August 5, Birthday of Betsy Jolas (b. 1928)

Born in Paris between WWI and WWII, Betsy Jolas grew up in an enviable milieu. Her mother was a well-known translator and her father founded the literary magazine, “transition,” which published James Joyce’ Finnegan’s Wake as a “Work in Progress.” Her studies at the Paris Conservatory were interrupted by WWII and she and her family decamped to the US, where she completed her studies at Bennington. After the War, in 1946, her family returned to Paris, where Jolas continued her studies at the conservatoire with Darius Milhaud, Simone Plé-Caussade and Olivier Messiaen. She replaced Olivier Messiaen at the conservatory and has been on the faculty there since 1975. She has won many prizes and is both a Chevalier in the French Légion d’Honneurand and is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Points d’aube


String Quartet No. 3



D’un opéra de voyage (1967)


Quatuor II for soprano, violin, viola & cello


Enfantillages


POINTS D`OR concerto for saxophone(s) & 15 instruments

April 25, Birthday of Szőnyi Erzsébet (b. 1924)

There is scant information on Wikipedia about Hungarian composer, Szőnyi Erzsébet except to say she has composed a lot including 8 operas. More information can be found on the website for the International (Zoltán Kodály) Society. Many of her works appear on Youtube, however, and maybe her music represents the evolution of classical music that Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók. This ranges from transcriptions of folk melodies into quite complex chamber music. Enjoy.

Hárfás kvintett
Zeneiskola koncertje
Trio Concertino
koncert II. rész

Claude Debussy. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

Happy New Year!

Today, I have chosen Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, because today’s post (see below) is about being in Paris in 1977 and going to see paintings of water lilies by Monet at the Orangerie museum. Monet’s paintings were so different that they caused a revolution in painting. Painters became more and more obsessed with abstracting form and color and how the paint relates to the surface of the canvass and this led to the Pointillism of Seurat, the Cubism of Braque and Picasso, and the Abstract Expressionism of people like Pollock.  Debussy was influenced by Monet as well as the highly imagistic and non-linear music of the Indonesian Gamelan, which he had heard during the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889.

In the same way of the Impressionist painters, Debussy’s music influenced almost every composer of the 20th century. In the opening strains of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, for example, you can hear him quoting the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

The Prelude was Debussy’s attempt to capture the emotion evoked by a poem by the French symbolist poet, Stephen Mallarme. In this poem, a faun (a satyr or Pan-like creature) has a semi-erotic dream about a water nymph. Debussy captures the feelings of arousal, the shimmering of the water, the climax of emotion, and the post-whatsit lassitude that engulfs the faun.

Down and Out in Paris

In my last post, I described how, during my first two weeks in Paris, my moods fluctuated wildly. Some days, I would rise early with a sense of excitement and spend the entire day going through the laundry list of attractions that people had told me to pay a visit or about which I had studied while working on my degree in French. I went to the Louvre, Notre Dame, Mont Martre, Sacre Coeur, Place des Voges, and the medieval section known as the Marais. In the evenings, I went to see retrospectives of all of Bertolucci’s films up to that point in his career, Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and Renais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Taking in all this culture buoyed my spirits, but at the same time an overwhelming sadness cast a pall over all my emotions.

I seemed to take to heart all the little setbacks that came my way and blame them on the city and its inhabitants. When I couldn’t find an apartment and the lead on one that seemed like a sure bet fell through, it sent me into a downward spiral. Now I see myself back then as being immature and impatient. Another thing that depressed me was that I wasn’t speaking French. I had fallen in with ex-patriot Americans and we all spoke English. Then when I would try out my French on the Parisians, they would either start talking to me in English or start railing at me about American imperialism or racism and sometimes both.

Perhaps I wasn’t prepared for the fast pace of big city life. Truth be told, back then parts of Paris were dirty and full of people on the make. Here are a few paragraphs I wrote to my friend Thom, that kind of sum up my impressions:

“[Paris] definitely has its charms. Who hasn’t looked glowingly upon the clochards [winos] in the metro as they loll about like wine soaked walruses? Who couldn’t be happy with the beggars who exhibit mutilated feet or their unseeing eyes hoping to shock you into doling out money? Who wouldn’t reflect upon their own happy childhood seeing a little gypsy girl who hands you a note that explains that she’s very poor, how her father ran off and left her and her mother. The latter sits by looking very well fed, shoving junk food into another baby that lies, swaddled, across her lap. Ah, it makes a man feel good to be alive, I tell you Thomas!”

“I cannot begin to express to you the warmth I feel when, bustled and shoved into a cramped metro car, my glance flies hither and thither trying to avoid the glances of others who are trying to avoid my own gaze. You can stare directly at someone and nothing registers–their face is a complete blank. I suppose it’s because the women feel that to smile would be an approval of a come on?”

In one of the letters that I wrote to Thom, I confess to being extremely lonely. All the new sights and sounds and smells of Paris were so overwhelming, that I wanted to have someone there to share it with. One of my fantasies was to become a writer, and I felt that if only could had had a soul mate with me in Paris, I could have become one. In truth, being on my own was probably the best thing that could have happened because I ended up writing almost continuously. I wrote letters daily to Thom and would sit in cafés for hours recording my impressions in a diary. What better way to learn how to do something than to practice it every day?

Still, I was too stupid to realize the value of that at the time, and so as I said before, I decided to buy a train ticket and go to the south of France. During my last week in Paris, I continued my sightseeing. One day I went to the Orangerie, a museum dedicated to the works of the Impressionists and the founders of modern art-Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, etc. It gets its name from having once been the green house for the Petit Palais and the Louvre where orange trees were stored during the winter. One of its treasures consists of two large elliptically shaped rooms that contain Monet’s culminating masterpiece, “Water Lilies.” These are four huge tableaux that cover the wall and recreate the scene on the pond on the grounds of Monet’s house at Giverny. The works represents an almost hallucinogenic or surreal experience sparked by gazing at the surface of the pond. The lilies seem to hover above the dabs of blue and green that shimmer on the rippling surface. I once read that Debussy was so taken by the evocation of moving water in Monet’s painting that he tried to capture the same sensation in his own musical compositions.

The curators of the Orangerie tried to capture the cross-fertilization between the visual and musical arts in their display of the “Water Lilies,” by playing music to heighten the artistic experience. Unfortunately, they chose to pipe in some ghastly and lugubrious contemporary music by a composer who was moved by the paintings. Why they didn’t just play some Debussy, remains a mystery to me. And believe it or not, this so offended me that it contributed to my decision to leave Paris.

Prince Mangkunegara IV of Surakarta: Puspawarna (Kinds of Flowers)

And as I have said before, it was always interesting hanging around with the artsy-campy crowd I discovered at Indiana University in Bloomington in the 1970s (see story below today’s piece.) Everything was allowed, and at least one member of the group knew about whatever I had questions about—opera, art, music, literature, history or languages. At a party once, someone took out a copy of The Nonesuch Explorer, which was an anthology of folk and classical music from nearly every continent. This album soon became my favorite, at it is the source of today’s piece.

It may seem odd to write about the court music of Java in a page devoted to classical music. But I never intended to limit this page to just Western classical music. In case of the gamelan, which is a combination musical instrument/orchestra, its music is as studied and formalized as that of our own. What’s more, this type of music had a profound effect on Claude Debussy who found in it the impetus to free him from the academically strict music of his day. Indeed, he experimented with the pentatonic scale, alternate rhythms, and new chordal clusters and his experimentation changed the face of Western music.

Today’s piece still grabs me after all these years. As soon as the track starts, its as if my mind shifts into a completely different reality. Time and is distorted—speeding up and slowing down willy-nilly. Space seems to warp. I might as well be dreaming.

Buy Recording from Nonesuch

Wikipedia Entry on this Piece

Biography of Composer

A Spitball Keeps me From Dancing (written in 1999)

In the Fall of 1976, my girl friend traveled to England. The girl I considered my soul mate, Kristi, had gone to Lima, Peru to work on her Spanish. I lived in a hovel in the bowels of an apartment building. My social life revolved mostly around the artsy-campy group that used to hang out around the French House.

Kristi wrote wonderful letters of her time in Lima. She had a jocular yet literary style and she painted wonderful word pictures about Peruvian culture, the country’s politics and a trek she made to the mysterious city of Machu Picchu. I would read her letters and imagine myself standing beside her on some promontory in the Andes, munching perhaps on an edible tuber.

The letters that came from my girl friend in England were singularly dispiriting. Once she wrote about an Indian meal she had eaten in London. She expressed surprise and a sense of injury when each dish she tried failed to taste the way she expected it. Later in the night, she threw it all up in her squalid little hotel room. The tone of the letters I now realize expressed the feelings of someone to whom fate had dealt some bad cards. At the time, however, I just scorned what I considered her weakness and frailty.

At such times I would bemoan my fate and wonder how I let Kristi slip through my fingers. Was there any chance that I could win her back? This turned out to be the start of a pattern that plagued me during a number of relationships. It’s the old “the grass is always greener” syndrome, and it has caused me to hurt a number of people, for which I am truly sorry.

I would like to say that I did the noble thing and remained faithful to my girl friend while she was in England. In truth, I was faithful in deed but not thought. I resembled Jimmy Carter in that aspect who during his campaign that fall gave an interview with Playboy Magazine in which he said “I have committed adultery in my heart many times.”

What made me faithful in deed, however, was not a deep moral or ethical conviction. No, I was just too shy to try to pick up girls. While writing this, I discovered why. Part of it has to do with having had a poor body image—I was a little plump as a child and a few adults remarked on it and though I lost my baby fat, the impression has lasted almost all of my life. But the prime reason I failed in the bar scene was the dancing. I wasn’t crazy about disco music which was all the rage back in the late 1970s, but that wasn’t the real reason. I had a mortal dread of making a fool of myself and having people stare at me.

It had to do with something that happened in my sixth grade band class. My parents had forced me to play the clarinet, at which I was hopeless. I always tried to get out of playing by pretending I was sick or had left my instrument at home. One day, we were supposed to take dance lessons in this class. We were all kind of excited about it—nervous adolescents with burgeoning sexual tension. I fidgeted.

Now my mother had recently bought me a brief case. I had lobbied for one because James Bond had one and he filled it full of cool devices any spy would need—guns, poison gas, bombs, Geiger counters, etc. What I liked about mine were the neat little spring-loaded clasps on either side of the handle. They were perfect little catapults for launching spitballs.

To break the tension and draw attention to myself (I was after all the class clown), I chewed up a piece of paper, wadded it into a sphere, set it on one of my catapults, called to one of my friends and inconspicuously nudged the button.

“Kurt!” yelled the music teacher, Mrs. Muldoon. “Out into the hall!”

I was crushed. I liked Mrs. Muldoon. She liked me. I liked her even though she had a hideous U-shaped scar on her neck from a thyroid operation. “No. I’m sorry,” I protested.

“Out!”

So out I went. She was so preoccupied coordinating and directing the dancing that she forgot all about me and I spent the entire hour out in the hall. I would look in the window from time to time and saw my friends—Boys!—touching girls. The left hand of my friend, Randy, rested on the hip of a girl! The other held the girl’s right hand aloft as they waltzed around the room. To make matters worse, the principal came walking up and asked why I was in the hall and I had to lower my head and confess my crime.

And so, I did what anyone would do to hide their shame and disappointment: I said “sour grapes.” Thus I did not learn to dance until graduate school and never mastered the art of the pick-up. Considering the number of people my age who ended up with herpes, however, I guess I really don’t mind.

Now if the Mrs. Muldoon had played Gamelan music in our class, maybe I would have learned to dance earlier.

Claude Debussy: “Pagodes” from Estampes

I grew up in Northern Indiana, just south of the Michigan border.  Every summer, my family would make at least one trip to Warren Dunes State Park on the Eastern Shore of Lake Michigan.  A central feature is the sand dune named, aptly, Tower Hill, which rises 240 feet above Lake Michigan.

Tower Hill always held a fascination for me and it was also became a destination during college holidays and vacations.  Once I travelled there with some friends to watch the ice floes.  Lake Michigan often freezes solid in the winter and in the spring when the ice starts to thaw, it breaks into huge chunks which get shoved together and push upward like huge cubist sculptures.  Another time, we came late at night during Thanksgiving break and sat–fairly tipsy–on the beach, feeling the wind blow the bracing lake’s spray in our faces.

With such natural wonders around, who could not develop a deep love for the outdoors and water?  Natural phenomenon like those dunes, Lake Michigan itself, and the deep, unspoiled forests that ran lakeside, inspired me and made me feel alive.  What an impression!

So for the next few postings, I’m going to write about pieces of music that were either inspired by nature or which I associate with nature or the seasons.

Debussy seems like a good composer to start with, because he stands at the forefront of the impressionistic movement in music. In a good number of his works, he tries to capture the emotional impressions that nature made on him. He gave his works titles like La Mer (the Sea), Gardens in the Rain, Reflections in Water, and today’s piece, Pagodes. Debussy wrote Pagodes after having heard Indonesian gamelan music performed at the International Exposition of 1899 and 1900.

The gamelan is an orchestra consisting of gongs, bowed and woodwind instruments, drums, rattles, and metal marimbas struck with hammers. Some gamelan music seems to unfold without a conventional time signature and therefore has a mystical, trance-like feel to it. (Listen to a piece called “Kinds of Flowers” here.)  The music of the gamelan is based on the pentatonic scale, which we instantly recognize as typical of oriental music.  You hear this in Debussy Pagodas.

Pagodes is the first of the three pieces in Estampes. In these three pieces, Debussy tried to capture the feeling of three excursions to Asia, Spain, and France. The interesting thing is that these were purely imaginary voyages, taken in the composer’s frontal lobes, which in portraits of Debussy, appear abnormally large.

Pagodes starts out with the piano tinkling away in a way that immediately makes me think of a stroll in a garden during or right after a Spring shower. The fauna is lush and dark green and we turn the corner and see a pagoda across a small pond. As we do, the piano grows louder imitating the crash of the gamelan gongs and the metallic keys of the marimbas. It turns peaceful again as we continue our stroll until we glimpse another pagoda, and then returns to the rain motif until it dies out in at the end.

This is almost anti-melodic music. It is a dialog between the pianist and the piano. It is perfect for sitting by the window on a rainy, late winter day.

Debussy Biography

Description of Estampes from French Wikipedia

Download MP3 or buy CD from Amazon

Prince Mangkunegara IV of Surakarta: Puspawarna (Kinds of Flowers)

And as I have said before, it was always interesting hanging around with the artsy-campy crowd I discovered at Indiana University in Bloomington in the 1970s (see story below today’s piece.) Everything was allowed, and at least one member of the group knew about whatever I had questions about—opera, art, music, literature, history or languages. At a party once, someone took out a copy of The Nonesuch Explorer, which was an anthology of folk and classical music from nearly every continent. This album soon became my favorite, at it is the source of today’s piece.

It may seem odd to write about the court music of Java in a page devoted to classical music. But I never intended to limit this page to just Western classical music. In case of the gamelan, which is a combination musical instrument/orchestra, its music is as studied and formalized as that of our own. What’s more, this type of music had a profound effect on Claude Debussy who found in it the impetus to free him from the academically strict music of his day. Indeed, he experimented with the pentatonic scale, alternate rhythms, and new chordal clusters and his experimentation changed the face of Western music.

Today’s piece still grabs me after all these years. As soon as the needle hits the vinyl, its as if my mind shifts into a completely different reality. Time and is distorted—speeding up and slowing down willy-nilly. Space seems to warp. I might as well be dreaming.

Buy Recording from Nonesuch

Wikipedia Entry on this Piece

Biography of Composer

A Spitball Keeps me From Dancing

In the Fall of 1976, my girl friend traveled to England. The girl I considered my soul mate, Kristi, had gone to Lima, Peru to work on her Spanish. I lived in a hovel in the bowels of an apartment building. My social life revolved mostly around the artsy-campy group that used to hang out around the French House.

Kristi wrote wonderful letters of her time in Lima. She had a jocular yet literary style and she painted wonderful word pictures about Peruvian culture, the country’s politics and a trek she made to the mysterious city of Machu Picchu. I would read her letters and imagine myself standing beside her on some promontory in the Andes, munching perhaps on an edible tuber.

The letters that came from my girl friend in England were singularly dispiriting. Once she wrote about an Indian meal she had eaten in London. She expressed surprise and a sense of injury when each dish she tried failed to taste the way she expected it. Later in the night, she threw it all up in her squalid little hotel room. The tone of the letters I now realize expressed the feelings of someone to whom fate had dealt some bad cards. At the time, however, I just scorned what I considered her weakness and frailty.

At such times I would bemoan my fate and wonder how I let Kristi slip through my fingers. Was there any chance that I could win her back? This turned out to be the start of a pattern that plagued me during a number of relationships. It’s the old “the grass is always greener” syndrome, and it has caused me to hurt a number of people, for which I am truly sorry.

I would like to say that I did the noble thing and remained faithful to my girl friend while she was in England. In truth, I was faithful in deed but not thought. I resembled Jimmy Carter in that aspect who during his campaign that fall gave an interview with Playboy Magazine in which he said “I have committed adultery in my heart many times.”

What made me faithful in deed, however, was not a deep moral or ethical conviction. No, I was just too shy to try to pick up girls. While writing this, I discovered why. Part of it has to do with having had a poor body image—I was a little plump as a child and a few adults remarked on it and though I lost my baby fat, the impression has lasted almost all of my life. But the prime reason I failed in the bar scene was the dancing. I wasn’t crazy about disco music which was all the rage back in the late 1970s, but that wasn’t the real reason. I had a mortal dread of making a fool of myself and having people stare at me.

It had to do with something that happened in my sixth grade band class. My parents had forced me to play the clarinet, at which I was hopeless. I always tried to get out of playing by pretending I was sick or had left my instrument at home. One day, we were supposed to take dance lessons in this class. We were all kind of excited about it—nervous adolescents with burgeoning sexual tension. I fidgeted.

Now my mother had recently bought me a brief case. I had lobbied for one because James Bond had one and he filled it full of cool devices any spy would need—guns, poison gas, bombs, Geiger counters, etc. What I liked about mine were the neat little spring-loaded clasps on either side of the handle. They were perfect little catapults for launching spitballs.

To break the tension and draw attention to myself (I was after all the class clown), I chewed up a piece of paper, wadded it into a sphere, set it on one of my catapults, called to one of my friends and inconspicuously nudged the button.

“Kurt!” yelled the music teacher, Mrs. Muldoon. “Out into the hall!”

I was crushed. I liked Mrs. Muldoon. She liked me. I liked her even though she had a hideous U-shaped scar on her neck from a thyroid operation. “No. I’m sorry,” I protested.

“Out!”

So out I went. She was so preoccupied coordinating and directing the dancing that she forgot all about me and I spent the entire hour out in the hall. I would look in the window from time to time and saw my friends—Boys!—touching girls. The left hand of my friend, Randy, rested on the hip of a girl! The other held the girl’s right hand aloft as they waltzed around the room. To make matters worse, the principal came walking up and asked why I was in the hall and I had to lower my head and confess my crime.

And so, I did what anyone would do to hide their shame and disappointment: I said “sour grapes.” Thus I did not learn to dance until graduate school and never mastered the art of the pick-up. Considering the number of people my age who ended up with herpes, however, I guess I really don’t mind.

Now if the Mrs. Muldoon had played Gamelan music in our class, maybe I would have learned to dance earlier.

Claude Debussy: “Pagodes” from Estampes

This past week, I travelled to Warren Dunes State Park on the Eastern Shore of Lake Michigan, just north of the Indiana State line.  Our family spent many a hot summer day there during my early years.  A central feature is the sand dune named, aptly, Tower Hill, which rises 240 feet above Lake Michigan.  Despite it being an unseasonably hot October day, the beach was nearly deserted save for a few sun worshippers.  My wife and I climbed the hill on the slope of which we encountered a young man, maybe in his late 20s, who had a sand board.  When we got to his level, he offered to let us ride the board down.  Between runs, while he waxed the board, he told us a bit about his life.  He worked with youth on the weekends at his church and had a job as a forklift operator at a factory nearby.  He had prayed to find a job and was thankful for this one, which “God had sent me.”  His dream was to open a shop where he could sell sand boards, surf boards, hang gliders and parasails.  He gave us a wonderful gift of letting us recapture on the sand, the fun of winter sledding runs.

Tower Hill always held a fascination for me and it was also became a destination during college holidays and vacations.  Once I travelled there with some friends to watch the ice floes.  Lake Michigan often freezes solid in the winter and in the spring when the ice starts to thaw, it breaks into huge chunks which get shoved together and push upward like huge cubist sculptures.  Another time, we came late at night during Thanksgiving break and sat–fairly tipsy–on the beach, feeling the wind blow the bracing lake’s spray in our faces.

With such natural wonders around, who could not develop a deep love for the outdoors and water.  Natural phenomenon like those dunes, Lake Michigan itself, and the deep, unspoiled forests that ran lakeside, inspired me and made me feel alive.  What an impression!

So for the next few postings, I’m going to write about pieces of music that were either inspired by nature or which I associate with nature or the seasons.

Debussy seems like a good composer to start with, because he stands at the forefront of the impressionistic movement in music. In a good number of his works, he tries to capture the emotional impressions that nature made on him. He gave his works titles like La Mer (the Sea), Gardens in the Rain, Reflections in Water, and today’s piece, Pagodes. Debussy wrote Pagodes after having heard Indonesian gamelan music performed at the International Exposition of 1899 and 1900.

The gamelan is an orchestra consisting of gongs, bowed and woodwind instruments, drums, rattles, and metal marimbas struck with hammers. Some gamelan music seems to unfold without a conventional time signature and therefore has a mystical, trance-like feel to it. (Listen to a piece here.)  The music of the gamelan is based on the pentatonic scale, which we instantly recognize as typical of oriental music. It is fitting then that he called this piece Pagodas.

“Pagodes” is the first of the three pieces in “Estampes.” In these three pieces, Debussy tried to capture the feeling of three excursions to Asia, Spain, and France. The interesting thing is that these were purely imaginary voyages, taken in the composer’s frontal lobes, which in portraits of Debussy, appear abnormally large.

“Pagodes” starts out with the piano tinkling away in a way that immediately makes me think of a stroll in a garden during or right after a Spring shower. The fauna is lush and dark green and we turn the corner and see a pagoda across a small pond. As we do, the piano grows louder imitating the crash of the gamelan gongs and the metallic keys of the marimbas. It turns peaceful again as we continue our stroll until we glimpse another pagoda, and then returns to the rain motif until it dies out in at the end.

This is almost anti-melodic music. It is a dialog between the pianist and the piano. It is perfect for sitting by the window on a rainy, late winter day.

Debussy Biography

Description of Estampes from French Wikipedia

Download MP3 or buy CD from Amazon

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