The week began with a splendid performance of Grisey’s Vortex Temporum from Marilyn Nonken and Sound Icon (which may have influenced my Wednesday post about “difficulty” in the arts), and included an acknowledgement of The Roly-Poly Club, a charitable organization spearheaded by my two daughters.
From the sublime to the ridiculous: The word “tawdry” may have been coined to describe the career of New York politician Anthony Weiner, aka Carlos Danger. New Yorkers may remember his disastrous run at the mayoralty a few years ago. The new documentary Weiner, which opened in New York and Los Angeles last week and opens nationwide today, chronicles the resurrection of his career following one scandal and its destruction following another. Directors Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman were granted extraordinary access to Weiner’s personal and professional activities (an access granted before the emergence of the second scandal), and what results is a real-life version of a cringe-inducing Christopher Guest pseudo-documentary, with just as many laughs. One is even led to cast the film with members of the Guest repertory company: Parker Posey as Huma Abedin, anyone?
Shame, contrition, arrogance, and exhibitionism are themes that run through the film: a comedy that depicts a representative democracy on the verge of suicide. The trailer for the film is below; the documentary itself is now streaming from Time Warner’s on-demand service and in a variety of different venues. It’s a most instructive, entertaining, and compelling 100 minutes, and recommended. Owen Glieberman calls Weiner “the most relevant documentary since Fahrenheit 9/11” and draws parallels among the Weiner, Clinton, and Trump campaigns in his review for Variety here.
An individual’s willingness or unwillingness to engage with art that might be labelled “difficult” by critics or even our friends — that is, art which requires a more than moderate personal effort to come to terms with it, to engage in the necessary confrontation with it, without which it can’t be adequately comprehended or contemplated — tells us more about that individual than about the art. That said, there is good art of both the easy and difficult kind, but admittedly there is the bad sort too. If we can have novels, poetry, and music that are “deceptively simple,” then we can have novels, poetry, and music that are “deceptively complicated” as well. There’s a reason why the children’s story of the Emperor’s new clothes has appealed to us down through the centuries, and though we adults may nod sagely when we think about it, children are quite right to stick out their tongues at us when we do. They knew it was bullshit all along.
I happen to be drawn to musical, literary, and visual art that has been accused of self-conscious difficulty. I’ve gotten a great deal out of it. And not necessarily difficult art of the past century, but also the late string quartets of Beethoven, Shakespeare’s tragedies, and Swift’s deftly ironic satires, which pose their own problems to us, as they did to their audiences of their own time. The present-day difficulty doesn’t spring from Modernist impulses to self-conscious complexity. It is a difficulty necessitated by the great expanse of time between its composition and my own hearing. The cultural, aesthetic, and personal presumptions of those periods are not the same as our own, so they speak to us in the language of their times, and our misunderstanding is more likely. The masses of the 14th-century composer Guillaume de Machaut ring very strangely in our 21st-century ears. But they are of more — far more, I would argue — appeal than their antiquarian value alone. Not to mention that, more importantly, we engage in that dialogue with the dead without which we have no history, no real permanent culture, no verity through the generations.
I don’t mean to be proud about this. It’s my nature and not necessarily anyone else’s, and that’s that. It might have been T.S. Eliot’s too. The poem which has meant the most to me over the past year, that continues to bewilder and yet enlighten me, is his Four Quartets. It’s enough that the language and form of these poems are knotty, despite the seemingly traditionalist surface. But their complexity is radical, not least in the vision of Christianity that it limns; in Four Quartets Eliot describes a spiritual struggle then acceptance. No wonder, then, at its complexity, and the poems are not for the faint-hearted: upon words he is constructing and describing Christian belief in a fallen world, and words, as the poet himself admits in the poem, are inadequate to it. It is both poem and philosophy, specifically theology. His friend Russell Kirk wrote: “I cannot agree with Orwell that Eliot gave no more than a melancholy assent to doctrines now quite unbelievable. Over the past quarter of a century, most serious critics — whether or not they find Christian faith impossible — have found in the Quartets the greatest twentieth-century achievements in the poetry of philosophy and religion.”
Eliot had this to say about difficulty, and this in an essay not about any Modernist, but about the Metaphysical Poets of the 17th century such as George Herbert:
It is not a permanent necessity that poets should be interested in philosophy, or in any other subject. We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning. … Hence we get something which looks very much like the conceit — we get, in fact, a method curiously similar to that of the “metaphysical poets,” similar also in its use of obscure words and of simple phrasing.
Eliot was discussing a linguistic world. But we have our sound and visual worlds as well, and it’s not only poets who must “become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect.” Composers and visual artists, like poets, must also perform these acts of dislocation of sound and image into their meanings if necessary (if, that is, they have any, which I’ll admit is arguable 90 percent of the time). You may say that Eliot was wrong, but then I’d have no Four Quartets. And I’ll not give those up.
This morning on the bus to school, my seven-year-old daughter Goldie recruited her six-year-old sister Billie into an organization called “The Roly-Poly Club,” an effort hitherto unknown to me. There are a few patches of plants and soil in front of the school they attend, and the Club’s attention is focused on those. “We care for roly-polys who are sick or pregnant,” Goldie explained, noting that a day ago they found a roly-poly missing one of its antennae, therefore a prime subject for the attention of the organization. This morning’s activities included gathering a few of these roly-polys into a small cardboard box, along with some food and dirt that would help them feel comfortable, so that they could take them into school and care for them there. Billie accepted the invitation, now drafted into the nursing of the insect family Armadillidiida, a terrestrial crustacean group in the order Isopoda, at least those that reside in Tribeca.
Where the inspiration for the Roly-Poly Club came from I can’t say. To date, the club has made no plans to apply for non-profit 501(c)3 status, and that’s a good thing. I’ve worked for non-profit organizations for more than 30 years, and I know that when you bring money, careerism, and hierarchy to the philanthropic impulse, it’s a disaster for the cause. Power and politics, inter-and intra-office, professional and personal, enter the picture, and before long the cause itself becomes of secondary importance. Goldie’s efforts to seize the title of Vice President for Development, Tribeca Region, in the Campaign for Roly-Poly Welfare would quickly trump her original heart-felt compassion for roly-polys. Instead, her eyes would be on her own prize — and the same could probably be safely said for her other colleagues in the Campaign. This is the nature of professional do-gooding in the post-capitalist world.
The question remains of where the club members’ compassionate impulse for roly-polys originally came from. I imagine it’s out of the goodness of their hearts, but that’s not enough. Somehow they learned that it was important to band together and devote themselves to the organized care of creatures different from themselves in distress and need of attention. I like to think that it has something to do with the influence of their teachers and their parents, but they can only encourage and cultivate the original compassionate impulse of their hearts, teach them what to do with it and reach out to the natural community around them. It encourages, strengthens, and deepens that original, inner moral impulse. It wasn’t enough, for them, just to feel sympathy. They had to do something about it, and acting in concert, they did.
There’s a selflessness about it — a selflessness I saw reflected this morning, when the bell rang for the start of school. At the time, the Roly-Poly Club was engaged in the collection of their patients, and though I tried to hustle them into the school, they resisted my attentions until they’d finished their work. It was more important for them to be late as they cared for their charges than to line up for the march into their classrooms. Late notes and truancy letters be damned — if there’s a pregnant roly-poly to be attended to, that must come first.
This compassion for insects does not extend far. My wife and I are regularly called into action to exterminate the various ants and flies that occasionally make their way into our apartment; to cries of “Kill it! Kill it!” I’ve regularly brought newspapers down on these critters and summarily sent them on their way to bug heaven. (It’s a quick and painless death, I hope.)
Which makes the Roly-Poly Club, I believe, that much more important, for it caters to their better instincts, their inner moral recognition that they have an obligation to care for the world together. Perhaps, in future, their mission can be extended to ants and flies, though this obviously remains to be seen; their compassion, I hope, will become even more inclusive to acknowledge the gifts of ants and flies to the wider natural environment, and instead of subjecting them to capital punishment the Club might be encouraged to rehabilitate them and release them back into the world. But it’s young, the Roly-Poly Club, like its members, and they’ll learn. By following their hearts selflessly, they’ve made a good start.
Tom Service wrote this appreciation of Grisey for The Guardian in 2013. “Grisey’s music is always crossing thresholds of sound and space, of slowness and speed, of time at its grandest and most fleeting,” he said. “To hear Grisey’s music is to have adventures in the stuff of sound that will change your ears for ever.”
To elicit the microtonal possibilities of the piano in Vortex Temporum, four of its notes have been detuned to the extent of a quarter-tone each. Each of the work’s three movements is dedicated to other composers: the first to Gérard Zinsstag, the second to Salvatore Sciarrino, and the third to Helmut Lachenmann. It also has a timely concern with sound and the natural world. In a 2012 doctoral dissertation for UC Davis, Ching-Yi Wang wrote:
The Latin title means “Vortex of Time,” indicating an action of swirls. The work’s poetic focus is on a conception of time rotating, or time’s movement. … Musical time is a concept that Grisey was fascinated with for most his life. In his program note, Grisey proposes three archetypes of time: normal time, expanded time, and contracted time. Normal time or human time, which is the basic archetype including the tempo of speech and breathing; expanded time, which Grisey conceives to be the time of the whales; and contracted time, or the time of birds and insects where the borders become blurred. His program note also describes the work’s use of three basic forms: “the original event – a sinusoidal wave – and two continuous events, an attack with or without resonance as well as a sound held with or without crescendo.” The work is thus a study on an arpeggio figure and an exploration of time as perceived by humans, whales, birds and insects, as Grisey imagined it. To exemplify this idea of various life forms sharing different aspects of time, Grisey implements a common compositional technique in using similar material at different times.
In 2014 the work came to the attention of choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, who staged it in London (“the grand piano is wheeled along its own trajectory,” wrote Guardian reviewer Judith Mackrell; a neat trick, given the difficulty of the piece).
Take the time (sorry, couldn’t resist) to expose yourself to this and the other fine pieces on the program tonight. Tickets are available here. Below is a performance of Vortex Temporum from Ensemble Recherche, conducted by Kwamé Ryan, which premiered the work in 1996.