music, poetry

There is nothing to do with a day except live it

Shall a plate be broken? A new thing understood?
Shall we be lonely, and by love consoled?
What shall I whistle, splitting the kindling-wood?
    Shall the night-wind be cold?

How should I know? And even if we were fated
Hugely to suffer, grandly to endure,
It would not help at all to hear it all fore-stated
    In an overture.

There is nothing to do with a day except live it.
Let us have music again when the light dies
(Sullenly, or in glory) and we can give it
    Something to organize.

– Richard Wilbur, from his poem “C Minor,” in The Mind-Reader

music, theater

lost Meyerhold-intended Prokofiev music

For NYC’ers, the music premieres Tuesday night. More: “The music is part of a 1939 composition, which didn’t see the light of day again until 2004, when a facsimile of Prokofiev’s manuscript was published. It’s one of several pieces Yale faculty, alumni and students will perform Tuesday night. Berman says Music for Athletic Exercises was written to be performed on a grand scale.

“There was a project of putting on a huge athletic pageant on the Red Square in Moscow in the summer of 1939, which would involve thousands of athletes from all over the Soviet Union,” he says.

Berman explains that V.E. Meyerhold, a famous Russian director, was hired to stage this extravaganza, but one morning he didn’t show up to work on the piece.

“Nobody could find him,” Berman says. “He was arrested, as was the habit in these years of the Soviet history. He was arrested, imprisoned and subsequently shot to death.”

Traumatic as it was, Prokofiev finished the piece.

NPR via AJ

Baltimore, music

time for you and time for me

It was a slow snow day:
And the sun was beating
On the soldiers by the side of the road
There was a bright light
A shattering of shop windows
The bomb in the baby carriage
Was wired to the radio
These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don’t cry baby, don’t cry
Don’t cry

– Paul Simon, “The Boy In The Bubble,” Graceland. Happy snow day, Hopkins.

music, musicals, theater

he’s a what? he’s a what? he’s a…

…Music Man!

Long post here. For those of you who have asked me what the musical theatre lyrics course will include, here is a class-by-class breakdown. I am heavily indebted in this material to the website, maintained by John Kenrick, and particularly his lengthy article on the connection between gay culture and musical theatre. He writes from a perspective that combines scholarly knowledge with personal opinion. It’s fun to read.

I am still making changes but things are starting to become more final. The first week is (mostly) about lyrics, the second week is more about history and representation, and the third week, which only has two classes, is an in-depth study of one lyricist: Howard Ashman. Hopefully we can use Ashman to sum up everything we’ve looked at before, and also address the idea of musicals and animation.

When I started working this up, I wanted it only to be about lyrics, but that turned rapidly into an all-white-men-fest, and a rehash of the first fifty years of the last century. So this version of the course is, hopefully, broader, and more relevant to contemporary practice.

Each week they have to write one set of lyrics, which receives a small-group workshop with five other students on the last day of the week. I am debating about having all of them work from the same source text (Harry Potter: The Musical? Star Wars: The Musical?) or letting them choose their own sources. I want them to come out of this thinking of themselves as lyricists in the Gilbert model – able to write the lyrics without the composer, and present something to the composer. They all have to write one chorus, one duet or solo, and one song which combines solo characters with choruses, I think. Either that, or they all have to write one ballad, one tells-a-story song, and one chorus or medley…
I’m still deciding.

Day One: (God help me.)
Introduction to the course.
I’m going to go around the room and ask everyone what their favorite / first musicals were, and favorite songs from those. We will then try to divide those songs into formal groups, including both thematic and structural categories;
– ballad (AABA)
– duet
– medley
– chorus
– dance number
– messenger speech / “Let me tell you how it happened…”
– dramatic monologue
– recitative
– patter song
and so forth.
I will explain that the goal I have for them, as writers, in this course, is to be able to critically analyze different types of song lyrics, identify what types of lyrics they are, and produce versions of those lyrics themselves. Secondly, I want them to have some more ideas about both the history of the form, and its political implications.

Terms: Lyricist, librettist, book, composer, orchestrator/arranger (Shall We Dance example) etc.

Then we will discuss what a musical is, the origins of the term, the first musicals, first musicals in the United States, etc.

Discuss: Why are musicals so popular? (John Kenrick) Why are people willing to pay five hundred dollars a ticket for them? What are some of the problems with musicals? Why do so many people hate them? What are the worst musicals? What makes them so bad? Introduce theme of representation in musicals, and of stereotypes. Introduce theme of queer culture and musicals. Discuss course’s bifurcated approach between New Criticism (focus on lyrics as lyrics) and historical / socioeconomic criticism. Best of both worlds.

We’ll do a “name some of-the-moment popular musicals” brainstorming. Contemporary manifestations of the musical: HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL(s), Urinetown, [title of show], Spring Awakening, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Proposition 8:The Musical, Joss Whedon, and the musical episode of Buffy, among others. RENT and the problem with RENT. Andrew Lloyd Webber. Cats. The jukebox musical: Across The Universe, Abba. The take-songs-and-rewrite-lyrics musical: Moulin Rouge, John Gay…

Where do musicals come from? I will use this point to deliver a short but impassioned speech on the Greek chorus (surprise). We’ll look at some Greek choruses as “song lyrics” and talk about how they map onto contemporary song categories. Segue into a discussion of the form’s origins in operetta.

This leads us, of course, to Gilbert and Sullivan. We’ll listen to excerpts of PINAFORE and PIRATES and do some analysis of those lyrics. And then begin watching TOPSY-TURVY, the Mike Leigh film on the making of THE MIKADO. If, as I suspect, we do not get to TOPSY-TURVY on this day, we can at least catch up on day two.

Day Two: Continuation of Gilbert unit. I am going to have to explain a lot about 1885-era Europe. I have friends who have seen this movie who were put off by it, early, by Leigh’s depiction of topless Parisian prostitutes with Sullivan, and stopped taking the rest of the film seriously — or who watched it but didn’t understand all the British history stuff. I’m either going to judiciously fast-forward so that we (mostly) watch only the production-related parts, or else pause a lot to discuss things.

Day Three:
Sondheim. We’ll watch most of WEST SIDE STORY (which segues into the next class on race and ethnicity and the musical) and listen to lots of excerpts: definitely ASSASSINS, COMPANY, PACIFIC OVERTURES. Sondheim as the heir to Gilbert. Lyrics.

Day Four: Class “socioeconomic status groups,” race, ethnicity, representation, and the American musical. Vaudeville, minstrel shows. Musicals and war/jingoism. We’ll watch parts of SOUTH PACIFIC and FINIAN’S RAINBOW, THE WIZ, HAIR, CAROUSEL, THE SOUND OF MUSIC and PORGY & BESS.

Day Five: Gender, sexuality, queer culture, camp/cult/transgressive musicals. THE WIZARD OF OZ. Judy Garland. VICTOR/VICTORIA. ROCKY HORROR. HEDWIG. Since this is a Baltimore-themed class, the film we’re going to watch the most of is HAIRSPRAY: but this day is also going to cover the dance musical, including portions of GREASE and A CHORUS LINE, and address the issues with representation of queer people and AIDS in RENT. Sadly, this ties in to the upcoming Howard Ashman unit in a painful way, since he died of AIDS early in his career.

Day Six: Yiddish theater / Jewish culture and the American musical: briefly treating FIDDLER and the many Jewish lyricists of the genre, before spending most of the day on THE PRODUCERS and Mel Brooks and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN in preparation for our field trip to see the YF musical.

Days Seven & Eight: The musical and animation. The Disney tradition. The move away from animated musicals with the move to 3D animation. Address puppets, Muppet Show, Jim Henson, AVENUE Q. Howard Ashman: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, THE LITTLE MERMAID. Conclusion of course.

I’m having a lot of fun here, if you can’t tell.

music, poetry, theater

Yes, And.

The Harry Potter / Laurel, MD / DC / Capitol Fringe / Our Mutual Friend extravaganza was fabulous. And then I came home and I did what I always do when things are going well, which is cook enough food for the whole week, all in one day.

Today, I got to observe a section of the creative writing class I will be teaching in the fall, and then had lunch with the teacher, one of my cohort (fiction, not poetry.) It was really helpful.

And then I found the practice rooms and the rehearsal rooms. So large, so beautiful. A night-black Yamaha grand, in a room bigger than some rooms I’ve lived in, with dark blue walls and a dark yellow curtain on one side.. It could have been the rehearsal room for a PBS special.

I played scales like a trash compactor collapsing – starting at the two opposite ends and meeting in the middle and then going back out. And then I played and played and played until my hands started hurting.

You know what I realized about piano, today? I have always had such a hard time personificating/anthropomorphizizizing the piano. It’s too big, and too mechanical. It’s not a he, or a she. It’s not a living creature, to me, which makes it very difficult for me to connect with it. I think at the times when I have quit piano, I have been caught up in this. I have felt like the instrument resisted connecting with me as I wanted it to.

But I realized, today – maybe it took playing a grand again to realize it, so enormous – the piano is not a human. The piano is a location – like a basketball court, or a track, or a theater. You can love it, but you just have to realize it’s not a person.

To love playing it, the person you have to love is the composer, or the singer, or your self. You can’t love the instrument, any more than you can love a football field. You can only love the music. The game. You just have to get out there and run, every day, and eventually you love yourself running.

And I wrote a poem today that I like. It is about theater. I think that everything I write is going to be about theater. This will stop me from having this same conversation about “Am I doing X or Y?” all the time. I am doing both.


baby, you set my soul on fire

I’ve got two little arms to hold on tight
and I want to take you higher.

No computer, no music. I have missed this song more than anything, SOUL ON FIRE by Spiritualized, which I heard live last summer, sung by a shy lead singer who kept turning her back and raising one shoulder higher than the other. I have its memory but I don’t have its substance. Its sound starts daily in my head, and I can’t make it finish.

I went to a Rita Dove reading yesterday where she read from her new book, and talked about the impossibility of recording music in the 1800s. To hear it, you had to play it.

To hear it, I have to sing. I found myself singing to B yesterday, more, maybe because I haven’t heard music in what feels like forever now. If a Beatles lyric came into my head, I would stop and sing it. A whole verse.

I want to go back to being in a choir. I had a dream about this, where I was lost on some Scotland-green League of Ivy campus in the hills above Chicago (there are no hills above Chicago) and wandered into a practice-room. I found my father there, singing, with a group of other academics.

I have so many more thoughts which belong on this blog, cluttering my head like a box of overturned chess pieces. But I have to write emails now. I hope I get to be back here soon.

music, travel

a harrowing choice of self

“Despite the millions of times I have packed my suitcase, I still regard each packing “event” as a kind of metaphysical decision, a harrowing choice of self. Am I the person who cares not for image? Pack a hoodie and black sneaks, maybe some underwear, and your concert clothes, and fill the rest of the suitcase with Horace, Pound, Susan Sontag. Or, am I the snazzier metrosexual? Suddenly, my suitcase blooms with flowered shirts, orange sneakers and strange shirt-jacket amalgams, leaving no room for verse. (Always pack a notebook; then, you say to yourself, I can “work on my writing.”) In the midst of this decision–this quasi self-realization–one often forgets one’s toiletries! A concert without deodorant is not to be tolerated, especially by the pageturner. And so, at the eleventh hour, you assemble your sundries. Don’t forget your music, you idiot!!! And fill the humidifier. Hide incriminating evidence. Breathe.”

– Pian”blogger”ist Jeremy Denk, packing.


who cares if you understand?

Yesterday a friend and I attended Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s piano recital at the CSO. Although we both love music, we aren’t experts, so when PLA only paused very briefly between the various pieces in his program, we had no idea he had moved on to a different composer. I feel like I’m outing myself as a musical imbecile here, but we thought that a three-part half composed of Schumann, Chopin, and Debussy was all the same piece. Both of us.

Abashed, in the second half, we tried to be smarter, watched for when his page-turner took one score off the music stand, and, this time, caught the change from Messiaen to Carter. We both listened much more closely.

His performance style was similarly masterful and understated. He made you come to him rather than the other way around. The entire program was all about keeping your eyes and ears open. Even as the pieces got more contemporary, louder, more showy in some ways, his playing was still all subtlety.

I watched him play for two hours, and I still know nothing about him as a person. He seemed concerned only with the music – and that music was almost beyond my understanding. It was a great concert.

I want to see theater that doesn’t explain itself any more than PLA’s playing did, that doesn’t worry about whether or not the work is accessible to the audience – only if it’s being performed at the highest artistic level possible. I’ve sat through so many theater production meetings concerned about comprehension.

For a medium driven by plot, this factor may be more significant than it is in a medium driven by sound – but the recital made me feel like the significance of understanding every single thing that happens in a play has been a little overvalued. It was challenging, and that challenge was welcome.

I haven’t felt so stimulated and provoked by a play since Richard Foreman’s WHAT TO WEAR at Redcat. When I saw that play, I felt that I couldn’t possibly take it all in, and that it would require six more viewings to get it. I miss feeling so overwhelmed by theater.

Do I feel this way about music because I know less about it, or because music is more complicated – or because this particular performer chose to challenge his audience?

chicago, music

good day, sunshine

I know it’s not as warm outside as the blue skies are pretending, but it’s pretty.

Today Janna and I are beginning guitar lessons with a friend in the north part of Chicago. After we met in August, we discovered we had very similar musical tastes (rock/bluegrass), and have formed a girl group called Six Months, after the window of time we have for this project – since I may be leaving Chicago in the summer. I’ve dreamed about having a guitar and a friend and a band like this since I saw a sky-blue Danelectro in the window of the Blue Ridge Pickin’ Parlor in Chatsworth, ten years ago.