News of the talented and much-loved poet Rachel Wetzsteon's death circulated yesterday and this morning an e-mail from her friend Rachel Hadas confirmed the sad news. We're still trying to make sense of it. She apparently took her life, at 42. Too young to die.
As we close out this year, I want to plead with everyone out there who is in despair and feels hopeless: wait. Please please get help. Here's a place to start.
Five years ago, I received a commission from the Royal Danish Ballet to write a full-length ballet with the legendary choreographer John Neumeier, based on Andersen’s The Little Mermaid for the opening of the new opera theater in Copenhagen during the 200th anniversary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen. While working on this score I read almost all of Andersen’s creative output as well as numerous works about him. What is the secret behind Andersen’s fairy tales, so complex, with multi-levels of possible interpretations, with ambiguity under the mask of simplicity, designed for adults although internationally labeled as literature for children?
Andersen understood human nature. In his simple, poetic and metaphorical way, he could speak about the most complex, often tragic elements that are universal. We all have hopes and dreams, some realized, some broken; we all have childhood memories that are precious. We seek beauty in whichever form it may take, we all die. We dream at night and do not know where the dreams come from or if there is a message in them or even what makes us dream. We fall in love, yet we struggle to discover what love is; we may even lose our sense of identity as being in love means to rediscover and redefine ourselves. We are afraid of death as it is unknown, and of darkness as we lose certainty, and of loneliness as we search for understanding. All of this is in Andersen's tales, which remind me of Robert Schumann's piano pieces Kinderszenen – they can be appreciated by children but are intended for adults.
The Little Mermaid's story touches upon many more subjects than just unrealized love. The story of the Little Mermaid is about a being who doesn't belong. She doesn't belong to the Ocean nor to the Earth. She doesn't belong to the world of her Prince (although she may think she does), nor to the world of her father and sisters. She doesn't even belong to the humanly conceived after-death places such as heaven or hell since she doesn't have an immortal soul. Since she is no longer a regular mermaid she can't even turn into the sea-foam as do other dying mermaids, but becomes a creature of the air instead. She is constantly searching and questioning her identity. Her love is her strength as it allows her to transform.
The Mermaid’s transformation at the end of Andersen’s tale is most striking. Neither human nor mermaid, she becomes a sister of the air at last. She is like a Phoenix – dying and burning her past yet is capable through the extraordinary strength of her essence to be born anew. Her last state is neither a reward for courage nor a punishment (although she is assigned a task of purification), yet there is a sense that she may finally find peace as she is the air and she is everywhere. Only perhaps in this purifying nonexistence can she be content. Maybe this is the answer to the ambiguity that Andersen poses with his ending of the story (which is almost always changed in the later adaptations) – it is not a conclusion, but another form of time, where time becomes timeless, space – spaceless. She is nowhere yet everywhere, and her presence is a blessing of pure breath. She loses her desires, but with the loss of desire one loses identity. Thus, she dies (neither as human nor mermaid, but as herself) and transforms into another realm where she is ABOVE her love for the prince. She no longer wants him for herself, she just is, but by simply being in this state she brings goodness and light. In a way it becomes a journey from the darkness of the ocean’s depth – to the light of the air. Yet it is not a happy ending, because the Little Mermaid that we know and love is gone forever.
Almost all of Andersen’s short stories would make perfect theater productions: ballets or operas. I especially love his Snow Queen with its strikingly beautiful images, deep wisdom and complex games with time. Andersen suggests that the human inability to grasp the concept of eternity is man's blessing. In this story a little boy, kidnapped by the snow queen, slowly loses his humanity. Yet he can't solve a riddle with the answer of "eternity" and that is what saves him, as it allows time for the little girl, who is traveling the world in search of him, to stop his heart from becoming ice-cold by melting the ice with her tears. There is a striking, almost painful purity in Andersen's writings. The boy and the girl in this story at one moment realize that they are not little children any longer, that they are grown-ups, yet they remain children in their hearts. There is a certain vulnerable fragility in his writing as if his soul is bared, and one wants to put one’s arms around him to protect this pure sensitivity. And yet his characters are incredibly courageous and strong. Courage and loyalty are important features in most of his stories.
What identifies a nation is its poets. Yet, as with any great poet, Andersen became an international figure. I have read several biographies of his life and times, including his own novel "The Fairy Tale of My Life". What is curious is that throughout his life, Andersen was composing his own biography, creating a perfect fairy-tale of his life, often rather different from its tragic and, at times, cruel reality. His real self can be glimpsed through his tales: he IS the Little Mermaid who outgrows her surroundings and is misunderstood by those around, he IS a steadfast soldier who keeps his courage and doesn't give up, he IS a poor, dreaming girl with a box of matches, capable of a wondrous imagination that lulls her into the forever blissful sleep of death, away from cold and hunger.
One of the peculiar qualities of writing theater music is that you need to find a balance between achieving what you intend to create artistically and make it work organically together with the dramatic requirements of the theater. If music becomes a servant of the dance as has happened with many 19th century ballets then there is a big problem. The other difficulty is the length. With The Little Mermaid we have three full acts, and to sustain the best quality within the span of an almost three-hour-long production, where the overall architecture needs to hold the structure together, was my highest priority and a challenge.
Neither the music nor the choreography of the ballet suggests the Danish culture of Andersen's time as this would not only be false but it would artificially cage him into a time which he has outgrown. At the same time, it was very important for me, in order to understand Andersen, to gather as much information about Danish culture and his life as I could. John Neumeier and I even studied the score written for one of the Andersen plays called "Agnete og Havmanden" (Agnete und der Meermann) with the music of Neils Gade, which was staged (to complete fiasco) shortly before Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid.
In Andersen’s tale, Little Mermaid has a most beautiful voice. Of course in the ballet, I could not use a real singer. In the orchestration, I was searching for an instrument that could represent the voice of the Mermaid and would be close to a human voice, yet also have an other-worldliness, a transcendental haunting quality. I found the timbre I was searching for in the sound of the theremin, the very first electronic instrument, created in the 1920’s by Leo Theremin. The instrument is incredibly expressive - think of a mixture between cello and flute to have an idea of its sound. Also, there is something very mysterious in this instrument, as it is played by moving hands in the air, no strings attached, no keyboards. The instrument itself is an electromagnetic field, created by its antenna. There is something magical about creating the sounds from emptiness. The instrument also is an outsider of the standard orchestra just like Little Mermaid is an outsider of her surroundings, and to represent a creature who becomes a spirit of air the theremin seemed most appropriate. For Mermaid’s human nature I have chosen a solo violin. Thus, there is a duality between violin and theremin, representing the dual nature of this chimera. The ballet’s orchestration is for the full symphony orchestra and is highly multilayered, presenting different levels, similar to the ocean’s complex co-existence of different worlds.
The ballet “Little Mermaid’ will receive its American premiere by the San Francisco Ballet on March 20th, 2010. The last performance of the San Francisco Ballet on March 28th will mark the 70th performance of this ballet world-wide since its premiere at the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen in 2005.
It’s the end of a tricky frikkin’ year, my friends, and a heck of a decade. If I were in charge I’d make an annual Cower in the Corner Day, where everyone just brings a blanky to the corner of a room and hunkers down for a nice twitch. How did Schopenhauer put it?
"Many millions, united into nations strive for the common good, each individual for his own sake; but many thousands fall sacrifice to it. Now senseless delusion, now intriguing politics, incite them to wars with one another; then the sweat and blood of the great multitudes must flow[...]. In peace industry and trade are active, inventions work miracles, seas are navigated, delicacies are collected from all the ends of the earth, the waves engulf thousands. All push and drive, some plotting and planning, others acting; the tumult is indescribable. But what is the ultimate aim of it all? To sustain ephemeral and harassed individuals through a short span of time, in the most fortunate case with endurable want and comparative painlessness (though boredom is on the lookout for this), and then the propagation of this race and of its activities. With this evident want of proportion between the effort and the reward, the will-to-live, taken objectively, appears to us from this point of view as a folly, or taken subjectively, as a delusion. Seized by this, every living thing works with the utmost exertion of its strength for something that has no value." (WWR II, 357)
"The futility and fruitlessness of the struggle of the whole phenomenon are more readily grasped in the…life of animals. The variety and multiplicity of their structural organization, the ingenuity of the means by which each is adapted to its element and to its prey, here contrasts clearly with the absence of any lasting final aim. Instead of this we see only momentary gratification, fleeting pleasure conditioned by wants, much and long suffering, constant struggle, bellum omnium, everything a hunter and everything hunted, pressure, want, need and anxiety, shrieking and howling; and this goes on in saecula saeculorum, or until once again the crust of the planet breaks." (WWR II, 354)
Why do I love these so much? Well, I love the rhythem, how excited they get about the staggering pointless misery of it all. Where German often hacks out sentences in sheetrock, the Schope is skipping stones. Love this: “delicacies are collected from all the ends of the earth, the waves engulf thousands.” A hundred years ago ships still went down regularly and you would read long lists of names lost in the evening papers; surely it is to this that the Schope refers, but we who watched a real freaking Tsunami on television several late-Decembers ago have our own reasons to shudder at the phrase.
Could I love the parenthetical remark on boredom any more than I do? No, I could not. And then after all those galloping horse feet the delightfully airy words float in for the finish: folly, delusion, no value.
The answer to these delicious, noisy attacks is to follow them scrupulously in a similar list of what I call in my book Doubt: A History, “the equal cacophony of birth, joy, and satisfaction.” A translation to optimism. Though it only now occurs to me to fashion a version:
So let's see, he’s saying that you’d think such a complicated fancy thing like human and animal life would have some meaning, and then breaks it to us (I hear requote the above):
“Instead of [meaning] we see only momentary gratification, fleeting pleasure conditioned by wants, much and long suffering, constant struggle, bellum omnium, everything a hunter and everything hunted, pressure, want, need and anxiety, shrieking and howling; and this goes on in saecula saeculorum, or until once again the crust of the planet breaks.”
Now, translated to reasonable joy:
Instead of [meaning] we see at least momentary gratification, and thanks to our almost constant needs we are graced with moments of pleasure and satisfaction, we live and continue onward through much and long suffering, which we all suffer together, though separately, and the cold usually find a warm place to go inside; the lonely sometimes notice that they are not lonely; fueled by anxiety we have flashes of the bliss of creating; also, we hold each other. Sometimes we join in the shrieking and howling, sometimes we wait it out; it goes on and on and on and on though someday it will stop, and it is ours right now and everyone’s always, always, always.
Alright my doves, you know I loves you. Last night I heard my three year old singing in the bathtub, “All the single ladies, all the single ladies.” Be safe on New Years and I’ll see you on the other side of 2010. Here goes the twenty-teens.
PS Above picture is from an exhibit at the Jewish Museum -- they've asked some writers, including me and to name one other Francine Prose, to comment on some art all of which inspired by Genesis, you know, In the beginning. Kind of a tough assignment. xoxo
Mark Twain, in a characteristically wry observation, once noted that "Wagner's music is better than it sounds." A comparable comment can be made about Bob Dylan's voice, or, more accurately, his voices. Anyone who, without warning, first listened to Nashville Skyline and thought the vocals were the result of studio engineering knows that like the man himself Dylan's voice shifts identity. Dylan's nasal Midwestern twang lately sounds like a weathered voice that has spoken and sung and battled its way down many miles of sorrow and found, from time to time, some refuges of hope along the way.
I'm writing about Dylan's classic voice, the voice on Freewheelin' through Blonde on Blonde, the voice that made Hibbing famous. It's fair to note that it was Dylan's lyrics that captured the age. But those arresting words would not have had same impact they had if Dylan had not sung them the way he did. I always thought he sang his songs better than all the covers.
Dylan's voice had many elements. The vocal qualities that so shocked Mitch Miller and almost everyone else at CBS Records were Dylan's successful effort to inhabit Woody Guthrie's voice box. The very untutored rawness of the voice with its inherent affront to the sweet, packaged conformity of the 1950s made it the right voice to attack those who made profits from war or wanted to block the way of a new generation.
The vocal elements, though, were only part of the overall voice. The reason so many Dylan covers fail is that the singers mouth the words but lack the ability to transmit their emotional power. George Burns once noted that, "Sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you've got it made." I want to believe Dylan was sincere as he sang his songs. I believe he was, despite the fact that he sometimes dismissed this idea. But sincere or not he acted as though he was sincere. He was a great actor, that is, either because he believed in the line and could control his voice to make listeners believe he believed, or he could simply mimic and fake passion perfectly.
Beyond the vocal elements and the emotions, Dylan's voice was helped by his phrasing. Particular syllables were emphasized and forced the listener to focus on them. Sometimes the phrases were virtually spoken in a rhythm, like beat poetry or talking blues. Talking blues was developed by Chris Bouchillon who recorded "Talking Blues" in April 1926. The recording director noted that Bouchillon's pleasant voice sounded better when he talked than when he sang, and so the director suggested that Bouchillon talk while he played the guitar. Woody Guthrie made the style popular. In Woody's case, he used talking blues to de-emphasize any beauty in the songs so that listeners could focus on the social and political importance of the words.
Dylan sometimes altered normal word accents. In poetry, such an alteration of the normal word accent is called a wrenched accent. It was common in the folk ballads that made up Dylan's informal education.
Putting vocals, emotion, and phrasing together with incomparable lyrics made Bob Dylan's voice unique in musical history.
NOTE TO READERS: My book Political Folk Music in America From Its Origins to Bob Dylan will be published on March 16th. For further information see: http://lawrencejepstein.com/folk
There are eight pawns, like a city. They are babies cast
down the river. The knights disappear into an L-shaped darkness, two fiery
preachers. Each bishop drives drunk in sideways rain. Rooks turn their collars
up, muffle doubtful sighs. The one king resurrects slowly. The queen plays
dead, is a stubborn ghost.
Last evening Stacey and I went to see the highly touted movie "An Education." It is a well-acted British film set in London and Oxford in 1961; the young (24) actress Carey Mulligan won rave notices for her portrayal of the under-age heroine, Jenny. The plot line is familiar: the movie is a busted fairy tale, in which the ordinary girl becomes a princess until the moment when her savior turns out to be a frog.
Nothing prepared us for the anti-Semitic line running through the movie. The charming cad -- who turns out to be a con man, a parasite, a philanderer, a thief, and a pervert -- is repeatedly identified as Jewish, gratuitously, for religion plays no part in the seduction narrative. Nothing requires that he be Jewish -- except the perpetuation of a stereotype, the demonizing of "the other," for allegorical purposes. The characters who reflexively voice their anti-Semitic prejudices -- the headmistress of Jenny's school, played by the redoubtable Emma Thompson, reminds the headstrong student that "the Jews killed our Lord" -- are not repudiated but vindicated by the turn of events in the movie. I found this element of the film most chilling, a disturbing reminder of the "genteel" anti-Semitism that I remember from my own time in Britain, and I scratch my head wondering why the vast majority of the critics overlooked this point. David Edelstein, in New York magazine, was an exception: "The story's most obvious lesson is 'beware of Jews bearing flowers.'"
Here is an excerpt from Irina Bragin's excellent piece, "The Wandering Jew in An Education: the Anatomy of an Anti-Semitic Film." -- DL
<<< Jenny: “Oh, and by the way ... David’s a Jew, a wandering Jew. So watch yourself.”
We were only 15 minutes into the film and this was the second
reference to the “Wandering Jew,” an age-old, European anti-Semitic
stereotype. The British coming-of-age film, “An Education,” had gotten
rave reviews, yet the more I watched, the more the character of David
Goldman resembled the parasitical Jew of “Der Ewige Juden” (“The
Eternal Jew”) — one of the infamous 1930s Nazi propaganda films I had
studied in Peter Loewenberg’s class at UCLA.
From the moment David starts following the teenage Jenny in his fancy
car, the pudgy, effete David Goldman (played by Peter Sarsgaard)
proclaims his ethnicity. (Jenny: “I’m not a Jew.” David: “No, I am. I
wasn’t ... accusing you.”) Like the predatory creature characterized in
“Der Ewige Juden,” Goldman pretends to adopt the values of his host
culture in order to turn its treasures into his profit. He offers Jenny
“three five-pound notes” to drive her cello home safely out of the
rain; “I’m a music lover,” he tells her. Then he proceeds to corrupt
the innocent gentile girl (played by Carey Mulligan) with expensive
flowers, gifts, concerts, art auctions and trips to Oxford and Paris.
David enriches himself by ruining good English neighborhoods,
deflating property values and looting cultural treasures from displaced
widows. He moves blacks into white neighborhoods: “Shvartzes,” he tells
Jenny, “have to live somewhere; it’s not as if they can rent from their
own kind.” The only identifiable Jew in the film, he constantly uses
the collective “we” to justify his wickedness: “This is how we are,
Jenny,” Goldman editorializes. “We’re not clever like you, so we have
to be clever in other ways, because if we weren’t, there would be no
fun.” He uses the word “stats” for old ladies he victimizes. They “are
scared of colored people; so we move the coloreds in and the old ladies
out and I buy their flats cheap.” Along with his partner, Danny, David
barges into a house, military style, and speeds away with precious
relics. “We have to be clever with maps,” he tells Jenny. An ancient
map, he rationalizes, “shouldn’t spend its life on a wall…. We know how
to look after it…. We liberated it.”
Is it possible that the film attempts to link the predatory Jew with his purloined Jewish homeland? >>>
This week, we're going to use this space to post items that came to us during the year but that somehow got lost in the deluge.
We recently learned about the Ella Fitzgerald Foundation, an organization that works tirelessly to perpetuate Ella's music and educate the young and foster the love of music. We *heart* Ella Fitzgerald and we're especially proud that the foundation gives a shout-out to A Fine Romance.