Friday, June 25, 2004

Ordnance Music

It was a perfect early summer evening in Boston, in that vanishingly small window between cold, damp spring, and oppressively hot midsummer. The concert was at Jordan Hall at the Conservatory; as we walked toward the hall, my husband, an alumnus, marveled aloud at how his memories of his days there over twenty years ago were less than vivid.

As we settled into our seats, I thought more about memory.

My first time in Jordan Hall had been in 1971 or 1972. I attended a concert by the Dutch recorder virtuoso Frans Brueggen, and wrote about it in my journal with the ecstatic enthusiasm of the unworldly undergradute that I was then. I suspect that the writing was the reason that I remember it so well. My husband and I tried to recall the times we'd attended concerts at Jordan Hall together, and could, between us, exhume a mere fragment: some program that included Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat, with narration by the late, locally famous public radio classical musical host, Robert J. Lertsema.

But I could, oddly enough, remember quite clearly where I'd sat those two times -- on the left side of the hall in the 70's, and on the right balcony for L'Histoire. How will I remember last night's concert ? Will I remember the thin, quiet man who sidled up to me in the Dunkin' Donuts as I waited for my husband to get coffee, and whispered do you have any spare change ? Will I remember our conversation about memory ? How does the likelihood that experience will fade from memory effect its value ? What fragments am I shoring up against what ruin ?

Jordan Hall is small, old and beautiful. Filling the back wall of the small stage are ranks of organ pipes; gilt cherubim cavort above them. The stage pillars are ornately carved, and the ceiling rises to a tall, windowed dome.

As I considered the organ, I found myself doing some mental calculation.

Does its existence counterbalance, or nullify in any way the existence of guns and bombs ? Windchest for warchest ? And, if so, is there a strictly numerical relationship -- one pipe organ equals 1000 small arms or a cache of machine guns or an SUV packed with explosives ? One clarinet equals a grenade; one oil painting a surface to air missile; one poem a magazine full of bullets.

Or maybe it doesn't work that way at all. Maybe the ordnance nullifies the organ, vox humana and vox angelica, rendering it as culturally irrelevant and outmoded as the pudgy-kneed cherubim. I gazed at the two side-by-side pianos -- black steinway grands -- on the stage. They reminded me of coffins. I imagined them exploding, performer and all. Limbs, keys, wire sprayed everywhere, ceiling to floor. Such a thing could happen.

I thought back to Brueggen in the 70's. During one of his pieces, likely some baroque sonata, an actor was stationed in an easy chair beside a floor lamp, and read the newspaper through the whole piece. As if to say: ho hum. Wallpaper music. Easy listening. Backgound music. I seemed to remember that the Boston Globe had even noted this little gesture of self-critique on its editorial page. Had Vietnam been the context of his small protest ?

The Jordan Hall cherubs, I reflected, were not without irony. Not simply decorative kitsch, but serious irony. A reminder similar to Brueggen's man-in-the-armchair.

This was a concert of the Conservatory's annual summer piano institute, which I assume includes among its students the most avant garde and promising of young musicians. And the pianist was Ursula Oppens, well known for her performance of new music. Modern music, post-modern music. Music that takes the dislocations and brutalities of the zeitgeist into account. Music that is post-tonal, post-Auschwitz, post-Hiroshima, post-AIDS, post-Church, acknowledges randomness, the death of God, and the ongoing ascendency of greed, cruelty and force in the world. Broken-hearted music. Which does not mean joyless.

Here's a poem I wrote six or seven years ago in an even more bitter frame of mind.

iii. Like Birdsong

Can you recall what music was before
the instruments were reclassified
by raw material, flashpoint, melting point,

before drumsticks, mallets, bows and violins
were kindling wood, before stripped bassoons
and clarinets, split for firewood, burned,

before the necks of cellos and bass viols,
the unstrung harps and gutted baby grands
were stacked up for cordwood, before the flayed

drumheads and sheared-off strings were stitched
into rucksacks, hairshirts and mattresses,
before trumpets, cymbals, glockenspiels, trombones,

spitvalves, thumbrests, leafsprings, and ligatures,
were all cast into the defiler’s fire,
fusing to a useful, dull alloy

and every last sixty-four cents’ worth
of water vapor, ash and quicklime
dispersed like birdsong on the afterwind ?


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