Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Middle-aged romantic seeks low blue flame, steady employment.

Jacques Louis David Self Portrait (French 1794)

I am trying to get at something
and I want to talk very plainly to you
so that we are both comforted by the honesty

That stanza was taken from David Berman's excellent, shaggy meditation on aging, Self Portrait at 28. I distinctly remember discovering the poem five years ago, when I turned 28 myself. There is a silliness that helps move the underlying notes of regret and confusion; it is a world with a hill, a dog whose reliance on the compassion of its owner is paramount, and a kind of time passage that leaves wisdom in a dearth residue. We (our people) never actually become smart.

Today is precisely the kind of spiritual day that I looked out from a window above houses that rowed like the layers of shark's teeth, and beyond, the Delaware and decided to return to Pittsburgh and live. I thought of that tired adage about the Alaskans and their 69 words for snow; we must have at least as many in Pennsylvania for no longer raining exactly. There it was. And here it is. The sad truth of rewards is that what they most often reward is so probable, or maybe even inevitable, that the thrill is just a vague buzz in the hands, or a feeling of surprise, like when you fall asleep with the flu and wake up momentarily not knowing if it's 6:30 P.M or A.M.. It just occurred to me that while trying frame an observation in a Berman poem I unwittingly began to parrot him.


The rain is only part of the equation. 

Over the weekend I picked up Howard Hanson conducting a Barber bill on Mercury, probably around 1947. Logistically it's a fantastic jumping off point for both Barber and Hanson, as it includes the familiar Adagio for Strings. Instantly the rapport between Barber and Hanson is established. Just as instant is the conductor's conservative approach. Much as I like Charles Mingus for his adherence to classical and folk modes of expression in his composition, I appreciate how Hanson, a charter figure in the influential Eastman School, seized a moment bustling with avant garde ideas and resisted judiciously. Symphony no. 1 appeals as a kind of statement of New Romantic principles. There's nothing pedestrian in the excitement and abstraction of the Pennsylvania lansdscape, nevertheless listening to it--perhaps the product of the wackiness that surrounded it--and then ensued; or just time itself, it feels as if the chemistry of composer and conductor produces a stabilizing expression.

These late mornings in which music is invariably a solitary experience, seem cut from time and set aside. Symphony no. 1 was written in 1936, when Barber, a child prodigy whose earliest compositions were written at age 7, was just 26. What stands out today--again, especially in contrast to the enduringly jarring sound of the avant garde that ran in a kind of self important caravan through the 20th century, is how at once confident and stirring it sounds without ever falling upon novelty or haughty challenges. The composer's love of the Romantic poets presses the ardor of the composition, while the sterling features of the sound suggest something entirely local, tactile and absolutely familiar.

But in the authorial chemistry of that sound I keep finding myself thinking of Samuel Barber, the imaginative, sharp-minded child.  There is of course no anecdote to support it, but the Symphony emits the sense of a child's imagination (set to an adult's talent for order). The moving parts are brilliant and impossible, striding with the essence of the land, its living and all sound.  

It is not that kind of day.  Not naturally. 

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