Icons of the Gowanus

January 19th, 2012 § 4 comments § permalink

Elizabeth O'Reilly, Smith and Ninth from Garnet, 2011. Oil on Panel, 12” X 22”

It’s been nearly four years since I left New York, after fifteen years in Manhattan and close to seven in Brooklyn. For the first year or so I was making monthly trips back, partly for work and partly to ease the pangs of withdrawal. On these trips I found, as other ex-New Yorkers have, that I made better use of the city, in many ways, than I had when I lived there.

My last neighborhood was Carroll Gardens. For several years, weather permitting, I had walked my son to his school on the edge of Park Slope, through Gowanus. We used to sometimes see a woman in a floppy hat standing by one of the bridges over the canal, painting at an easel. It was during the week, and she didn’t look like a Sunday painter anyway, nor were the banks of the Gowanus a place you would expect to find one.

One thing I had never done enough of, not since my early years in New York, was go to galleries. On my trips back I started doing that again. I became aware of a number of contemporary painters of a more or less realist bent, seriously devoted to plein air painting, cityscapes, and other such long-unfashionable pursuits. Many of them exhibited at George Billis in Chelsea. I got a sort of crash course in all this from Maureen Mullarkey, herself a fine painter, whose website Studio Matters introduced a handful of them to me, and who told me about the centrality in this connection of the Spanish painter Antonio López García, whom I had not heard of before.

So it was that I finally found out who the Gowanus painter was. It was Elizabeth O’Reilly, an Irish-born artist long resident in Brooklyn. I arranged to visit her studio, and was very much taken by everything I saw, from sketches and miniature collages to somewhat larger-scale watercolors and oils. The fact that many of the scenes she painted were so familiar – some of them literally “in my back yard” – didn’t hurt, but their appeal went beyond that (and she doesn’t only paint Brooklyn).

The twentieth-century obsession with abstraction is still very present in the new cityscape art. It’s not something these artists choose to ignore. Their art is not naïve, though in a certain sense – a good one – you might at times be tempted to call it that. The industrial wasteland, the old panorama of urban decay, can have a surprising freshness. O’Reilly goes pretty far in that direction, while at the same time being among the most abstract, with drastically simplified shapes and large blocks of color cunningly arranged to give the very minimum necessary for identifying a scene, an object, or a place. I was reminded of Milton Avery, whose work I especially sought out in galleries when I first moved to New York. O’Reilly seemed to acknowledge the connection. His work, like hers, had often been called “lovely,” and not always in a complimentary way.

One could certainly imagine that to the first Manhattan exiles, the homesteading hipsters who starting moving into the neighborhood in the seventies and eighties, not to mention to people born and bred there, these glowing, almost ethereal icons of their “mean streets,” the polluted waters and the decaying buildings, might seem a little unreal. But to one who lived in the neighborhood in the first decade of the twenty-first century, lived in it as it was then and not as it had been or as one remembered it, what they capture seems real enough. There was a kind of promise in the air, that had less to do with optimism or hopes for the future than with a simple recovery of the capacity to see. The old edge was not gone, but had receded a bit. Things didn’t look quite so stark or unequivocal. You were constantly being surprised with the wildest juxtapositions. It was no longer clear what era we were living in, or where it was all going. The flowers that peeked out from around rusting girders and crumbling concrete might carry a message of uplift, or they might have a more tangled meaning. Or none at all. On all such matters, O’Reilly’s art is endlessly suggestive, and perfectly laconic. And yes, it is lovely as well.

For current or upcoming exhibits of Elizabeth O’Reilly’s work, check George Billis Gallery or the artist’s own website.

Sights and sounds of the río Wang

January 16th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

For those not familiar with it, the multilingual Poemas del río Wang is one of the most visually stunning blogs around, not because of any graphic pyrotechnics but through its seemingly endless supply of arresting images from the most diverse places and times. The stories accompanying them are sometimes erudite and always worth reading, and there have been several recent posts of musical interest there too. Here is one on Hafez in contemporary Persian music, with a sound clip. An Italian Bob Dylan singing Dante would be the closest parallel I could think of. Before that there was this recording of a well-known popular song from Odessa, and before that, a clip of Bulat Okudzhava’s Poslednii Trolleibus (“The Last Trolley”). Enjoy them while looking at the images.

In Honor of Prince Cantemir – Lou Harrison

January 12th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

The late Lou Harrison was known for his interest in non-Western musical traditions, but his own music is rather selective in its susceptibility to “exotic” influences: it has very marked predilections and is anything but a bland multicultural hodge-podge. I had not known, however, about this piece, or that his interests extended to Cantemir and Ottoman music. It makes sense, though; he was always a melodist above all, and loved the kinds of elaborate, sinuous, metrically complex, and intonationally subtle melodies characteristic of the whole makam tradition, the kind that some say (he would have said) have been lost or made impossible in Western classical music through its obsession with harmony.

Dimitrie Cantemir (1673-1723) himself was a fascinating figure, bound to appeal to anyone interested in the crossing, or blurring, of cultural boundaries. His father was Prince of Moldavia, a position that he himself briefly held twice during his lifetime. The bulk of it was spent in exile, first at the Ottoman court, which had at the time a certain cultural openness to counterbalance its intolerance of local autonomy (Moldavia was then under Ottoman rule), and later, after taking Peter the Great’s side in the Russo-Turkish war, in Russia.

He was a polymath and knew many languages, Latin and Greek as well as Turkish, Romanian, Russian and a half-dozen others, and wrote books in several. The work for which he was best known in the West was a history of the Ottoman empire, written in Latin. He wrote what is considered the first novel in Romanian. But it is for his musical work that he is mostly remembered in Turkey. He wrote a famous theoretical treatise on music, composed a number of pieces of his own, and invented a notation that preserved not only them, but hundreds of other pieces of Ottoman court music for posterity.

His children were notable figures in Russian history. Maria, his daughter, was a great beauty, courted by Peter the Great himself, by whom she reportedly had a child, and Antioch, his son, who shared his father’s broad education and skill in languages, had an important influence on the development of Russian poetry, both through his verse satires and in his contribution to the understanding and practice of Russian versification. He spent time in London and Paris as a diplomat, and his contacts there no doubt contributed to his father’s fame as a historian.

Little Tragedies now on Kindle

December 13th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

The Kindle edition of the Little Tragedies ebook is now available on Amazon.

Little Tragedies now available

August 29th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

The ebook of Pushkin’s Little Tragedies is now available for purchase, in PDF or kindle format, here

This will be the first in a series of ebooks to be offered here. To come: a new translation of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, and a second edition of my 1992 translation of Griboyedov’s The Woes of Wit.

Little Tragedies ebook

August 6th, 2011 § 2 comments § permalink

My translation of Pushkin’s Little Tragedies, with an Afterword, notes, and other material, will shortly be available as an ebook, purchasable as a pdf download from this site, and I plan to make a Kindle version available soon after.

The translation of Mozart and Salieri will continue to be separately available as a free download.

Check back here for updates.


January 27th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

This Belgian early music group, founded in 1999, takes its name from the title of Barthes’ famous essay Le grain de la voix. The group is a striking example of an interesting trend in early music, not exactly new, but these days being taken farther than ever before, some would say to the point of extravagance. The trend seems to be more in evidence in Europe than here.

Barthes, who studied music in his youth, develops in that essay a contrast between singing voices that he felt were accomplished but lacked character, such as that of Gérard Souzay, and voices with “grain,” which is maybe not quite the same as what we would call “grainy,” but close enough. That was the kind of voice he liked. His example of a voice with grain was the Swiss baritone Charles Panzéra. Both Souzay and Panzéra were classical singers, and wonderful ones at that. I suspect that the writers on pop, rock, and jazz who occasionally cite Barthes’ grain as if it were the very definition of those genres, would have trouble telling the two apart; I don’t find the difference so dramatic myself (here is Panzéra singing Fauré’s lovely setting of Verlaine’s “Clair de lune,” and here is Souzay).

(the Panzera can be found on CD here (used and expensive) and the Souzay here (individual tracks with mp3 option)).

The classical-vs-other-traditions angle does seem quite pertinent to the question. Paul Hillier wrote, in his 1992 essay “Framing the life of the words” in the Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music, that the exploration of vocal timbre and voice placement in early music had barely begun. The first step, indeed, had been a “straightening” of the voice, eliminating the heavy vibrato of conventional classical singing and substituting a clear, boyish tone for the lushness and heavy coloration valued in the opera house. This “white” voice is still the kind preferred by many early musicians. But other kinds, more and more varieties of voices, are now being heard. Those in graindelavoix are not the most extreme, but they are striking and distinctive, at times uncomfortably so.

The group’s approach to the voice naturally concerns more than just timbre. They handle words in various ways, depending on the genre, and they are very interested in styles of vocal ornamentation. The combinations that emerge can be surprising. Here is the beginning of a Mass by Nicolas Champion (1475-1533) that combines the rock-solid nearly vibratoless intonation pioneered in the seventies by groups like Hillier’s original Hilliard Ensemble with melismas and ornaments that sound Byzantine or Arabic (this has become something of a fad in any early music with a possible historical connection or even mere geographical proximity to those traditions), and a blare in the inner voices reminiscent of American Sacred Harp singing. I find it absolutely compelling. On the other hand, here they are doing a dialogue from the 13th century minstrel Henri III de Brabant. Compelling as well, in a totally different way (it’s worth watching the video here, if only for the facial expressions).

First clip is from this disc.

Second one is from here.

Subtitling Pushkin

November 4th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

A long lapse in blogging, partly due to an unresolved problem with the image uploader. So for now, it’ll be straight text, plus a few links.

In September Video Artists International released a DVD with performances of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Mozart and Salieri and Dargomyzhsky’s The Stone Guest, both done at the Bolshoi Theatre (in 1981 and 1979 respectively). I provided the on-screen subtitles.

It was an interesting process. I had already done some informal subtitling, earlier in the year, of Youtube clips, using my translations of Mozart and Salieri and The Woes of Wit. I was pleased with how easily the translations matched up with the lines spoken on screen. I made no cuts or simplifications, and it was possible to get all the relevant text into titles of manageable length that stayed on the screen long enough to read them without falling behind the spoken dialogue. I felt like it was a good test of the resilience of my versions.

These are verse translations, of course, but one thing that becomes evident right away is that in subtitles you have to pretty much forget about the printed verse format. Regular line breaks, capital letters to begin lines, indentations for half-lines, and all that, just get in the way and are pretty pointless (rhyme changes things a bit; that has to at least not be obscured). The actors are delivering the words at their own pace, according to their own interpretation, and “chunking” different sections of dialogue in the way that feels most effective to them. Made into readable title screens, these chunks may not look like verse at all.

But they are, and good actors would bring out the rhythm even in the absence of these printed cues. They might do all kinds of things that would drive teachers of “proper” verse delivery wild, but as long as they are focusing on what is being said, verse on the stage can mostly take care of itself.

Opera introduces at least one more layer of interpretation, but in these two “chamber operas” the composers adhered to Pushkin’s texts with remarkable fidelity. There are few cuts, discreetly made, which leave the shape of these brilliant mini-dramas very much intact.

Doing subtitles for a commercial release, though, I did have to simplify some titles. At least I was asked to, and it made sense to do it. Limpid as Pushkin’s verse is, there are times when it is just too complex, in terms of syntax, image, or rhetoric, for an audience to take in by brief reading on a screen, while listening to a sung performance. In such cases a less elaborate version of the lines can be helpful. But most of the titles are unsimplified.

More recently the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra asked permission to use my text in supertitles of a live performance of the Rimsky-Korsakoff Mozart and Salieri. It was performed in Calgary on Oct. 30.

Corneille the Not-Quite-Forgotten

July 19th, 2010 § 1 comment § permalink

Until last year, I had never read much of Corneille. I did so, finally, so that I could review Richard Wilbur’s recent translation of Le Cid, which appeared last summer in the same volume with his translation of Corneille’s best known comedy, The Liar. Not wanting to find myself pontificating on a subject I knew little about, I thought it would be a good idea to read more than just the two plays in question.

So over the past year or so I’ve read a good deal of him, and the more I read the less able I feel to sum him up in any adequate way. He’s a much larger figure than I had imagined. Besides his four major tragedies, which were the model for Racine’s, and The Liar, which Molière acknowledged as an important influence on his own comedies, he wrote many other tragedies, comedies and tragicomedies, and collaborated on a tragédie-ballet, Psyché, with Molière, Quinault, and Lully.

One early work that stands out is L’Illusion comique, a wonderful, unclassifiable piece that has in recent years had more appeal to the English-speaking theatrical world than any of his other works. Tony Kushner adapted it for one of his early plays, and Wilbur published a fine translation of it, as The Theatre of Illusion, in 2007 – his first Corneille.

But of his tragedies, it is the four he wrote in his early thirties, Le Cid, Horace, Cinna, and Polyeucte, that mostly still get played in France, and of these, only the first has any currency at all in the English-speaking theatre.

That play certainly deserves its reputation. Still, it might have been better for Corneille’s if another one of the four, all just as extraordinary in their own very different ways, had been given the role—since only one seems to be available—of representing his tragic muse to a foreign posterity.

To generations that have endured it in mediocre translations, having read the solemn introductions that drone on about the quintessential Corneillean conflict of Love and Honor, few things could be more tiresome than this play. We are to understand, those introductions seem to tell us, that where in Racine we find an acute psychologist who understood all the unruliness of human passion, in Corneille we find the high-minded moralist, whose sympathies will always go to those who can stifle passion at the merest hint that Duty or Honor requires it.

Corneille certainly did admire self-abnegation. But to conclude that he had no understanding of or sympathy for passion would hardly be fair. The whole effect of Le Cid depends on it; Corneille explicitly says, in his examen to the play, that his hero and heroine both perform their duty (represented not as shining and pure but as inconceivably awful) without giving up any of their passion for each other. This is what makes it moving. At least when conveyed in Corneille’s own language.

Honor is hardly the simple value, certainly not in this play, that it’s often represented as being in Corneille’s works generally. There’s a reason, beyond the color it lends, that the play is set in Spain. Even at this time Spain was considered a throwback in its strict adherence to the gentleman’s code. Corneille clearly finds something to admire in it, but he also sees the disasters that, unrestrained, it can lead to. Chimène’s father, the Count, is passed over for a position of honor at court in favor of the father of Rodrigue, the much older Don Diègue. Both have led armies, and served the crown with distinction. But when the Count, after they quarrel, slaps Don Diègue, the older man is unable to defend himself, and calls on his son to avenge him. Before that happens, the king’s men urge the Count to apologize. He privately admits to being at fault, but his “honor” won’t permit a public apology. He is not a villain, but a man whose wounded pride leads him into a shocking disregard for the dignity of others.

What ensues—Rodrigue fights and kills the father of his beloved; she, though continuing to love him, calls for his head, which he, in despair, is ready to grant her—is what most remember about the play. It can all seem faintly ridiculous if one loses sight of the whole background that Corneille has so carefully drawn. That includes not only the character of the Count, but that of the king, storm-tossed by all these unruly hidalgos but determined to forge a kingdom out of them, the infanta, whose overcoming of her own passion for Rodrigue serves as both model and contrast to what Chimène must do, and the ongoing war with the Moors, which repeatedly cuts short and overwhelms the private concerns of the characters.

It’s been said before that Corneille is one of the great political playwrights. That’s certainly true, if you mean political in the sense that Shakespeare is political in his histories and his Roman plays, rather than in the current, limited sense of “speaking truth to power.” Both he and Shakespeare have an acute sense of how power operates when it involves the impurities of actual human souls, as opposed to the monsters and paragons that modern political theatre deals in. But what’s particularly striking about Corneille is his ability to imagine very distinct societies, with values different from his own and from each other, and the kind of “culture clash” that can arise between them, or within one society that finds itself struggling to become something different.

So, immediately after portraying the medieval warrior culture of Le Cid as it struggles to become a stable monarchy, he shows us, in Horace, representatives of two ancient societies, early Rome and Alba Longa, both martial and proud, but one with the added edge of ruthlessness and fanatic patriotism that will eventually make it prevail, devouring its most generous souls in the process. Then, in Cinna, that same Rome centuries later, passing from Republic to Empire, with a compelling portrait of the emperor Augustus, past master of that same ruthlessness and fanaticism, who finds a new power in his ability to forgo them, spare those who betrayed him, and make friends of his enemies. And finally (and most astounding, in my opinion), in Polyeucte he shows the Roman world as it moves from paganism to Christianity, and despite his own clearly positive view of that development, manages to convey how utterly strange and baffling the new religion, with its thirst for martyrdom and abandonment of all worldly prudence in human relations, must have seemed to the sophisticated pagans of old Rome.

If the descriptions make it sound faintly like ethnography or potted history, it is neither: it’s pure imagination, pure poetry. That is, if by poetry we mean a language absolutely adjusted to its ends. To English speakers, who have always thought anything called poetry has to have a bit of mystification in it, that sounds like rhetoric, not poetry. But the French classical tradition fused the two, and Corneille was the first to do it. Nowhere is there any intent to mystify; the power and sonority of the verse, and its uncanny ability to illumine a whole world, is mystery enough.

Which brings us back to the matter of translation. I don’t know if I’ll manage to write a formal review of Wilbur’s Le Cid. I’m not sure how much I can find to say about it that I didn’t say long ago in regard to his Racine translations, Andromache and Phaedra. Here he has taken the same approach that he did there: translate thought for thought, line for line when possible, couplet for couplet when not, following each innuendo, each shift in attention, each reiteration and afterthought, so that the character’s every mouvement d’âme will be revealed, if not on first reading, then as soon as you attempt to actually play the lines, or imagine how they might be played. And let the sonority take care of itself. In that regard, some loss is inevitable. Wilbur’s translated lines are never going to impress themselves on the mind the way Corneille’s do. But they are the only ones I have seen that faithfully follow their contours. And they are thoroughly speakable. If English-speaking acting companies want to make this play do anything resembling what it does in French, they would do well to use this translation.

They should also read Wilbur’s introduction, which is as pertinent and concise as its predecessors. He is particularly good on the uncertain resolution of the play: it seems doubtful that Chimène will ever, despite her love for Rodrigue, recover from the ordeal that an unforgiving code has imposed upon them both, or ever be happy even if, as the king wishes, she eventually does marry Rodrigue. It’s the kind of delicacy you find everywhere in Corneille, but it can easily get lost under all the talk of honor and glory.

As to Wilbur’s translation of The Liar, there need be no reservations: it has all the wit and fidelity of his Molière versions, and should prove just as playable. Regrettably, even those seem to be less popular than they used to be. That reflects less on their quality than it does on the declining taste of Off-Broadway and regional theatre, not to mention the West End, where real verse translations, as opposed to adaptations, have become virtually extinct.

There’s plenty more to say about Corneille. Of the 19 plays he wrote after Polyeucte, the majority were tragedies. A few have had a reputation not far short of the great four, but beginning in his later years, and for many years after his death, the consensus was that his work suffered a long decline in quality. The influence of Voltaire, who found great fault with all the later work, cemented this opinion, though there have always been dissenters. What’s not in dispute is that his work changed character; he didn’t simply repeat himself. In the later works honor and generosity, though still present, seem more and more beleaguered in the darker, more intractable worlds he increasingly imagines. The verse is no longer all clarity and light; shadows and enigmas begin to appear. The hero of his last play, Suréna, wins the enmity of his sovereign by doing him good, and leaving him no means of rewarding him. His reward finally comes in the long arc of the arrow, shot by an unknown hand, that ends his life.

Strophic song in ancient Greece – Armand D’Angour replies

July 13th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

In an email, which he kindly agreed to let me reproduce here, Armand D’Angour replies to some of the points I raised in the preceding post:

Dear Alan

Thank you – your summary is excellent, and your criticisms very acute.
Let me briefly comment on three main issues:

1. Longer time-scale for the evolution of melody not conforming to word pitch: I wholly agree with you on this, and would adduce the fact that there was a centuries-old tradition of melodic composition for instrumental solo. Those melodies which would have had little or nothing to do with word pitches (and might even have been set to sung words, or at least influenced settings of verse). However, the Athenaeus passage I cite at the end apparently picks out Euripides’ Medea (the date should say 431) as being unusual for having a wholly responsional melody i.e. a set melody that would have had to violate word-pitches in one or both responding strophes.

2. Of course Pindar and the tragedians would not have left it to the chorus to come up with the correct melody. The poets would have composed the melodies themselves; but there is a lot of evidence that the ‘older poets’ took pains to compose ‘correct’ or ‘fitting’ melodies. It’s hard to know what to make of ‘correctness’ (orthotes, to prepon) in this context other than meaning (more or less) conformity to word pitch, in the same way as correct rhythm is what conforms to ‘natural’ syllabic lengths.

3. Euripides’ violation of syllabic lengths is, I think, precisely what Aristophanes caricatures with ‘heieieeilissete’. As you say, he would have been bound to parody the other kind of violation too. But how would that be indicated in our texts? In Frogs there is a wonderful parody of Euripidean lyric – it is not only the absurd content but the melody that must have been discernibly Euripidean. Dudley Moore brilliantly parodied Britten’s melodic style with a setting of Little Miss Muffet (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1n7BCUVJkhU) but if we just had the text, we wouldn’t know how it sounded. I bet Aristophanes had just as much fun training his chorus to sing those ‘Euripidean’ lyrics.

The final point is very well taken: the original manuscripts had no accent marks, and when scribes starting using them, they would probably have placed the accents in their normal positions, concealing any wordplay that might have depended on accenting the wrong syllable. We could look for such wordplay in the parody Euripidean verses in The Frogs, but any time you go looking for it, wordplay is notoriously easy to find.