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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Owls and Messiaen Offer Levitation, Inspiration

One week ago at 3 a.m., I heard an owl from the trees behind my house. It offered several repetitions of the same sustained note in a dulcet alto that belied the bird’s predatory ways. Then, I heard a second note—a perfectly pitched fifth above the first—presumably from the same owl. But I was wrong. The fifth had come from a second owl. And then it happened. The two owls combined their notes simultaneously to create a stunning tonic-dominant interval. After several minutes of unrequited waiting for a reprise, I staggered back to bed in shock and delight.

Several days later, I got the skinny over the phone from naturalist Ted Watt at Amherst, Massachusetts’ Hitchcock Center for the Environment, which adjoins the wooded area behind my house. After quizzing me with a couple of his own diagnostic hoot impressions, Ted identified the birds as Great Horned Owls. January and February, he noted, is their time to nest, so I had been an aural voyeur to a mating ritual. Ted had never heard the simultaneous tonic-dominant interval himself and suggested that I try to record it. A small tape player now sits next to the water pick in my bathroom.

My Own Private Messiaen. My epiphany brought to mind the avian obsessions of the great French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). A devout Catholic mystic and tireless amateur ornithologist, Messiaen visited bird habitats on at least four continents and jotted down the note patterns of bird songs and bird conversations for over 100 species. (Bartok, who wrote down folk music in the field in European and Northern African villages, did analogous work with Homo sapiens.)

Avian inspiration is conspicuous in many of Messiaen’s greatest works. His most popular opus, Quartet for the End of Time, (1940-41) offers a 7+ minute clarinet soliloquy that explores a bevy of avian activities. (see the video performance at the bottom of this post.) His extended work for solo piano, Catalog l’oiseaux, (1956-58) musically paints the personalities of 13 species, including the tawny owl (La chouette hulotte), portrayed by Messiaen with considerable left hand gravitas, yielding occasionally to upwardly mobile clusters that suggest enchantments of a starry night. (Messiaen’s pianist-wife and collaborator, Yvonne, introduced the Catalog and many other Messiaen piano works to the public. Her surname, Loriod, received proper homage in the Catalog via a musical tribute to le loriot, the golden oriole.)

Messiaen’s lavishly orchestrated Des Canyons aux Etoiles (1971-1974) depicted the U.S. western desert, and Utah's Bryce Canyon and nearby Zion National Park. The musical excursion explored geology, the night sky, and, of course, avifauna. The VIB’s included orioles, robins, mocking birds, and several smuggled-in Hawaiian birds that the composer had encountered in the Pacific. And in what many consider to be Messiaen’s culminating masterwork—Saint Francis of Assisi (1975-1983), (for spirituality it rivals any mass that I know of), the composer devoted an extended final scene in Act II to the saint’s ravishing Sermon to the Birds. For Messiaen, birdliness was next to godliness. Take it from Saint Francis and Messiaen in the passage below:

Brother birds in all times and places, praise your creator. He gave you the freedom of flying. . . He made you a present of the air, the clouds, the sky. . . He allowed you to sing so marvelously that you speak without words, like the speech of the angels, by music alone.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On the Aging of Aquarius

My first memory of collective Boomer decline came in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, shot in November of 1976. Close up after close up revealed road maps of dissipation on the faces and physiques of iconic music makers of My Generation. When Van Morrison, portly and prematurely middle aged, bounced out on stage, the graffiti was on the wall: the Boomers might just be mortal after all, like any other generational cohort. Five years later, after gaping at the vast latitudes of Gerry Garcia and David Crosby, I fantasized a dark futuristic tale in which the last veteran of the Woodstock Festival—a la the last Civil War and WWI veterans—would reminisce to skeptical younger generations about uncertain glory days.

I am, in fact, a Woodstock alumnus, but odds are overwhelming that I will not be the final survivor of that mud fancier’s Valhalla. In fact, I’d bet my son’s inheritance that the last man standing will be a woman. For the U.S. population 65 and above, women outnumber men 4 to 3. But if you’re a guy and you make it to the final cut of supercentenarians (age 110 and over), you’ll be utterly eclipsed. Only five males grace the Gerentology Research Group’s international roster of 85 supercentenarians.(←Click there.)

While that ratio may prove enticing to some incontinent members of the Y chromosome elite, it offers Wig & Pen scant titillation. Back when Boomers still boomed, this blogger, just out of high school, rebuffed the advances of the poet Robert Bly after a reading at Worcester State College. Years later, Bly became a founding father of the men’s movement. No surprise then that Wig & Pen has looked askance at their incendiary desert romps and pachydermal forest pursuits. But given my gender’s long-term prospects, perhaps a men’s group is in order, maybe even our own Woodstock.

Burning Y Chromosomes in the Desert

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Annals of Seasonality: Are Family Therapists Prey to a December Effect? A January Effect?

Click to enlarge. (On the right--The Bluth Family)
It's common knowledge that holiday season revenues, not Santa, are a retailer’s saving grace. According to Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts (this blog’s home state), holiday sales account for about 25 percent of annual business for the average Massachusetts store.

But the retail world is not alone as the recipient of a holiday spike. That’s at least the contention of seven therapists and a priest who counseled this blogger for free about the matter (although one of them seemed on the verge of advising, I’m sorry, but we have to stop.)

The inspiration for the current investigation was my pal the priest—the same spiritual visionary who graced this blog last April in a post on spiffy vestments. In our tete a tete about the holiday spike, Father Guido (I’ve changed his name) confessed that he used to get so overloaded from counseling despondent family members during the holidays, that he would religiously repair to a nearby monastery in January to decompress.

When a retired therapist noted that she also left the stadium in January after working with dysfunctional families in December, I asked myself, Have I discovered a January Effect as well as a December Effect?

Not so, according to the six other therapists, who insisted that they soldier on with their clients into the new year. But all seven therapists and my friend the priest swear absolutely by the December Effect. And what a pity, one of them noted, that the American pastime of recreational shopping is useless as an emotional safety valve in December. How could it be anything but part of the problem? he lamented.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hitchcock and Hopper: Side by Side

Click to enlarge
When Edward Hopper and his wife Jo read in the New York Evening Post that Alfred Hitchcock had credited Edward’s 1925 painting House by the Railroad as the principal inspiration for the Bates house in Psycho, the couple was delighted, notes Hopper biographer Gail Levin. The painting with its isolated subject is widely said to depict loneliness and modernity’s abandonment of the Victorian sensibilities of Hopper’s youth. You can view the painting  in New York's Museum of Modern Art, but you can't visit the actual house. It was a creation straight out of Hopper's head. But the movie takes matters much further. When I look at Chez Bates’ singular, decaying mansard pointing skyward, I see death’s boney, accusatory finger. How about you?

Thank goodness for the less sinister architecture of the motel. In the movie preview below, Hitch takes us on a tour of the Bates complex. There’s much to learn from his hospitality—not the least that the director’s manipulation of his audience extends to enticing his public into the cinema. In other words, the Master of Suspense was also a master of marketing.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Paris 1882: Edouard Manet Meets Bass Ale

(Courtauld Institute of Art, London)

Sure, we’re the same species as the Homo sapiens depicted in pre-20th century paintings, but who hasn’t felt a disconnect when gazing in the art world’s rear view mirror—a chasm separating earlier cultures from our own? In that, transformations in material culture deserve much of the credit. Which is one good reason why Edouard Manet’s A Bar at Folies-Bergere, painted a year before his death in 1883, is exceptional.

Look at the counter of the bar in the above painting. You’ll see two bottles of Bass Pale Ale, with their familiar red triangle logo. It’s a brand that many of us know first hand. Seeing it in the painting connects us in a wink with late 19th century patrons (many of them perhaps British tourists) at Folies-Bergerie. All at once, via a commercial logo, we’ve discovered a bridge over a cultural chasm.

Ironically, many Americans have told me that they’ve seen the painting but haven’t noticed the beer. Some of them are not beer drinkers. Might others who are, however, be subject to the invisible gorilla trap, i.e., failing to see something in front of their noses, because it defies their expectations?

A Bar at Folies-Bergere must also be our longest-running example (albeit inadvertent) of product placement. Marketers at Bass must exult: 127 years of exposure to the brand in galleries and art books—that’s a lot of eyeballs!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Americans Weep for Enrique Morente?


Few Americans will lament the death on December 13 of Enrique Morente, age 67, Flamenco’s leading male vocalist (cantaor). That’s because few Americans have heard of Morente or, for that matter, of his fellow cantores. But for flamenco, losing Morente—a traditionalist and a modernizer; a guardian and disseminator of Lorca, Antonio Machado, and other Spanish poets; and a world music innovator—was a supreme loss—analogous to the passing of Astor Piazzolla in tango or the recent death of Ali Akbar Khan in Indian classical music.

When most Americans think of flamenco, percussive dancers or extraordinary guitarists like Paco de Lucia, Paco Pena, and Gerardo Nunez come to mind. But ultimately it is the voice that occupies the high-intensity still-point of the Andalucian art form. And in that genre, vocal sonority frequently takes a back seat to unvarnished passion. It is precisely that raw vocal intensity that transports the cantaor and his audience to the euphoric musical experience that flamenco culture calls duende.

If bel canto has an antonym, this is it. Paying ear-witness to many a cantaor is much like imagining Tom Waits with strep. In other words, my fellow Americans, you’ve had zero exposure to flamenco singing because the American music establishment considers it Not Ready for Prime Time. So there!

A Cantaor apart. But Mr. Morente was a musician apart who combined a powerful baritone with remarkable vocal control and nuance—assets that ultimately enriched his art. Here’s Robin Totton’s assessment of those skills in his valuable guide to flamenco, Song of the Outcasts:

This is not to say that fine singing choices don’t exist: Enrique Morente’s baritone (and his musicianship) could have put him in the class of Placido Domingo or Jose Carreras, had he so chosen.

Recent Recordings. Morente and his tragic contemporary, Camaron de la Isla (1950-92), are widely regarded as flamenco’s greatest post-war and (eventually) post-Franco cantaores. Both had deep roots in flamenco tradition; both also exasperated purists by experimenting with juiced up instruments, including electric guitars and electric basses. One of Morente’s greatest nontraditional achievements is the 1996 cd, Omega, which features a rock group and synthesized effects on half of its tracks. Many of those cuts, including the nine-minute eponymous Omega, highlight poems by Lorca. Others offer bold interpretations of songs by Leonard Cohen. (The flamenco-infused takes on Cohen’s First We Take Manhattan and Hallelujah!, the latter with small chorus, are surprising, unforgetable listening experiences.)

Estrella Morente
In the United States,  Morente’s most widely distributed cd is the splendid Morente--Lorca (1998 on the Narada label), which gives flamenco treatment to verse by the blind poet, murdered by Franco's thugs in 1936. Another recent standout is Pablo de Malaga (2008), which celebrates Pablo Picasso’s poems and paintings. In his latest outing, Morente Flamenco (2009), the cantaor is in supreme form with traditional repertoire on stage. His voice exudes a basaltic dark power, frequently on the verge of revisiting its magmatic origins, but always lasing the soundscape with controlled emotional intensity. Morente is survived by his daughter Estrella, who shares many of his musical sensibilities and has sold many more recordings than her father thanks to her vivaciousness and status as a world music superstar.

Morente Videos:

The first video below features Enrique Morente and the guitarist, Tomatito in Suena la Alhambra, an evocative Morente pipe dream. The second, which explores flamenco’s affinity with Northern African music, offers Morente in tandem with Khaled, the planet’s leading exponent of (Algerian) Rai.