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Climbing Into Music

Espaliered Pear Trees at The Cloisters
I had read about Canadian artist Judith Cardiff’s “Forty Part Motet,” a polyphonic sound installation in an apse at The Cloisters, and finally had a chance to get there on Saturday. I hadn’t been to The Cloisters for a long time and had forgotten its grandeur and beauty. There is much to contemplate and admire in the collection of illuminated manuscripts, for example, and an herb garden with espaliered pear trees and poison plants. But the highlight of my visit was the Motet, a captivating non-verbal experience. It closes on December 8th and if you are anywhere in the vicinity, don’t miss it. It brought several participants to tears, including me. And when the Tudor “song” ended, a mere eleven minutes after it began, I was stopped by a “Studio 360” reporter. “How would you describe your response to this work?” he asked. Good question.

At first, I could hardly speak, and then I realized I didn’t want to speak; I had climbed into the music or it had climbed into me. This is a metaphor Judith Cardiff uses to describe the work she records and then installs/performs. “It poses the question of how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and express how a viewer may choose a path through the simultaneously physical and virtual environment,” she writes in her artist’s statement. But all those words are inadequate to describe the kinesthetic bodily sensation of the forty choir voices she has individually recorded in Salisbury Cathedral, and then recombined into the Motet, one voice for each loudspeaker.

She instructs the viewer/listener to move around the room, which I did, despite the crowd. (Most people seemed to be too mesmerized to move.) And every time I moved, there was a new and different point of view, until I moved again. The sound reverberated inside me, amplified by the accumulation of voices. This is both a technological and a conceptual achievement. “Does it matter that it’s not the real choir, that it’s electronic?” the Studio 360 reporter asked.

“No, not at all. And this is Tudor music, incredible how we can hear it and feel it in 2013,” I said, already attempting to intellectualize the experience. Having been a radio reporter, I knew that he was pleased I’d agreed to the interview, and that I was articulate. He kept asking questions but I wanted to get away.

Walking back in a daze through the Heather Garden, another treasure, I wondered what analogies there are in writing to the sensation of climbing into the music, or the music climbing into me. When we read or write and are carried away—blissed out—entirely absorbed by the work, perhaps that would be an analogy. Or when we are reading a good book and don’t know what page we are on, or care, and when that book evokes sensations and feelings and transforms us, perhaps that would be another. I think, as writers, that is what we strive for always, though getting there is the challenge.  Read More 
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David Mamet's "Phil Spector": A Moral Morass

Lana Clarkson, April 15, 1962-February 3, 2003, the day she was murdered by Phil Spector.
I watched David Mamet’s “Phil Spector” on HBO the other night. I knew next to nothing about Phil Spector, the record producer—the Ronettes, the Beatles—now serving a 19 year sentence for the second degree murder of Lana Clarkson. In the hype surrounding Mamet’s brilliant, irresponsible screenplay, and the equally brilliant performances of Helen Mirren, as Spector’s attorney, and Al Pacino, as Spector, few remember Lana Clarkson or her grisly murder. She was found shot in the mouth in Spector’s hallway with one of Spector’s numerous guns. Yet Mamet chose to channel the prosecution’s argument that there was a reasonable doubt and that her death was an “accidental suicide.”

“I don’t give a shit about the facts,” Mamet said to Mick Brown, a UK journalist who writes for the Telegraph and is the author of a well-researched biography of Spector, “Tearing Down the Wall of Sound; The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector.” There were numerous insulting Mamet expletives in his answers to Brown’s questions. I was admiring of this well regarded, sober journalist; he didn’t lose his cool. “The colorful invented drama became the historical version,” Brown wrote in The Telegraph on June 29, 2013 just before Mamet’s film was released in the UK on Sky Atlantic.

Where is David Mamet’s ethical compass? Like most of the facts, it is swirling in a vortex of ambition, egomania, and celebrity entitlement, if not altogether absent. In a conversation I had last week with a record producer who knew Spector during his glory days, I learned about Spector’s alcoholism and cocaine addiction, barely mentioned in the screenplay. “He must have been on blow when he killed Lana Clarkson,” this young man said. “That generation wrecked themselves on drugs. Spector had started drinking again big time two days before Clarkson’s murder and everyone in LA knew it.”

Now 73, Spector will end his life in jail, an irrefutable fact. As for Mamet, one can only hope that his fame will not destroy him, or his talent, as it has so many others.
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The Barn With New Doors

I was walking down my favorite road in upstate New York enjoying the migrating birds on the electrical wires and the woodpecker pecking in the distance when I came to the turn in the road that led to my favorite farmhouse. Everything from then on looked different and I was disoriented. There was a new electric fence and a man-made sculpted topography on the other side of it that signaled a new owner, or venture of some sort—a horse ranch, I later learned. The mountain had been carved at one time into a quarry and the steep road, which I have climbed often in all seasons, led into the woods where there was a stream and a still-standing hut with a pot-bellied stove that had been home to indentured laborers. This farmland, acres of it, had been parceled off in the early 20th century and, with the advent of the motor-car, was sliced in two by a tarmac road. Descendants of the original farmers still live on one of the parcels and I occasionally can spot a tractor in the distance and bales of hay but, mostly, the farm is gone, the main farmhouse has been sold to weekenders from Brooklyn, and now the abandoned quarry has become a horse ranch. Is this renewal, or obliteration of the past, or both?

I thought of the essay I have been laboring over for several weeks and why it is not working. It’s gone out to several readers and to my agent who thinks it might be expanded into a book. But I’m feeling discouraged and unable to move forward. I think I need new doors. In computer-speak, I need a different portal into the story. Maybe I’ll write a play, I thought, as I continued my walk past the ranch to the farmhouse, past my favorite barn. Lo and behold, my very thought, it had new doors. That old barn is like a Mondrian painting, perfectly balanced, sitting on the edge of the road, rich in color, and it smells wonderful because it is a hay barn, not an animal barn. Like my essay, it had been a bit rickety and listing to one side, though still beautiful even then. Now it was firmly grounded and it had the most magnificent new doors, an unexpected aesthetic pleasure which I have written about on my Home page here. And I am so pleased that the doors remain unpainted, for the moment, at least, as I stand in front of it and contemplate its beauty: old wooden planks and new planks, but still solid, still standing.  Read More 
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A Jailed Writer

Eskinder Nega
In my protected, American naivety, I am always shocked to hear about a writer from another country thrown into jail for writing a column, or blogging, or simply speaking out about a government action or inaction, a dictatorial regime, anything. And this is one reason, among many, that I belong to American PEN which advocates for incarcerated and persecuted writers around the world, often with great success, often not. I write letters, sign petitions, try to write directly to a jailed writer in prison from time to time. I will probably do that with Eskinder Nega, if it is possible, because there is something about this picture of him in his baseball cap that is endearing. A young man, writing about the Arab spring, who dared to suggest that it might also happen in Ethiopia. His sentence: 18 years.

Here is a quote from the recent PEN newsletter:

He [Eskinder Nega] wrote to PEN and was honored with the 2012 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. In it, he called for action from the United States—the country he lived in for years and loved—to pressure the government of Ethiopia to lift restrictions on free expression and remedy other human rights abuses. We shared Eskinder’s piece with The New York Times, and on July 25 his "Letter from Ethiopia's Gulag" ran as a prominent op-ed:


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