, rapid repetition of notes, and long arpeggio passages. I have written about two of his other pieces–Sonata in F Major, L. 188, and the Sonata in D Major, L.424.

Scarlatti wrote over 600 sonatas for piano, and critics have said that only a few were duds, so really I could write about nothing but him for the next few years, but that’s not fair. What’s more, I’m only familiar with the 12 pieces that Horowitz recorded that appear on his album, “Horowitz Plays Scarlatti,” which dates from the early 1960s. On the other hand, I could envision a web site devoted just to that composer, in which someone with more musical training than I would write an essay on each sonata. Any takers?

What has always struck me about Scarlatti is how meticulous and playful a composer he was. Today’s Sonata in G Major, Longo 349 demonstrates that as well as any I know. The right hand scurries about playing impossibly fast runs, punctuated and sometimes subdued by the more serious left. I get the image of a kitten playing tag with the tail of a large but benevolent golden retriever. There is so much sweetness in this music it is breathtaking.

In looking up Scarlatti’s biography, I was pleased to see he was from Naples, a city I lived in from 1980 to 1981. The people there have a passion for life that I have not found in many other places. How fitting that Scarlatti came from there.

Scarlatti Biography

Georges Bizet: Carmen Suite Number 1

Georges Bizet, who was born in Paris in 1838, was considered a great prodigy as a child and by the age of 17 had written his first symphony. In his life he produced some 150 pieces for his instrument, the piano. Unfortuantely, after his initial good success, he produced a string of works that have faded into obscurity. Among these were a number of operas, which suffered from weak librettos.

Bizet was a plump gourmand and supposedly could be seen often scoffing down some bonbon or small cake on the streets of the suburb of Paris where he lived. Around the age of 34, he started composing operas which caught the attention of the critics, and finally produced the work for which he is universally known, Carmen. Carmen tells the story of a loose “gypsy” woman who works in a cigarette factory. She plays one lover against the other and is eventually killed by one. Bizet’s opera first did not thrill the critics. The morals of the girl was quite shocking, even for Parisian. It did catch on and is now one of the best loved of all the operas in the repertoire. Unfortunately, Bizet did not live to see its success. He died of a heart attack after its 31st performance at the age of 36. A few years later, it was being mounted in every major opera house in Europe.

I will probably write more about different arias from the opera later, because it is filled with such wonderful music that can stand on its own. The Suite N. 1 is a good introduction to it and contains the major themes.

Maurice Ravel. Alborada del Gracioso

I chose today’s piece to accompany a travelogue (continued below) about my hitchhiking trip from Paris to Barcelona in 1977. I thought it was appropriate to chose a Spanish-inspired piece by a French composer. Coincidentally, I just discovered that Ravel was born near the Spanish border to a mother who was Basque. Ravel wrote Alborada del Gracioso in 1912 first for piano, later scoring it for orchestra. The piece comes from a set of five pieces called “Miroirs” (Mirrors).

This piece starts out with a quick dance that sounds so very Spanish that it’s almost a caricature. It has a little dark under-current however that balances the light-heartedness. The second section, becomes more brooding and then launches off into a wonderfully rich and expressive passage that reminds me of his other two works, Gaspard de la Nuit and Le Tombeau de Couperin. Throughout, Ravel manages to intersperse little Spanish-sounding flourishes between these incredibly intricate and complex rhythms and harmonies. At 6 minutes, it’s a mini-tour de force.

Ravel Biography

Making it To Spain

Last post I described the first two days of a hitchhiking trip from Paris to Barcelona, Spain the week before Easter in 1977. There were three of us on this journey-Ingeborg, a cute philosophy major from Germany named Ingeborg, Chris, a free spirit from California, and myself, a green soul from northern Indiana.

The first night, we got as far as Lyons, and the second night a trucker gave us dinner and a place to sleep in his house in the town of Avignon. The third day saw the three of us, thumbs out and loaded with backpacks standing on a bridge in Avignon looking over the famous, Pont d’Avignon.

In first grade, I participated in two experiments. The first was a test of fluoridated toothpaste. We got free tooth brushes and special red dye pills to chew after we brushed our teeth. The dyes in the pills stuck to and showed off any bits of food we might have missed.  The boys loved this.  It made our gums bright red and we looked like zombies when we smiled.

The discovery that fluoridation stops cavities came too late for me however and most of my molars are filled with an amalgam of mercury and silver. My daughters, on the other hand, are 28 and 25 and have never had the pleasure of having a man with a mask spread your jaw and thrust in a whining, high-speed drill. My parent wouldn’t pay for novocaine, and the remembrance of pain past still sends shivers down my spine.

The second experiment was an hour or two a day of French language and culture classes. Children are genetically programmed to learn languages during a developmental window and you can expose them to any language, or any 2, 3, 4, 5, 10 or 20 languages during time period and they’d develop native fluency. By the time they hit their teens however people who haven’t learned more than one (or who’ve been deprived of languages, e.g.  see the ethically dubious research on Genie) lose the ability or it becomes difficult to learn them to a great level of proficiency. In my classes, we learned some songs–“Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella,” and “Sur le pont d’Avignon.” So as I stood hitchhiking on that cold dreary morning on the bridge at Avignon, that song was running through my head.

We got a series of rides that day that took us through the fertile fields of the south, through the towns of Nimes, Montpellier, Beziers and as far as Perpignan near the French and Spanish frontier. I particularly liked the country-side: the plowed fields, shrouded in late spring fog, the stony brown earth, the long rows of plane trees that lined the driveways up to the old stone farm houses. Once I saw two men, pruning the plane trees along a drive. Over the years, the owners had topped the trees at about 15 or 20 feet and completely cut off all the branches. Every year the trees would send out a set of long straight shoots which would form a perfectly round nimbus of leaves–very symmetrical and very French. Every year, the men would come and snip the previous year’s shoots and pile them up to be made into brooms. The trunks of the trees had become fat from this shaping and looked like huge, pudgy sausages stuck in the ground.

Between Montpellier and Beziers, I saw a sign for the town of Sete. The semester before, I had read a famous poem by the literary hero of that town, Paul Valery. The poem was entitled “Le cimetière marin” or “Marine Cemetery”(read here). It paints an almost impressionistic tableau with words of a view overlooking a field studded with sun-bleached stones and colored by the blood red Mediterranean poppies with the cobalt blue of the sea in the background.

A guy in a BMW sporting a grizzly beard took us as far as the Spanish border and left us there. We walked out of France and found ourselves in a little duty-free city, where the shops sold nothing but cigarettes and booze at ridiculously cheap prices. Somehow we made it to Barcelona that night and found a pension by the train station, near the port. I was quite excited to be in this country of Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel and, of course, Pablo Picasso. But I was also amazed that we had reached our goal of hitchhiking from Paris to Barcelona and that I had not been eviscerated or left for dead by some axe-murderer.

Maurice Ravel: Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte

Ravel’s Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte is one of his most well known and lovely pieces. There are two versions of it–one for piano and one for orchestra. Pavane means a kind of slow processional dance, and Ravel’s is “for a dead princess.” Ravel did not write the piece for anyone in particular, though he had a patron named, Winaretta Singer, heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and who was a princess by marriage to one Prince Edmond de Polignac. The word “infante,” refers to the child of a Spanish monarch, the French word for child being “enfante.” Ravel wrote the piece while studying music under Gabriel Faure at the Paris Conservatory. At the time, things Spanish were the vogue in Paris, and he wrote it to evoke the pleasant emotions of things Spanish in general and the the sounds that the word infante had on him in specific.

Ravel wrote the Pavane for piano, but it has also been scored for orchestra and string quartet. A search on youtube revealed a version for four harps as well. Though Ravel later thought of this early work as immature and poorly executed, it remains a favorite–its haunting, gentle melody as touching as Debussy’s Claire de la Lune.

When Ravel performed the work on piano, he played it much more slowly than other interpreters. Yet when he heard plodding versions of it, he reportedly quipped: “it’s a pavane for a dead princess, not a dead pavane for a princess.”

I hadn’t heard this piece for a long time, but coincidentally, a friend of mine who is a cellist performed it with his string quartet a couple of nights ago at a fund raiser for the Duke Ellington School for the Performing arts in Washington, DC. What it invokes in me, is the memory of a man named Josef and his daughter, whom I met in 1977 while hitchhiking from Paris to Barcelona (described below).

Pavane for a Truck Driver’s Daughter

Ingebord, Chris and I had left Paris the day before and had only gotten as far as Lyons, just about half way to the Mediterranean. There we had not been received with open arms by the former dorm mate of mine from the French House, where I lived in college. He had acted upset at my calling so late. This was back in 1977, when life in France was a bit slower and people had the luxury of going to sleep at nine o’clock in the evening.

We left Lyons a bit groggy-eyed. Fortunately the rain had let up and the sun warmed us a bit as we stood by the side of the road and stuck our thumbs out. I cannot remember all the rides we had that day, but I do remember the last one. A fairly genial young man, maybe in his late twenties to mid thirties, picked us up in his big moving van. He had fairly long hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and soft features. Back then in France I remember being struck at how people seemed to have a number of well defined class and socio-economic roles. These weren’t necessarily seen as bad. In fact, they gave a well defined structure to ones work and career life, freeing one up to lead enriching interior lives. Our truck driver had a job, a truck, and a house. The state took good care of him. He had all he needed. But I wouldn’t necessarily call him complacent.

He lived in Avignon, and as the day was drawing to a close by the time we got that far, he offered to put us up for the night with his family. After the night before, we tired gypsies rejoiced at our good fortune.

Let’s call our host Josef. Josef lived in a nice two-story house in a small suburb of villas that lay on either side of eucalyptus lined streets. His wife greeted us and did not seem at all put out by his having brought us home. Inside we found a very comfortable place in the Mediterranean style with marble floors and efficient cupboards, shelves and organizers. The place had big windows that on the second floor opened out onto a balcony which commanded a breathtaking view of the mountains. He told me that when the Mistral blew, it would blow debris onto the balcony and it was awesome to watch the force and speed of it in that tight space. On the ground floor on the other side of the house he took us into his ample back yard where he had a sizeable garden. It was there that I first saw an espalier, which is when they train and prune the branches of a fruit tree to run along a low frame or a fence so that the fruit can be easily harvested.

Back inside the house, Josef’s wife fed us a great meal that we shared with their two beautiful children, a boy and a girl about 3 and 5. After dinner, we sat around talking. He was not snobby or impatient with my French and I found myself having a nice conversation with him. We did not watch TV–I’m not sure if they owned one and it would have been an affront I’m sure to put it before one’s guests.

When it was time to turn in, he showed us our rooms. On the way, we passed a family photo. In it I saw there were three children–an older girl who had not sat with us at the table. When I asked him about her, Josef said “Oh. That was my oldest daughter. She passed away last year. She had a bad heart.” And as he said it, he brought his right hand up in a tender gesture and tapped lightly over his own heart. My own heart aches now, 36 years later, as I remember what a sad thing to have happen to such a sweet guy. Yet, he did not seem to have a victim’s mentality or feel outraged at his luck. “Yes, that is life,” he sighed.

When I first got to Paris, there was a big flap in the papers at how the Americans had developed the neutron bomb. This bomb, we were told, would create a blast of sub-atomic particles that would not harm buildings but which would kill all animal life in the vicinity where it was dropped. Somehow that was seen as the perfect weapon. To my mind, it represents the purest of evil. Way back before there were guns, armies fought hand to hand and the terror of that I’m sure made power hungry men think twice before leading their troops into battle. World War II, pretty much dropped the pretense that war was fought by soldiers for noble causes and the civilian population was not to be included in the target. With this bomb, however, you could wage war from afar, never seeing your enemy, which it killed indiscriminately-men, women and children, soldiers and civilians.

Because I did come from America and bought into the victim’s “why me?” mentality, I took every affront by Parisians personally. Therefore, I am ashamed to say, when news of the neutron bomb broke, I joked that Paris was the perfect place to drop the neutron bomb–“get rid of the Parisians and it would be a great place.”

That was before I met Josef, however, who restored my faith not just in the French but in all of humanity. It reminds me of a quote I recently heard by the fiction writer, Scot Turow. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” a character asks. “I’m convinced that God does that to us to bring us together. If everything were perfect and there was no suffering, we’d all just be these individuals doing our own thing.” That pretty much sums up what I learned from Josef. It’s when you meet people who have so much warmth and dignity and take life as it comes, that you really know that life is truly worth living.

Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question

Wow! Wow! And Wow again. I discovered this piece about two years ago and was completely blown away. Listening to it again stuns me. How did I in my 57 years on this earth miss it? Starting out stately with a sense of inexorable direction, every so often, its sonority and solemnity is periodically punctured, at first by a questioning horn, but increasingly by little explosions of woodwinds.

Written in 1906, “The Unanswered Question” serves as a kind of gateway between the traditional classical era and the flood of modernism that would soon sweep through the world. 1906. Think about it–7 years before Rites of Spring. My late best friend David Hendrickson told me 35 years ago about the wonders of Charles Ives, but I completely ignored him. Now I see I have a lot of catching up to do. Ain’t it wonderful?

Erik Satie: Parade

For today’s piece, I have chosen Erik Satie’s Parade. Satie supposedly started as a bar room pianist whose work caught the attention and was championed by Debussy. His earlier compositions were stripped down and economical, which style was a reaction agains the overblown works of Wagner. Though sparse, his works were in no way simplistic and reflected the complex tonal qualities of the impressionists like Debussy. Some of his pieces, like the famous Gymnopedies are strikingly haunting and affecting. But Satie knew he was under-educated, and in his 40s, he began studying composition under d’Indy and Roussel. From this period comes today’s piece, the music for the Cubist ballet, Parade. The mere description of this piece makes my head swoon–music by Satie, sets and scenario by Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau, and staged by Sergei Diaghilev, the empresario of the Ballet Russes. The piece is designed to tweak the bourgeois sensibility of the day and its love for the overblown Romanticism of Wagner. Parade is a kind of sound portrait of an actual parade, which incorporates the sounds of “found” objects like a pistol, a siren, and a typewriter. Even today, nearly a century after its premier, it stands the test of time and still sounds daring and fresh.

Parading Through France

The first three months of 1977 in Paris proved cold and damp.  By March, a number of us living at Shakespeare and Company in Paris thought we might head South to warm our bones.  We chose Spain because we’d met some Basque girls, who one night cooked us paella. Ingeborg, the German girl I had a crush on, wanted to go to Barcelona and hop a ferry to Majorca. Chris, the guy she was doting on, was up for it. Barcelona appealed to me as well because I knew it to be the native city of the Spanish Art Nouveau architect, Antonio Gaudi. His church, the Sagrada Familia, had caught my attention in some art book and I thought it would great to explore some of the other apartment buildings he had designed in the city. One had appeared in an Antonioni film called The Passenger which I had seen the semester before. To prep myself, I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Looking back now, that was a good choice since the main character was the third wheel in a menage a trois, which is how I was feeling about Chris and Ingeborg. We decided to hitchhike. For an American, that was a bit worrisome, but Chris and Ingeborg, who’d hitchhiked all over Europe, assured me it would be safe. Especially if the three of us went together. I remembered Thom Klem once telling me how he had hitched a ride with a truck driver in Germany. When he climbed in, he was treated to the music of Mozart, whom the truck driver loved. So I agreed. We took the subway to the Gare du Sud and stood near the street that led out of town. It was pissing down rain, but soon we had a ride that took us to the start of the main superhighway heading south. There we stuck our thumbs out and after a short while, a big truck pulled up. In it was a friendly man, who said he had room for the three of us. We spent the day with him tooling along Seine past the towns of Sens, Auxerre, Dijon. At Dijon we followed the Soane River south toward Lyons. I was surprised at the lush green countryside. Surprised too to see how canals ran parallel to the main routes and that they remained a viable means of freight transport. I was disappointed at one point when the driver pulled over to a roadside inn to get a bite to eat. Since it was early afternoon, it was completely empty, not like the 24-hour roadside nightmares along our own interstate system. Inside, we managed to summon up a drowsy patron, who said it was too early to get the espresso machine going for us. Our driver ordered what I heard as “deca.” I didn’t know what he meant. The proprietor pulled out a jar of decaffeinated instant Nescafé, put a teaspoon into a cup and poured some hot water in. It was vile. I think we bought some mass produced madeleines and we piled back in the truck. By nightfall we reached the outskirts of Lyons, which was only about half way to the southern coast. Our plan was to call up an acquaintance named Olivier, whom I knew from my student days in the French house at Bloomington, Indiana. He had been living in Paris when I first arrived, and he had been very hospitable to me. He invited me over to dinner one night and we had a nice chat. Shortly after that, he got a job in Lyons and told me to call him up if I ever got down there. I took that as a standing invitation. Olivier’s cordiality had surprised me a bit. My first semester at the French House, he had been our resident assistant, a job for a more responsible graduate student who acted a bit like a chaperone. Since most of the people in the French House were juniors or seniors, fairly intellectual students, and rarely prone to the binge drinking one found in a lot of undergraduate dorms, this was a kind of sinecure for Olivier. He pretty much left us alone and I never even thought he knew I existed. Or if he was aware of me, I thought he disdained me because of an incident I participated in. Olivier was an opinionated and lugubrious type. If he participated in discussions at the French-speaking table at the dorm cafeteria, he usually made some pronouncement or caustic remark-usually about crass Americans and our lack of culture. He was majoring in business. Olivier cut an imposing figure–he was tall, thin, and had a shock of thick unruly hair. Unfortunately he wore one of those beards without a moustache, the kind that just follows your jaw line. He looked a bit like a cross between Abraham Lincoln and Big Bird. No one hated Olivier. As I said, he left most people alone. One night however, we played a prank on him. On sleepless nights, I used to sneak into the boiler room, flip on the light switch, and watch the myriads of cockroaches scurry into the nooks and crannies. Sometimes, if I were feeling mean, I’d take a broom with me and see how many I could smash to a pulp. One time, I discovered a big box full of Christmas decorations. On the night of our prank, I mentioned the box to the artsy-campy clique I used to hang around with. Someone seized upon the idea of decorating the door to Olivier’s room with the contents. There was nothing mean in this. It was a practical joke. We got the box and crept down the hall to Olivier’s door. We encircled the doorframe with a string of blinking lights, draped a fake pine garland over the lintel, and stuck a tin foil and red and green paper cut out of Santa Claus on the door. We knocked on the door and then all ran back to our rooms. Suddenly we heard a huge uproar in the hall. I cracked open my door to see what it was. Olivier was standing in the hall in his pajamas. He spat out curses as he violently ripped the decorations from his door. “Goddamn it!” he yelled. “Why do you do this to me? I know. It is because I am the goddamned foreigner. Well, I hate you all, too!!” We were all surprised at the vehemence with which Olivier reacted. After that, it became kind of a joke among our clique. We used to walk around saying, “Chust beecuz I am zee goddam foureeener!” Olivier moved out of the dorm at the end of the semester and then he moved back to Paris. My friend Thom Klem, who didn’t live in the French house, remained friends with him and then corresponded with him after Olivier returned to France. Thom had sent a letter of introduction to Olivier and that was why he had acted so nice when I got to Paris. Now when Inge, Chris and I arrived in Lyons, it was already dark and I told them not to worry. I’d call Olivier. He had told me to call when I got to Lyons, and I was sure he would put us up. The phone rang several times. Finally Olivier answered. When I told him who it was, there was a silence. “You know, Kurt. In France it is very rude to call people after 10:00 p.m. Most people go to bed very early. I apologized profusely and felt kind of blind-sided. I thought he would have invited us to stay. I stammered and asked if he knew of any pensions or hostels where we could stay. I think he might have given us a number and then just hung up. I cannot remember where we ended up staying. I believe we had to split up, Inge going to a pension and me and Chris maybe even staying up all night talking in a doorway by the side of the road. In the morning we reassembled, and fortunately the second day turned out rather nicely. We found a Frenchman whose hospitality was diametrically opposed to Olivier’s. And fortunately, it is on that behavior and not Olivier’s that I base my opinion of the French, which is very fond indeed. But I’ll save that story for my next entry.

Anonymous. Trois Noëls De Notre-Dame-Des-Doms d’Avignon

Today’s three pieces come from an album I bought in 1976 on the Arion label, which has since gone out of business. The album was entitled, “Antique Provencal Instruments-Trouvers and Troubadors,” and it contained about 20 or so short pieces played on period instruments. These had wonderful names like crumhorn, psaltery, rackett, sackbutt, syrinx, hurdy-gurdy and flageolet. Some of the pieces on this album were sweet, some melancholy, others quite rousing. And some were just plain old tender and cute.

The last three pieces on this album, the Three Noels of Notre Dame des Doms of Avignon are among my favorites. I have always liked bells, and that is why the first of these three, ““Nosto Damo aquesto niue” appeals to me so much.   (The album is out of print but I was able to trace “Nosto Damo” to an album that’s on Amazon Italia and if you click on this image below you can hear an excerpt of this song. Click on the arrow to the left of “Riproduci tutti gli estratti.”)

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It starts out with a simple melody played a hand-struck carillon. For me at least, bells really seem to have a mysterious, almost ethereal quality that cause an almost religious kind of resonance that I feel in my bones. This piece is therefore particularly affecting. After the bells, a solo panpipe (or syrinx) picks up the melody and repeats it. Alone, it has a haunting, bird-like quality to it, like the sad coo of a mourning dove. On the third pass, a second panpipe joins in and the two pipes play the melody one last time in unison.

The second noel, entitled, “Quand il bergié” is a bright little dance. Flutes, hurdy-gurdy, and chamaleau–a primitive clarinet with a raspy sound-play a bright melody that would set any foot-mediaeval or modern-tapping.

But it is the last noel, which really touches my heart. A little piccolo plays a twittery opening. When it stops, we hear in the background an instrument called the “rossingnol of Aubagne,” which is an earthenware water bird whistle that mimics the song of the nightingale. These two instruments play back and forth for a while, before a chorus of flutes joins in accompanied by a martial rhythm played on hand-held drums. The flutes play the original melody while the bird whistle twitters away like mad in accompaniment. These pieces were written in the 16th century and the avian tone makes me think back to an incident with a pigeon on my first trip to Paris, and my own, flighty nature.

Bird Brain

After moving into Shakespeare and Company in March of 1977, I felt myself start to blossom. How could I not?  I was young; I lived in a bookstore in Paris, across the street from Notre Dame cathedral; I was meeting stimulating people from every corner of the Earth. I had reached wannabee writer nirvana. Having come to the city of Lights as my literary forebears Hemingway, Pound, Eliot, and Joyce, it wouldn’t be too long, I reckoned, before I started churning out great work of fiction. Just act like a bohemian, and the inspiration would come, and I’d start to channel my Nobel Prize-winning works.

In hindsight, I wish I had listened carefully to something that the owner of Shakespeare and Company, George Whitman, once told me. One day we were arranging a shelf of books, and I came across a box full of The Paris Review. When I asked George about it, he told me the review was founded by George Plimpton and others. It always featured interviews with living authors. I think I asked whether they had interviewed Jean-Paul Sartre and what he had said.

“They always ask the same question: ‘How do you write?’”

“Huh?” I said.

“Yes,” George said. “They always ask when the author writes, how much each day, and where. And you know what they always say? They all just write a certain amount every day. Day in and day out.”

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“You become a writer by writing.

But as I said, back then I thought you became a writer by living a bohemian existence. And there was no better place to do that than Shakespeare and Company. The other day, I mentioned meeting a Canadian painter about my age named David Maes. He and I became close friends rather quickly after we met. For a while, we sort of competed against one another for the affections of a German girl named Ingeborg, who was living at Shakespeare and Company. Ingeborg had a face like Ingrid Bergman, and like me was trying to turn herself into a writer. She was terribly depressive–I think she once showed me how she had burned her arms with cigarettes to punish herself. She made it plain on many occasions, after I had brought it up of course, that she was not interested in a sexual relationship with me. She was more interested in a friendship kind of like a brother and sister, which we could have been, what with our blonde hair and blue eyes.

I knew exactly what David saw in her. He had been living such a hermit-like existence, hole up in his room on the Ile de la Cite, painting all day long. Of course, Ingeborg wasn’t just anyone. She was a thoughtful, deep student of literature and philosophy. She spoke fluent English with a delightful lisp and she loved art and music as much as David and I. We often went to cafés and sat for hours, nursing a café-au-lait in the mornings or a white wine and Kir in the afternoons and sat writing in our journals or watching the crowds go by. Once she took me to the Café Sélect, which is where she told me, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir used to hang out. As a challenge to me, to see how truthful I was and whether I was capable of being intimate and trusting with her, she asked me if she could read my journal. That made my heart jump a bit, because most of the time I just wheedled and whined in my journal. But I took a deep breath and showed it to her and fidgeted a bit while she read. And when she was through and handed it back to me, there was a look in her eye, which seemed to say “God, what a disappointingly shallow person.” On another occasion, she suggested we draw each other’s portrait in our journal. That also made me cringe, because, after being a wannabe writer at that time in my life, the second thing I desperately wanted to be was an artist. But I was convinced I didn’t have the talent whereas in truth I didn’t have the training. And as with anyone who’s asked to do something on command, my nerves went to hell and I produced a pathetic sketch of Ingeborg. Again, I felt I had failed some test in her eyes.

Still, we continued to spend a good deal of time together–exploring the city, museums, and the grand monuments of Paris. I believe she was studying French somewhere in the city, and one day she returned from class all in a blue funk. On her way home, she had seen a dead pigeon lying in the middle of the street. It had been run over by about 20 cars. Seeing the free spirit of the bird splattered all over the road like that had sent her into a downward spiral. She went on about it for hours. To me her emotions seemed way out of proportion and misplaced. How could she care so much for a dead bird, and devote so much psychic and emotional energy to its death, when she could not show me even a sliver of warmth and caring? What was worse was that I tended to regard pigeons as a kind of avian vermin. They congregated in huge numbers in every public park and on every monument in Paris and shat everywhere. So Ingeborg’s emotion seemed particularly misplaced.

Reflecting now back on my motivations for hanging around Ingeborg, I am somewhat embarrassed. Of course, I was drawn to her for her intellect. She had read Sartre and Beauvoir as I had, and loved art and literature. Coming from land-locked, provincial Indiana (which, back in the 1930s, almost elected a governor who belonged to the Ku Klux Klan), I was desperately in search of a soul mate and Ingeborg fit the bill. For some reason, however, I couldn’t leave it at that. I wanted an intellectual and physical union. Unfortunately, being young and stupid, my physical desires got in the way of what I now understand as true compassion. What if I had recognized the clinical depression in her? Could I have done anything for her? I cringe now thinking of what might have happened to her. Yet, I didn’t even recognize the growing depression inside of me that overtook me 17 years later. How could I have recognized it in someone else?

We continued our dance for some weeks until one day a young man named Chris Carlsson showed up at Shakespeare and Company who completely captivated us. An American from somewhere outside Philadelphia, he’d just arrived from Denmark where he had spent a time with a friend of his parents, who had emigrated to the States from there. Chris was a sweet-natured, cute, tall, strawberry-blonde free spirit who was on his junior year abroad after going to school somewhere in California. His goal was to have as intense a time in Europe as he could with as many partners as he could. And the women fell for him. He told us how he had had an affair with the wife of his parents’ friend in Copenhagen, but the husband had so liked Chris that he had accepted it! The wife had even made him the thick, wool hooded windbreaker that he wore.

He and Ingeborg became fast friends and even I was taken with his charming manner. I seem to remember he and Ingeborg emerging one morning from the bunk bed, which was hidden from view behind a thick red velvet curtain over the stairwell and above the children’s book section at the back of the store. If I was angry, I don’t remember being so. Perhaps I had given up trying to become Ingeborg’s lover. Though at the time it did miff me a bit that she had been smitten by him, who seemed so much less serious than me. Of course, in hindsight, that is probably why she did so—I was a lugubrious twit back then-and nothing that I did would have lead her to conclude that I was anything but a bird brain.

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