Sunday, July 22, 2012

Still Giving After All These Years

What can you say about a performer who continues to give fresh insights even 30 years after his death? That's what Glenn Gould did to me recently, even though he passed away in 1982, and even though I've been listening to him since I was a high school student in the 1960s.

One of his most enigmatic recordings was Bach's Art of the Fugue, the treatise on that form that Bach himself did not live to complete. Gould left us with a recording of it which was maddening on two counts. First, the record did not even contain all of the fugues that Bach had written as part of this opus, including the last one that abruptly ends right where he happened to leave off composing. I suppose there was going to be a volume II someday with the rest of them, but it never happened. So this was an incompleteness of an incompletion, doubly frustrating to those of us who admire Bach's work and who doted on Gould's every performance of it.

But second, what Gould recorded was not even on the piano. Instead he chose to make this his only performance on the organ. Not that there was anything wrong with that in itself -- Bach, of course, was a renowned organist in his day. And in fact, he wrote this work on four separate staffs rather than the usual two for the keyboard, leaving it up to future performers to attempt it any way they liked. Since then it has been performed by string quartets, brass ensembles, and various other instruments besides the harpsichord or piano or organ.

But the piano (no pun intended) was Gould's forte. His phenomenal touch on the keys gave him an unsurpassed ability to accentuate the various lines of polyphony, to literally give each line its own unique voice, from a thumping bass pizzacato to a vibrant mid-tone to a bell-like clarity in the high notes. For him to limit himself to the elements of phrasing available on the organ was like painting with a limited palette. Though the performance was excellent as usual, and though he characteristically selected a small church organ whose voice and acoustics would not muddy the sound, still it left many -- including me -- wishing he had just bowed to expectations and done it on the piano.

So the years passed. Gould left us, entirely too soon, like Bach before him never returning to complete this piece of unfinished business. The recordings he left behind continue to sell voluminously to the present day. His reach is ubiquitous. One occasionally comes across an item like an interview with rock poet Patti Smith where she describes herself, "listening to Glenn Gould." Or hot Chinese pianist Lang Lang, who lights up at the mention of the name and says, "I love Glenn Gould! I think he is great genius!" At least half a dozen biographical films have been made about his life, and one of these led me to a wonderful discovery.

The film in question is Glenn Gould: The Russian Journey, a documentary in which various Russian musicians including pianists Vladimir Ashkenazy and Sviadoslav Richter are interviewed about Gould's visit to their country in the midst of the Cold War. It's hard to overstate the impression the young Canadian made there. No one had ever heard of him, and his first concert in Leningrad was only half full. But at the intermission everyone went out to the lobby to call their friends. The interval was lengthened to an hour and a half to allow time for people to get to the concert hall. One man who received such a call reported that his friend said simply, "Stop what you're doing, get dressed and get down here, you have to hear this."

So the second half was a sellout, and the subsequent concert in Moscow was standing room only, with barely enough room for those standing. One man said that he went to hear Webern, a modern composer on the program who was rarely performed in the Soviet Union because all that atonal music was considered elitist and decadent. What he remembered instead was Bach, sounding as new and modern and fresh as anything from the 20th century. Richter, himself a giant as a piano virtuoso, said: "I could play as good as Glenn Gould. Do you know why I do not? Because I would have to work so hard."

But I digress. After watching the DVD (thank you, Netflix), I thought to look at the "extra features" on the disk. One of them was a performance of one of the fugues from the Art of Fugue -- on the piano! Could there be more of them, I wondered? A quick search online revealed that in the process of re-releasing Gould's entire catalog, Sony had given us some "lost" recordings of him playing the same fugues -- with typical beauty and perfection -- on the instrument he was born to play.

I rushed to get the full set, which includes both the organ and piano versions. Two of them are very poor quality, sounding like they must have been done on a casette recorder during a practice session, but of course we're glad to have even those. Let me be clear -- it is only the recording quality that is lacking; the playing as always is amazing. The rest of them are in studio quality sound, and the subtlety of expression, the nuances of touch, are as impeccable as anything he ever did.

Again, they are not complete, and they are not even all the same ones that he did on the organ, but at least it does include the last one, the one that ends breathlessly at the beginning of a phrase ... You might call it the completion of an incompleteness. It will have to be enough, because it's all we're ever going to get.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Miami Book Fair 2011

A belated report on last year's book fair -- quick, before it's time for the next one ....

I've certainly taken my time about posting this account of Miami Book Fair International, 2011 version, but it's not from lack of interest. As ever, there was much to appreciate, and a few new wrinkles.

Big Science

My first event involved getting tickets in advance. It's always wonderful to me that a writer can command a sellout audience. In this case it's even more amazing because the stage was shared by a pair of science writers: James Gleick, author of the landmark book about chaos theory that did as much to popularize the concept as anything else, including Jeff Goldblum's character in that Jurassic Park sequel, and whose intriguing new work is called The Information; and Dava Sobel, who had just published her biography of Copernicus titled A More Perfect Heaven.

Reviews of both books are too abundant to need repeating here. I'll just add that Gleick made me want to know more about Claude Shannon, the "father of information theory," who was a contemporary of Alan Turing and swapped ideas with him during World War II. In Sobel's presentation I was most taken with her account of inspecting the original manuscript of Copernicus' book, with it's famous diagram of the sun-centered solar system. She noticed a tiny pinhole in the center of the sun, the place where the point of the great man's compass had pierced the page while he drew the concentric orbits of the planets. If that doesn't give you goose bumps, then you're in the wrong room.

During the question session that followed, I appreciated Gleick's point that science "is about uncertainty, not truth," that it is as much about asking questions as giving answers. Let's please keep this in mind when debating Darwin with the people who don't understand him. Which reminds me that Sobel mentioned a notable parallel between Darwin and Copernicus: both of their theories were widely accepted before they were actually proved, a sure sign that they were ideas whose time had come.

Another interesting point was raised about online sources of information such as Wikipedia versus traditional authorities like the Britannica that are falling out of use. (Anyone want to buy a used encyclopedia? No? It weighs about 90 pounds and was out of date the day it was printed. Still no takers?) The questioner feared we will end up only with sources we can't trust. But Gleick expressed the hope that we are in a transitional period where we have not yet learned to vet and trust the new media, which are ephemeral through the necessity of constant update.

He is, he says, predisposed to be "optimistic without justification." And perhaps that's how he could respond to a query about the looming "singularity," when machines will take over the earth, by saying simply, "by the time they take over we will be so attached to them that we won't care." Incidentally, there is another theory about the singularity which says it has already happened and we didn't notice.

All This And Noir

After these weighty matters I made my way to the bizarre and noisy tent where Akashic Books was previewing New Jersey Noir, the latest in their series of story collections that demonstrate there is a dark side to every locale on earth. I couldn't pass this up because one dark side of my own past is that, like the panellists, I also hail from the Garden State -- so called, I believe, because they created Newark and left the rest of the land comparatively unscathed.

The panel included former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, native of Long Branch, casually clad in a black T-shirt that became him, and Alan Cheuse of NPR fame, substituting for Joyce Carol Oates who couldn't make it. Alas, my notes don't tell me which of them repeated the old gag about how they say their ABC's in New Jersey. ("Fuggin A, fuggin B, fuggin C ...") Which kind of shows how informal the whole thing was. But Pinsky did wax poetic when he spoke about depicting "the beauty of the broken, sordid, and low class" -- material which they found in abundance right there at home.

What's China Doing Here?

This tent was right across from another, larger one featuring China. Yes, the country. I confess to being nonplussed by this exhibit, which was like walking into one of those places at Walt Disney Epcot where the various wares and cultural oddities of some foreign place are on display -- except here none of it was for sale, which left us all wondering what we were doing standing around and looking at shelves and tables full of Chinese export bric-a-brac. No answers were forthcoming. But I guess since our Chinese friends are everywhere, doing everything, they might as well be here too.

If You Can Read This, Thank Your Reader

The last presentation I went to was on ebook publishing, a topic dear to me as both a reader and a hopeful author. Back in the 1990's I once asked a publisher at a writing workshop what impact he thought digital media and Internet distribution were going to have on his business. His appalling answer was a single word: "None."

As evidence, he asked, "Would you curl up in bed with a computer?" I was dumbstruck. Even though there were no ebook readers in existence back then, I already knew people who were perfectly happy to take their laptops to bed with them. How could this guy not see the writing on the wall in giant letters?

Fast forward about 15 years and it's all history -- but history that is still unfolding, as purveyors of the written word, from newspapers to magazines and books, continue to deal with the biggest disruption since the invention of the printing press.

I was very impressed with the chipper young Canadian woman representing Kobo. You may recall that they had a brief affiliation with Borders Books just before the chain went bankrupt. The Kobo reader was going to be Borders' answer to the Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook -- but Borders just got there too late and too many dollars short. B&N proved they were nimble enough to get into this game, but Borders just couldn't make it.

In the aftermath of the Borders collapse, I was concerned about Kobo, who were making a very nice collection of reading devices every bit the equal of the Kindle family, but with the added virtue of supporting open standards like PDF and ePub as opposed to proprietary ones like, well, Amazon. But my concern might have been premature. Kobo managed to get a major investment from a company said to be "the Amazon of Japan." They have a very serviceable (and completely open) tablet that sells for under $200 and a thriving online bookstore. So we'll have to see how it goes.

Another feature Kobo offers is unique. Kobo Pulse is something they call "social reading," a way to instantly share your take on what you're reading with your online buddies who are similarly equipped. A show of hands revealed this optional feature was not universally appealing to the audience, which tended to split along predictably generational lines. Us older folks were squirming in our chairs and thinking "oh no, not that," while the younger ones were all like, "I'm down with that."

Whether this "gamification" of reading will take hold and eclipse the traditional reading experience is something we will have to watch as it develops. On the one hand, media companies are salivating over producing "books" for the iPad and its ilk full of embedded videos and interactive features. On the other hand, I note that writers like Neal Stephenson can continue to churn out 900 page novels the immersive experience of which beggars anything Hollywood has to offer.

So the jury is out. Maybe the next chapter, so to speak, will be written, as it were, at the next version of the Miami Book Fair, coming in November.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

The First Church of Bach

The story goes that at the end of his life J.S. Bach had been working on The Art of the Fugue, which was to be his definitive treatise on the compositional form he raised to a higher state of perfection than any composer before or since. But knowing his time was limited, he set this work aside in order to put the finishing touches on his great Mass in B minor. Apparently it was so important to him to get
this right that he even used colored inks and drafting instruments to make the manuscript as clear as possible. The result is that his final testament is a deeply emotional religious work rather than the secular and more coolly detached set of fugues, which is perfectly appropriate in view of his habit of inscribing "to the glory of God" at the top of his compositions.

While those of us who admire his fugues will forever fret over what might have been had he been able to finish both of these monumental projects, we can be grateful that at least the Mass is complete. Though it may never have been performed in its final form while Bach was alive, we have made up for that since. Modern music afficionados have a plethora of recordings to choose from, and it is widely performed around the world. My own current favorite is by the Dunedin Ensemble, which uses a very small group of vocal soloists to bring unusual clarity and emotive power to the different voices.

Recently, in the company of a few friends -- and about 750 others -- we got to hear it done by Miami's Seraphic Fire ensemble. This was actually the second time we've heard them tackle this work, since one of their first concerts years ago was the same Mass. The only flaw in that first performance was the venue: a gargantuan Catholic church that somewhat swallowed the sound of the small, Baroque-sized group of performers. This time it was in the more intimate First United Methodist church in Coral Gables, the lofty ceiling of which allowed the music to breathe without becoming entirely lost in space.

I've been accused of not being critical enough of performances where I'm fond of the work being performed, so let me say at the beginning that this one was not entirely without flaws. One of the male vocal soloists did sound somewhat lost, without the ability to fill the hall. And in the later movements there was a recurring intonation problem in the upper strings that was atypical of the normally polished standards of the Firebird Orchestra.

I was further disappointed that the Agnus Dei near the end, which is generally recorded with a counter-tenor singing the role, was performed instead by the alto. She did a creditable job, although her style with its warbling tremolo is, to my ear, more suited to operatic works than to Baroque oratorio, where a clear and pure tone brings out the harmony with the instrumental accompaniment.

This gives a segue to what was commendable in the performance. One of the standouts was the counter-tenor (yes, they had one), a young man named Reggie Mobley who unbelievably started out his career by singing baritone before moving up (literally) to tenor and then alto. His ability to project this nearly-falsetto male voice throughout the hall was equalled by his perfect timing and nuances of expression. His two duets were marvels of perfectly pitched and balanced harmony, in which neither voice overpowered the other. All the more reason for me to anticipate what he would do with the Agnus Dei, and the greater my disappointment when I realized he would not be doing it.

But let's set that aside and continue the compliments. All the instrumental soloists were wonderful -- the flute, both oboes, violin, trumpet, horn -- am I leaving anyone out? -- you too, bassoon. The Firebird uses modern instruments, not antique ones, but I have to think Bach himself would be happy with them. After all, in his day he pushed for the adoption of equal-temperament for keyboard tuning, and was interested in the latest and greatest harpsichords. Surely if he were with us now he would want to take advantage of such modern conveniences as nylon "quills" in his instrument, which last so much longer than the ones made from bird feathers in ages past.

Director Quigley was absent at the Grammy Awards (alas, they didn't win), but his touch was evident in the interesting staging. The small chorus, including soloists, shared the space with the orchestra, and the choreography of bringing the soloists to center stage, while the chorus stood or sat, was done with a minimal amount of interruption to the musical flow. Also interesting was the placement of the timpani at stage front, rather than in the normal rear -- a fact that gave them additional punch.

So, all in all, a wonderful and devotional evening. Another thing said about Bach's great mass (he also wrote some shorter ones) is that it contains a giant anomoly, being sung in Latin, like the Catholic mass, but following the form of the Lutheran one, making it suitable for neither of them. Or, you might say, for both. But I think it's really for the First Church of J.S. Bach, and we are all allowed to become members.