On the exchange

In a what-the-hell, what-have-I-got-to-lose moment, I uploaded the first draft of Snow’s Day to the New Play Exchange today. A second draft will follow shortly. So for anyone who wanted to know what all my fuss was about over the past few months, they can find it there.

It was somewhat amusing and challenging to go through the registration process. The “Age Level” of the play is “16 and up,” although I fear the fact that only one of the six characters is under the age of 30 will likely undermine any chances for a high school production, and in the synopsis I decided to go for the one-sentence “A middle-aged playwright loses his wife, his job, and a production of his latest play, all on the same day,” since that’s what seems to be the general idea of it all. I leap into 21st-century play submission with what is, I’m afraid, a very 20th-century play. But I’ve leapt, at least for now.

On the continuum

marilyn_pianosMarc Medwin recently spoke with my wife, Marilyn Nonken, for “Performance, Leadership and Responsibility: A Discussion with Marilyn Nonken,” an extensive interview in the latest issue of Fanfare magazine. Says she:

Why would we only want to play for and learn from “like-minded people”? This kind of situation deprives all those involved in the musical endeavor the opportunity to learn from each other, by sanctioning ignorance and selling the illusion that newer and older music are opposed. But it’s a false opposition. There is a true continuum here — pianists must recognize that today’s music continues a story begun hundreds of years ago, and they must find their own personal way to share this story — their story — with their listeners.

You can read the entire interview here.

Marilyn’s most recent solo album, Voix Voilées, is reviewed in the same issue. Said Colin Clarke, “[T]echnically … the demands are huge. But there is tenderness aplenty here, too, an emphasis on the starry beauty of the quietly disjunct. The pianism here is terrific: Nonken’s finger strength in the loud passages in particular is massively impressive. That said, she treats many of the quieter passages with an attention to texture and touch that one might more readily associate with a sensitive interpreter of the French Impressionists.” Added Peter Burwasser, “At first glance, this highly abstract, very dissonant music seems extraordinarily challenging. But it is so purely expressive, honest and, not least, presented with such passion, that it should be intensely engaging for any music lover with an open mind.”

And next month, Tzadik will release the Jason Eckardt portrait album Subject, which includes her performance of Eckardt’s piano concerto “Trespass” with the Oberlin Contemporary Ensemble.

If you’re in Houston in early May, you’ll be able to see her perform with Sarah Rothenberg in Sacred Visions: Stravinsky and Messiaen; the duo will present the former’s Symphony of Psalms and the latter’s Visions de l’Amen, which they recorded a few years ago for Bridge Records. Most recently Marilyn appeared at EMPAC for Pianopoly; clips of her performance as well as those of Vicky Chow, Stephen Drury, and Mabel Kwan are below.

What’s God got to do with it?

Reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets lately, I find it impossible to dismiss or ignore entirely the Christian, and specifically Anglican, dimension of these poems. While the reader of these poems doesn’t necessarily have to share Eliot’s religious belief, only a perfunctory reader can afford to ignore it — reject it or not, that belief has to be engaged. In part I suppose this has to do with explicit intent: Eliot wants to explore hope, and especially redemption, in a fallen world, a hope that inheres only in the Incarnation.

It’s overly convenient to separate out the religious and the art from religious art, and we may be doing both a disservice if we do. The same goes for contemporary composers like Olivier Messiaen, Eliot’s approximate contemporary and similarly an artist driven by belief, specifically Catholic belief. In “Religious Symbolism in the Music of Olivier Messiaen,” Siglind Bruhn wrote, “[Scholars] note with some amazement that his musical language remained strikingly uniform throughout his long life. This constancy arises from a central truth in Messiaen’s character and philosophy. What never changed was the purpose of his creative activity: to praise God, and to share through his music his profound enthusiasm for the Truths of his Catholic faith.”

I needn’t be a professing Anglican or Catholic to enjoy and appreciate Eliot and Messiaen of course; I can do so with my agnosticism firmly in place. But unless I allow Eliot and Messiaen to question and even challenge my agnosticism, I can’t ever fully open myself to either of these artists, because there is the chance — even if, in an age which disparages traditional Christian faith, one insists on remaining faithless if only to be modern — that they’re right. After Eliot and Messiaen, the New Testament?

A visitation

In “Little Gidding,” which T.S. Eliot completed in about 1941 at the age of 53 (the age I’m at now), the narrator converses with a stranger who “discloses the gifts reserved for age.” Some gifts — though you do have to appreciate Eliot’s bemused irony in designating them so. The stranger tells him:

Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
  To purify the dialect of the tribe
  And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight,
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
  To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
  First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
  But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
  As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
  At human folly, and the laceration
  Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
  Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
  Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
  Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
  Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
  Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire 
  Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.

T.S. Eliot
“Little Gidding” (ll. 126-144)
Four Quartets

From the mouths of babes

Last night my six-year-old daughter Goldie told me that when she grows up she plans to build a beach house all for herself. When I asked her if I could visit her, she shook her head, saying, “Oh, you won’t be alive any more.” Apparently she picked up some Eastern religion somewhere, because she added that I’ll be coming back to life as somebody else and could visit her then, which took the edge off this for both her and me. As the oldest person in our household by some years, I’m sure the actuarial tables (whether they belong to Met Life or Fisher-Price) will bear out her prediction, too; my five-year-old daughter Billie believes the same thing.

So much for parenthood helping you feel young. I doubt that either Goldie or Billie have spent a great deal of time pondering just what death means, though they’re aware that both my parents are dead while their mother’s are still very much alive. But I brood. As it happens, I lost both of my parents (a construction that implies carelessness on my part) over the same years that I gained both of my daughters, balancing the scales of life and mortality: minus two, plus two, it all evens out, and though I’m sorry my father didn’t live long enough to see either of my children — he died just two months before Goldie was born — my mother did have the happiness of cradling infant Goldie in her arms before she began to slide into her final deterioration not long after. I’ve got a photograph of this somewhere: my mother in a wheelchair, her head in a helmet (she had a tendency to fall), in a hallway of the dank and miserable geriatric psychiatry ward where she spent most of the final years of her life, but smiling toothlessly nonetheless as she held her granddaughter. You don’t feel the power of these moments until after your parents are dead, I’m afraid. And when they go, unfortunately, you don’t have too many years left yourself to piece together what they may mean.

You can’t imagine yourself in the future as you can recall yourself in the past, and if you’re me, you don’t want to, really, depending on the balance of skepticism and hope you wake up with in the morning — that’s a product of adulthood, though. Obviously Goldie and Billie are pleased to imagine themselves in the future, even if that future doesn’t necessarily include me, and they know about death, even if they don’t know everything about it. But who does? It’s something we learn over time, and even then we’re probably wrong. Maybe Goldie’s right and I’ll end up being the paperboy who plops her New York Times on her doorstep every morning, she and I regarding each other warily with some uncanny recognition. Assuming there are paperboys and newspapers.