The mechanism of memory is
complex. The Time Machine--a dream
of dreamers--was created long ago. It is human memory. And I am certain that we have been
granted the power to remember everything; that in the depths of the human brain
are preserved imprints of every moment we have lived in past and future
lives. The only complication lies
in the ability “to find” them in the labyrinths of memory. To find them by
secret guiding signs: smells, a familiar place, a certain refraction of light,
To unwind the ball of string as
I make my way to my beginnings.
I am my memory, the sum total
of all the moments I have lived.
Moreover, my "I" divides and multiplies: I am an infant, and
an elderly person, and an artist, and a thief, and a murderer. All of these possible past incarnations
of mine swarm past in my subconscious like phantoms, and when I begin a
monologue in my own name (as I see myself at this very moment), I inevitably
put it into the mouth of a phantom from my own midst. And that which seemed to me to be sincere and the only true
thing when I was writing is only one facet of a thousand and, like the crooked
mirror, does not reflect the features, but distorts them. Although who knows, perhaps only
crooked mirrors tell us the truth.
I see crowds and crowds of people.
Among them are artists, captains, artisans and kings, musicians and
circus performers, milkmen and murderers.
And all of them are me. And
every time I begin to wind the thread that leads me out of the labyrinth toward
the light, instead of exiting I fall into a new labyrinth. In each of the labyrinths a Minotaur
lies in wait--sin that arrives from my former incarnation. And my goal is to kill the Minotaur.
Here are several characters from my spectral retinue:
Madman Gambler Robber Adventurer Wise Hermit Skeptic Child Artist (Odysseus) His Muse Apollo (Rational Force) Dionysus (Elemental Force) Gaiea (Primordial feminine,
fertility, the mystery of birth passed on from mother to daughter) Savage (Mowgli) Nymphette Homeless Wanderer (The
Wandering Jew) Martyr Hero (for whatever you
like: faith, fatherland, ideas) Clown Whore and Nun Don Quixote Maniac Murderer Joseph, sold into Egypt
–Well, who else is there, come out into the light!
The characters are wearing masks, one transmutes into another. A
mirrored hall, where the mirrors reflect one another, fracturing the
reflections. A carnival of phantoms; bifurcation, disorder, division of my
...In his own likeness and image...
A crowd of mirror werewolves. Welcome to the theater of the absurd.
one thinks of Rachmaninov, usually what comes to mind is his face, serious and
stern, clean-shaven, with a short modern haircut. His expression is distant and
cold. He looks like a British gentleman, not easily approachable, always well
dressed, with a posture of self-confidence if not arrogance. Then one may
remember the endless tales of Rachmaninov’s depression, his legendary gloom,
the trademark-able depth of his Russian soul. Yet to me Rachmaninov’s name has
always been linked to joy.
Back in 1991, at the time of my immigration to America, alone and far from home
for the first time, an ocean and an era away, I decided to compile a
cassette-tape, which included music that would give me hope. At the first sign
of despair, I would play this tape. Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto (I
believe it was Ashkenazy’s recording) occupied the first half; the second half
was shared by Bach, Mozart, and Stravinsky. This antidote to depression
must have worked, as I managed to survive my late teens, accompanied by the
opening bells of Rachmaninov’s concerto and Bach’s “Ich Habe Genug”.
The Second Piano Concerto of Sergei Rachmaninov is one of the most frequently
performed works in the world. The generosity of its writing is overwhelming and
it is a pure joy to play. I was so excited to perform it for the first time
- I still remember the burning feeling of anticipation while standing
backstage and waiting for the stage call.
piano writing is truly idiomatic – the texture lends itself to the pianist’s
hands – rich, sonorous, passionate. This music is so generous that the most
common performance problem is over-involvement or over-interpretation, which
may result in sweetening the richly cooked meal and thus spoiling it.
was a modern Western man who traveled the world and even lived for several
years in Dresden, long before his decision to leave Russia permanently in the
turbulent year of 1917. We tend to forget this, but Rachmaninov was an American
composer, an American citizen, who always loved his cultural Russian heritage
but was able to embrace his adopted country fully. He lived for 26 years in the
United States in New York and in Los Angeles and died in Beverly Hills in 1943.
He was known to have a great sense of humor in private circles and was a connoisseur
of good food and wine.
Rachmaninov never trusted the Soviet government, which repeatedly tried to
entice back famous Russian artists who lived abroad, such as Stravinsky,
Prokofiev and Rachmaninov. Only Prokofiev chose to return to the Soviet Union,
which was the gravest mistake of his life. But that is another story for
the US, Rachmaninov’s main occupation was as a concert pianist. His piano
recitals were legendary. He was adored by the public and critics alike.
However, as a composer, he was unfavorably reviewed by the music critics. He
was a contemporary of Stravinsky, Debussy and Schoenberg. The
pressure of the avant-garde was everywhere. Rachmaninov, who early on
developed his own musical language, (one can always recognize his music from
listening to just a few seconds) found himself an outsider in the mainstream of
Western musical development. He was deeply troubled by this, yet his attempts
to conform would create only greater failures in his own eyes.
Piano Concerto no.2 was composed between the fall of 1900 and April 1901. Rachmaninov performed the 2nd and 3rd movements on Dec. 2, 1900. The complete work was
first performed on October 27, 1901 with the composer as soloist and his cousin
Alexander Siloti conducting. The concerto is dedicated to Nikolai Dahl, a
physician who helped Rachmaninov restore his confidence through hypnosis.
Prior to this concerto, Rachmaninov’s 1st Symphony and his 1st Piano Concerto
– both premiered in Russia – were complete fiascos, which resulted in his
depression and loss of confidence. The 2nd Piano Concerto was Rachmaninov’s
creative resurrection and affirmative “Yes!” to his ambition as a composer. Rachmaninov was 28 years old when he composed it. He was in love and about to get married
to Natalia Satina. This concerto was his first mature work.
imagine him at that time. All the upcoming turmoil of his life – the
Revolution, concert tours and American immigration are still far ahead. He is
only 28, in love and has just finished his most ambitious work. He smiles
shyly and proudly closes his manuscript.
From left to right: Marie-Pierre Greve (Royal Danish Ballet), Silvia Azzoni (Hamburg Ballet), Yuan Yuan Tan (San Francisco Ballet)
I am currently in San Francisco, where the San Francisco Ballet is preparing the premiere of my ballet The Little Mermaid. Today was my first rehearsal with the orchestra and tomorrow will be the first rehearsal with the dancers and the orchestra.
The ballet was originally written for and commissioned by the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen for the anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen and opening of their new opera theater in 2005 (this ballet was the first ballet production done in this new theater).
The following year the Hamburg Ballet commissioned me a revised version of this work, premiered in 2007 and since then it became part of their repertoire. The last performance of the San Francisco ballet on March 28th will mark the 70th performance of this ballet world-wide since its original creation in 2005.
When John Neumeier sent me the first draft of the libretto in 2004 he added in the letter, which accompanied it, that I should use this libretto very freely -- as a source for inspiration and as a suggestion for the structure -- so that in return the music could inspire the choreography and vice-versa. During the work on the ballet we met many times in New York, Hamburg, Baden-Baden and Copenhagen - and sometimes talked for hours on the telephone, an ocean across from each other, so there was always a mental link between us. Yet we also spent long stretches of time working separately and sometimes our visions of the Mermaid and her world would slightly depart from each other and it would take some effort to adjust each other's perspective. In some ways it is like two parents raising a child, or raising a Mermaid in this case. In fact the work went through so much transformation, as we went along, that the original libretto that I received from John bares little resemblance to the final work.
Neither the music nor the choreography of The Little Mermaid 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.
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.
In some ways our Little Mermaid is a very intimate work. It is about personal transformation and about relationship between a creator (Andersen) and his creation (Mermaid). A lot of the material is written as chamber music. Yet, it is also a larger than life story of love, death, personal identity, time and timelessness. It deals in three levels - under the ocean (Mermaid's world), on earth (human world) and above earth (after-world), and for this the large canvas - full orchestra is needed. Just the ocean with its multiple depths, layers, colors, shifting movements requires a large mural and a full pallet to work with.
In Andersen's tale Mermaid has a most beautiful haunting voice. I was searching for a very special sound. I even thought of using a singer, but it did not feel right as it was too real, too hot-bloodedly human. I needed the voice from the dreams, haunting, fragile and powerful at the same time, strange and expressive. Mermaids in different world's tales can lure the sailors and cause ship-racks, because when men would hear their singing time itself would stop to listen and one could completely loose oneself and die for their magical voices. 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 the solo 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.
If you're in the San Francisco area, head on over to the The War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue in the
Civic Center to catch the US premier of The Little
Mermaid, by Hamburg Ballet Director and Chief Choreographer John
Neumeier. The ballet features an original commissioned score by renowned composer (and BAP blogger ) Lera Auerbach.
According to the SF Ballet program notes, Neumeier’s contemporary version of The
Little Mermaid "is a haunting tale of two divergent worlds: the
serenity and simplicity of underwater life and the complex, often
flamboyant lives of humans. The mermaid heroine travels through both
worlds, enduring torment because of her committed love for a prince—but
through her own strength in the end—transcends."
The National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. asked me to write program notes for one of the Kennedy Center's "Focus on Russia" programs this season. One of the works in the program was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4.
Tchaikovsky’s 4th symphony was written between 1877 and 1878, during the most turbulent year of Tchaikovsky’s life and is closely associated with two women – one whom he married that year and the other, whom he never met in person. In the tradition of the romantic excesses of his time, his wife cast a demonic shadow over his life, while the other woman remained an angelic presence.
In late March of 1877 Antonina Miliukhova wrote Tchaikovsky a letter, confessing her love for him. She was a former student whom he did not remember meeting twelve years earlier when she was 16. Tchaikovsky’s response to her letter was similar to that of Onegin to young Tatiana in Pushkin’s famous novel-in-prose. Tchaikovsky stated clearly that the feeling could not possibly be mutual and that their life together would be a domestic nightmare. To this, Antonina requested he grant her one meeting, just one meeting before she would end her life which would be impossible and meaningless without Pyotr Ilyich.
Shortly after receiving Antonina’s first letter, Tchaikovsky started his work on the opera “Eugene Onegin”. Tatiana’s famous letter to Onegin plays a central role in Pushkin’s novel and in the opera. Clearly, both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky sympathized with Tatiana. After receiving Antonina’s first letter Tchaikovsky was shocked by the parallel to Tatiana. “It seems to me as if the power of fate has drawn to me that girl”, Tchaikovsky wrote to Nadezhda von Meck – his patron, his muse, his best friend and confidant, someone he never met face to face, but with whom he exchanged over 1000 letters and to whom Symphony No.4 is dedicated.
There was one more reason for marrying. Shortly before Antonia’s letter, Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother, Modest, that he had made a decision to get married soon, although he did not yet know to whom. He felt he needed to acquire the status of a married man in order to stifle the scandalous rumors about his numerous homosexual encounters. Homosexuality was considered a dishonorable crime in the Tsarist Russia and was punished by arrest and exile to Siberia. Tchaikovsky hoped that by marrying Antonina, he would appear “normal” and all talk about his homosexuality would stop.
The wedding took place on July 6th and a few weeks later Tchaikovsky ran away to his sister’s estate in Ukraine, where he composed like a madman for six weeks. After returning to Moscow to his eager and bewildered wife, he suffered a panic attack and eleven days later attempted suicide by throwing himself into the river at night. He was hoping to catch pneumonia. He did not even catch a cold.
Divorce in Russia was possible to obtain only on the grounds of infidelity. Tchaikovsky was afraid that a trial in court could potentially expose his homosexuality. Besides, Antonina did not wish to get divorced from her famous husband and for the rest of his life blackmailed him for financial support which he diligently and generously supplied on the promise that she leave him alone. What happened to this real-life Tatiana? Antonina Miliukhova gave birth to three children from unknown fathers and abandoned all three, leaving them at an orphanage, where all three died. She spent the last twenty years of her life in a psychiatric asylum where she died in 1917, eight months before the Bolshevik Revolution, from which Rachmaninov and other numerous Russian artists fled to the West.
Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Anatol about that turbulent time of his marriage: “There is no doubt that for some months I was insane, and only now, when I am completely recovered, have I learned to relate objectively to everything which I did during my brief insanity. That man, who in May took it into his head to marry Antonina Ivanovna, who during June wrote a whole opera as though nothing had happened, who in July married, who in September fled from his wife, who in November railed at Rome and so on – that man wasn’t I, but another Pyotr Ilyich.”
The 4th Symphony is dedicated to “my best friend” – the other woman in Tchaikovsky’s life, his supporter, patron and commissioner – Nadezhda von Meck. She believed in Tchaikovsky’s talent and made it financially possible for him to resign from teaching, enabling him to dedicate himself fully to composing. She supported him from the time he was 38 years old to age 49. We all should be forever grateful to Nadezhda von Meck – without her, Tchaikovsky’s greatest works might not have been born.
At von Meck’s request Tchaikovsky wrote an explanation, something similar to program notes about the symphony, which greatly harmed the reception of the symphony. For generations, music critics argued over his words instead of listening to his music and understanding its scope and impact.
There is a monumental, larger-than-life breadth to this symphony. It is similar to an epic, where all essential questions of human existence are brought forth and examined with a life-or-death intensity.
The 1st movement, Andante sostenuto – Moderato assai, quasi Andante – Allegro vivo lasts as long as the remaining three movements together and draws a parallel to Beethoven’s 5th symphony, forming a musical dialogue between two great symphonists. The fanfare, representing Fate, creates a memorable terrifying opening. The emotional openness and daring intensity of this music are incredible. Music and emotion are inseparable, but only a few have dared to be so vulnerably open in their art. The form of the 1st movement is not typical – it is a curious blend of a formal structure with the freedom of a tone poem. Tchaikovsky had trouble with structural canons. His thematic material doesn’t lend itself naturally to development. He was a great melodist and his melodies are so complete and emotionally full within themselves that the only natural way to develop them is to repeat in different ways. This is why there are so many repeats and sequences in Tchaikovsky’s music instead of actual developmental material, as in the Germanic tradition.
The 2nd movement, Andantino in modo di canzona, is of a reflective, melancholic nature. Tchaikovsky recreates the feeling of a Russian landscape. The material he uses is original, but inspired by Russian folklore – a technique later adopted by Igor Stravinsky. The writing for solo woodwinds is vocal, almost operatic. Tchaikovsky admired Rossini and was influenced by Rossini’s vocal writing. Tchaikovsky’s music combines elegance and power with great attention to detail.
The 3rd movement is Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato – Allegro. It resembles a painting, an arabesque, a dance of shadows. In 1877, shortly before the creation of the 4th symphony, Tchaikovsky’s first ballet “Swan Lake” premiered. Imagine the world before “Sleeping Beauty” or “Nutcracker”. Tchaikovsky, with his creation of “Swan Lake”, brought ballet music to an entirely new level. He adored dancers and greatly enjoyed writing for the ballet. Much of his music lends itself naturally to dance.
The 3rd movement of the symphony shows an unprecedented 97-note-long pizzicatti passage for the string basses and one of the world’s shortest, but most nightmarish solos of exceptional difficulty for piccolo.
Finale – Allegro con fuoco – is full of excitement and intoxication with life – a rush of energy beyond control, suggesting that life is worth living in spite of all the struggle and tragedy. This music takes virtuosity to the edge of what is possible. Tchaikovsky uses a well-known Russian folk-tune, “In the Field Stood a Birch Tree”, as one of the themes. He also re-introduces the material of the 1st movement, although its appearance seems to be a calculated (or miscalculated) dramatic device rather than an organic development.
This music of great emotional contrasts, so essential for the Romantic era, is in striking contrast to all the known portraits of Tchaikovsky, in which he always appears looking like a clerk or a banker, someone who could hardly be suspected of harboring any passion at all, not to mention suffering the great turmoil of Tchaikovsky’s life. It is as if everything that he tried to conceal from prying eyes, he turned into music, where it flourished freely and burned with painful honesty.
Tchaikovsky conducted at the opening of Carnegie Hall. Although in his younger years he suffered from terrible stage fright, later in life he enjoyed success as a conductor of his music. Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are an important chain in symphonic development. He draws a bridge between Beethoven and Mahler. He dares not to turn away from any emotion, but instead magnifies it to symbolic and epic proportions. His music is so personal that it becomes universal.
I cannot finish this essay without mentioning Tchaikovsky’s death. For many years it was attributed to cholera. During Soviet times, all the materials relating to his last days were censored and concealed. Latest findings show that Tchaikovsky died nine days after the premiere of his 6th symphony by an enforced suicide – he was sentenced so by a “Court of Honor” which consisted of Tchaikovsky’s fellow alumni from the St. Petersburg Imperial School of Jurisprudence. If he failed to succeed with suicide, his homosexuality would be exposed to the tsar and to the Russian public along with the evidence they had gathered. If indeed true, and I believe it is, this is one of the most tragic deaths in the history of Western Music and one of the greatest losses for humanity as Tchaikovsky died at the very height of his artistic power. He was 53.
I have been fascinated by the myth of Icarus. As a child, I
lived in ancient Greece. The book of myths was my favorite and the world of
jealous gods and god-like humans was more real to me than the world outside of
my windows, full of bloody red flags (the red of the Soviet flag symbolized the
blood of the heroes of the Revolution) and the Soviet-trinity portraits of
Lenin-Marx-Engels with the occasional bushy eyebrows of Brezhnev looking at me
from the walls of the buildings. In some ways the two worlds blurred. The world
outside made much more sense through the perspective of the ancient Greek
myths, where it was quite common for a power-protective god to devour all his
Icarus was one of my heroes (or antiheroes, depending on the
interpretation) – the winged boy who dared to fly too close to the sun.The wings were made by his father,
Daedelus, a skilled craftsman, who earlier in his life designed the famous
labyrinth in Crete that held the Minotaur. Deadalus was held prisoner in Crete
and the wings were his only way to escape.
Deadalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun or
too close to the ocean, but what teenager listens to his father? Exhilarated by
freedom, by his own youth, by the feeling of flight, Icarus soared higher and
higher until the wax on his wings melted and he fell into the ocean. Oh,
gravity! Sometimes I think it is the law of gravity that truly defines our
What makes this myth so touching is Icarus’s impatience of
the heart, his wish to reach the unreachable, the intensity of the ecstatic
brevity of his flight and inevitability of his fall. If Icarus were to fly
safely – there would be no myth. His tragic death is beautiful. It also poses a
question – from Deadalus’s point of view – how can one distinguish success from
failure? Deadalus’ greatest invention, the wings which allowed a man to fly,
was his greatest failure as they caused the death of his son. Deadalus was
brilliant, his wings were perfect, but he was also a blind father who did not
truly understand his child. If he did, he would realize that the road to
freedom leads to its ultimate form – death, which Icarus, with the
uncompromising daring of youth, achieves. The desire for freedom, taken to its
extreme, receives its absolute form– a closed circle in which success means failure and freedom means
The desire to go beyond the boundaries into the ecstatic
visionary realm of soaring flight is essentially human. In some ways this
desire to transcend the everyday-ness is whatit means to be human. That is why this myth has resonated
for centuries. Icarus knows the danger of flying too high, but the risk is
justified in his eyes. He needs to fly as high as he can, beyond what is
possible – it is his nature.
Next week, on February 18, 19 and 20, the National Symphony in Washington D.C., conducted by James Gaffiganwill perform American
premiere of my symphonic poem, titled “Requiem for Icarus”. The title was given to this work after it was
written. All my music is abstract, but by giving evocative titles I invite the
listener to feel free to imagine, to access his own memories, associations.
“Requiem for Icarus” is what came to my mind, listening to this work at that
time. Each time I hear the piece – it is different. What is important to me is
that it connects to you, the listener, in the most individual and direct way,
that this music disturbs you, moves you, soars with you, stays with you. You
don’t need to understand how or why – just allow the music to take you wherever
it takes you. It is permissible to daydream while listening or to remember your
own past. It is fine not to have any images at all, but simply experience the
sound. These program notes are a door to your imagination. The music is your
guide. But it is up to you to take the step and cross the threshold.
Some days I find it very trying to collect myself, to find all the different parts and put them together in an orderly, functional way. I spend an hour just looking for glasses, going to the shower is too much effort, and then off to search for some wearable clothes, sorting through the mystery of never-matching socks, (they really should be selling three socks as a pair), and who is ever looking at your feet anyway?
Sometimes my eyes just refuse to open, they seem to have been glued as if to say to me, “Life is a cruel violation of sleep.” I couldn’t agree more. The morning headache is simulating a hangover, except I am not hanging-over from anything – only from my own refusal to greet today, to try it again, to start it all over.
I guilt myself upwards and wander aimlessly from one room to another, trying to recall what it was that I was looking for. (Wasn’t that supposed to be the privilege of the elderly? Maybe that’s why they say some souls are born old.) And how one decides what’s the next task to do – making coffee, staring into the empty freezer, avoiding the guilty look of my dog, then thinking – why is my dog acting guilty – and sniffing the air for some missed evidence?
Sometimes the different parts of my body just don’t stay together, they fall apart. To tie the sneakers – a wasted effort – I may as well just stay inside, I may as well go back to bed, my bed: the constant that’s always welcoming.
I fall asleep. I wake up again. It’s late afternoon. Now I feel ready to collect my thoughts. Feeling suspicious of all early-risers, I am secretly envious of their routines, their inner-clocks. My own clock was broken long ago, I live in a perpetual home-made jet-lag, in a twilight time just before the nervous breakdown.
(No, I don’t need stress to fuel my writing. Yes, I could certainly use some flow of cash.)
I finally finish my coffee around the time when most people are ready to go to sleep. My day now starts. The piano is beckoning with silence. It too feels untouched and craves caresses. I pet it passingly and close its lid – too late to play now, but I hear the music swelling up from its guts.
I imagine the sounds. A gigantic treble clef unlocks my troubles, pours them onto the page. I organize them by color: pain, unbearable, this way, please, you shall fit very nicely with these howling trombones; the deepest desire I shall save for a violin – its seductive tremolo is twisting my heart; the melancholy is draped in the velvet of the cello, its darkening purple blackens my soul.
Writing for the orchestra – I am again a child, with an army of coloring pencils in hand, a forest of wild harmonies growing from my ears and eyes. And all night I am coloring paper, the desk, the walls, the dark skies beyond. My own body is covered with black, round note-heads as if plagued by death.
When the sun hits the window I’m asleep at my desk, head on my elbows, hearing in my dream all of the music that I couldn’t capture last night; music free from my ink-covered fingers, free from my unmatched socks and clumsy attitudes, free from my learned limitations, headaches and fears, free from my memories, free from the sleeper, who smiles so blissfully as I never could.
One of my findings this week, while unearthing treasures buried deep in the oceans of my ignorance, was a short poem of John Ashbery.
The room I entered was a dream of this room. Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine. The oval portrait of a dog was me at an early age. Something shimmers, something is hushed up.
We had macaroni for lunch every day except Sunday, when a small quail was induced to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things? You are not even here.
It is a beautiful short poem that exists on polyphonic levels and floats freely between them. The beauty is in its simplicity – the domestication of a dream. Yet the poem takes the reader to that deliciously fragile place, where “something shimmers, something is hashed up.” Some of the most defining moments, when life reveals itself as is, can only shimmer on the edge of consciousness. One can only glance at it sidelong, but never directly. You can’t stare at the sun; you can only squint through your half-closed fingers. The first line connects to René Magritte’s thought provoking painting “La trahison des images” featuring a pipe with a sign “This is not a pipe”. The words only appear to contradict the image, but are, in fact, correct: the painting itself is not a pipe.
What is reality? What is an idea of reality? Where do dreams end?
All these feet on the sofa and the oval portrait of the artist as a young man, pardon me, as a dog, (my own life as a dog has been over-stimulated by the smell of that quail) – seduce the reader to smile inwardly.
Again this child-like unpretentious simplicity where time and generations melt. (Of course that portrait had to be oval! Don’t you just see it in its slightly ornate dark-wood frame? And the greenish old wallpaper on the wall on which it hangs?)
The passive voice in the line about the quail makes it sound like the quail gave permission to be served for lunch. The combination of the past tense and passive voice is a recipe for a disaster in the hands of a lesser writer, but Ashbery, with a mischievous smile, creates magic with it.
The most striking line is the last line of the poem. Just like the poet is missing from that dream of a room (yes, the dream goes on forever in some other realm, different from the one in which he is writing the poem), so is the reader, the “you” is missing from the reality-room-space of the poet. The ghost visit of a poet in this dream of a room is parallel to the ghost visit of a reader in the space of this poem. Yet both ghosts shimmer and can somehow sense each other’s presence (or absence). Similarly, the independent voices of a fugue can intervene and briefly cross each other’s horizontal paths while making perfect sense harmonically (thus vertically).
There are similar overtones in Mark Strand’s line from “Keeping Things Whole”.
Here is Strand: “Wherever I am I am what is missing”
Ashbery: “Why am I telling you this? You are not even here.”
Maybe only that which is missing can belong fully to us and cannot be lost? Only you - who is not here - can truly hear and one is never fully alone?