Monday, July 9, 2007

A Night to Remember

Is there no better metric of civilization than the dinner party? We can thank the war-loving Romans for bringing this timeless tradition to the masses. Prior to them, it was pretty much constrained to royalty, albeit the odd Athenian symposium with naked dancing girls and paltry talk of philosophy.

However, Gertrude Stein is my personal patron of the plate. Although hailing from Allegheny, Pennsylvania, she lived in Paris with her life long lesbian lover Alice Toklas. Together, they hosted a salon that ushered in the avant-garde in the early 20th century.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso, 1906

She described her guests as the "Lost Generation,” which included: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, André Derain, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Ernest Hemingway ("Hemingway, remarks are not literature"), Ezra Pound, Thornton Wilder, Sherwood Anderson, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Paul Bowles (whom I practically worship) among others. Who knew that cordials, conversation and cuisine could shape 20th century culture?

One of my favorite places: the grand necropolis, Père Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris.

I had recent occasion to visit Gertrude in Paris. She now resides in the world’s most fashionable necropolis, Père Lachaise Cemetery. I like to frequent it often to visit old friends, from Abelard and Heloise to Chopin to Edith Piaf and many others. Maria Callas use to be a tenant, but her ashes were kidnapped, recovered, and then scattered across the Aegean Sea. Callas is as complex in death as she was in life.

The late, great Ms. Stein.

We can only aspire to crawl in Stein’s long shadow. Recently, the Pentagon Diva and I hosted an “Opera Gala Dinner,” for a few kindred souls, including the indefatigable Her Majesty Maeve. It was magnificent. We find it is best to start with a bottle of wine per person and one for the table. Here’s the menu (sans accompanying opera):

Il Condottiero and Pentagon Diva’s
Opera Gala Dinner

Champagne von Fledermaus
Johann Strauss Jr’s Die Fledermaus, Act 2 chorus “Champagne the Great!”

Assortment of cheese, fruits and wine a la The Magic Flute
Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Act 2 chorus “Seid uns zum zweitenmal wilkommen”

Il Primo
Artichokes Zuppa di Tabarro
Puccini’s Il Tabarro, choking duet “T’ho Colto!”

Il Secondo
Flank of Valkurie
Wagner’s Die Walküre, Act 3, “Ride of the Valkyries”

Aida Battle Spears of Asparagus
Verdi’s Aida, Act 2 post-battle “Grand Triumphal March”

Druidic Mushroom Risotto di Norma
Bellini’s Norma, Act 2 Roman-Druid duet “In mia man alfin tu sei”

Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, Intermezzo

Il Dolce
Falstaff’s Alcoholic Cheesecake with Hänsel und Gretel Strawberry Sauce
Verdi’s Falstaff, the whole thing
Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, Act 1, the strawberry-picking expedition

Honey-Nut Fruitcake a la Salome
Strauss’s Salome, final scene

Myriad Cordials
Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann, "Belle Nuit, O Nuit D`amour"

Don Giovanni cognac
Traviata port
Lammermoor scotch
“Girls of the Golden West” bourbon
Masked Ball aquavit
Boris Godunov vodka variations
The Bartered Bride’s dancing bear honey-liquors

If I could magically conjure anyone to my perfect dinner party, whom would I invite? Well, aside from the living, certainly the dead. I would start with the following: Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw (also a classical music critic!), Voltaire, Dorothy Parker, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and Gertrude Stein, at her old pad on 27 Rue de Fleurus. Wit combined with genius is potent stuff indeed.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Future Prophets

Somewhere between A.A. Milne and Joseph Conrad, I went through a Philip K. Dick phase. For the uninitiated, P.K.D. was a paranoid, impoverished, speed freak in San Francisco around the ‘60s and ‘70s. He eked out a living writing pulp science fiction. Well, ‘pulp’ say some; PROPHET say others.

In a world then enamored with the Summer of Love and the Gilligan’s Island, he presaged post-modern madness. His worlds are dark and dystopian, where humanity is held hostage to mega-corporations. The idea that companies would control countries was preposterous in the 1960s, less so now. His novels are also epistemological horror-thrillers, where people (including the reader at times) have trouble discerning (de)illusion from reality. It’s all a bit creepy, if you think about it too long, which is P.K.D.’s aim.

Fittingly, it was Hollywood, the master of illusion, that embraced his vision. Starting in 1982 with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner - one of the greatest movies every made - which is about what constitutes a life. Following this, a slew of films were produced based on his work: Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, and more.

One of the many things that made Blade Runner a revolutionary film and ageless science-fiction flick was its amazing futuristic music. Composed by Vangelis, it is completely electronic and synthesized, much like the synthesized human "replicants" the Blade Runner is hunting. Also, in the early ‘80s, synthesized music was as future-cool as, say, the digital watch.

Sample the music of replicants crying in “Tears in the Rain” by Vangelis:

An orchestrated version of Vangelis’s music provides an interesting and no-less successful experience:

Converts joined this future noir, inspiring movies like Aliens II and Johnny Mnemonic; video games like Resident Evil or Doom (which were also turned into movies); and cyberpunk literature, such as author William Gibson. No longer does our future feature the gallant Captain Kirk, bravely going where no man has gone before. Now humanity is enslaved by its own greed, ingenuity, and despair. Ask any Nexus Model 6.

And, yes, P.K.D. exists even in opera! His supreme novel, VALIS, has been transmorphed into an opera. VALIS (which stands for “Vast Active Living Intelligence System”) was written a year before his death in 1982 (the same year Blade Runner premiered). In many ways it was his spiritual autobiography, weaving together mystical Taoist forces and Gnostic visions that unlock the secret knowledge of the cosmos. For those who want a fuller exegesis of VALIS, start here.

The opera VALIS was composed and written by Tod Machover, and premiered at the Pompidou Center in Paris on December 1, 1987. Only one recording of it exists.
So what does a musical interpretation of P.K.D.’s ontological universe sound like? Imagine a collision of Vangelis, Pierre Boulez (modern French atonal composer and conductor), and the amplified sound of a Toyota Prius being crushed by a Hummer.

Also, most of the words are not sung but actually recited, like an over-produced poetry reading. All that is needed are the bongos, a cigarette, sunglasses, black beret, and beat cafe. Not that P.K.D. would be caught dead in such a joint.

But don’t take my word for it. Sample protagonist Fat’s Dream:

Or, just to confirm opinions, Sophia’s Aria:

Small wonder it’s never performed.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Unsung Heros

Mercenary or not, the 4th of July is always a poignant moment for us military veterans. In my experience, soldiers do not fight and die for ideas. Leave the ideas to those with “other priorities.” Soldiers fight and die for one another.

I have been a military leader in and out of uniform. I have led elite US Army units and I have led African conscripts. It is relatively easy to lead highly motivated, trained, and equipped elite forces. The real test is leading untrained, poorly equipped, unmotivated, soldiers – ordinary people asked to do extraordinary things – who frequently are given the most dangerous jobs. It is one of war’s timeless axioms.

Today, it is the leaders of the Army National Guard/Reserve who get my vote for best leadership. They have to convince plumbers, school teachers, and others, for whom war is not a chosen calling, to stand on a checkpoint each night and become ambush bait. Each night.

For me, the 4th of July is not noisy fireworks or jingoistic flag-waving. It is a time for quiet appreciation, in a special American sort of way. No one captures this mood better than American composer Aaron Copland, in his music for the film Our Town, adapted from Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play. It is a quiet, humble piece on a grand scale.

Some may gripe that the London Symphony Orchestra's playing is less than pristine, however Copland is his own best interpreter of his work. However, others may prefer Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's tighter, faster (2 minutes!) version.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

On Meeting Makers

Speaking of joy and Beethoven (see last blog), one cannot simply pass by the master without doffing the proverbial cap. There is a reason why nearly every great classical musician has a bust of Ludwig somewhere in his or her lair, from Wagner to Schroeder (Peanuts cartoon). Beethoven is the real thing: the mad genius creator, greatest revolutionary, Dionysian fire child, alpha and omega – in a word, the Decider.

The cosmos of Beethoven is broad and deep, and much ink has been spilled explaining its contours. One of its shining constellations is the almighty 9th symphony, written at the eve of his death, also known as the “Choral Symphony.” It received this nickname, probably by publicists trying to sell more scores, because Beethoven did the unthinkable: he turned the last movement into a duet of orchestra and chorus (gasp!), smashing all sense of proper 18th century symphonic decorum and good manners. It remains arguably the greatest symphony ever committed to paper, and what is even more incredible is that the man who wrote it was completely deaf at the time.

The climax of the piece is the last movement, where the chorus comes storming in at full throttle with Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy.” It is the sound of victory, elation, and terror fused into a single, raw life-force. It’s the piece European armies marched to after sacking capitals, and the piece that unified East and West Germany on Christmas Day 1989, just weeks after the Berlin Wall fell.

There is no single, best recording of this supreme opus. There are a multitude of music lovers willing to knock out teeth and crack bones to defend their favorite conductor's vision. Visions include: Furtwangler, Klemperer, Walter, Boehm, Toscanini, Karajan, Bernstein, Solti, Abbado, Mackerras, Harnoncourt, and many, many more.

Listen to legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan’s explosion of "Ode to Joy," in his equally legendary 1976 recording. This is the second of three recordings he made and I think his finest. Indeed, it is one of THE finest. Compare it, for example, to Solti's version, in the previous blog, which sounds utterly sluggish and leaden next to this:

Yes, it is potent. Yes, it invigorates my work ethic as a mercenary. But what it is to power, it’s little brother, the third movement, is to prayer. In many ways, the third movement is the feast of my fancy. It is the antithesis of the Odeon last movement, and instead proceeds like a meditation, written by a man cruelly deprived of his hearing due to a mid-life illness. Poor Beethoven expressed his rage against fate in violent works like the 5th symphony (da-da-da-DUM!). However here we have a different man. An older man, knowingly approaching his personal eschatology, and has come to some small acceptance of life’s cruel capriciousness.

Unlike the famous 5th symphony or violently triumphant “Ode to Joy,” this music is soft, penitent, and sublime. It unfolds in a rich soundscape, slowly like the revelation of a mystery not intended for public consumption. Its melody, as carried by the violins and then the winds, is optimistic and lyrical: not full of the anger in earlier works. It sounds simple, but packs in a universe of emotional angst, digested over a tormented lifetime.

Perhaps this is Beethoven’s resignation to the gods of song and sound. The magic of the movement is that we mere mortals are witnessing a holy communion between the musical gods and their greatest mortal champion, LvB, in a language that he could no longer hear but so clearly understood.

Listen to the incomparable Wilhelm Furtwängler (who is Beethoven’s peer in the realm of conducting and demands his own blog expo) join in this communion, in his last-ever recording, months before his own death in 1954: