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The Arvo Pärt Project(ion)

(NOTE: This essay was originally published in Issue 7 of the magazine i care if you listen.  Reprinted here, this blog has long been dormant as the result of prioritizing personal filmmaking projects, though it continues to feed local event tips and offers regularly via Facebook, via Twitter @dcartsbeat, and via Google+, that you are warmly welcomed to follow.)


You cannot expect a large crowd for formal concert music starting at 6:00 p.m. on a weekday in Washington, D.C., but May 27, 2014, the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall filled up.  A line for free tickets had wrapped around the side of that massive building on the Potomac, filling seats usually reserved for subscribers to conventional programs after dinner time.  So the audience was a little different, and there’s no better case for arts outreach than the experiment of giving it away (as other countries do better than ours).  But this audience wasn’t only different because a barrier to entry had been eliminated.  The audience was already enamored of something transcendent, and came to hear it, under the auspice that it was a rare visitation from a living composer who is sensationally characterized as both a rock star and a recluse.  This was his first visit to the East Coast in 30 years.
For an occasion like this, hosts had to get a few words in first, including Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves who told his own “my first time hearing Arvo Pärt” story that would become a repeating anecdote throughout the week, revealing something.  Albeit, many composers (and especially pop musicians) have been on the receiving end of that sentiment too; but something more than political rhetoric was at work, when he strained to project a personally transformative experience rather than, say, the story of a first kiss.
After the elation of hearing Arvo Pärt’s music that needs no introduction, personal transformation is an extraordinary claim.  A composer’s music lives and breathes without it, but around this tour called The Arvo Pärt Project, healthy skepticism is worth contending against the taboo of actually asking anyone:  what transformed?
I sat across the aisle from him at the more intimate music room of The Phillips Collection during his second Washington, D.C. concert, discreetly glancing a couple of times to read his demeanor while being confronted with the performance of his music.  Afterward, during a reception at the Embassy of Estonia, I shook his hand simply to thank him.  Both of these minimal encounters clarified one simple thing:  Arvo Pärt is the exemplar of humility, not just in the way he carries himself, but in his music itself.  Whether you call it minimalist or post-modern or Tintinnabuli as it’s formally named, the composer exists within his music just as any one person merely exists within the universe.  The harder question than existence, always, is how anyone spends their existence.
So Arvo Pärt moves in the opposite direction from that ad-driven media moniker “rock star,” framing an occasion to think about the existence of ego in any composer’s work.  Taking a broad view of contemporary music, we could fairly say that our generation has an ironic primitivism that accords creative artists celebrity (or requires a lust for it).  Some tactics used are guilt, fashion, Apple commercials, and you know the rest.  At a ubiquity manifested in endless Kickstarter campaigns for subsidizing personal dreams, and urban music that is the opposite of urbane, we know what we want, and we celebrate artists who do too.
Tintinnabuli is a term of music theory ascribed solely to Arvo Pärt, whose arpeggiated triads rise and fall against a slow and often foreboding diatonic progression.  The implications of this duality are undebated, that they pit a symbolized holy trinity against the melancholy of human existence that is not so holy (and suffers).
There was a panel discussion at George Washington University last week between some composers and textual scholars to explore the “spirituality” of this composer, starting off with another round of anecdotes about first encounters.  Nicholas Reeves, co-founder of the Project, then related one of the composer’s favorite quotations, from Eastern Orthodox monk Saint Silouan:  “Keep your mind in hell and do not despair.”  Composer Andrew Simpson fielded comparisons to contemporaries like James MacMillan and John Tavener, who create similar moments of religious calm but also divert into composerly gestures of agitating parts that really enlarge the personality of the creative actor, unlike Pärt.  Between these two, another composer, who also moderated the panel, seemed to bend towards relativism – befitting that academic setting – as a self-professed modernist who deals in abstraction.  All of this seemed to reinforce the idea of a rare humility in Pärt, at odds with the practicing musical canon.  His favorite quote really consummates the meaning of Tintinnabuli, to affirm the existence of an evil nature, while facing towards the battle that it wages against a sort of divine tintinnabulum – not avoiding it to celebrate humanity as its foil.  Also:  an uncomfortable forensic about composerly music, especially complex modernist abstraction, is that you might find it betraying true musical transcendence, really just showing that the creator wants to enlarge its presence.
After all, what has the argument been about all these years, between (say) Samuel Barber on one side and Pierre Boulez on the other?  Academic production, especially from research universities that also happen to influence cultural trends, is not designed to whittle down humanism, and we tolerate its egoism for the limited purpose of collegiate education that is designed to nurture self-assertion.  But most of today’s contemporary music is/was formed from those academic laboratories.  Arvo Pärt seems to have passed them by completely.
But it’s not so easy, and he has a problem of his own:  getting tagged “spiritual.”  It’s the same thing that afflicts filmmaker Terrence Malick, and even some atheists like Lars Von Trier on the receiving end of a word that doesn’t really exist.  Granted, it exists in real terms whenever an audience wraps things up that way.  But “spiritual” is in the armory of avoidance.  It is the failure to “keep your mind in hell.”  It describes only the pleasant effect of “fear not,” and it is a conscious choice to avoid, rather than anything mystical.  No coincidence, then, that Malick turned to Pärt’s music for his best films.  The Thin Red Line’s opening chords are the foreboding 1980 organ work Annum per annum, morphing into the glorious “In paradisum” from Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem – a sort of tintinnabulum between the two.  Malick frequently cuts between miniatures of animals killing each other, and beautiful women twirling beneath the shining light of dusk (to the groans of most film critics), and his characters are all subordinate to a larger existence.  Usually, he doesn’t even let them talk.
Somehow, audiences have acclimated to Malick with the belief that they are receiving a universally spiritual experience, and feel cleansed.  What actually happens in his films, though, is a sort of perpetual wandering by characters who are confused by their capacity to hurt those whom they love.  “Where does it come from?  Who lit this flame in us?”  “Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?”  “What’s this war in the heart of nature?  Why does nature vie with itself?  The land contend with the sea?  Is there an avenging power in nature?  Not one power, but two?”


The similarities between Pärt and Malick are more than just seclusion and facial hair; idiomatically, they each strike that delicate balance between keeping their minds in hell, and facing into the light.  Their works also orchestrate specific denominational orthodoxies rather than a vague embrace of “all good things.”  The fact that audiences select transcendent effects divorced from their central complications isn’t inherently bad, though (and who am I to say?).  This “spiritual” experience from hearing the music of Arvo Pärt is an opportunity for maybe accessing enlightenment.  After all, during the panel discussion, a Buddhist said that Pärt’s music changed her life.  And the most elementary of liberal arts proclaims that art is what you make of it.  That must mean, it’s okay to ask:  what do you make of it?  And what are you getting out of it?
As an ethnically once-Russian composer, Pärt could be haunted by the saying of Karl Marx, ironically:  “Religion is the opiate of the masses.”  Straight to the essence of human instinct, Marx perceived our psychological need to believe that we have permanent value.  In the meantime, there is that word “masses” to keep in mind:  a dominant truth, that behavior speaks for itself.  When masses adopt and ingest something, it’s already proof of a quick and easy return – otherwise it wouldn’t be a mass phenomenon, right?  Marx knew all of this about religion, and the rest is history:  God got reconfigured as the totalitarian State.
Music might be an opiate too, efficient at delivering its short-term effect; and as its consumption grows in number, the more you know it works.  It needs to be quick, with minimal effort, otherwise something else will come along and do the job better, and we’ll just flip to the next track.  Similarly reality television answers a demand; masses ponder the real possibility that they could be the subject of a show; or in any case, the President of Estonia wanted us to know when he first heard Pärt.
This music is on a lot of yoga playlists.  Spiegel im Spiegel is on the trailer to Gravity, an action flick that had almost nothing to say about our existence beyond the fact that gravity sucks us in.  Audiences en masse nonetheless called it a spiritual experience.  In effect, for many people, the music of Arvo Pärt bypasses much reconciliation, discipline, ritual, even the theology at its core.  Efficient at creating elation, a sense of divine self, and a cleansing of guilt, this is the most widely consumed music from any living composer.  For some, hearing it might be tantamount to confession, or worship without all the kneeling, standing and chanting.  Instead of associating with an organized church politic, or relaxing one’s reason for putting faith into the unproven (or the unlikely), it is:  just enough.  Just right.

Towards the end of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, Justine says:  “The earth is evil.  We don’t need to grieve for it.  …I know things.  And when I say we’re alone, we’re alone.  Life is only on earth, and not for long.”  Strangely, that atheistic creed could be a more lasting comfort than so-called spirituality, even though it lacks the mass efficiency.  And for believers in Pärt’s God, they are already “keeping their minds in hell, fearing not.”
What’s left?  To some extent, it doesn’t matter.  There’s an interfaith principle named “remnant” that assures its minority (even in our equality-romanticizing culture) that the authentic faithful will always be outnumbered – it was already prophesized, so no surprise.  But it can’t hurt to promote the truth behind Arvo Pärt’s music:  to direct listeners away from the spiritual opiate, at risk of decreasing the mass audience, to value the remnant.  After all, at any typical modern institution that abides by political correctness, great pains are taken to accurately and faithfully represent the true meanings of literary and artistic sources, especially from minority cultures.  Now, only after winding down its universally acclaimed concert run, with performances at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it’s showtime for The Arvo Pärt Project.


– H. Paul Moon
June 5, 2014

Matthias Pintscher at The Phillips Collection



Like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, or the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia before it got stolen, Washington, D.C. has an important art museum well outside the zone of culture shopping on the National Mall.  It's called The Phillips Collection, in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, grown from the collection of Duncan Phillips.  Distinct from the aim of larger institutions to show a cross-section of art, The Phillips Collection represents the peculiar tastes of its namesake, with stories to tell for many of his acquisitions.  Around that personal character, it also hosts public concerts in an intimate Music Room surrounded with paintings by the like of Goya and El Greco, with acoustically resonant wooden walls framing a massive stone mantle.  It's quite a place to experience chamber music; I had the pleasure of filming a performance there once, lavishing over the space as much as the music.
 
It's not unusual for art museums to curate music that somehow connects with visual art – nearby, Christopher Kendall's brilliant 21st Century Consort at the Smithsonian American Art Museum does this regularly – but on Thursday evening, The Phillips Collection presented an evening of chamber music from German composer Matthias Pintscher in an especially compelling fusion of visual art and music.  Also a conductor (in fact the forthcoming director of Ensemble Intercontemporain starting in 2013), Pintscher received performances here from the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), of his most intimate works.

The concert opened with on a clear day (2004), a solo piano work performed by Phyllis Chen.  Extraordinarily hushed and delicate, it set the tone for the rest of the program.  Inspired from screen prints by Agnes Martin, one of which the composer himself acquired, it represented to him a purity of simplicity and intention that he later explained anecdotally.  As he tells it, Martin simply stopped creating at a certain point in her life; and the drought lasted seven years.  Just as suddenly, she resumed; the composer found inspiration in her dedication to a higher purpose, as she left the self out of the art.  As works of minimalism, her time spent creating wasn’t the measure.  In Pintscher's piece, one note (E flat) became the straight line seen in Martin's prints, an axis of harmony.


Studies II and III for Treatise on the Veil (2005) called for violin, viola and cello.  Not really conceptual, but simply a sonic method, the score called for the instruments to have paper clips mounted onto their strings, pulling hard texture and friction from the bows.  The studies are named for Cy Twombly's layering of paint and wax crayon on canvas; when the string instruments began to play, an evocation was clear:  we could hear Cy Twombly scraping the canvas.  Setting that up with pensive development, the score grew hauntingly layered when more than one hand – two and three – added simultaneous friction.  And then, the thought of layers on a hard surface concealing things, combined with the tension of revealing them, connected well with Twombly's visual style.

In one of those rare, unexpected encounters with art that can foreshadow other revelations, I’d roamed the galleries of The Phillips Collection during the hour before the concert, and revisited its famous Rothko Room, a small space where you become surrounded with four of his idiomatic large canvases; and after that, the nearby room of Duncan Phillips' most precious collection, filled with Paul Klee.  Between Rothko and Klee, there is a richness of hidden layers by now well understood and deeply cherished.  To hear it consummated sonically in Pintscher's music, so soon afterward, was an epiphany.


The concluding work on the program was the most ambitious/complex/daring.  A duo of accordion and cello, dernier espace avec introspecteur (1994) explored "frictions and densities" (as the composer later explained), inspired from a Joseph Beuys installation of disparate objects placed upon a floor, drawing tension where the objects cannot unify.  William Schimmel's dramatic performance on the accordion lacked those familiar idioms for the instrument, sounding instead at its lower registers like the buzzy drone of an analog synthesizer.  Adding to that, knuckles rapping on the instrument's hard surface sounded like digital static.  And a piercing high held note sounded like microphone feedback.  These were, anyway, my own associations that the composer later sanctioned to be his ultimate joy of creating, when audiences take ownership.  He was not thinking about machines.

Stepping back from all this analysis, there’s something really general to write about the evening:  it must have been the quietest concert ever given, at least using traditional instruments (pianississississississimo?).  Today's flu map suggests it should have been a tough crowd (because Washingtonians are known otherwise for a personality of unrestrained coughing, then leaping to their feet for ovations after routine repertory concerts...as long as the piece ends with an ass-kicking bang).  Caroline Mousset, Director of Music Programs at The Phillips Collection, has built a loyal and invested audience with regular concerts, though, and everyone was rapt within the delicacy of the chamber.  This distinct series, called “Leading European Composers,” will continue in the same space with a special concert featuring Kaija Saariaho on February 21, 2013 – not to be missed.

Another performance from the Music Room of The Phillips Collection


Sonic Circuits Festival of Experimental Music

The Sonic Circuits Festival of Experimental Music is this weekend, September 28-30 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center near Capitol Hill.  I spoke with Jeff Surak, director and curator.

What is Sonic Circuits, and what does it mean to Washington, D.C.'s new music scene?

Sonic Circuits is an organization which promotes experimental music of all forms in the Washington, D.C. area.  We have an annual festival and also organize shows year-round.  We promote music otherwise overlooked by the mainstream, and provide a platform for D.C.-area artists and visiting artists to present their work.  It's about networking and building the community.

How old is Sonic Circuits, and how did it start?

This is the 12th edition of the Festival, and we began programming year-round in 2008.  Originally it was a program created by the American Composers Forum, and the DC Chapter held the first festival in 2001.  For the first few years, it was under their direction until the DC Chapter closed, and ever since it's been a separate entity.  Originally Sonic Circuits was focused on music that used new technologies, but we've expanded way beyond that to include everything that's experimental, no matter how it's produced.

You've planned a great closing-night event for the annual Festival on September 30.  What will we hear?

The entire festival is great, but yes, the closing night program definitely goes out with a bang.  We have the Glenn Branca Ensemble performing, along with the international free improv trio Isabelle Duthoit & Franz Hautzinger & Zsolt Sőrés, psychedelic eastern european art-song stylings of Alec Redfearn & the Eyesores from Providence, and opening it all will be a collaboration of several D.C.-area artists called STYLUS!BLACK!FACTORY!, sort of a post-rock drone ensemble for record players, guitar and cello.

What is your vision for the Festival five years from now?

Since it's all about experimentation, it's almost impossible to predict what it will be like in five years.  If it's the same, then I think we've failed.  It's all about pushing things farther, constantly questioning what is music and how it's made, how it's received by the audience.

Do you have a favorite moment from a prior Sonic Circuits Festival?

There are many!  One favorite is the Dutch noise artist Odal coming out on stage donning nothing but a hockey mask, with strategically placed black duct tape which didn't really do its job over the duration of the performance of keeping things in place.

What:  Sonic Circuits Festival of Experimental Music
When:  Friday, September 28 through Sunday, September 30
Where:  Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002
Informationhttp://dc-soniccircuits.org/festival/2012
Ticketshttp://atlasarts.org/events/2011/07/2012-sonic-circuit-festival or in-person at the box office

UPDATE:  Upon conclusion of the Festival, I filmed this performance on Saturday, September 29, and pulled together a same-day edit.   It's a hybrid of concert performance and documentary footage, for a conceptual work by Jimmy Ghaphery based upon the 1972 World Chess Championship between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer.  It's an epic composition, and lengthy as such, but the second half is worth waiting for (or jumping to).

Madame Freedom, @DJSpooky, and App Art


Some scattered thoughts—untimely on one week’s delay—seem due for an unusually rich evening of contemporary multimedia at the Freer Gallery.  On November 4, DC native Paul D. Miller (marquee name:  DJ Spooky) performed a live music score to accompany the progressive 1956 Korean film Madame Freedom.  No less important than Paul’s legendary remixing innovation on display was the simple importance of revitalizing this cinematic relic of a country undergoing dramatic transformation.  And running parallel to that, Paul’s process raised interesting questions about audience empowerment, or for that matter, the possibility that our idea of an “audience” is evolving into another kind of freedom in the wider example of Björk Gudmundsdottir’s new Biophilia project.

The logistics were wonderfully hybrid:  two classically trained musicians played traditional string instruments, reading from passages of notation, and Paul helmed a buffet table of Macbook, sampling, effects, and—centrally—an iPad.  That last part is the virtual toolbox that invites blurred lines between stage and audience, or (if you will) the creative class and the consumer.  As Paul explained in opening remarks, his free iPad app (millions of downloads and counting) has aims that surpass pro tools for musicians, empowering the casual screen-swiper with cadres of clips to trigger and assemble into music.  The extent to which this engine was integral to the functionality of his Madame Freedom performance was unclear, but no one could suffer the mistake that all those sounds spring forth on-the-fly.  Forever, this is an artform of meticulous studio performances and synthesizer sequences, locked and loaded in a production process you’ll never know.  The subsequent stage, though, of organizing those pastiches to your ear’s pleasure is what the app revolution is all about.  Paul D. Miller has been a key innovator in “remix culture,” hence his moniker DJ Spooky.  A perfect overview of the innovators in this field can be heard in interviews with Paul and his peers from the 2010 documentary Copyright Criminals.

On fast rewind (now, an obsolete tape term!), I have a memory from the mid-’90s of visiting The Juilliard School to see an opera installation by Tod Machover from MIT’s (formerly) groundbreaking Media Lab.  This was a time when electronic music and digital sampling were genuine fresh practices and, to the general audience, a whole bunch of amazing hocus-pocus.  Machover, perceived then as a sage of what-is-to-come (while history proved otherwise, and where-is-he-now), introduced his “opera” with a demonstration of the music controllers he invented back at the Lab, to which he attached the term “virtual reality”—a sexy idea at the time evincing badass gloves and boning up with robots.  He also apologized that he’d fail to incorporate spoken phrases from the audience who earlier whispered into pre-show lobby pods, because the acquisition computer had crashed.  I remember actually seeing that iconic Blue Screen of Death on Windows 95.  Like I said, this was the mid-’90s.

One of his “virtual reality” instruments was a wizard wand thingie that frankly sounded amazing.  As he moved it around—if you need a visual image for this, think Doug Henning on a Theremin—lustrous string timbres climbed in pitch around a modally diatonic pad of accompaniment.  Partly out of jealousy, and partly because I saw myself heroically on the cutting edge of digital sampling at the time (a composer outside those Ivy Leagues), I seized his question-and-answer time with aplomb.  After someone in the audience asked, “Did you make that sound just now?” and he beamed “Yes!”, I tore into a lawyer line of questioning that would later evolve into my sellout profession.  Without now belaboring the details, my Socratic method went from asking:  whether sampled or synthesized, whether triggered or modulated, and whether wet or dry.  The end confession, on full public display, was that his magic wand was basically a start button with a volume control.  At least, that’s the way I phrased it, and he stupidly affirmed.  This would have gone better if he channeled Doug Henning after all, waving his hands and insisting, “The world is full of magic!”

Much has changed since then.  Or has it?  Enter Biophilia.  To start with, I am biased.  For a super long time, with intervening competition, I sort of madly believed that Björk was my intended, with whom I should make music and father children; half-serious or less, er something.  But to be serious now, I still maintain she is consummate as the artist of our time (forgiving even her insufferable music videos that always manage to command automatic praise).  In the spirit of an innocent soul, or a good agnostic, or a good documentary filmmaker, her music manifests receptivity.  She navigates between, say, Olivier Messiaen and Karl Stockhausen for organizing organic sounds, using machines (created by human organisms!), while sticking to our dogma of body rhythms and world cultures where we find fundamental urges.  Her diverse collaborations result in singularly personal works.  She lacks any pretension of avant garde formalism, yet finds no easy place in populism.  Simpler put, it’s no small moment when she emerges every few years, and begins to tour.

Importantly, Biophilia’s essence is no different than her preceding catalogue:  pure music.  You can forget all about her conceptual aspirations toward education and interactivity; what speaks through the music is our human experience—while science is merely the totem.  Among these songs, Virus is a good example of her lyrical meditation on scientific phenomena that speaks just as well to our mysterious emotional urge to seek infection, craving the love of those who might bring hurt but build strength—"like a virus," she sings.  The beautiful thing of this literary tradition is that it combines an infinitely complex thing (microbiologists typically have Ph.Ds) with a universal human unconsciousness.

Clearly, though, Björk was teased with the ability to involve strangers into her creative process, using an Apple app suite available to anyone (except the ana-hipster Android majority:  boo!).  But there’s something interesting about this:  It arises from a position of power.  Rather like Radiohead promising a whole new world of digital music distribution, these models are easiest to pull off by Titans of Industry.

Yet, having strayed so far from Madame Freedom, here’s how that evening went (from my seat’s perspective), as a point of comparison.  Paul’s treatment was wonderfully nuanced.  He followed the lead of the Korean film’s peculiar incorporation of South American music, while his long stretches of silence served the film where they needed to.  Some themes were motivic, and tracked the narrative emotions in a dramatic arc.  Cliches of pentatonic scales and foley cues were nowhere found.  All of this leads to a frankly simplistic conclusion that might seem Debbie Downer upon the fresh promise of empowerment from remix apps:  Always, the result is only as good as the artist.  Historically, new technologies curry that admonition almost on cue, like a lazy rhythm, but history also always proves that whenever technology introduces ability/access/empowerment, at the center you find a cool tool for the production of more art.  It is a healthy suspicion to question critics of these tools:  Are we not, as human beasts, motivated by control?  Creativity tends to threaten establishments.  So the huge irony (even in these words) is that any critique of new tools is suspect, tantamount to evaluating a Picasso canvas with harsh questions about paintbrushes.  Who gives a shit?

There are some concluding things to say about the film Madame Freedom itself.  Personally speaking, around the time when I watched it, my father was stepping off an airplane on return from Seoul.  He first left his Korean homeland in his late teens, which makes every return visit as an adult unfamiliar, with always the same observation, that he can barely recognize the place.  The opposite of that is this:  today’s Koreans, Korean-Americans, and even half-breeds like myself have no concept of what Korea was like just over one-half century ago.  Madame Freedom captured that world in transition.  It shows people hanging around the home wearing Hanboks, not “copy couture” facing West.  It shows houses along dirt roads with sliding doors and rice paper walls, not high-rises with stenciled addresses.  And at the center of the film, it shows women breaking free from domestic restraints, smoking and dancing, venturing into business, and having affairs.  From today’s perspective, the modern social conscience has a boilerplate instinct that venerates Madame Freedom on cue, if only it glorifies progressivism, and it mourns the fate of women who suffered along the way.

But it’s not so simple.  That the film was ahead of its time and depicted broken social mores is beyond reproach.  That its first audiences (or even its filmmakers) were cheering for the women, though, is not so certain.  I am just as prepared to believe that the film channels Puccini’s scenario of Butterfly’s boy waving an American flag while she kills herself.  Two scenes in particular resonate here.  At the depth of damage in Seon-yeoung’s marriage to Professor Jang, when she finally begins to communicate her unhappiness, she sits in front of a mirror and hastily starts applying make-up, threatening her husband in some sense that this new kind of beauty (with all its Western dogma on how to paint faces) will shift the balance of power.  Another scene:  when she calls out Professor Jang for flirting and fawning over a younger woman as he teaches grammar lessons, Seon-yeoung finds the gift he got in return, and berates it for being cheap, inadequate, low-class.  These small moments of conflict were strangely prophetic in 1956.  They continue to resonate uniquely among Asians today, as nearby as those first, second, and third generation immigrants who live among us—whom we marry, whom we go to school with, whom we might see fulfilling terrible stereotypes of brand-obsessed shoppers with counterfeit handbags, and a desperation to assimilate exclusively into upwardly mobile circles and professions.  I can’t easily explain why these ungraceful transitions seem the most severe in Asian culture—around more universal truths, that consumerism, family neglect and sexual affairs are poisonous—but the way that Madame Freedom foretells it all is incredibly compelling.  Paul D. Miller’s great contribution, through his modest and nuanced score, is to reinvigorate the film for modern audiences.

The Castleton Festival

Lorin Maazel (photo by Chris Lee)
Well beyond my understanding or appreciation, classical music maintains a lasting tradition of summer festivals motivated mostly for the cultivation of emerging artists.  We think readily of examples named Tanglewood and Aspen, seeing them on the biographies of all major concert artists as rites of passage to supplement their formal conservatory educations.  The incidental fruit of this tradition is its public’s access to these talents on display for an off-season diversion away from city sprawl.  In the Washington, D.C. area, sadly Wolf Trap never quite cuts it.  Laudable as its opera program for young artists may be, the productions are flanked by a scattered season of pulpy programming (lately more than ever).  This pop pageant violates the spirit of summer sojourn—nothing new is being “tried out” in the fresh outdoors of this otherwise precious woodsy getaway; merely old standards and revivals from tried and true (and old-aged) acts.  Wolf Trap is no Spoleto, let alone Ojai or even Ravinia.

Tiresome as that complaint may be, it aims merely to stage the warm welcome for Lorin and Dietlinde Turban Maazel’s Castleton Festival—now concluding its third year in youth.  An expansion of their longer-lasting Châteauville Foundation (and literally, of their farmhouse), the Festival was founded around the time when Maestro Maazel concluded his appointment as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic.  Centered in the Piedmont region of rural Virginia, the Festival expanded this year for the first time to an outer suburb of Washington, at the new Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas.  An architectural triumph (while less successful on the inside), the Hylton Center is not just easier accessible to its nearest major market, but also…has good HVAC (compared to the Festival Tent on the farm), and credible acoustics.  Moreover, the Maazels are expanding the reach of their Festival in its critical infancy.

For three consecutive Thursdays there, the Castleton Festival has delivered, first, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, then Puccini’s Il Trittico (minus one), and concludes tomorrow with a variety show sort of thing that rounds up American music to commemorate the sesquicentennial of Bull Run.

Less interested in the bookending Americana, I was thoroughly rewarded with the Puccini one-acts.  Il Trittico is a marvel in Puccini’s opus.  Giacomo’s aficionados readily swoon at the mere mention of his operatic triptych, which moves from a love triangle to a miracle play to a riotous farce.  Sadly, it is rarely performed in whole (as intended), owing to a contemporary estimation of audiences’ attention spans.  First-to-go, usually, is Suor Angelica, though the Festival gave it (along with the others) their full due at the farm last year.  For its Manassas appearance, Il Trittico delivered Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi with mostly the same casts from 2010.

Thinking of Il Tabarro in particular that started the July 14 program, you have in this one-act opera arguably the pinnacle of Puccini’s mastery.  Compared to Puccini’s larger, evening-length works wherein the composer needed to contend with complex and epic literary narratives, each from Il Trittico is uncompromising musical perfection.  Il Tabarro, for all its melodrama, has some of the most wrenching passages of "pure" music that Puccini ever wrote.  Freed from set-piece villainry (that we can call, for need of a name, Franco Zeffirelli) and ambitions of scale, these melodic lines carry a primacy unlike, say, Tosca that hems and haws around its outsize characters and narratives.  Remembering especially the searing duet between Giorgetta and Michele, of a husband wondering when he lost the affection of his wife, Puccini's delicate mastery between emotional heft and restraint is absolute.  And Jessica Klein delivered these moments with expert nuance, while the particular surprise came in Andrew Stuckey’s performance that poured open affection after a preceding dammed-up countenance.  Il Tabarro certainly devolves into a rather old-world plot of murderous jealousy, and much screaming at the end, but at its center you can see and hear a certain timelessness, compact and true, about the agonies of lost dreams and points of decision in a marriage.

After all that, Gianni Schicchi is a 180-degree turn into drop-dead comedy, literally.  Based upon a situational comedy of squabbling goofs trying to defraud a freshly decedent estate, Gianni Schicchi is a total hoot.  It ranks among Falstaff, even much from Mozart, as a rare kind of laugh-until-it-hurts comedic spectacle.  Interestingly, its central show-stopper “O mio babbino caro,” so persistently excerpted in recitals for all its lush prettiness, is among the most reliably abused musical passages ever.  Out of context especially, but sometimes even inside the opera, Lauretta usually swoons with virgin ambition and teary whimpering, when the moment actually calls for farce.  “O mio babbino caro” is supposed to be sung flirty, manipulatively, and cow-towing to the back row of the auditorium.  For the Castleton Festival, Joyce El-Khoury really got it right, and for me, perhaps better than I’ve ever seen.  (Staged using modern dress for these Italian caricatures, I even dare say that the production designer was channeling Snooki.)  As Washingtonians, we had the rare opportunity to attend Gianni Schicchi at the Washington National Opera in 2007—not quite this good.

All the same, you can’t blame anyone for interpretive thriving within the sensuality of Puccini’s score.  Almost lackadaisically, the composer burns up some of the most gorgeous themes from his whole lifetime for the sake of slapstick.  Rinuccio’s paeans to Florence can easily arouse salutes to betray our faraway Yankee land, but Puccini is playing for laughs.  That effortlessness, or even cockiness, is punk rock.  At risk of committing hyperbole in saying so, Gianni Schicchi might be one of the greatest operas of all time, thereby timeless.

And this goes to the virtue of short-form opera altogether.  As I’ve crowed previously, short operas (which are usually chamber operas) deserve much more serious attention, difficult as they may be for programming into conventional subscription seasons.  Speaking personally, from the first time I heard the first notes of perpetual motion sprung from its waltzing overture, Leoš Janáček’s Osud (“Destiny”) has held the mantle for me above the whole operatic repertoire, no-matter-whose and however long.  Osud runs about an hour.  No one performs it.  Musicologists pass it by for extolling Jenůfa, and the Czech’s other evening-length works; but at least for me, Osud is unsurpassed.

As the third Castleton Festival concludes tomorrow at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, with a variety concert featuring Denyce Graves, and lastly this weekend back on the farm, one hopes that Castleton, and the Châteauville Foundation, may long out-live its founders.  As ornery as it may have seemed many years ago for our brightest lights in classical music to convene at a Colorado ski resort, rural Virginia easily should lead us through centuries of rich tradition, judging by the successful launch of this wonderful new Festival.

With unusual creative skill on a for-hire promotional piece, someone (unnamed!) made a moving documentary portrait that is worth every minute of your time for its quarter-hour running time:

The Tree of Life

Recent days have seen dewy praise sprinkled onto The Tree of Life, which releases today in Washington after its domestic debut last weekend in New York and Los Angeles.  People compulsively refer to the film as the singular vision of one auteur:  an opposite of prolific, and famously reclusive.  It is a film by Terrence Malick™, and stories about the film are mostly about Terrence Malick, along with his Golden Palm trophy at Cannes after that crazy guy got banned from the festival.

But what is the actual film about?

Here are the bits and pieces.  It is by nature symphonic, heaving instrumental music to accompany its spare narratives and idiomatic visual meditations.  Simply, it is some sort of wordless “classical music video” scored with narrative interludes.  So we get a persistent line-up of mostly contemporary composers, in the post-romantic and modernist styles (still tonal) to be found in François Couperin, Hector Berlioz, Johannes Brahms, Bedrich Smetana, Ottorino Respighi, the Gustavs Holst-and-Mahler, John Tavener, Giya Kancheli, Henryk Górecki, and some more obscure Eastern Europeans of today.  These are mostly lions of the repertoire we call “classical music,” and weekly you can see a few hundred people—regular patrons—shuffling into the Kennedy Center who crave these delights.  The headcount is so miniscule for a region five million large, that it becomes statistically insignificant to represent our cultural priorities.  Classical music, as a passion on the level of intramural sports, bridge night, must-see-TV, scrapbooking, bar-hopping, or gardening, is nearly dead among us.

But thinking again of the music itself—the very leaves on this Tree of Life—there is something else going on, and it isn’t a party.  Nearly every note of every chosen composition is sacred.  The sound world is mostly choral, then some pipe organ.  Also:  these are not timbres to evince a universal spirit of world religions.  These are basically the melodic incarnations of Christianity, through the (recent) ages.  In other words, you will find very few four-part choral harmonies and organ pipes outside that faith tradition.  (Notably, Werner Herzog similarly fills his recent Cave of Forgotten Dreams with choral and pipe organ music in the style of eastern orthodoxy, for his similar agenda to explore humanity's prehistoric yearning for the divine.)

So we have the gardener (who is the artist); the tree itself; and its leaves.  Thinking then of the roots, there is one last thing, and it is obvious:  Terrence Malick has written a prayer, to a specific God.  These are the bits and pieces of The Tree of Life.  Everything else is dressing.  It is not a complicated film.

If you can find that conclusion in any other published or blogged review worldwide, please let me know.

All this exposition may seem tedious, even needlessly Socratic, but my facetiousness really is my curiosity at political correctness.  From celebrity stud Brad Pitt’s in absentia logline about vague “spirituality,” to professional critics’ desperate avoidance of personalizing their views on organized religion, what might have been most refreshing is a response to match my sense of what really goes on in private conversations.  I would have liked to hear from, and to read from, the Nietzscheans among us who honesty say what they mean:  That God is dead, or anyway, that Terrence Malick makes pretty pictures but it’s time to grow out of the fairy tales.  And:  that a whole lot of good people—we’re all good!—get ruined by the pious moralism to be found alone in organized religion.

I should detour for a moment, and explain myself.  In my bias, Terrence Malick belongs to a sort of Holy Trinity of film auteurs, alongside Martin Scorsese and Lars von Trier.  Old Martin Luther, known for saying something similar to this, would easily observe that these are men who “work out their faith with fear and trembling.”  Their behavior coincides with an axiom in creative expression—most everyone agrees on this, while usually from a distance—that people with obsessions produce great art.  And, religion is the mother of them all.  Even if sex is the stronger one, things get especially explosive whenever artists combine the two.

If Terrence Malick is haunted by childhood, and Martin Scorsese is scarred by mean streets, then Lars von Trier is simply an egocentric provocateur.  Or so you would think, from his dumb behavior at Cannes.  But even the Dane is spending most of his life looking upward.  There is a vital shot in Antichrist that abruptly jerks our view away from the forest cabin, and into the Heavens above.  I often think of that anomalous cinematography when I ponder his obsessions.  At the climax of Dogville, a badly wronged woman's father shows up to demolish a sort of American Sodom and Gomorrah.  And now, true to form, Melancholia is his apocalyptic vision of planets colliding, from above.  Fear and trembling.  God the Father.

Martin Scorsese seems to have planted a crucifixion in every movie he’s ever made.  He is a Catholic who cannot escape its iconography, while anti-Catholic for being obsessed with elusive Protestant grace (partly owing to his Calvinist foil Paul Schrader).  When Scorsese’s realization of Silence by Shusaku Endo goes into release next year, he will be back in form.  All those preceding mobsters are rogue disciples in his world.  God the Son.

Terrence Malick seems interested, more than anything else, in grace—not just its prettiness, but our desperation for it.  God the Spirit.

And that is the key to watching The Tree of Life.  When I saw the film in New York, no less in a lowertown theater of twentysomethings-at-large, the chatter I heard tended toward one idea:  It must have been awful growing up in the 1950s.  Whether because they saw divorce happen in their own homes, or because it’s just what they think, “that woman should have just left him.”  It is, of course, the contemporary solution.  You will understand their judgment when you see the film.

Malick does something bold at the end of the film.  It doesn’t work.  The great flaw of cognitive geniuses is that they often fail at navigating clichés, because they haven’t wasted a single breath paying attention to them.  (Malick famously served as professor of philosophy at M.I.T., while his doctoral thesis was on the existentialist Martin Heidegger.)  So, when he lets loose those clichés, even if by coincidence, they may ruin a whole scene, or even the impression of the whole film.  The Tree of Life resolves its narrative on a mystical, scenic plain where all the characters from the film converge.  It is presumably Heaven, and everyone is in sharp focus, naturally lit, nicely robed, and hugging each other.  This is just the kind of material that Trey Parker and Matt Stone took to Broadway.  It looks like a fundraising commercial for admittance privileges to a tabernacle.





Still, it is a philosophically concise scene, far from cheap “spirituality.”  Whether this scene is fantasy, or real (relating to your own faith when you watch it), you do get an argument for grace.  You see that between people, tolerance—which varies through life anywhere and anytime, from the cruel to the tolerable—may find a happy end.  This is a peculiar instinct we have as animals, weirdly found the most in historically oppressed societies:  That the worse the injustice, the greater the yearning for grace—not animal justice.  This theme is easiest for an existentialist like Malick to propose, who might say that justice is a pyrrhic victory anyway because “life is but a dream” of our own.  Indeed, the heart of the reform brought by the Messiah whom Christians call their own, was to defy the expectation that pure justice is even possible in this world of warring animals, where love alone can save us...at least while we live, as mystics say, "in this period of waiting."

From even his first film Badlands, Malick regularly cuts away to several species of animals, usually one killing another, and you might find this awkward around his otherwise conventional scenes of character dialogue.  But it is clearly part of his thematic design, repeated in Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, and now this.

To say that Malick has redefined the language of cinema is no exaggeration.  Most of his narrative exposition is wordless.  This is, simply, how we live.  We do not reveal how we feel freely, and we define ourselves by what we do much more than by what we think (and say).  Perhaps more importantly—and this is ironic, because Malick is ostracized for slow pacing—there is a liberating economy of words in Malick’s wordless visual narratives.  Conventional screenwriters may fill a whole page with dialogue meant to convey simply one revealing thing about a character—yet, one wordless action, combined with nuances of body language and movement, can make a richer case in far less time.  There is a heartbreaking scene in The Tree of Life:  Between turning pages for his father playing Bach on a pipe organ, the son gazes on his father with a richness that implies—using no words at all—a combination of sympathy, fear, admiration, awe at the music, and a melancholy awareness of the real adult possibility that dreams can die a long, slow death.

The response to The Tree of Life has been unanimously positive, you would think.  That’s not necessarily what I picked up on, in that lowertown twentysomething-at-large theater I mentioned, where the end credits rolled to a collective groan.  Importantly, too, if Malick’s aesthetic universe held in such momentary high esteem should really remain the walled-in province of formal concert halls and churches, I need to remain skeptical of these “spiritual” plaudits—because I really go to those places, and I’m not seeing their faces.  For the moment, though, I’ll see wisdom in the value to underestimate.  As The Tree of Life opens theatrically, and reaches an expanding audience of receptive minds, something might take root.


Terrence Malick always selects one repertoire piece to serve as a central motif in each of his films, from Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question in The Thin Red Line, to the second movement of Mozart's 23rd Piano Concerto in The New World. Central to The Tree of Life is a piano adaptation from Les barricades mystérieuses by François Couperin.

Urban Arias: Glory Denied

Last year during the opening weekend festivities of Artisphere, I wrote about the surprise arrival of a new opera company in Washington called Urban Arias.  “Surprise” is a relative term, because we imagine ourselves to live in a city that ranks among the world’s richest in terms of access to culture, and even pools of talent.  But we cannot underestimate the scarcity of accomplished opera here, moreso chamber opera which arguably never existed.  Much bemoaned at this blog, the Washington National Opera is just about the only game in town, a fine company that -- while utterly conservative -- also delivers reliably competent runs through the core repertory of safe standard fare on a revolving basis, occasionally risking offense to its overwhelmingly classical audience with contemporary works by living composers.  But the heart of this dilemma always has been scale, more than substance; large institutions simply never can be counted upon for taking risks (well within their rights, and little to weigh upon their consciences).  The saving grace for any chamber opera by a living composer is some abundance of small companies that might not, even taken together, outsize the major institution(s).  For example, some so-called “opera aficionados” here crave more than just the now-abbreviated five productions per year at the Kennedy Center.  Consider, too, that the smaller scale of chamber opera (and the likely more immediate relevance of contemporary works to a younger audience) holds the most promise for bringing new “aficionados” into a love for the medium.  In some sense too, the law of averages can do much good -- abundant opportunities to experience diverse works of art is a much better situation than…well, monopoly power.  As an interesting counterpoint, last Tuesday the Czech Embassy screened a filmed performance of the chamber opera Tomorrow There Will Be... about their martyred national hero Milada Horáková, and when I discussed the work afterward with composer Ales Brezina, he conveyed the idea that even back home, audiences were tentative approaching the chamber opera format -- this, even in the Old Country where opera on the whole thrives better than for Yanks.  But Brezina testified to the unique intimacy afforded from chamber opera, and in fact has declined offers to stage his opera in larger houses.

As an interlude to those thoughts, I’m writing these next words (the day after the overall point of this piece) into a netbook from the balcony of a Washington Chorus concert dedicated completely to new works by Elena Ruehr, and I’m waiting for the music to start.  The music director has arrived about five minutes late to an awkwardly silent room, only to launch into a long discourse about new music that begins with something to the effect of, “wow, a whole concert of new music, poor you!”  And having said that -- framing the tired idea that new music always defaults to its audience’s tolerant generosity -- he goes into an opposite, winded lecture about how new music is important (mostly talking about himself).  About twenty minutes later, the music actually starts.  And it’s pretty schmaltzy stuff, easier to hear than the mean average of new works that strain for atonality, but lacking musically narrative structure and sounding ponderous, rather like a line-up of fanfares.  The point of these comments is not to bag on the concert -- it was, after all, a competent performance of a talented composer’s work -- but here you have an example familiar to Washingtonians, even embraced by them, of inflating the broadest of categories (whether race, sexuality, gender or artistic style) in a way designed to promote it, but ultimately subverting it:  the masses, for all their legendary skimming, know better than to confuse generality with quality.  Audiences do not merely donate good will to a work of art in the sense of tolerating the newness because it is new.  Rather, they like something if it’s likeable, and that’s that.  No one likes, or likes to admit that they like, a creative act because of its category.  Imagine, if you will:  a hardcore punk act bombs at the 9:30 Club, but a tweedy intellectual steps out to lecture the liquored up audience about how they should support the creation of new music anyway.  That’s inconceivable.  Why not elsewhere?

Thinking of all that as a palate-cleanser, the point of the moment is to extol Tom Cipullo’s deeply personal opera Glory Denied, featured in the inaugural festival of Urban Arias.  Glory Denied happens to be a work of our time; of special meaning to where we live at the seat of Federal government which dispatches soldiers to war.  It engages its audience in tonal melodies, intellectual substance, emotional drama, and a concise narrative arc.  It holds its own against the greatest of the classical repertoire, while helping to redefine it at the rarer scale of chamber opera.

Playing for three more performances through April 10 in Artisphere’s Black Box Theatre, Cipullo’s compositional style is chromatically complex only to the extent of its design to intensify a fundamentally lyrical score.  Simpler put, he alternates his singers between beautiful and despairing lines that make complete sense in the dramatic whole.  As a composer, he must be gratified that Urban Arias gives his score loving attention, beginning with Robert Wood’s nuanced conducting.  The four-singer cast is top-rate, headlined by the extraordinary talent of Michael Chioldi, who will sing the role of Lucia's Enrico next season with the Washington National Opera.  (It is an interesting coincidence that Chioldi also recently sang the title role in Long Beach Opera's production of John Adams' Nixon in China, another similarly fearless work for tackling a politicized subject, in this medium better known for tavern drinking scenes and hilariously prolonged death sequences.)  No less impressive in this production is the assembled chamber ensemble, especially the virtuosic piano backbone of Sophia Kim Cook.  The scenic design, too, is expertly devised using appropriately minimal set pieces, complemented with video projections of archival footage largely meant to evoke the artifice of family photographs that serve a sentimental, not documentary, function.  As often happens in the attempt to incorporate video with theatre craft, though, these diverse source materials line up onscreen in discontinuity, a mostly stylistic problem (that could have been cured by careful color-grading, or more simply just tamping the entire timeline to black-and-white).  As a supplement to the main front screen, projection designer Kevin Frech also creates a video floor from a ceiling projection that sparingly but effectively adds a less representational atmosphere, at key moments in the narrative.

Based upon the same-named book by Tom Philpott, Glory Denied is a morally complex opera that ultimately dignifies its subject, of suffering military men and women, by avoiding easy outcomes.  (Compare that, for example, to the cheap rage of The Tillman Story.)  Cipullo cleverly devises the two-person drama into four characters, who represent the younger and older versions of Thompson and Alice.  We see the longing and the optimism of the young couple unfolding just as surely as we watch the later unraveling of their relationship.  (Notably, film director Terrence Malick masterfully explored this dichotomy between idealized memory, and heartbreaking truth, using his idiomatic visual poeticism in The Thin Red Line.)  One effect of this antiphony is that our sympathies are equally drawn to the before and the after -- an important device for clarifying (ironically) the moral ambiguity of the Vietnam War era.  Cipullo’s execution in this way is deft:  after a challenging first half of the opera that begs for clean songwork, an aria finally arrives that is probably the most lush and beautiful of the evening, when Alice sings something to the effect of, “After I’ve had my say…”  She is warning her husband, when he has returned after nearly a decade away, that things have changed -- that she has betrayed him.  The outrage that Thompson feels is so much larger than that betrayal; in the opera’s most powerfully terse passage, Chioldi sings with his thundering baritone of the way that the world has changed since he left.  It is a litany of complaints that seems at first like a script of Conservative talking points; and yet, it might only sound that way to this majority society so slowly desensitized to the erosion of one thing and another over a decade of American life.  The opera poses this question, of who has the better insight into truth (past a poisonous relativism that defines our hyper-democratized culture), between the one who slowly tolerates this erosion, and the one whose view of society suspends for nearly a decade, expecting that nothing really changes.  And thus, in this way, Glory Denied goes to the heart of one timeless dilemma for veterans, who return from war to a different country than the one they left, in sacrifice to it.  There is a moment in the opera when the wrenching sadness of this dilemma seems to be headed for a clean reconciliation, when Thompson tenderly offers forgiveness to Alyce for leaving him while away.  In a pitch-perfect twist, she stands him down with bitter cruelty.  Wisely, Cipullo (presumably following Philpott’s lead) ends the opera without redemption for anyone, a crisis amplified by the religious tenor of the final scenes.  (Earlier in the opera, a cerebral setting of the 23rd Psalm anticipates this unresolved yearning for the divine.)  Structurally, there is an unexpected and powerfully serene denouement in the form of a musical interlude, a duet between the pianist and cellist Drew Owen.  After that, we are merely left with the vision of Thompson as a man forever haunted by the past, of falling in love, losing her, and losing himself.  As an interpretive possibility for myself, I like the way that the mystery of the divine might be the one thing left for Thompson.  It intensifies the drama and invites something more than the visceral pointlessness of war.  But we are left to ourselves for that thought, and what we cannot ever escape is the fact that we remain a warring species.  Recently I came across a video via acquaintance in the local filmmaker community that elegantly (if not melodramatically) depicts the solemn dignity of official ceremonies for our lost Marines at Arlington National Cemetery.  Embedded below, it is in service to the daily opportunity we have as Americans to honor the men and women who put their lives on the line, and lose them for our sake.