Beach“You know what a euphemism is?” Stuart asked.

“Well, yes … Oh, wait, I know. You have a joke.”

“A euphemism is synonym and sugar. You know, that’s the first thing I ever wrote that got published, way back when I was in high school. I sent it in to the Reader’s Digest.”

“And that made you into a writer.”

“If you want to call what I do being a writer. But I think what made me what I am — and made you into the writer you became, too — is a sensitivity to words. It comes as easily as arithmetic to a math major.”

“This is probably true.”sky

We were walking along the beach on one of those days that isn’t exactly sunny, but when the blue sky comes and goes behind a fast moving scud that occasionally drops a fine mist of drizzle. The clouds are dark, then bright bands of white and whisps of blue between. And with just enough wind to keep a low haze of sand flashing across the beach, only a few millimeters above our footprints. Stuart’s dog ran ahead of us, checking out the one other dog being walked by its owner. Stuart waved; they knew each other.

“I’ve been thinking about synonyms,” he said. “I don’t think they exist.”

“Why not? English is filled with them. More than any other language, probably.”

“Yes, but they aren’t really the same, are they. I mean you have “pig” and you have “pork” and the difference is whether it eats or is eaten.”

“English is such a promiscuous language. It says ‘Hi, sailor’ to so many loan words, that it has built a vocabulary of prodigal variety. We can sort them out to distinguish minor differences that other languages just don’t allow for. Things like pork and pig, but also hog and swine and boar and sow and shoat. Beef and steer and ox and cow and bull — and I could go on. It’s one of the things I love most about my mother tongue.”

“But they don’t really mean the same thing, do they? The Venn diagram of each word may overlap, but is not identical to its mate, like non-identical twins.

“Take lethal, mortal and fatal,” he continued. “You might say they mean the same thing, but we use lethal in its potential sense primarily — a lethal weapon, for instance. No one has yet been killed, yet the weapon could produce death. We use mortal for a different kind of potential, one that is inevitable. It was a mortal wound; he’s not dead yet, but there is no chance he’ll survive. As for fatal, we also use it in a kind of philosophical sense, a fatal mistake, where the mistake may either be the death of a person, but more likely the death of an idea.

“And so, they may all seem like they mean the same thing, but they have different resonance, and get used in different contexts.”

“And if you want to be a writer, you had better feel those differences.”

“Right,” he said.

“Like ‘mortal’ also feels like an antiquarian word,” I said. “We don’t really talk about ‘mortal wounds’ much anymore. It was a phrase used in the Civil War. It almost feels like ‘thee’ and ‘thou.’ We are more likely now to use the word ‘terminal.’ A terminal illness instead of a mortal wound. And it has a further resonance in that ‘mortal’ implies a certain humility: ‘I’m only mortal.’ Mortality is humbling.”

“And ‘fatal’ carries with it an atavistic belief in fate, something that has been willed by the gods. We don’t think of it that way anymore, but it’s still there underneath its conscious meaning. These things hang around our vocabulary like the spirit of the ancients.”

Language has deep roots, I thought. It’s why so many are fascinated by etymology, as if that explained what words “really” mean. But really, it’s all changing all the time and we constantly redefine the words we use. Nevertheless, when we are blithely unaware of the roots, of the emotional overtones of language, we wind up speaking like bureaucrats and academics.

“Lord save me from that,” Stuart said.

“Lord save us all.”

Stuart had just taken a job teaching at a two-year school. I say, “taken a job,” but it was a position as adjunct instructor, teaching a course in writing about movies. It wasn’t a “job,” in that it hardly paid anything.  Stuart had never had a full-time job as a writer, but had freelanced often, whenever he felt like it or could find a gig. And writing about film is something he enjoyed. Now he was thinking about it again.audience 2 keaton

“I’m thinking particularly of motion pictures, or moving pictures, as they used to be called. We have different words for it, and they mean different things. Going to the movies is different from film. It’s the shades of meaning that get to me.

“I use the word, ‘movies,’ for the basic experience: watching a story unfold on the screen. The vast majority of movie audience pays little attention to anything except the narrative. A good movie tells a good story. It tells it efficiently and clearly, and usually without too much subtlety, whether in plot complexity or its inherent morality. There are white hats and there are black hats.”sam fuller

“Like what Sam Fuller said,” I chimed in. “When asked what makes a good movie, he chewed his cigar a little and said, ‘a story,’ and then pressed for what makes a good story he said, ‘a story.’ There was a twinkle in his eye for being clever.”

“Well, yes,” Stuart said. “Whether its a revenge plot, or overcoming obstacles, or falling in love, the story is primary, and its unfolding is key. What keeps us involved is waiting to find out what happens next.

“But film is different,” he said. “Film is what is taught in film schools. When you attend a film, you notice the lighting, the editing, the acting, the pacing, the special effects, even the titles. Those who pay attention to such things have an infinitely richer experience of their artform.

“Alfred Hitchcock explained film by saying all it was was short bits of film spliced together to tell a story. Change the bits and change the story.

“We see a door; we see a hand knocking. Cut to a woman’s face inside the room and the fear on her face. We see the hand turning the doorknob. We cut to the woman reaching into a desk drawer for a gun. The door opens; she points the gun.

“Same bits of film: We see a woman reach into a desk drawer for a gun, we see a hand knock on the door and turn the knob. The door opens; she points the gun. Same pictures, different story.”

“There are filmmakers who love to play with this sort of stuff,” I said. “But it isn’t only the technique. These people also value an awareness of the history of the medium, so that their enjoyment of a film depends on getting the ‘in jokes’ and references.”

“God, yes. Way too many films are being made with film as its subject.  If you expect your audience to be “in” on the technicalities — and the cliches — then you can manipulate them to keep your action moving forward. I think of all those self-conscious horror films that comment on themselves as they unspool. Quentin Tarantino makes film, not movies. He knows that you know that he knows, etc., that all those martial arts films, or those gangster films, or those drive-in movies, are the real subject of what he is making.

“We are drowning in genre film these days. All that CGI, all those superheroes, with their genre expectations, all that dazzling film school technique. We are way too knowledgeable about the gears and levers of filmmaking. It is what nerds talk about when they talk about Star Wars.”

george lucas star wars set copy“Yeah, and I blame George Lucas,” I said. “Back in 1977, when Star Wars was first released, he talked about such things as editing rhythmically, taking apart shots, frame by frame, to show how a ratio was used to time the tiny fragments of film that were pasted back to back. It really hit the fan when DVDs began to include bonus tracks with director commentaries. It let us in on the secrets of filmmaking.”

“This is my distinction: Most moviegoers only know Star Wars was exciting; filmgoers knew how it was done, and thenceforth knew to complain when it wasn’t done well. A badly crafted film makes for a flaccid affair, a boring experience that should have been better.

“It should be noted that movies and film are not mutually exclusive categories. A good movie should be made well, and a good film had better tell a good story. But you see the difference in emphasis.”

“It ain’t just in film,” I said. “Postmodernism is all about playing with the levers and gears and showing off how shiny those gears are.”

“I should point out there is a subculture that enjoys bad craft, looks for movies that ‘are so bad, they’re good.’ There is an unseemly level of self-congratulation in such appreciation.mario bava 2

“There are epicures of exploitation films, bad sci-fi, horrible martial arts dubbing; there are scholars of the slasher films of Mario Bava and those who can quote chapter and verse on the lesser excrescences of the various Arthur Rank studios from the 1950s. There is a kind of reverse snobbery in such scholarship. Although the movies are bad, the same insider knowledge of filmmaking is brought to bear: ‘Look at this bad edit,’ ‘Notice how the lighting in the B-roll doesn’t match.’ ”

“If you can name more than one cinematographer — or if you call him a ‘D.P.,’ then you are into film, not movies,” I said.

“Among the film aficionados, there can be an obsessive interest in the minutiae of film history. And an attendant argumentation on such points: Compare the comedy teams of Ole Olson and Chic Johnson that of  Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. Was Harold Lloyd really greater than Chaplin and Keaton — after all he did his stunts with a maimed right hand — and besides that, he pioneered stereo photography, and the pictures he took were celebrity photos for all that.”  patsy kelly

“So, you get books suggesting the Ritz Brothers were better than the Marx Brothers (or maybe it is the Howard brothers best of all, if you are really perverse). And then come doctoral dissertations on the films of Earl Dwire, Rondo Hatton or Patsy Kelly.”

“All this scholarship, all these theories are fine. Patsy Kelly deserves a biography,” Stuart said. “But they are all about the externals of the film, the methods and the techniques, the bios and the politics, the genre expectations and history. They all far transcend the basic story that makes a movie. So, it is film.”

“But those aren’t the only terms,” I said. “Movies and film.” They used to be called ‘moving pictures’ …”

“Boy, that sounds antique — ‘twenty-three skidoo’ …”

“… and motion pictures, and flicks, and cinema.”

“Cinema is a horrible word,” Stuart said. “It is a word that should only come from the mouth of a John Simon, an Emanuel Levy or a Stanley Kauffmann. It reeks of pretention and condescension. No one ‘goes to the cinema.’ Cinema is something that is written about, not watched.”

“But we need something to define the use of strips of celluloid to explore the experience of being alive, something that isn’t about mere storytelling, and it isn’t about the mechanics of filmmaking; it is about using the medium to tell us true things about ourselves.”

“I guess we call them ‘art films.’ I don’t know a good term,” Stuart said.

“But even some art films are not about real life,” I said. “I don’t know what you would call a Jean-Luc Godard movie if it isn’t an art film. Yet he seems much more involved with the tricks of filmmaking than in the application of his ideas to real life. His films are always, in some manner, about film.”

“And the opposite,” Stuart said. “Some great cinema has little concern for such clever niceties. Roberto Rossellini, for instance, made many profound works of art with scant film technique; they could almost have been made by an amateur.

last year 2“Others make art with little story to follow. Can anyone actually say what happens in Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad? I didn’t think so.”

“So, it isn’t strictly ‘art film’ we are talking about. It is using the medium to explore, propose or illustrate some ideas about reality, about human nature, human tragedy, the complexity of moral questions, the unreliability of perception, the consequences of actions, thoughts and emotions.”

“Movies are about story; films is about how the story is told; This other thing is about what the story means.”

“These are not mutually exclusive categories. It is possible to have all three at once. Consider Citizen Kane, for instance, which Pauline Kael once called it “more fun than any other great movie.” It tells a great story, is hugely inventive in the way it tells it, and explores the depth and complexity of its characters, all at the same time.

godfather i knew it was you fredo“Or either of the first two parts of The Godfather. Ripping yarn, a doctoral thesis on filmmaking, and as profound a tragedy as anything by Euripedes. You can have it all.”

“These three overlapping categories describe not only the artform in question, but their audiences as well,” Stuart said. “Those who like movies are often put off by the seeming pretentiousness of art film, although if they don’t notice it slipped in among the action sequences, they may not mind it. Older audiences tend to fall into this category. I remember my father being upset by Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 because it was told in flashbacks. He wanted the story told straight through. ‘I don’t know why they can’t just tell the story,’ he said. ‘This is too confusing.’

“There are those who most enjoy being in the know as to what the filmmaker is doing and derive their pleasure from recognizing the cleverness. They loved Memento, Adaptation, Time Code or The Blair Witch Project. They can take apart a Hitchcock film frame by frame. They can spot the difference between early Dario Argento and late Argento.”

“But do they know what love is?” I said, thinking of Tom Hanks.

Stuart laughed. The dark clouds moved in and the blue sky disappeared. He called his dog back and we walked up over the dunes to the house.

FootballOn tuning in to the Colbert show on Thursday, I became unavoidably aware that the new NFL season had begun. Each year, I swear I will not watch any football — It rots the mind. But it is inevitable: I end up watching anyway. There is something hypnotic about it. kursk battle 2

American football is a brutish game in which behemoths pound each other like the tank battle at Kursk, and, as my wife describes the game: “He runs with the ball, he throws the ball, he falls down with the ball.” It really is rather mindless.

And surprisingly dull. Most of the time is spent with nothing much happening on the field and while pickup trucks tell us they are tougher than the other guy’s, while beer tells us the way to a sexy woman’s heart (or pants) is through drinking swill, and through endless network promos for TV shows about terrorists, serial killers and clairvoyant crimesolvers.stopwatch

I once timed a football game with a stopwatch, starting it with the snap of the ball and clicking it off when the ref blew the play dead. In a three-plus hour game, there was, count’em, exactly 14 minutes and 49 seconds of actual playing time.

Why the American male has the patience for so much downtime, so much dead air, so much palaver by color commentators replaying minor points of how the quarterback is putting too much weight on his front foot — why this is taking up so much of our Sundays, Monday nights and now Thursday nights, is well beyond my ability to comprehend. But there you are, I wind up watching anyway. ebbets field

Perhaps my biggest complaint — aside from my own complicity — is that the beginning of the season steps on the feet of the retreating baseball season. Football is no Fred Astaire. Baseball is a game I can actually enjoy watching. I have been a baseball fan from the time before I even entered kindergarten. I would watch Brooklyn Dodgers games on TV when Vin Scully was the new kid, relegated to postgame interviews with the players.

Baseball is an aristocratic game, balanced, thoughtful, elegant. Football, in contrast is a bludgeon wielded by a mob enforcer. I have enjoyed boxing, even hockey, without finding the event as nasty, brutish and halting as an NFL game.

But I bring all this up not to badmouth football, but to discuss the impulse towards conservatism. It is something I discover in my own makeup that confuses me — the ineradicable desire for stability and a disdain of change.

This is, of course, the heart of genuine conservatism (as opposed to the radical loony movement that has coopted the name in the service of what is really a kind of anarchism tempered with religious intolerance).

It first came to me when I realized that watching football on TV, I inevitably root for the team that is older — that I root for any team that was in the original NFL before it became the NFC. Even the original AFL teams, which joined the NFL in 1960 seem like interlopers to me. And expansion teams since then hardly deserve notice as teams at all. Carolina Panthers? Give me a break: Real teams are named Packers, Giants, Bears.

Perhaps there is some rationale for this. In 2011, I wrote a story for The Arizona Republic looking at the history of the Super Bowl and discovered that original NFL teams held a two-to-one edge in Super Bowl wins: 30 wins for the old NFL, 15 wins for the AFL and all other expansion teams. (The ratio has shrunk some since then. In Super Bowls since 2011, only one old NFL team has won: The NY Giants in 2012. This still leaves the old guard with a 31 to 18 edge).

I don’t have a team I follow. When I watch a game, my rooting interest is always based on which team I judge more “legitimate,” i.e., original. So, if the 49ers are playing the Ravens, I root for the San Francisco. But if the Giants are playing the Niners, I root for New York, since San Francisco didn’t enter the league until 1950. They are the junior team. If the Giants are playing the Packers, I have to root for Green Bay; they are four years older (1921) than New York (1925 joining the league).

This may seem silly, but what other method can one choose for rooting? Hometown teams make sense, but on “any given Sunday,” as they say, for most Americans, there is no home team. You choose between Tampa Bay and Tennessee? Toss a coin?

This gets back to this unrooted conservatism. For me, there are only six hockey teams: the Rangers, Black Hawks, Bruins, Red Wings, Maple Leafs and Canadiens. I don’t know how San Jose ever qualified; it’s a joke.

In baseball, my first love, I always root for the older team, and if two old teams are playing, I root for the older league — yes, the American League is a parvenu, still. There are subtleties to this system; a franchise move bumps a team down several notches, so the Dodgers and Giants each have a penalty attached: They moved; if they were still playing in Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds, they would still be at the top of my list, but they betrayed us (yes, I grew up in the New York area). But still, if the Giants are playing the Marlins, I root for the Giants.

This is a finely met system of game watching. One has to choose a team based not on current talent, but on history. It is a system prejudicial to Cincinnati, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland and New York. And against upstarts such as Tampa, Denver, Anaheim and what? Arlington, Texas? Oy.

This all might be taken as ultimately frivolous. How seriously can you take sports teams? And rooting (quite apart from gambling on teams, which I never do) is completely irrational. Especially in these days of modern times when favorite players shuffle around the league in trades and free-agency, faithfulness to any one team no longer makes any sense.

Each year my team seems like the luck of the draw and any reason to favor them above any other team is quite unfounded. white sox 1976 Yet, there is this deeply imbedded need to root. One team over another, underdog against the bully, home team against the visitor, well-designed uniform against the cartoon version (how anyone can root for the brown camouflage of San Diego is beyond me, and remember the 1976 White Sox? — a travesty.)

And that is where this mysterious conservatism comes in. There is buried in me — as in many people — a desire to keep things as we have always known them. We are comfortable with the familiar, and what is more, they world as we came to know it when we were young seems to possess a legitimacy that novelty lacks.

This is despite the fact that change is often necessary and often makes things better for all of us.

A good deal of conservative backlash against things such as affirmative action have as much to do with the comfort of a familiar past than it has to do with overt racism.

I don’t deny the racism, but conservatism isn’t only racism; it is also a profound discomfort with change. Even change for the good.

And although no one takes precedence over me in my distaste for what I call “tin-foil-hat” Republicans, and the continued institutional racism of so many national traditions, I have to say that somewhere, deep down inside myself, I can have some inkling of understanding for the source of this disquiet.

I don’t condone it, but I share it.

Strauss IIThe German conductor Hans Knappertsbusch summed up the personality of composer Richard Strauss. “I knew him very well,” he said. “We played cards every week for 40 years and he was a pig.”

And yet he wrote some of the most beautiful music of the late 19th and early 20th century. He may have been a careerist, and his relationship with the Nazi regime was equivocal — he clearly despised them, but he nevertheless accepted the job as head of the Nazi musical apparatus. He frequently wrote how he despised Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, calling him a “pipsqueak,” yet dedicated the orchestral song “Das Bachlein” to him in 1933 to enlist Goebbels support for extending his copyright from 30 to 50 years. Strauss was always looking after No. 1.Strauss I

When he took the job as president of the Nazi Reichsmusikkammer (State Music Bureau), Arturo Toscanini famously said, “To Strauss the composer, I take my hat off; to Strauss the man, I put it back on.”

In his youth, he wrote tone poems, lush in orchestration and hyper-romantic in emotional urgency. As the 19th century rolled the odometer over, he composed operas, beginning with Salome in 1905, which took his music in more Modernist and dissonant direction, then mellowing out and writing glory after glory, culminating in that most glorious of operas, Der Rosenkavalier.

But however effective the music at eliciting an emotion in the audience, there is often something reptilian about the music; Strauss is always cleverly manipulative and calculating; one never has the feeling that he is sharing an emotion, but rather that he is the puppetmaster who can control the feelings of others.

Something happened during the war that changed all that. Strauss clearly despised the Nazis — his daughter-in-law was Jewish; he continued to collaborate with Jewish librettists and as a conductor programmed banned music. But the war heralded a Gotterdaemmerung for German music and culture. Around him Strauss saw death, destruction, ruins and devastation. The music he wrote during and just after the war no longer seemed contrived and remote. There is an emotional immediacy to it that was new in his oeuvre. You can see the bombed-out city of Berlin in the soundscape of his Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Stringed Instruments, a profound and moving elegy filled with despair. In contrast, there is the modest, light and beautiful Oboe Concerto written for American oboist and soldier John de Lancie, who contacted Strauss during the occupation after the war and asked him for the piece. It is the masterwork of an aging master no longer needing to prove his genius, but simply expressing it.

But most importantly, there are the Four Last Songs, the final work Strauss composed before his death, at age 85 in 1949. No composer ever wrote a more moving farewell to life.

They were not originally intended as a group. He had written a song setting the poem “Im Abendrot” by Joseph von Eichendorff, and followed that two months later with three settings of poems by Herman Hesse. They were published as a set and ever since have been inseparable. It is impossible to engage with these songs and not feel the tears burn down your cheeks. This is emotion embodied perfectly in sound.

Before he died, Strauss requested that the premiere of the songs be given by soprano Kirsten Flagstad, and on May 20, 1950 at the Royal Albert Hall, she sang the songs, accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler. A recording of that performance, in bad sound, is available.Norman 4

Much better is the overpowering performance on CD by Jessye Norman with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Kurt Masur.

It is the marriage of music and text that give the songs their power. I felt an overwhelming urge to translate the poems myself, lingering over the German words — words that have such cultural resonance in themselves: “Augen,” “Traum,” Denken,” “Einsamkeit,” “Tod.”

These are words that appear over and over in German lied, German poetry.

I was unhappy with the translations I have come across, often versified in singing versions, so to match the syllabification of the the German and the music. This turns the poetry into doggerel. I wanted to recreate the poems for myself, to make them my own. I give them here, for better or worse.


SPRING flowering tree

1. Spring

When I was living through dark,

Rocky places, I longed for

Your forests and blue breezes

Your smells and birdsongs.

Now you have arrived

In all the gleam and equipage,

Swimming in green light

Like a miracle.

You know who I am once more,

And you call to me sweetly.

And I give a shudder

As you run through my veins.


2. September

The garden mourns.

The cold rain drains into the flowers.

Summertime gives its rattle

and dies once again.

Leaf after leaf, the gold drops

From the tall acacia.

Summer smiles broadly,

Amazed, sapped,

At its own dying gardendream.

It lingers by the roses,

And doesn’t want to leave.

Yet its hesitation is really exhaustion.

Slowly it shuts its tired eye.


3. Going to Sleep

It’s been a long day,

And I need for the night sky

To gather me up in its sparkling arms

Like I was a sleepy child.

Hands, stop your running around;

Head, forget your buzzing.

All my senses now want to sink

Into the cool pillow.

And my soul, in an unguarded moment,

Sets upward in free flight,

Till in the magic ring of night

It takes on another life, deep and

A thousand times over.

ABENDROT tree in fog

4. In the Red of Evening

Through good times and bad,

Anger and joy,

We have walked hand in hand;

And now we take a moment’s rest

With the world all before us.

And everywhere, the valleys dim away,

And the details gray out.

You can begin to see the lights below.

And overhead, two larks fly alone,

half-dreaming into the velveting air.

Come closer to me,

And let them fly over us;

Soon it is time for sleep.

And we must not let the darkness

Separate us from each other.

The peace is wide and still,

Deep in the redness of the western sky.

How tired we are of this need to keep moving.

Is that what death is?

weeds lede photoI love gardens. My three most recent gallery shows have been of photographs taken in gardens. I photograph the gardens of most of my friends to make “books,” or series of images. Flowers are about growth, change, diversity, fecundity — and beauty. choke cherry 2

Yet, there is something in what I love about growing plants that is found in even more condensed form in the rankness of weeds. Gardens are wonderful, but weeds satisfy something philosophical deep in my soul. My own gardens have always been unkempt, and I tend not to weed out those plants that others fear will suffocate their more prized plantings. Weeds have a strength, if not a refinement, that I find almost heartbreaking. Right now, beside the roses and gladiolas that my wife planted, there is a great purple stalk of pokeweed, its berries still green against the fuschia of its stems. I prize it above the more formal and familiar plantings. weeds 09

Nothing lifts my heart up more than a clump of goldenrod beside the road, a spray of chickory, the tall swaying stalks of Joe Pye weed. It doesn’t even take the flowers: Even before they bloom, I like the sprawling weediness of their greens. chickory

And now is weed season. Yes, they grow year round, but the end of summer and the incipient autumn are when the weeds glory. Driving down the country roads of the Blue Ridge, you pass oceans of them, all colors and sizes, all rank and fertile.

I’m calling them weeds because their other name — wildflowers — makes them sound too pretty, and makes them sound like something you look up in a Peterson guide. Not all of the weeds I respond to even have the color dots you would call flowers. Sometimes their flowers are tiny and unnoticed; sometimes they stink instead of filling the nostrils with perfumes. grass in driveway

It isn’t just their appearance that moves me, although I revel in their varied shapes and forms, their repetitions of leaflets and their snaky tendrils; it is the very idea of weeds — the sense that life will force its way into the least cracks of concrete, will fill any emptiness and break through any barrier. I love to see some abandoned factory with vines covering its brick facade, and through its windows you may see ailanthus cracking up the interior floors. Others may rue the kudzu spreading over the trees, but I love the new forms we have, almost as if the trees were pulling sheets over their heads to play ghost. weeds 08

My love came early: When I was a boy, there was an empty farm field next to our house in northern New Jersey. In a few years, plant succession had covered it with stickers and grasses, later, saplings, and even before I moved away to college, there was such a dense thicket of young trees, it looked like a magnified view of the hairs on the back of a dog; you could hardly walk through the density. I have gone back to see the forest that it became; it has since been cleared and now someone is building tract housing there. Sometime in the future, it will be taken back by the vegetative maw that eventually devours everything. weeds 07

Some of my favorite places in a city are those that are forgotten, mostly, places that simply don’t have a use, being either too small, or not geometric enough to easily create deeds of title — spaces between properties left ambiguous of ownership, or little triangles next to on-ramps or beside old railroad sidings.composite Here the intention of humankind plays no part and weeds are left to themselves. There you find the yarrow and the cow itch, the Duchesnia indica and the knotweed. There what you find, and which I find so precious, is profusion. When humans become involved, you too often find monoculture, organization, rows and aisles, sameness, monotony and worse — usefulness.

The problem with usefulness is that it causes us to value something for how it might benefit us, turning it into a single descriptor, a one-dimensional entity, rather than a rich, multiple, various thing. An it rather than a thou. It ceases to be a part of the physical world and becomes instead a word — a concept instead of a living thing. Fie!weeds 04

There are things that are pretty — and some weeds count, too — but what I find beautiful, a concept so much larger than prettiness, as the universe is larger than the solar system, is profusion, fertility, irrepressibility — life.

Variety is not so much the spice of life, as life itself. Nature tries everything. It has no plan, motive or goal; it simply keeps putting stuff out there, like Blake’s mythical creative deity, Los.

“Exuberance is beauty.”weeds 10

This carries over into other areas of life. I enjoy all art, but I love the confusions of the Baroque, the exudations of the Romantic 19th century. If you compare Racine or Dryden with Shakespeare, you see the difference. Those 18th century unities are boring, while the uncontrolled profusion of metaphors in the Bard, and his shaggy plots and contradictory personae are the very stuff of life. The one rich and luscious, the other dry and didactic.

Victorian literature shares that didacticism, but even among the tidy moral lessons of Whittier and Longfellow, you have the weedy, rank profusion of language and thought and feeling that is Walt Whitman. How those of propriety hated the Good Gray Poet. Certainly, lots of Whitman is awful, repetitive and oracular, but then there is “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Emily Dickinson wrote some of the worst gobbledy-gook every published, but among her profusion of cryptic word-knots,  fruited with a million hyphens or dashes — certainly one of my favorite punctuations — there are such perfections that you are grateful for the weeds that give us such bounty. weeds 03

Simplicity is the enemy of life. When I hear a politician propound a dogmatic solution to an intractable problem, I sigh. When anyone has a simple answer, applied liberally (or conservatively), I know he is either a charlatan or a dunce. Probably both.

Such politics posits a final stasis, when all problems are solved by the simple prescription of an unchanging mantra: reduce taxes, reduce regulation, shrink government and Eden will be rebuilt. The political left is just as guilty, although we hear about it rather less. Communism equally anticipated an “end of history.” Problem solved.

Both sides fail to recognize that politics is ever shifting and cannot be otherwise. Interests contend, compromises are reached, grow out of date and so new compromises are found, no more permanent than the last. It is all weeds. We should value those weeds.

bachtrack page
The website Bachtrack has just released its poll of (mostly) European classical music critics, choosing the top ten orchestras and top ten conductors in the world. It is a list designed to be argued with — as most such lists are — and a list with some very odd missing persons.

First, the primary news, which is hardly news at all: The top three bands in the world are Berlin, Vienna and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. These three orchestras top almost everyone’s list. If they hadn’t been in win-place-and-show, we would all have known the contest was rigged.worlds best_orchestra_2015_bachtrackz

The rest of the list includes, in order, No. 4 through No. 10: The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; The London Symphony Orchestra; the Berlin Staatskapelle; the Dresden Staatskapelle; the Boston Symphony Orchestra; and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. All perfectly deserving bands, although some people in Cleveland might be squawking.

Only two American orchestras made the cut, but then, the ranking was made by Europeans (with only a handful of American critics included), so the bias is natural — they haven’t had a chance to hear the American groups. And of course, it goes without saying (except I’m saying it here) that all such rankings are essentially meaningless and serve only to start bar fights.

I can’t have any real opinion on orchestra rankings, because I only know most of them them through recordings. I haven’t heard all of them live.

The top conductor of the day, according to Bachtrack, is Riccardo Chailly, currently head of the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Also on the list: Simon Rattle; Mariss Jansons; Andris Nelsons; Riccardo Muti; Daniel Barenboim; Kiril Petrenko; Esa-Pekka Salonen; Yannick Nezet-Seguin; and Christian Thielemann. What? You say, no Bernard Haitink? No Pierre Boulez? There are several heavy hitters that are Missing in Action.

Such lists are inevitably subjective, and also political: Most of the critics gauged were German, so perhaps it is Valery Gergiev’s friendship with Vladimir Putin that has kept him off the list.

And I can say, from personal experience, that if you have only heard Haitink conduct on recordings, you may very well think of him as a timid kapellmeister. He is one of those musicians who seems to tone down his personality on recordings. I have heard him live with the London Symphony at the Salle Pleyel in Paris doing Beethoven’s Eroica, and it was one of the most exciting, and deeply moving performances I have ever heard. Live Haitink can be electric.

Still, for most of the baton-wavers, most of our experience of them comes on disc, and for most of them, the discs give us a very decent idea of their abilities. Chailly on disc is riveting. His Mahler Third is my personal favorite, and his recent Matthew Passion — swift enough to fit on two discs instead of the usual three — is a revelation.

So, I have an opinion on the top conductors, and it differs from Bachtrack’s list. My top conductors are not time-beaters, but have distinct personalities, so that you might hear a recording cold and think, that must be Gergiev, or that must be Pletnev. Many critics value the impersonal in performance: “Just the facts, ma’am,” and look for each performance to embody a Platonic ideal mystically assumed to be embedded in the score, with no “interpretation.” I don’t buy it. I want my music brought alive by someone who sees something in the music beyond the bar lines and semiquavers.

If I had a mission as a music critic for all those years, it was to make the case that music — particularly what is called classical music — is about more than entertainment, and that it has meaning beyond the mere patterns of notes on the page, and that musicians, no less than actors, must interpret the music, and bring their individuality to the game. No one wants a Hamlet where the best thing you can say is, “He stuck to the words on the page and didn’t try to interpret them.”

So, here is my list of the top conductors of the day, based both on live experience and on recordings: These are the conductors who give me exciting performances, show me something new, bring out the hidden, find the humanity behind the Pythagorean mathematics, and rattle my cage.

I can’t place them in order, like a horse race. So, as a group they are, in alphabetical order:barenboim

Daniel Barenboim — There is no doubt that Barenboim has ambitions of becoming the grand old man of classical music, and he has largely succeeded, taking up the mantle of a Furtwangler or Casals. There are times when his imitation of those giants of the past has been a kind of pastiche, an aping of idiosyncracies. But he has grown into a musician of considerable maturity and depth. The wishing-to-be has been overtaken by the has-become. His recordings of the Beethoven symphonies joins a few others as definitive, and his Bruckner recordings with the Chicago Symphony match brilliant engineering with perfect performances. boulez

Pierre Boulez — There is no one who does quite what Boulez does on the podium. His sense of color and balance is supernatural, and the crispness and cleanness of his performances are signature. He first became known to me through his recording of the Chereau Ring Cycle, where he managed to make Richard Wagner’s din sound like chamber music. His Mahler may be more “objective” and less manic than others, but no one makes the score more brilliantly etched. And he has a lock on the Second Vienna School. chailly

Riccardo Chailly — Over a long career, Chailly has found a corner all his own, bringing clarity and energy to familiar scores. His tempi tend to the speed-demon edge — he cuts an hour off the normal performance time for Bach’s Matthew Passion — but through some kind of maestro-magic, he makes those tempi expressive. Any performance by Chailly — especially with his house band, the Leipzig Gewandhaus — is worth hearing for what will be revealed. dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel — Yes, he’s the wunderkind and all that, and yes, there has been a kind of backlash against his celebrity status, but I heard him lead the Israel Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall playing the Tchaikovsky Fifth and that group of old pros — the kind of musicians who have played the music so many times, they don’t even need a conductor and who can be a little jaded — they looked like little boys being given a pony. Their eyes burned and they played like demons. I also heard him with his own LA Phil playing the Mahler First, and it was gangbusters. He’s for real. gergiev

Valery Gergiev — You have to see this guy on the podium; he’s all fingers. When he conducts, with both hands waving about spastically and each finger on each hand giving different cues, you have to wonder that his players can follow him at all. He has a very personal sound he draws from them: darker than other conductors, richer in the bass regions. I heard him twice in New York with his Mariinsky musicians dong Prokofiev and I feel I was given special insight into that composer. His recordings of Shostakovich’s “War Symphonies” are the best I know of that group of works. haitink

Bernard Haitink — There are unfortunately some musicians who just don’t record well. Yo-Yo Ma, for instance — his recordings are letter perfect and you could hardly ask for better, but they seem weak and pale compared to hearing him live, when you realize that you are, in fact, hearing God on the cello. Haitink can sound strait-laced on disc, but live, he can blow the roof off the dump. harnoncourt

Nikolaus Harnoncourt — This is a man who can be so perverse that you want to strangle him, yet, at times, that waywardness means you understand something you never did before. He brought “original instruments” out of the dark ages, but even with modern orchestras, he is likely to shake things up. And even when he’s not playing bad boy, as in his recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, he makes a personal mark on the music. The world will be a lesser planet when he leaves it. pletnev

Mikhail Pletnev — Pianists don’t always make great conductors. Barenboim and Ashkenazy are two of the few, and Pletnev, who is as wild a pianist as he is a conductor, makes my case that music needs to be interpreted. His Eroica is my personal favorite, played as I have never heard it before, with different accents and rhythms that bring the old chestnut back to its rightful place as being revolutionary.Berliner Philharmonie Gruppenbild Dez Berliner Philharmonie Gruppenbild Dez 2011 253

Simon Rattle — From the beginning, when he was the upstart at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Rattle showed a talent for both new music, new angles on old music, and a general awakeness to the world and its music. When he moved on the Berlin, he was a race car driver given the fastest machine in the world. The recordings he has made with them are nearly perfect. There is a depth behind the sheen. He finds the wit in Haydn and the neuroses in Mahler, the Weltschmerz in Brahms and the impishness in Stravinsky. His range is spectacular.

That is my list. It has nine conductors. You get to choose the tenth.

rosy fingered dawnI know a lot of stuff.

If that sounds like bragging, well, it isn’t. Having a lot of facts in your fact-bag has very little to do with intelligence. I have always said that things stick in my memory because my brain is gummy. Real intelligence is something else.

Oh, I’m smart enough, but I’m no Stephen Pinker. The ability to retrieve a good deal of information is no more something to take credit for than having red hair or a cute button nose. These things were doled out at birth and a retentive memory is just like being dealt cerebral fly paper in the genetic lottery.Trygve Lie

It is occasionally lots of fun: There was a time when my second unofficial wife ran a kind of scam, in which she would bet co-workers whether I would know some arcane fact — who was the first secretary general of the UN, for instance — and when I came to pick her up when she got off work, they would stand in a group and ask me the question. Then she would collect her money from everyone else and we would go home.

And even now, when age has made the retrieval of fact slower, it is still gratifying when my granddaughters come to me for help in history and I can give them a comprehensible overview of what they are studying. They call me “Encyclopedia Brown.”

As a side note, one should mention that when younger, this habit could be tiresome — creeping Cliff Clavinism you might call it. It’s surprising how few people desire to be corrected on factual matters that are incidental to the joke they are telling.cliff clavin

Worse, as you get older — age has nothing to do with it, per se, but rather the accumulation of experience, the widening of knowledge through reading and being corrected by the other Cliff Clavin’s of the world out there who know something you don’t — you discover that what once seemed to be a fact is in fact more subtle than you had imagined and that every supposed fact is really just a distillation of prevailing ignorance. As the Firesign Theatre once astutely had it: Everything you know is wrong.

At least, everything you know is more complicated than that. Just how many words for “snow” do Eskimos have? There are doctoral theses waiting to be written, not just on how many words, but on our fascination with the idea that Eskimos have this extended vocabulary.

And then there’s the issue of whether “Eskimo” is a decent word to use. And if we recognize the difference between Inuit and Yupik peoples, how many words do each of them have, and do these vocabularies overlap?

But before I got that deeply into snow — and avoiding the old traveling salesman joke — I meant to bring up something important to this flurry of factoid.snowflakes

And that is the difference between what I call “fact confetti” and its corollary, the “tree of knowledge.”

As I remember history being taught to me in grade school, it was a pile of disconnected dates and places, battles and kings. We were supposed to remember these things for a test. 1492, 1066, 1620, 1776, 1848, 44 BC, 1939 — and these are just the obvious ones. defenstration of prague woodcutHow about 1618 and the Defenestration of Prague and 1648 and the Treaty of Westphalia? (It is a matter of accounting to figure out just how many times the windows of Prague saw the ejection of undesirable political figures; it seems to have been a popular pastime in that city over the centuries, but the one in 1618 sparked off the Thirty Years War and is the one usually given the title.)

And that is just history. There were disconnected things to remember all through grade school, high school and into college. They filled out curricula for geometry, for chemistry, for drivers’ ed, even for art classes. Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism — we were taught these hiccups of isms, as if they were independently meaningful and taylor

This is fact confetti, thrown at you like your teacher was Rip Taylor.

I don’t know how anyone should be expected to remember such things, especially when you are young, pimply and lusting after the Betty Ann Rosensteins of the world in their teardrop eyeglasses and braces. Who cared about Ferdinand Magellan or the Holy Roman Empire? This emphasis on the accumulation of fact confetti turned many a young man and woman off of the whole idea of school-learning.

But, you realize, these facts are not discrete, but connected. In fact — so to speak — everything is connected. If you learn the connections, the facts hang there like ripe fruit, ready to be collected. If you have, instead of just dates and places, the central ideas, the basic flow, you can remember that and the facts fall naturally into place.

This is the tree of knowledge — the overriding shape of your subject. If you know the general lines of how revolutions play out, then whether you are seeing the French or Russian versions, you have a template for the expected facts to flop into place. You remember one thing instead of a hundred of them.

It is the bigger ideas that should be taught, not the fact confetti. But how often does this play out in the classroom? Perhaps it has all changed since my time in Charles De Wolf Elementary Purgatory, but I doubt it.The Ash Yggdrasil by Friedrich Wilhelm_Heine

As I have come to know it, there can even be said to be a single Tree of Knowledge, an Yggdrasil of everything, which splits into world-bearing branches we call science, history, art, language, mathematics. This “World Ash Tree” is the axis mundi of all human learning, and in some way is a map of the human mind — mirroring the way we understand. As Andrew Marvell has it, “that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find.” It is the carrefour where the Umwelt meets incoming experience, creating “far other worlds, and other seas.”

This tree is a life-long exercise of horticulture, you plant it young and watch it grow, spreading tendrils and leaves out to the furthest reaches of esoteric knowledge. All the information, all the contradictions and varieties spread out before you. When seen this way you become not arrogant in knowledge, but humble before the immensity of it all. You can never climb the whole tree, but live on this or that branch, seeing the rest of the tree spread out to a rosy-fingered east you can never reach in a single lifetime.B1992.8.1(106)

How do you plant the seed for this Tree of Knowledge, unforbidden by any Nobodaddy?

For me, it began with children’s books. The simple knowledge found in a book for children, or for adolescents, gives you all the hooks you need to hang the facts on. As you learn more and more, delve deeper into the subjects and take up first the adult books on the subject and later, the scholarly books, you come to discover that much of what you first learned was wrong, or at least simplified to the degree it was distorted, but the basic outline you got from that early book gave you the shape of the knowledge, and you could unhook one bit of questionable data and replace it with the more sophisticated version. But if you were to dive immediately into the Ph.D. version, you will become instantly lost.

golden hallucinogenicEven as an adult, when I want to learn something in a new field, I will seek out the simplest, most basic or synoptic version of it, knowing full well that much of what I read will turn out to be untrue, or at least undependable. Yet, the basic shape of the knowledge will remain.

This was the gift of such things as the Little Golden Guides of Herbert S. Zim, or the “All About” series of children’s books on dinosaurs or whales. You begin with the simplest learning and build on it — or rather, let it grow from seedling into mighty oak. Parvis e glandibus sapientia.

But it’s not just children’s books: Anything that gives you an overview, like the Durant “History of Civilization” series, all leventy-thousand pages of it. Or Harold Schonberg’s “Lives of the Great Composers,” or Butler’s “Lives of the Saints.” Each is filled with shorthands, even outright errors and sometimes mere fabrications. But it gets you in the door. You begin with Parson Weems and the cherry tree and move on to Marvin Kitman and the expense account.parson weems

You can even start with a Hollywood blockbuster. If Peter Ustinov as Emperor Nero gets you into Suetonius or Tacitus, all to the good. I know as a kid, I went from “Cat Women of the Moon” to books by Willy Ley and on to Sir James Jeans (I’m afraid already out of date in 1957) and then a telescope and the Norton Star Atlas. These things all build on one another and inform one another.

More important is the web of interrelations that spreads out from a single entry point. tycho noseThe astronomy of my boyhood opened to the Greek mythology of the constellations, the gold of astronomer Tycho Brahe’s artificial nose (now thought to have been brass instead) and thence to the Periodic Table of Elements, and the strange obsession with gold by the Spanish explorers, the rise of Medieval Islam and its science, the prosecution of Galileo by the Vatican, and thence to the Papal States and the political disunity of Renaissance Italy, the difference between classical and Medieval Latin … and on and on, one thing leading to another. It is all connected. Very like clicking a link in an internet story — although with this signal difference, that I finished the one book before “clicking” on the next.

And each of these excursions tended to illuminate the others: If you follow the general patterns of Renaissance thought and art into the Baroque and then to the 18th and the Romanticism of the 19th, you can see find the same differences in type design from humanist to old style Caslon to the so-called new style Bodoni, Bodoni typeand see the same impulses. You can see them in politics, philosophy, in clothing, in historiography, in religion, and even in cookbooks. Knowledge in one area helps to comprehend another. If you were given a few uncredited lines of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Blake, T.S. Eliot and Derek Walcott, you could arrange them chronologically by their styles: Renaissance, Baroque, 18th Century, Romantic, Modernist and Postmodernist.

Remembering dates has always seemed beside the point; recognizing correspondences is so much more meaningful. As Albert Einstein supposedly said, “If I need a fact, I can look it up.”

color sky 03One grows as a human being, and the art cannot help but grow, too. When I was young, it was art that impressed me most: the forms, textures, colors, the transformation of stimuli into esthetic forms. Don’t blame me — it was the times in which I grew up; Modernism was in the ascendency and we all mouthed such platitudes as “art changes nothing,” and “Subject matter? The subject doesn’t matter, only what you make from it.” In those years, life drawing ceased to be taught in most art schools; students were asked merely to “be creative.” The divorce between life and art was complete. cloud30 The prejudice was that the subject, say in my chosen medium, photography, was only there to catch light and make for a splendid arrangement of greys and blacks printed out in rich silver on glossy paper. Anything else was pretty pictures for calendars or chamber of commerce brochures. A kind of puritanism set in. If you are old enough, I’m sure you remember it: No cropping, previsualize, etc. So, when I was younger, I concentrated on the beautiful print, in black and white, and archivally processed. Zone system, anyone? cloud 01 My life turned in a different direction. Instead of a photographer, I turned out to be a writer. And lucky for me, it was on a newspaper and not in academia. I never had to slog through the atrocious trends of literary theory then current (still current). When asked to lecture to writing classes, I always had one lesson to give: Good writing is having something to say. Writing in fancy words or jargon, clever euphues, gongorisms, or acrostics or esoteric allusion only get in the way. One can be so caught up in the allure of a classic Bugatti that you forget its purpose is to get you somewhere. Fancy writing is that shiny Bugatti sitting unused in a garage, cherished and polished but useless. cloud08 I continued to make photographs, nevertheless. And I have had gallery shows. But as I got older I came to see that the Bugatti was there to drive somewhere, not to show off. Subject matter not only counted, it was the reason for making the picture in the first place. But — and this is a big proviso — not to share the subject with your audience so you can all go “Ooh, what a beautiful sunset.” That really is a calendar photo. cloud16 No, the entire purpose of art, if it can be said to have a purpose, is to make a connection with the world. To reconnect with what habit has made invisible. To see what you normally ignore, to find the glow of liveliness in the experience of being alive. Few people need to be told that a sunset is pretty; there is no art in that.cloud25 But to find the chispas — the sparks — in the crack of a sidewalk, or the bare winter trees, or the clouds that sail over us every day — this is not so much a finding of a source for perfect prints to hang on the wall, but rather the illumination of a hidden fire. These things are all alive: Every bush is the burning bush. That is what makes Van Gogh’s landscapes so alive. They burn from within. This is not something he has applied from the outside; it is something he was able to see as the scales fell from his eyes. And so it can be for anyone willing to look, to see. It is what makes life drawing so indispensable for an artist. Drawing is not simply making an art object, drawing is learning to see, to break through the cataracts of habit. cloud26 And so, when I come back to clouds as an old man, I see in them not merely abstract shapes from which I can make suitable art. I don’t care about art. I see something that wakes me up, and I try to capture it with the snap of my shutter. For me. Not for some appreciative audience. For me. I am the one I want to keep awake, alive. Others have helped me in this; if I can pass this on to others, all to the good. But I no longer care about making art.cloud38 (Note: All but three of these photographs were taken on the same day during monsoon season from my back yard in Phoenix, Ariz.) cloud42 cloud43

color sky 01 cloud45 color sky 02 cloud07

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,702 other followers