Monday with Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen.

If you need a little help getting into the holiday spirit this year, I suggest you head on down to the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street next Monday, December 10, for a complete performance of Olivier Messiaen’s monumental 1944 piano work Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus (Twenty Gazes on the Infant Jesus). Originally composed for Messiaen’s long-time collaborator Yvonne Loriod, the two-hour, 20-movement work will be gang-performed by five prominent pianists — Anthony de Mare, Margaret Kampmeier, Taka Kigawa, Blair McMillen, and Marilyn Nonken — and accompanied by what the web page for the concert describes as “visual projections, compiled by Fr. Frank Sabatté, C.S.P., Senior Curator of The Gallery at the Sheen Center.”

Poet Michael Symmons Roberts wrote this interesting essay about the work for the Guardian in 2015, and Francis Wilson in Interlude described the piece thusly:

The Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus is Messiaen’s highly personal celebration of the Nativity, and, as a devout Catholic, the significance he placed upon Christ’s birth. It is not the stuff of cheery Christmas carols and songs around the Christmas tree: in it, Messiaen draws on the iconography of Medieval and early Renaissance religious art and literature in the telling of the Christmas Story in which the birth of an extraordinary infant is marked with joy, love and awe tempered by a portentous sense of what is to come in adulthood. The individual movements, with their special titles and Messiaen’s own short, poetic explanations, are like staging posts in the great theological story, musical “stations of the cross,” if you will, leading to a conclusion which is both terrifying and redemptive.

Messiaen is an acquired taste, though I’ve acquired it, and you may acquire it as well. You’ll be able to decide for yourself on Monday. I’ll see you there; tickets available here.

Below, Loriod’s performance of the full work:

Roundup: Happy birthday

Mark Twain.

This week I suggested that you get yourself a copy of Issue #8 of The American Bystander and get yourself some tickets to the new Reverend Billy show at Joe’s Pub.

Today, November 30, 2018, is the 183rd anniversary of the birth of the great Mark Twain. If you haven’t availed yourself of his work in a while, pick up Tom Quirk’s anthology The Portable Mark Twain, which covers his entire career and includes the full text of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — a high-school reading of this novel isn’t enough; it’s the kind of book that keeps on giving. No doubt the internet will be crawling with Mark Twain quotes (you can look up a few of them yourself here), so instead I offer a few words from H.L. Mencken on Twain, published in 1917, seven years after Twain’s death:

Instead of being a mere entertainer of the mob, he was in fact a literary artist of the very highest skill and sophistication. … And instead of being … laboriously devoted to the obvious and the uplifting, he was a destructive satirist of the utmost pungency and relentlessness, and the most bitter critic of American platitude and delusion, whether social, political or religious, that ever lived. …

Mark was not only a great artist; he was pre-eminently a great American artist. No other writer that we have produced has ever been more extravagantly national. Whitman dreamed of an America that never was and never will be; Poe was a foreigner in every line he wrote; even Emerson was no more than an American spigot for European, and especially German, ideas. But Mark was wholly of the soil. His humor was American. His incurable Philistinism was American. His very English was American. Above all, he was an American in his curious mixture of sentimentality and cynicism, his mingling of romanticist and iconoclast. …

Mark goes down the professorial gullet painfully. He has stuck more than once. He now seems fated to stick again. But these gaggings will not hurt him, nor even appreciably delay him. Soon or late the national mind will awake to the fact that a great man was among us — that in the midst of all our puerile rages for dubious foreigners we produced an artist who was head and shoulders above all of them.

The city of Vienna, Austria, was one of Twain’s favorites — he spent a year there in the 1890s — and so it’s wholly appropriate that I’ll be raising a glass to his memory at Cafe Katja this afternoon. Until next week.

Love, no border

Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Choir at Joe’s Pub in 2014.

Over the past several years, Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Choir have made holiday visits to Joe’s Pub, and this year is no exception. On Sundays at 2:00 p.m. from now through December 23, they’ll be offering their freewheeling Love, No Border service at the Public Theater’s club — a production of their own joyous, satiric/serious brand of contemporary gospel and preaching. “Radical Showbiz, we got it!  Don’t underestimate the power of fellowship in these strange, troubling times,” they note at their web site, and they’re right. It’s a kid-friendly show; all ages are welcome, and Joe’s Pub will drop their table minimum for this production, as they usually do.

This year, it’s personal. Love No Border “refers to the detainment of courageous Stop-Shopping Choir member, director of the New Sanctuary Coalition — and victim of Trump-era fear-mongering — Ravi Ragbir. Ravi and four other immigrant choir members of the troupe have either been forcibly deported or are actively fighting to stay,” the Rev reports, and “throughout the five weeks of the Joe’s shows, the Church of Stop Shopping will continue to offer concerts and prayers to undocumented families currently under sanctuary protection inside New York City churches.”

If you’re going to get religion this holiday season, then, it’s a great idea to get it at Joe’s Pub — it’s a Hunka family holiday tradition, and we’ll be there. Tickets and more information here.

Now spinning in his grave: John Peter Zenger

Just a short note from me today to let you know that Issue #8 of The American Bystander, the print humor magazine quixotically edited and published by Michael Gerber, dropped a few weeks ago, featuring (as usual) excellent work from various alumni of National Lampoon, Spy, SNL, and The New Yorker. You can snag a copy for yourself here — and wouldn’t a gift subscription, along with a bottle of scotch, be a nice idea for the holidays?

American Bystander #8 was almost the issue that wasn’t — a peculiar victim of the culture wars. Though much of the humor in the Bystander resembles an Allan Sherman LP rather than a Redd Foxx party album, it seems to have gotten caught up in our changing times. In an October post on the more exclusive, cultured arena of Facebook, Gerber explained a bit of a problem he was having with his printer (and let it be said that the Bystander is a lovingly produced publication). I’ll let him take it from here:

“Here’s a snapshot of how things are changing in America:

“Yesterday I called a printer in the suburbs of Chicago to get an estimate on printing The American Bystander, the humor magazine I’ve edited since 2015. For the past three years, we’ve been printed by a big outfit in Tennessee, but since the beginning of 2017, they’ve been acting strangely — jacking up our price, taking forever to print jobs, and in general acting like they didn’t want my business — which is weird, because I’ve worked with them since 2003 and given them at least $50,000 in work.

“But whatever. Relationships change. So I called a new printer, recommended by a colleague, to get a quote. I’d sent him a copy of one of our issues to see if he could match what we’re doing.

“When the guy picked up, he was as nice as pie. ‘I gotta tell you,’ he said, ‘this magazine looks great. Really funny, too.’

“‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘We have some wonderful folks. New Yorker, SNL, Simpsons people.’

“‘I saw that,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, we can’t print it.’

“‘Why not? Is it the format?’

‘”No, our presses can do it, it’s just — well, this is a family-owned business, and the family, they’re really Christian, and… I don’t think they’d approve.’

“I was really surprised. As print humor magazines go, Bystander is definitely closer to George Saunders than Brett Kavanaugh. ‘Wow, [name hidden to preserve the innocent]. That is the first time anyone’s ever said that. Was there anything in particular in issue #5 that — ‘

‘”No, no, it was nothing in particular,’ he said, audibly squirming. This wasn’t any more fun for him than it was for me. ‘It’s just … We have high school kids working here — I mean, I would print it. I thought it was great. It’s just that the owners — if they found out, it would be my job.’ He paused, feeling lame. ‘The kids — ‘

“He seemed like a good guy, so I put him out of his misery. I said I understood, and ended the call.

“I remember the first printer I ever met, a fellow named Roland Hoover at Yale University Press. There was a sign in Roland’s office, a beautifully typeset Benjamin Franklin quote: ‘If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.’

“These were my type of people.

“Through Roland I met other printers, and generally fell in with the letterpress/printing cult that existed at Yale at the time … . At The Yale Herald newspaper and then The Yale Record humor magazine I met other printers, at presses throughout Connecticut.

“I loved these guys. Some were intellectual, some were not; some were deeply embedded in Yale, others were third-generation Sicilian-Americans like me. But all of them shared one thing: they were clear about the role of printing in our history, and fiercely, fiercely protective of a free press in America. The idea that any of them would’ve turned down a job because it didn’t fit with their religion was preposterous. They were printers, and as such, committed to the spread of ideas.

“Perhaps more than any other common characteristic, Trump and Trumpists fear ideas. They couch this fear in a million ways — they hide behind propriety, they hide behind ‘What about the children?’, they complain about libel and slander, they squawk that their religious freedom is being infringed upon. But the bottom line is — whether it’s global warming data or a cartoon that shows a naked bottom — they believe that the proper response to an idea that makes you uncomfortable is to ignore it. Suppress it. Deny it.

“Of course anyone with a cursory knowledge of history can tell you that this strategy is 1) impossible and 2) never ends well for anybody. But then again, that’s easily solved: don’t learn any history.

“But printers? Now printers fear ideas? I’ve stewed about that phone call for a day now. It worries me.”


The wisdom and folly of old men

I’ve been on the far side of 50 for quite a few years now, and I’ve been getting farther from it every day. My wife suggested to me last night that the older we become, the more we recognize what we always were — not least, I would add, because with age you lack the energy and discipline to maintain any belief in illusions, especially about yourself. This wouldn’t necessarily happen at the chronological age of 50 — nothing snaps over the day you begin your 51st year — but perhaps encroaching age and mortality begin to play more of a role in self-regard.

This isn’t to say that wisdom comes with age; quite the opposite. You begin to realize how much it is you do not know, how little you can really teach anybody else except by example, and that little enough. As usual, T.S. Eliot may have said it best in East Coker, the second of the Four Quartets. Eliot himself was 52 when he wrote it: four years younger than I am now, but I’m no Eliot. You can listen to Jeremy Irons read Four Quartets here.

The poetry does not matter
It was not (to start again) what one had expected.
What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hope for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?
The serenity only a deliberate hebitude,
The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment. Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.