Monday, July 30, 2007

George Benjamin: Into the Little Hill

Last week I was perfectly reconciled to my role as bathgiver & putter-of-children-to-bed while J. worked her way thru a formidable program of theater & performance in Manhattan (after all, it’s her business to keep up with this stuff). But a happy in-lawal intervention made it possible for both of us to take in a Lincoln Center Festival performance of a new “opera,” Into the Little Hill, with music by British composer George Benjamin and libretto by British playwright Martin Crimp.

[First, unfortunately, we had opted to take the girls to one of those al fresco Shakespeare productions that spring up all around New York in the summer months, this one a Romeo & Juliet put on by a group of local amateurs – god bless ‘em – in a neighborhood park. It was a good thing it was an abbreviated production, only an hour, for if it had run the full 3 they might have found my cold and self-dispatched body right there beside those of the rather histrionic Juliet and the admittedly quite dishy Romeo. Thank god for amateur theater – and thank god for fine little Afghan restaurants & Dutch beers (yes, Heineken – shut up, Brian) to ease the aftershock.]

Into the Little Hill is an adaptation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story, sung by a soprano (the very short Finn Anu Komsi) & a contralto (the very tall Hilary Summers, whose voice seemed oddly familiar; only later did I realize that I knew her from a half-dozen Michael Nyman recordings). The set was rigidly abstract, & the small orchestra – the excellent Ensemble Modern, under the baton-free direction of Franck Ollu – was disposed about the stage itself, so that the 2 singers came forward on brilliantly lighted catwalks between the strings, brass, & woodwinds.

Now, I’ll freely admit that I don’t know much about music – but I know what I like. I’ve probably seen a dozen operas in performance, & I know that I don’t care much for 19th century lyric opera. Alas, I found Tosca and La Boheme unutterably silly. The Magic Flute (with Maurice Sendak sets & costumes) was grand, but The Barber of Seville did nothing for me. My benchmark for opera experience still remains the production of Wozzeck J. & I saw in Florence (dir. Zubin Mehta), which seems a lifetime ago.

So I’m not the ideal opera-goer: but I was absolutely rivetted by Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill. The music bears traces of minimalism (more the British Bryars/Nyman variety than the American Adams/Glass Reich), but is far more jagged & expressionistic. In his own revolt against what he calls the “gray” tonalities of serialism, Benjamin has fastened on the unworldly harmonies of his teacher the French composer Olivier Messiaen – evident as much in Komsi’s singing, which often often approached the condition of birdsong or rat-squeak, as in the rich use of harmonies in the strings.

The timbres of the music, as much as the harmonies, were striking. In some of the louder passages, the blatting brass was joined by banjo, mandolin, and clacked sticks; for 2 very memorable stretches, pizzicatto strings accompanied a mesmerizing bass flute – an instrument I had never (knowingly) heard before, but which I’m now a big fan of.

Perhaps best of all was being in an auditorium with a mixed bag of people – college students, seniors, lots of artsy types in the inevitable black artsy-type uniform (yes, I wear it too) – who were there to hear the music, rather than to get the best deal off of their season tickets to some South Florida version of “high culture.” Imagine that! – a full hour of rather challenging, sometimes quite abrasive music, unrelieved by histrionic arias or breathtaking scenery, nobody shifting uneasily in their seats, nobody grunting with boredom of dissatisfaction, nobody loudly whispering “wake up, Harold!” (In South Florida, it’s difficult at the end of a performance to distinguish between a “standing ovation” & a “leaving ovation” – the latter being when the audience rises to clap so they can get out to their cars in the parking garage more quickly.)

So that’s the music tip for the day: Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill. I think it’s fab, & you ought to go see it – that is, if you live in a major metropolitan area. Me, I’m back in Palm Beach County for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


No, I'm not really posting – for one thing, I'm stealing somebody's wireless right now, & I'm confined to Safari, which means I (still!) can't use most of the formatting tools Blogger has these days.

Noted in NYC:

1) Don't wear long pants to The Strand, even if it's been a chilly, rainy day, and the store has been decently air conditioned for over a year now. You're still gonna be sweating like a pig by the end of your two-hour browse-fest.

2) Never let an in-law know that you're familiar with the new computer operating system to which she's been contemplating switching: you will become in-house, unpaid tech consultant dead meat.

3) Noveau / nostalgias noted on the subway:

a) Converse All-Stars, both high- & low-tops: back in in a big way
b) sideburns
c) acid-washed jeans, especially with those vertical line-like things

4) New York women remain the most attractive in the country for my money. South Florida fashionistas take note: in NYC, women manage to look much better than you, despite lacking (a) prosthetic enhancement (b) deep tans (c) large quantities of jewelry. Er, perhaps replace "despite lacking" "in part on account of eschewing..." No sexier accessory than a book, you know. I'm even willing to forgive the fact that every 3rd book one sees this week is friggin' Harry Potter & the Flatulent Bellows.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

en attendant

Points northeast beckon – tho, thanks to Delta Airlines, they're beckoning some two hours later than originally planned. Happily, their automated notification system has made it so that we can do our heel-cooling at home, rather than in the purgatory of the Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood Airport. I will be entirely out of e-mail & internet range for the next week, & then only intermittently wired for the last week of the month. By all means, carry on without me.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

the glooms

It’s worth checking out the comments box of a recent post on Incertus, a collective blog run by four of my colleagues at Our University. The prompt was a post by Brian noting the recent eco-turn of Our Governor, Charlie Crist (not to be confused with Christ, tho many of his newspaper-comments-posting supporters in the last election seemed to regularly do so). As you can see, the comments rapidly shifted from a discussion of Our Governor’s greenishness to a reminder of his expressed stance against academic freedom ("Academic freedom is the final refuge in which professors hide when confronted with the absurdity and arrogance of their decisions....It is a wasteland entirely unmoored from standards, where any activity can be justified…") & tenure for academics.

It’s on my mind, among other reasons, because Our University, along with all the other state university system units, has just entered (for maybe the 3rd or 4th time since I’ve been here) fiscal crisis mode: across-the-board cuts, freezes on hiring, travel, etc. But that’s far from being big news around here – there seems to be a budget cut or hiring freeze every time one turns around.

Now it seems that state revenue shortfalls are primarily to blame here, tho Our Governor has done his bit recently by vetoing a tuition increase. But I’m interested in how Crist – admittedly, some years ago, when he was not yet OG, but merely the State Commissioner of Education – bought in so enthusiastically to the anti-higher education rhetoric so popular in conservative circles over the past decade or so. You know what I mean: the David Horowitz-talk, which in its most vulgar form (but without the humorous exaggeration I & the Incerti indulged in) goes something like this:
The academy, & the humanities & social science sectors thereof especially, are largely dominated by a professoriate deeply out of step with the moderate-to-conservative mainstream of American political, social, & cultural thought. These professors tend to be on Left; many of them are outright Marxists. They express scorn for the capitalist foundations of American society; many of them harbor ideological sympathies for America’s enemies, sympathies that border upon treason. However, that professoriate is allowed to exert an undue influence on impressionable youth, & is protected in so doing by a set of archaic firewalls – “academic freedom,” the ability to say pretty much what they please in the classroom, & tenure, iron-clad job security of a sort that workers in no other industry enjoy – that are wholly anachronistic in an era of global capitalism.
(Phew! You have no idea how hard it was to write that without sliding into snarky professorial irony & outright sarcasm, which I’m confident Brian, William, Emily, & Amy will be happy to supply in the comments.) Of course, this portrait of the political leanings of professors, & of what they aim to do in the classroom, is to some degree accurate. No, I’ve never sodomized a chicken in class (or anywhere else), but I have begun a course on modernist fiction by reading long passages from Marx’s Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, & I’ve made no secret of the fact that I adhere more to Adorno than Keynes, more to Lenin than Lennon. My favorite Marx brother is the guy with the big beard (tho Groucho comes in a close second). I’ve taught fiction that presents same-sex relationships in a polemically positive manner; I’ve taught books that are by most person-on-the-street measures outrightly pornographic. And while I have colleagues who probably answer the description of “mainstream moderate” or “thoughtful conservative,” I suspect the majority of my department & my college is closer to me than to Hilary Clinton.

It makes perfect sense to me: no-one with a highly developed entrepreneurial spirit & a real desire to make the big bucks goes into university teaching – the financial rewards simply aren’t there. In their place, there are other rewards: a flexible work schedule, the always renewing experience of working with interested younger people, & most importantly the sheer fact of doing what one loves the most – manipulating and exploring ideas & texts, thinking about language & writing, pondering the social, aesthetic, & political issues embodied in culture itself. (With a few changes of terminology, I think the same holds true for teacher/scholars in other humanities & social sciences fields.)

The problem lies in justifying what we do to the people who pay the bills – the students & their families, who pay tuition, and the taxpayers, who fork up the lion’s share of the university’s operating expenses. The students are the easy ones: no-one’s forcing them to take classes in the arts & letters (aside from the core requirements), but with the fairly sure instincts of the young a certain number of them gravitate to our courses because they enjoy them, because they’re learning something that’s inherently interesting, even if it doesn’t directly translate into a post-graduation paycheck.

The taxpayers – well, let’s be frank – or the legislators in Tallahassee, who are playing up to whatever voting bloc they think is most numerous at the moment, & who are inevitably inclined to simplify things past the point of stupidity, are somewhat harder to convince. They read society in the simplest capitalistic market terms, and most of them see the universities as serving a very few utilitarian functions within the state’s economy: training people in various needful vocations – nurses, teachers, physicians, architects, administrators, businesspeople; and generating discoveries in the applied and hard sciences that can serve to advance the economy.

What’s missing here? You got it – the humanities and the social sciences. Frankly, if the state legislature had its way, I suspect all the tenured & tenure-track faculty in these departments would be phased out and replaced with multi-year instructors, teaching heavy course loads – many of them thru “distance” learning, taped & repeatable – & utterly free of any expectations of scholarship or research. After all, the ability to write clearly and a smattering of knowledge of Western history & culture have proven beneficial to business, but anything beyond that is unnecessary ornamentation.

We find ourselves, then, in an uneviable position, at best an ornament to the university’s real structure, more often a kind of foreign body within an organization that more and more seeks to recast itself on a corporate model. English departments’ valiant attempts to justify themselves on the basis of “critical thinking” skills – folks who can “think outside of the box” are useful to IBM – are to my mind misguided. Capital only wants so much critical thinking: once you begin to analyze & critique the bases upon which societal norms are founded – as you’re forced to do in any comprehensive examination of literature or culture – you’ve been ruined as a potential productive element in the machinery.

We are here on suffrance of our lords & masters, my friends – & here I address my colleagues at other 3rd- & 4th-tier state institutions – & we’re condemned for the rest of our careers to scramble for the crumbs that get overlooked when they bus the tables of the truly-profit making enterprises within the academy. And when one’s seat is at the back banquette in a state whose fiscal house is in as deep disorder as that of Florida, the prospect is grim indeed.
Oh, but that was a sunny post, no? Surprisingly enough, I'm in a kind of grimly happy mood. We're off to points northeast in a couple of days, where it's just as hot but there's reliable public transportation and lots of bookstores.


“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalerus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timbers in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”
–Plutarch’s Life of Theseus
Those lovely circular movements: like when I began reading Plutarch earlier this summer in order to refresh my memory & choose some texts for next spring’s graduate seminar on the poetics theory & practice of biography, then wandered by circuitous paths thru some very bad pulp science fiction, some Ronald Johnson, then – by way of comparison with RJ’s concrete poetry – my old obsession Ian Hamilton Finlay (expect a book one of these days, I’m sure of it), who led me to histories of the French Revolution (into which flowed a parallel stream of reading on the Enlightenment) & accounts of Revolutionary neo-classicism – i.e., back to Plutarch. “What splendour, it all coheres…”
Shaftesbury: “The most ingenious way of becoming foolish, is by a System.”

Friday, July 06, 2007


Oh yes, lots of busyness within and outwith the household this past week, & oddly not moved to blog much. Which is okay, since my synapses have been firing only at random moments lately, & I’ve had nothing much anybody would want to read. Cassirer’s Philosophy of the Enlightenment wound up, with a luminous account of 18th-century aesthetics from Shaftesbury (almost) to Kant; a nice weighty contrast to the celeb-snapshots of Nicolson’s The Age of Reason and Norman Hampson’s sturdy but hasty (in that Penguin series) way The Enlightenment. Who wouldn’t find etwas to ponder in Goethe’s maxims?:
The smallest hair casts its shadow.

When a man reflects on his physical or moral state, he usually decides that he is ill.

All that is lyrical must be very reasonable as a totality, and in its detail a little bit unreasonable.

The world is a bell that is cracked: it clatters, but it does not ring out clearly.

We really only learn from books we cannot judge. The author of a book we could really judge ought surely to be learning from us.

There is nothing more dreadful than active ignorance.
Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks, I find, is written in such a wonderfully breezy, high-spirited style that it’s difficult to get the attention to sit still and attend properly to his aesthetics. Lessing’s Laoco├Ân beckons.
On the poetry front, Susan Wheeler’s Source Codes, Melanie Nielson’s Civil Noir, and (once again) poor dead Ronald Johnson’s The Shrubberies.
at Satyr’s campground
Rainbow’s saturnalia
offering scapegoat
capering around firepit
Glossage: Ron belonged to (was founder of?) The Rainbow Motorcycle Club, a group of guys into collecting motorcycle leathers – boots, chaps, jackets, who knows what – and gathering out in the woods, where much beer was drunk and food barbequed; capering ensued. No-one actually owned a motorcycle.
Our Independence Day celebration – beer, barbeque, nor really capering… – was mostly rained out, leaving the adults to sit around kvetching about the depths into which the Republic has fallen, while four cranky pre-schoolers deconstructed the upstairs.
I am too old, too awkward, and by far too zaftig to have taken up rollerblading, even if P. has acquired her first set of skates & demands that Daddy accompany her. Tuesday I was sure I was concussed; yesterday I bought a helmet. I have bruises in places upon which the sun doesn’t shine.