Sunday, October 25, 2020

THE EIGHTH

 I just got through watching a performance of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony by the Los Angeles Symphony at an empty Hollywood Bowl (thanks to Covid-19) with Gustavo Dudamel conducting. Despite the reminders of our current predicament--the obligatory masks, the rows of empty seats, the plexiglass partitions separating the musicians--it was a heartening experience.


My thought throughout: what an incredible gift to the world. Had the composer written just this one symphony, the gift would have been inestimable. It awes the mind--and I find it infinitely humbling--to know that it is only one small part of the legacy he left behind him. Richard Wagner is said to have called the symphony "the apotheosis of dance" and to hear it played, even for one with as little musical savvy as myself, is to understand exactly what he meant. The often familiar, sometimes lilting melodies enliven the heart and mind and evoke that irresistible and lyrical bodily response. 

And Dudamel is amazing. To watch him is to see a man unreservedly and ecstatically in the moment. His whole being dances on his podium with the music. To conduct, I suppose, is to act as medium for the music; but more than that it is the art of communication with other human beings, the ability to engage in the dance with each of the performers individually and together, and convey his wishes, his instructions, his vision in a gesture or a glance. In Dudamel we see a man in love not only with the music--though especially that--but also with his orchestra, whose instrumentalists respond in kind. What we witness on the stage is a subtle and engaging act of love, with foreplay, rhythmic progression, crescendo and climax. It's a beautiful and deeply moving spectacle.

So... what a lovely experience for a Sunday morning. Thanks to Dudamel, the Philharmonic, and Beethoven himself for a much-needed uplift at a moment of critical anxiety for--no exaggeration!--the future of the world. The example of gifts like this renews hope for the human species.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

CELEBRITIES

 A strange, distressing dream last night.

It started with a celebrity couple--a Beyoncé type superstar from the entertainment world and a well-known sports figure who were house-hunting in our area (though it was not our area at all; more like Bel Air). The Beyoncé figure had just finished making a duet song and dance piece with another woman, a peer in stature, in which I was much involved, perhaps only as a spectator. But there was that. Two of them, working repetitively to perfect the importance.

Then there was a very curious bedroom scene in which we were in bed, each in our own house though seemingly cheek to cheek, each with our own spouse--though mine was unknown to me, definitely not Ellie. And I was asking this celebrity woman, whispering, literally, into her ear, as we were trying to fall asleep, to ask if they were going to be our neighbors. She told me sleepily that she didn't think so, and her husband was grumbling that he wanted some sleep.

Then--was this the same dream?--we all moved on to a big gathering of socialites and celebrities for a party of some kind. We were all outdoors, in a kind of wooded glen, a valley, getting ready for the party, or perhaps already partying, and Jake was with us, our King Charles Spaniel, and everyone loved him, wanted to pet him, oohed and aahed...

A game was announced--a treasure hunt? a mystery tour? an adventure of some kind...--with a great fall of whiteness, snowflakes, it might have seemed, but I thought butterflies. Among the thousands of delicate white objects fluttering down were messages on small pieces of paper, like those you find in fortune cookies, directions as to where to go and what to do. 

Mine told me to go to the top of the hill, where I found the group reassembling, jovial, noisy. I began to worry about Jake, where he might be, when suddenly he appeared, dragged along up the hill towards us by the muzzle, limp, in the mouth of some big mutt, black and white, and fierce. He was bleeding badly from the mouth when I rescued him from his attacker and picked him up, held him in my arms. He needed a vet.

I rushed down to the bottom of the hill and found myself in a huge mall, where there was everything but a vet. I wandered on, shouting to anyone who would listen that I needed to find a vet, shouting, "Vet! Vet!", but no one seemed to listen, or know where to find one. Moving on, out of the mall, I ended up in a kind of town square and there, finally, was an storefront--it looked like something out of a Victorian novel--that identified itself as a vet's.

With Jake still limp, upside down in my arms, I went into the store, and found several people at the counter, none of them seeming to have much to do. I called for help, and some one said, "That looks like an emergency," as indeed it was. I told everyone as much, and was frustrated that I could not get any of them to do anything other than look on... And the dream ended with Jake still limp, and badly injured, and unattended.

(I've heard that everyone in a dream is a projection of the dreamer. And I sometimes feel, in today's social and political environment, like I'm being mauled by a big mutt! No joke, really! Otherwise... I have to say that I'm non-plussed).

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

NON-SENSE

Ellie and I watched American Utopia, the new David Byrne movie directed by Spike Lee. Given our current situation, you have to wonder whether that title is irony or satire. Well, no. Or yes, at least in part. There is certainly an absurdist element--as there has always been in Byrne's music. It was a powerful motif in his much earlier movie, Stop Making Sense, which I remember having loved when I first saw it, many years ago; and recently decided to replay. But "American Utopia" does in fact end with a hopeful vision of what this country can be--multi-racial, multi-cultural, welcoming of immigrants and their energy and talent, open to new ideas and, above all, caring for each other.

Watching "American Utopia", I was once again captivated by the hypnotic rhythms of Byrne's music and the choreography of the group of musician/dancers--you could hardly call it a "band"--he had assembled. There is something haunting about the use of minimalist staging and the movement of identically-clad human figures in its space. The "costumes"--call them that--consisted of loose grey suits and grey shirts, buttoned to the neck without a tie. Lighting was used to occasionally dramatic but often simply high-lighting effect. The whole production understated, then, leaving the emphasis on the human body, music, words.

I understood Byrne's work in a different light--though I should perhaps have recognized it all along--when he spoke in a break between songs about Dada, and the between-the-wars years after the monstrous travesty of World War I and the rise of Nazism and nationalism, when the European Enlightenment's belief in the power of reason to govern individuals and the affairs of the human species was shattered by horrific historical realities. Dada was a conscious effort to "stop making sense"--or stop trying to make sense of the incomprehensible, irrational behavior of actual human beings in a chaotic real world. 

David Byrne's work, as I see it, is an effort to get past sense and into a reality that transcends it. One sequence in this film is a lunatic snippet from a dada "symphony" followed by the setting of a sense-less "poem" by Hugo Ball; it fit perfectly in with Byrne's aesthetic. It makes some, excuse the expression, sense to suggest that we find ourselves in much the same social, cultural and political predicament as that time. We have put ourselves through the nightmare of more wars and population shifts--provoked in part by climate change--threaten once complacent Western societies, including our own. The self-protective nationalist response, with its ever-present potential for violence, is as pandemic as the coronavirus. The line that stands between us and chaos has indeed become a very thin one.

Yet Byrne sees and offers us grounds for hope in the creative human spirit, and in the desire of human beings to be in touch with each other, to communicate and, yes, even to love. The end of "American Utopia" embraces that spirit as the performance group descends into the audience, mingling, touching, encouraging, including as they play. Then they all get on bicycles and ride through the darkened New York streets to what we assume is Byrne's personal residence for what we assume to be a party.

I think you'll love this film as much as Ellie and I did. Give it a try.

Monday, October 19, 2020

PAY HEED

I have noticed that there is an increasing sense of inexorability to the passage of the days, in this time of plague. It requires vigilance. When I allow my attention to lapse, I find that time dulls the senses, dulls the intellect, dulls the spirit, too. It becomes an effort, a chore, to perform even the most basic and ordinary of tasks. Times slows down, drags, and can even seem to bring me to a halt.

So attention must be paid, even to the most basic and ordinary of tasks. Perhaps especially to them. When I remember; I too often forget! Because attention is the only palliative, the only cure for what would otherwise be overwhelming. Attention sharpens the senses, the intellect, and the spirit too into clear awareness, and wrests the mind out of the inexorable passage of days to bring it into the present moment. Which, after all, is the only place there is.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

THE WAY HE SEES IT

Ellie and I watched The Way I see It last evening. This is the documentary about the photographer Peter Souza who documented the presidencies of both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Having worked as a


photojournalist for so many years, dedicated to the work rather than the politics, which he eschewed, he felt obliged to "come out" during the Tr*mp era and expose the pettiness and venality of our current president. I was not aware of his efforts until now, but it seems he has been doing this for some time by the simple act of visual juxtaposition. His book, Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents and his continuing Twitter series, with images of a dignified and thoughtful Obama posted in response to his successor's often vacuous tweets are an act of social conscience. He abandons journalistic objectivity in favor of the passionate expression of opinion.

It's a great documentary. Directed by Dawn Porter, it includes lengthy interviews with Souza himself, as well as with notables from around the Obama administration. There is a good deal of historical film and video footage, and an unforgettable selection of the still photographs for which Souza is justly acclaimed. Ellie and I, along with I'm sure every other viewer, were deeply moved to be reminded of Obama's human dignity, his intellect, his need to think through every issue in depth, his love not only for his own delightful family but for the great family of humankind and, above all, his compassion. 

The comparison between Obama and his successor offered by this engrossing documentary is stark, and deeply painful. The film reminds us of what a president can, and should be; and of the utter failure of the current occupant of the White House to reach that standard. Watching it, I frankly wept at times. But mostly I was inspired by the example of the truly great man who led us for eight years, and mindful that his trusted right hand in office, Joe Biden, shares many of his qualities. He must be our next president.